Khalistani groups in Canada, ISI pose challenge to Modi’s Sikh outreach

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times, Toronto
  • Updated: Apr 17, 2016 14:27 IST
Pakistan’s consul general in Toronto, Asghar Ali Golo, with Sukhminder Singh Hansra, a supporter of Khalistan. A poster for a referendum for a Sikh homeland is seen in the background. (HT Photo)

As the Narendra Modi government works on several measures to take forward the outreach to Canada’s Sikh community and support for Khalistan dwindles, a counter-movement by separatist groups may be taking root.

A troubling aspect of the situation is the link of Pakistani officials to elements attempting to whip up support for Khalistan. “Our neighbour has been fishing in troubled waters,” is the view of this development among Indian officials.

Pakistan’s consul general in Toronto, Asghar Ali Golo, was photographed with Sukhminder Singh Hansra, president of Shiromani Akali Dal–Amritsar’s Canada East unit, at a pro-Khalistan event a couple of months after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Canada in April last year.

In an interview, Hansra said Golo wasn’t at an event held by the Shiromani Akali Dal–Amritsar. Golo, he said, was at a ‘nagar kirtan’ at which he appeared and they didn’t talk. An emailed request to the Pakistani consulate for an interview with Golo didn’t receive a response.

Among the strategies deployed by New Delhi to sabotage support for extremism in Canada are culling the blacklist of Sikhs banned from travelling to India, exploring the possibility of giving visas to those who came to Canada as political refugees fleeing alleged persecution in India in the 1980s, and back channel talks.

A pro-Khalistan rally in the Greater Toronto Area. (HT Photo)

Meanwhile, those espousing Sikh sovereignty have fired several salvos – a 2020 “referendum” for Khalistan, boycotting Air India, and what an Indian official described as “indoctrination” of children.

This has been done, say officials, to overcome changing demographics and distance from the events of 1984, including Operation Bluestar or the storming of the Golden Temple by the army.

Read: ISI using Sikh extremists in Canada for pro-Khalistan activities

Contests have been held for children in gurdwaras, with some artwork lauding the assassins of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was gunned down months after she ordered Operation Bluestar.

Children have been posed with toy guns. Photographs of leaders such as Talwinder Singh Parmar, chief of the banned Babbar Khalsa terror group, have been placed on display at some gurdwaras in the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto.

An invitation calling for participation of children in competitions to mark Operation Bluestar. (HT Photo)

The Indian government’s initiative for talks with separatist groups through a London-based interlocutor too garnered a swift response. In a statement emailed to Hindustan Times, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the New York-based legal advisor to Sikhs for Justice, said: “We are campaigning for referendum and with the backing of majority Sikh community, there is no dialogue with Indian government except on referendum.”

His group is planning the 2020 “Punjab Independence Referendum” among the Sikh diaspora in several countries, including Canada.

However, Surrey-based Harjit Singh Atwal, one of those associated with the dialogue process and on the blacklist for his views on Khalistan, said, “As long as there are fair talks, people will support it.” He added, “You cannot make 100% people happy. Five or 10% people may have a different view on it.”

Among those differing is Hansra, who hosted the World Sikh Organisation’s February convention to “move forward with the struggle for Khalistan”. He said, “Khalistan movement has always been live and vibrant because it makes sense. Only those who try to exploit it is Indian media, trying to link it to terrorism and extremism.”

Clearly, the Indian government’s attempts at reconciliation will meet its share of challenges.

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