Indian embassy officials in North America and Europe have been banned by Sikh religious organisations from visiting gurdwaras of late. The move, aimed at "resisting Indian officials' interference in Sikh affairs" first started on the east coast of Canada and has now spread to the US and the UK. Not only Indian government officials, even RSS members have been asked not to enter gurdwaras. This development is an ominous sign for Delhi as it clearly indicates that the Sikh diaspora is coming together on an anti-India platform and is preparing to go back to its open support for an independent state for Sikhs.
Though Sikh militancy, demanding Khalistan, has somewhat disappeared from India in the mid-1990s, it still continues to exist and simmer among the Sikh diaspora. After Hindutva forces came to power in India, militancy got a fertile ground to re-emerge. More than eight million Sikhs, out of a total population of 30 million, live outside India. As the Sikh diaspora constitutes about 25 per cent of the total Sikh population, it has significant influence over the community's politics back home.
Punjab came to be seen as the Sikh homeland in the early 1900s with the rise of Sikh nationalism in British India as a reaction to the Muslim demand for a separate state. However, political mobilisation for this objective started only in the 1960s with the rise of a small group of Sikh separatists in the UK, US and Canada. The demand transformed into a full-scale violent secessionist movement for Khalistan in 1978 and continued until 1993. The Sikh diaspora played an active and crucial role in fomenting this insurgency, providing critical financial and political support, making public speeches and campaigning for the cause.
NRI Sikhs facilitated militants to travel to Pakistan to receive military training as well. After the Indian Army's attack on the Golden Temple in 1984, several groups came together to form the Khalistan government in exile. During that period, many separatist militant outfits such as Babbar Khalsa, the Khalistan Commando Force, the Khalistan Liberation Force, Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan, the Khalistan Liberation Organisation, and the International Sikh Youth Federation also mushroomed.
While events such as Operation Blue Star to flush out militants from the Sikh holy shrine in Amritsar and the anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi drew support for independence from both those in India and those living abroad, the ability to campaign abroad and harness international media resources enabled the diaspora to greatly influence the discourse on the movement.
While India used strong-arm tactics to muzzle the separatist movement in Punjab, it simultaneously pursued electoral politics to bring back dissenting Sikhs to the mainstream. Incidents of separatist violence started decreasing from 1994 onwards and that made Sikh militant groups largely defunct in India. However, these groups still have a political presence among the Sikh diaspora. Over the last two decades this group has been fighting in the name of justice and human rights.
There are a number of gurdwaras in Europe and North America which continue to support and propagate separatist ideology by highlighting the issues of injustice and human rights abuse by India in 1980s and 1990s at various public and private forums and collect funds and funnel them into a variety of sympathetic organisations in Punjab. Besides fund raising, many of these gurdwaras display photos of militants killed in Punjab conflict and observe remembrance days such as Operation Blue Star and the post-Indira Gandhi assassination Sikh massacres to keep the memory of the struggle alive.
However, there was always a division among the Sikh diaspora over the issue of support to the separatist struggle. The support for extremist view has gradually declined since the beginning of this millennium.
Harinder Malhi who moved a motion in the Ontario Assembly that termed the 1984 riots as genocide.
Manmohan Singh becoming the Prime Minister of India was a big blow to the radical group's mobilisation for support. While support for the Khalistan cause was already declining, host western countries also started taking a tough stance against terror activities in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This forced the separatists to start talking about justice and minority rights rather than openly advocate the establishment of a separate state.
But recent developments show the separatists are once again pushing the agenda for self-determination. Sikhs, like other minority groups in India, are getting increasingly apprehensive of the growing power of Hindu nationalist forces in the country. This has given new hope to the demand for Khalistan. Internet radio stations and social media outlets catering to the Sikh diaspora are openly claiming the resurgence of the Khalistan movement.
With Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister, the diaspora comprising Hindus has become more vocal about its backing for a Hindutva ideology. In the West, Hindu revivalism among the diaspora has been gathering strength since the Ayodhya movement, but has now assumed a powerful political shape. This has made Indian from other communities living abroad insecure. By backing Hindu revivalism among those living abroad, Modi seems to have instigated the Sikh diaspora to mobilise again to promote a separate Sikh identity and demand a separate homeland.
In the 2017 election in Punjab, a large number of Sikhs settled abroad came back to India to campaign for their favourite candidates, particularly of parties opposing BJP and its coalition partner Akali Dal. Diaspora usually enjoys a superior social status in Punjab.
Due to its access to wealth and information, NRI Sikhs started hoping to influence not only the voting behaviour of members from their community in Punjab, but also to recreate the support for secessionist movement. Through personal connections, travel and the use of information technology, the Sikh diaspora hope to reshape the political identity of Sikhs and mobilise them again to support their struggle for a separate statehood.
The Sikh diaspora has not only become a major actor in its homeland politics, it is also playing an active role in the politics of many host countries. Growing numbers and economic success has helped hardliner Sikhs to join active politics in many Western countries. In the UK election in June 2017, Sikh diaspora worked overtime to get a turban wearing MP elected to the British Parliament for the first time. Four Sikhs are now in Canada's cabinet and according to the chief minister of Punjab, Amrinder Singh, they are all Khalistan sympathisers. A Sikh legislator in the Ontario has successfully managed to get the support of the House to recognise 1984 anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi as genocide. A turban wearing Sikh, Jagmit Singh, is now the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada and a potential prime ministerial candidate in his country. Sikhs in Canada accuse RSS of doing all it can to sabotage Jagmit Singh's election as party leader.
There has been an increased lobbying by the Sikh diaspora in the US Congress to declare the 1984 anti-Sikh riot as "genocide". There is a growing campaign by Sikh organisations existing abroad to amend Article 25(2) (b) of the Indian Constitution, which declares Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists as part of Hinduism. There are reports that Sikh and Kashmiri militants living in Europe have revived their ties.
The idea for an independent Sikh state is being reignited not from the people or political parties of Punjab, but by Sikh expatriates. The politics of "one nation, one religion, and one leader" by Hindutva nationalistic forces have provided the Sikh diaspora an opportunity to once again mobilise support at home for the cause of Khalistan. India needs to do something before it gets too late.