Pakistan is the main force nurturing the drive to create a ‘so-called Khalistan’ or independent homeland for Sikhs and the extremists backed by Islamabad pose serious threats to India and Canada, according to a report by a leading Canadian think tank.
The report ‘Khalistan—A project of Pakistan’ from Macdonald-Laurier Institute notes that Pakistan is “really driving the Khalistan bus” at a time when the “Khalistan movement has been going nowhere in the Sikhs’ home state” of Punjab.
The report —authored by veteran journalist Terry Milewski, who has tracked pro-Khalistan groups in Canada for decades—says Pakistan’s support for pro-Khalistan group entails leveraging extremists based in Canada, including supporters with ties to terrorism, because of the lack of traction in Punjab.
Though the Canadian government has already said it won’t recognise a so-called referendum on Khalistan scheduled for November by groups such as Sikhs For Justice, which was banned by India in 2019, the report warned the move “provides oxygen that fuels extremist ideologies, radicalises young Canadians, wreaks havoc on reconciliation, and usurps legislatures”, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute said.
In their foreword to the report, former Canadian cabinet minister Ujjal Dossanjh and Shuvaloy Majumdar, a programme director at the think tank, said: “The Milewski report should be essential reading for any who wish to understand Pakistan’s influence in guiding the Khalistan proposition, its perversion of the Sikh faith, and its ongoing campaign of extremism and terrorism in two of the world’s important democracies.”
The Justin Trudeau government’s perceived softness towards pro-Khalistan groups in its first stint during 2015-19 was one of the key reasons for a downturn in India-Canada relations. The Liberal Party government in Canada cited freedom of expression as a major reason for allowing the activities of pro-Khalistan groups but this found few takers in New Delhi.
The 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada originally cited “Sikh (Khalistani) extremist ideologies and movements” among the top five national security issues for the country, but this was later replaced in a revised version of the report by “extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India” following pressure from an international lobby campaign that advocates for an independent Khalistan, the report said.
“The proposition of an independent Khalistan, in truth, is a backward idea from a backward time. It is a proposal without economic or democratic logic, unloved by the very Punjabis whose lives it would most directly affect. It is a fantasy rooted in religious bigotry and chauvinism, kept alive in Canada by thugs and political hustlers unbothered by the innocent lives that have been lost in its name,” Dossanjh and Majumdar said in their foreword.
“It is a proposal hostile to Canada’s interest in seeing a united and prosperous India, and in that sense, threatens not just one country, but two. In the service of this cause, extremists animated by Pakistan seek to distort history and betray the vast majority of Sikhs who live in peace and freedom,” they added.
Besides tracing the long-standing links between pro-Khalistan terror groups and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the way in which Khalistani terrorists were sheltered in Pakistan in the 1990s, the report notes the Canadian security establishment’s failure to prevent the bombing of Air India flight 182, which killed 329 people, a majority of them Canadian citizens.
“No matter how low the support for Khalistan sinks in India—and it has sunk very low indeed—the cause still survives in Pakistan, where jihadist groups have made common cause with Sikh separatists against their shared enemy, India,” the report said.
“An example is the leading Khalistani figure in Pakistan, Gopal Singh Chawla, who makes no bones about his friendly alliance with the Pakistani jihadist Hafiz Saeed, leader of the feared Lashkar-e-Taiba,” it added.
A Canadian citizen, Satinderpal Singh Gill from Surrey, BC, lived for years in Pakistan as a senior official of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which has been banned as a terrorist organisation in India, Canada, the UK and the US, but not by Pakistan, the report noted.
The report also highlighted the dichotomy between the harassment of the Sikh minority in Pakistan and the unstinted support offered by pro-Khalistan leaders such as Sikhs For Justice chief Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, one of the main movers behind the 2020 referendum.
Though Panun claims to lead a movement for human rights, he sided with China in its border dispute with India and wrote to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, swearing that, “if India ever attacked Pakistan, the Pro-Khalistan Sikhs will extend full support to Pakistan”.
The report also questioned the maps of the proposed Khalistan, noting that they don’t depict even “one inch [of] traditional Sikh lands in Pakistan—not to Lahore, where Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled over a Sikh empire two hundred years ago, or even to Nankana Sahib, sacred birthplace of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru”.
“It appears, then, that Pakistan wants the Sikhs to be free, but not in Pakistan. The separatists, in turn, clearly know where their patron sets the limits. Even drawing a map which presumes upon Pakistan’s generosity is a step too far—one that could sever the lifeline which has sustained the dream of Khalistan for so long,” it said.