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8 Jul, 2023 04:08

‘Kill India Rally’: New Delhi raises concerns over radical groups targeting Indian diplomats in Canada and UK

Indian government took up the issue of surging pro-Khalistan activity with partner countries ahead of weekend rallies
‘Kill India Rally’: New Delhi raises concerns over radical groups targeting Indian diplomats in Canada and UK

Proscribed Sikh groups in Canada and the UK have unleashed poster campaigns targeting Indian diplomats to avenge the recent killings of separatist leaders.

The groups behind the Khalistan movement, which demands a sovereign homeland for the minority community to be carved out of the north Indian state of Punjab, have intensified their separatist campaigns ahead of rallies scheduled on Saturday in Toronto, Vancouver, and London. The rallies are promoted under the names ‘Khalistan Freedom Rally’ and ‘Kill India Rally’. 

Posters have emerged on social media platforms, with photographs of India’s high commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Verma, and the consul-general in Toronto, Apoorva Srivastava, linking them to the killing of the chief of the proscribed Khalistan Tiger Force, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, last month. The photographs carried a menacing text – “faces of Shaheed [martyr] Nijjar’s Killers in Toronto” – that have drawn sharp responses from New Delhi.

Similarly, posters threatening Indian diplomats have surfaced online in the UK in the run-up to the Kill India Rally in London on Saturday. The UK posters feature the names of two Indian diplomats – High Commissioner Vikram K Doraiswami and Dr. Shashank Vikram, consul-general of India, Birmingham.

India’s reaction

In a meeting in national capital on Friday, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Dhoval urged his British counterpart Tim Barrow to take strong action against extremist elements. 

Earlier this week, India’s external affairs minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said that the Khalistan issue has impacted ties between New Delhi and Toronto in many ways in the last few years. “For us, how Canada has dealt with the Khalistan issue has been a long-standing concern… Very frankly, they seem to be driven by vote bank politics… responses constrained by what they regard as vote bank compulsions,” he stated. 

Foreign ministry's spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told media persons on Thursday that posters inciting violence against “our diplomats and vandalism bids of our missions are unacceptable.” He added that all steps are being taken to ensure safety. “India condemns misuse of freedom of speech by these separatist elements who are propagating and legitimizing terrorism.”

What is the UK and Canada’s response?

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has taken note of the posters by pro-Khalistan sympathizers and strongly condemned the move. “Any direct attacks on the Indian High Commission in London are completely unacceptable,” he tweeted on Thursday, adding that “the safety of staff at the High Commission is paramount.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also asked to reflect on New Delhi’s concerns about his government going too soft against the pro-Khalistan forces. Responding to a question about a parade float in Brampton in the greater Toronto area last month that depicted former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, he said that Canada “always takes serious action against terrorism and we always will.”

Trudeau’s comment came in the wake of India serving Canada a démarche over Saturday’s proposed rally outside the High Commission in Ottawa and consulates in Toronto and Vancouver.

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said the proposed multi-city pro-Khalistan rally in her country is unacceptable, and that the safety of Indian diplomats and officials is a priority. She tweeted: “Canada takes its obligations under Vienna Conventions regarding the safety of diplomats very seriously.”

Chandra Arya, a Canadian MP of Indian origin, has slammed the separatist forces behind the pro-Khalistan posters. Arya, who belongs to Canada’s Liberal Party, has condemned the sensational poster campaign. “[We] should note the snakes in our backyard are raising their heads and hissing. It is only a question of time when they bite to kill,” he tweeted.

Boost for the Khalistan movement

A US-based group, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), formed in 2007, is the most active among over half a dozen pro-Khalistan separatist forces that have been banned by the Indian government under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In the past few days, rumors have been making the rounds on social media and in the press about the alleged death of SFJ’s face and legal adviser, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who is a law graduate from Panjab University and works as a law attorney in the US. However, a day after speculation of his death, the separatist leader emerged in a video, claiming to be the mastermind behind the ‘kill posters’ targeting Indian diplomats.

SFJ promoted the ‘Referendum 2020’ secessionist campaign, which sought to “liberate Punjab from Indian occupation.” It is allegedly aided by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, to pose internal security challenges for New Delhi.

SFJ, banned in India in 2019 for “espousing secessionism and militant activities,” and Pannun, who was declared a terrorist by New Delhi, held a polling for a referendum in Punjab along with major cities of North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Kenya, and Middle Eastern countries. The turnout for the referendum was negligible, despite widespread media coverage. Since then, a spate of attacks on Indian missions – from San Francisco to Rome, and Brisbane to London – has gathered momentum and the probe has been handed over to the National Investigating Agency authorities.

In India, the separatist movement received a boost following the emergence and subsequent arrest of the secessionist Khalistan leader and ‘Waris Punjab De’ chief Amritpal Singh in April.

The initial attack on Indian missions was carried out in 2020, when a group of Sikh separatists vandalized the statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside the Indian Embassy in Washington, and also raised anti-India slogans and planted flags of Khalistan.

Genesis of the separatist movement

Sikhs are a minority group in India, comprising less than 2% of the country’s population of over 1.4 billion, but they form a majority in Punjab. The religion was founded in undivided Punjab, which straddles modern-day India and Pakistan, in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, and has around 25 million followers worldwide. 

The Khalistan movement traces its origins back to around the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947. The secessionist movement came to a head after the storming of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, in 1984 by the Indian Army. 1984 has remained a watershed year and a festering wound for the Sikhs, which continues to roil them in India and abroad. The 1980s were turbulent in Punjab’s bloody history, when the insurgency peaked, leading to mayhem of thousands of Hindus followed by extrajudicial killings and human rights violations by the security forces during the Operations Blue Star and Black Thundermovements.

Mysterious killings of pro-Khalistan leaders  

There has been a spate of revenge killings of Sikh separatists in Canada, the UK, and Pakistan, and the needle of suspicion has been pointed towards India’s external surveillance agency, Research & Analysis Wing, a charge New Delhi has denied. Indian government sources have cited a fierce war over control of well-funded Sikh gurdwaras or shrines, where powerful criminal networks are suspected to be in each other’s crosshairs over the booty amassed from illegal activities such as gun-running, narcotics trafficking, and extortion.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 46, the head of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, Canada, was shot dead on June 19. He was killed from point-blank range by two unidentified men on the premises of the gurdwara while he was heading out for his home in Surrey, about 30km from Vancouver.

Last year on July 14, another startling murder took place in Surrey. Millionaire businessman and former terrorist-turned-ardent supporter of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ripudaman Singh Malik, 75, accused in the 1985 Air India bombing that claimed over 300 lives, was shot dead in Surrey – the same town where Nijjar met his bloody end last month. 

Similarly, Avtar Singh Khanda, who was accused of being the handler of separatist Amritpal Singh, died in a UK hospital last month of suspected poisoning. 

Before that, Khalistan Commando Force chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar was shot dead by two men on a bike in Lahore. And in January, Harmeet Singh, alias Happy PhD, another pro-Khalistan leader, was killed on the premises of a gurdwara near Lahore.

Anti-Indian forces at work?

Seshadri Chari, a former editor of ‘Organizer’ – a mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government – cited data to bolster his argument about naturalized Canadian Sikhs’ alleged involvement in the separatist cause. “Over the past two decades, the proportion of Canada’s Sikh population has more than doubled, from 0.9% to 2.1%. Punjabi is the second most spoken language (29.4%) among South Asian settlers in the country,” he said, adding that “they are propagating the Khalistan cause despite little support back home in India.”

He gave an example of the 2019 US Department of State’s Country Report on Terrorism, pointing out Pakistan’s role in such subversive activities. He drew attention to the Khalistan outfits as a part of Pakistan’s terror funding project to destabilize India and large parts of South Asia.

In 2020, a report titled, ‘Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan’, written by veteran Canadian broadcaster Terry Milewski and published by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, indicted Islamabad for inciting the movement. The report’s publication coincided with Canada’s national security community advocating for an independent Khalistan as a top-five threat to the country.

The pro-Khalistan separatist leaders – many of whom had gone into hiding following murders and suspicious deaths in the UK and Canada in the past few months – are likely to make a rare appearance at Saturday’s rally to throw a gauntlet at the Indian authorities, who are facing a dual national security challenge at home and abroad.