A Diaspora Dilemma: The Separatist Movement Affecting Relations between India, Canada, and the United States


In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an announcement that sent shockwaves through international politics: he accused the government of India of assassinating Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh independence leader, on Canadian soil. What followed was a diplomatic crisis that brought relations between India and Canada to their lowest point in years. India rejected Canada’s accusations as “absurd.” Tensions escalated when both countries expelled top diplomats in tit-for-tat moves. India issued a travel advisory to its citizens in Canada and suspended visa applications from Canadians. Canada updated its travel advisory, putting India in the high-risk country category. All of this occurred just weeks after world leaders met at the 2023 G20 Summit in New Delhi. 

The situation became even more chaotic in the following months. In late November, reports emerged that the United States had thwarted a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist, on American soil. Biden administration officials confirmed the incident, noting that they were discussing the issue with the Indian government. On November 29th, the Justice Department announced charges against Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, alleging that he was directed by an Indian government employee to hire a hitman to assassinate Pannun. The unprecedented fallout between the three democratic countries has raised questions about India’s relationship with its diaspora and put a spotlight on the movement to establish a Sikh state. The history of the Khalistan movement, the support for Khalistan in the Sikh diaspora, and why the call for a Sikh homeland is louder overseas than among Indian Sikhs are all essential to understand in examining the current situation.

Nijjar and Pannun were leaders in the Khalistan movement, which calls for an independent state for Sikhs in the Punjab region. The movement and its history are long and bloody. The birthplace of several of the world’s major religions, India is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the Punjab region in the late 15th century and has about 25 million adherents worldwide, most of whom live in India. Calls for a Sikh homeland originated as the British Raj neared its end in the 1930s. During the partition of India in 1947, the British Punjab Province, where Sikhs were concentrated, was split between India and Pakistan. The result was a mass migration of Sikhs from the Pakistani Punjab to Indian Punjab.

The partition was a particularly painful time in South Asia as millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were displaced from their homes and hundreds of thousands were killed as violence erupted on both sides of the newly-drawn border. The tragedies of the partition inflamed religious tensions and led to concerns around Sikh identity, with many Sikhs lamenting their lack of autonomy within the new Hindu-majority India. Calls for an independent Sikh nation increased in the following decades and reached a deadly climax in the early 1980s. In 1982, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale emerged as a leading Sikh separatist leader and quickly gained thousands of supporters. Bhindranwale and his militant followers moved into the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site in Sikhism, in July of 1982. They then began stockpiling weapons and carried out a violent campaign that killed thousands. Tensions between the militants and the Indian government came to a head in June 1984, when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to attack the Golden Temple complex in Operation Blue Star. After 4 days of intense fighting, the Indian Army regained control of the site. The operation left thousands dead, including Bhinranwale. Scores of civilians, mostly Sikh pilgrims, were also killed. 

The brutality of the incident angered the global Sikh community. Many viewed the operation as an attack on Sikhism. The fallout led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards four months later and subsequent anti-Sikh riots across India in which thousands were killed. Operation Blue Star also marked the start of a decade of unrest in Punjab as Khalistani insurgents undertook an armed campaign against the Indian government. The insurgency was eventually quelled by the mid-1990s through a combination of more effective Indian military operations and a collapse of support in the Sikh community. The violence stopped almost as quickly as it started, and Khalistani violence in Punjab is almost nonexistent today.

Since the 1990s, the Khalistan movement’s most vocal proponents have been a small minority of the Sikh diaspora. This is largely because of a divergence in experiences between Indian Sikhs and Sikhs who have emigrated from India. Large numbers of Sikhs left India in the 1980s and 1990s when armed conflict involving Sikh militants and communal violence against Sikhs was at its peak. Some Sikh immigrants view their journeys as an escape from persecution in India. These views have trickled down to future generations, leading to present support for Khalistan among a small number of diaspora Sikhs. Most Sikh immigrants settled in Europe or North America, with Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States hosting especially large communities. 

The 1980s saw a rise in extremism in the Sikh diaspora. In June of 1985, Canadian Sikh separatists planted a bomb on an Air India flight flying from Montreal to London. The explosion over the Atlantic Ocean killed all 329 people on board. To this day, the bombing is the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history and, until 9/11, was the worst terrorist attack in aviation history. Canadian officials suspect that the bombing was organized by Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh militant group that has a presence in South Asia and many western countries. Other pro-Khalistan groups such as the International Sikh Youth Federation and the Council of Khalistan, along with more peaceful Sikh groups such as the World Sikh Organization were founded by diaspora Sikhs in the early 1980s. In the 21st century, new Khalistani groups have been created, such as the US-based Sikhs for Justice (which Hardeep Singh Nijjar was associated with).

For Indian Sikhs, support for the Khalistan movement is remarkably low. In an interview with the CBC, one Punjabi Sikh stated, “There is a fierce anger here at the Indian government, in the sense that Punjab has been slighted and not given its due but also the sense that fighting for Khalistan isn’t the answer.” Another man served as a police officer in New Delhi in the 1980s. “There were dead bodies in the streets. Many don’t remember the dark days,” he said, describing the massacre of Sikhs in anti-Sikh riots. “Why would we want to return to that unrest?” he asked. 

In the Indian Sikh community, there is a widespread desire to maintain peace and most have integrated into the political mainstream. Many Indian Sikhs believe that support for the Khalistani movement has been greatly exaggerated. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly chastised leaders of other countries for their lenient policies towards pro-Khalistan groups. He has argued that the Khalistan movement poses a significant threat to India’s national security. In reality, there is very little appetite for separatism among Sikhs in Punjab today. As a New York Times article put it, “Modi has amplified a separatist threat that in reality is largely a diaspora illusion.” These actions have benefitted him politically by projecting the image of a strongman leader who is willing to fight for his country. For Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, using Khalistan as a political boogeyman carries a large political reward by energizing the BJP’s base, but the cost to India and especially the Sikh community has been considerable. Among Sikhs, there is the fear that this narrative of a Khalistani threat will heighten religious divisions, resurrecting violence from a painful period from which wounds are still fresh. There are also concerns in India that the dual crises in the United States and Canada will portray India as an irresponsible global power, threatening India’s quest to challenge China as leader of the Global South.

There have been considerable differences between the responses to the Nijjar assassination and the alleged plot to assassinate Pannun. The Indian governments’ reaction to accusations over Nijjar’s killing and the ensuing diplomatic battle were defined by a series of rebukes and mutual outrage, with the Indian press directing an inferno of criticism at Trudeau and questioning his allegations and personal character. The atmosphere in India after Trudeau’s announcement can be encapsulated in a tweet by Sushant Sareen, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi: “If we did it, it was right; if we didn’t, you were wrong”. The United States and India have been more muted as they handle the fallout over Pannun. Part of the disparity can be attributed to the fact that, unlike Nijjar’s killing, the threat to Pannun never came to fruition. Nijjar was shot dead in June outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia. The Canadian government has yet to make any arrests in connection with the murder. Canada’s accusations also came to light in a far more dramatic fashion, by way of an address by PM Trudeau in Parliament. Canadian officials claimed that Trudeau chose this path after learning that the story was about to come out in the media.

In contrast, the revelations regarding Pannun were first reported by the British newspaper Financial Times before a White House spokesperson affirmed the account and stated that the U.S. had issued a diplomatic warning to India on account of the incident. The stifled reaction to the Pannun plot is likely due to the U.S. and India having far more to lose if their relationship sours. The Biden administration has made deepening ties with India as a counterweight to China a tenet of its foreign policy. For India, American investment is essential as the country seeks an economic miracle to rival China’s rise. The White House has drawn some criticism for not being more forceful in its condemnation and has focused on the investigation. Unlike the Canadian government, which claims that it cannot disclose its proof due to the necessity of protecting its intelligence sources, U.S. prosecutors decided to go to court with their evidence. The DOJ charged Nikhil Gupta a week after news of the plot emerged.

The allegations against India are especially surprising given that India had so little to gain from killing the Sikh separatists but would have risked so much. While Modi’s government might have viewed Canada as relatively insignificant on the world stage, numerous commentators pointed out that if India was caught lying about Nijjar’s killing, it would have done far greater damage to its international reputation than the Khalistani leader ever could have inflicted. Paradoxically, the accusations by the United States contributed to a de-escalation of the diplomatic standoff between India and Canada, with the Modi government choosing to proceed more carefully after the Pannun plot came into public view. 
Various actions will have to be taken for the three countries to weather the current crisis. As a small minority of India’s population, the Sikh community has long had to deal with feelings of alienation from the Indian state. However, the widespread desire among Sikhs in Punjab to put the separatist movement behind them means that Khalistan is no longer a major threat to India’s security. The members of the Sikh community who are the most supportive of an independent Sikh state are the furthest away from India. The ability of the Modi government to acknowledge this will play a pivotal role in whether India, Canada, and the U.S. will be able to move past the events of the past few months. Western nations have a role to play too. They need to protect free speech while also ensuring they don’t condone odious views. Many pro-Khalistan Sikhs have advocated peaceful change, but some, including Pannun, have been more forceful by threatening India and members of the Indian diaspora. Being more assertive in condemning this rhetoric could go a long way in assuaging Indian perceptions of dangers from abroad.

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 Summit in Rome on October 31, 2021; photograph by Ron Przysucha | Image sourced from Flickr


Vittal is a student at Yale University (class of 2027) studying Political Science from Texas. He currently serves as an Assistant Desk Editor for YRIS, writes for the Yale Politic, and conducts research for the Yale Foreign Policy Initiative.