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No room for the idea of Khalistan

The Sikh radicals’ publicity stunt on 2020 referendum in London on Sunday has no takers in Punjab. But it’s a wake-up call that the Indian government can ill-afford to ignore

punjab Updated: Aug 13, 2018 21:35 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Khalistan,London,2020 referendum
Pro-Khalistan supporters at Trafalgar Square in London at an event organised by Sikhs for Justice.(AFP)

It’s tempting to dismiss the Sikh radicals-led ‘Punjab Referendum 2020’ rally at London as “a stunt without status”, a term former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to trash Amnesty International’s reports on troubled Northern Ireland.

But Sunday’s spectacle at Trafalgar Square, aimed at rallying support for a separate Sikh homeland, was more than a mere publicity stunt. It was attended by 2,500 expatriate Sikh hardliners, mostly from Britain, still wedded to the long lost cause of Khalistan.

This event not only signifies the propaganda-potential of ragtag radical groups operating from foreign soils, but Indian security agencies also see in it an insidious play by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) through a project, codenamed ‘Op Express’, to play the Sikh card and revive turmoil in peaceful Punjab.

Such sinister portents are not unfounded. The posters calling for Sikh referendum, a cause célèbre of a US-based advocacy group Sikhs for Justice, sprung up in major gurdwaras in Pakistan during the annual Sikh pilgrimages in recent months. Some of the brains behind the London event had a criminal-militant past in the dossiers of Indian security agencies, before they fled India. This explains India’s alarm and alacrity behind its frantic -- and eventually in vain -- diplomatic moves to block the pro-referendum show. The Westminster, however played hardball, refusing to disallow the radicals’ gathering on grounds of freedom of expression. The only comfort New Delhi got was from a parallel ‘pro-India’ show of Britain-based NRIs.

Back home in Punjab, the latest pro-Khalistan antic found no favour from any quarters, not even with pro-Khalistan splinter groups such as Dal Khalsa and Akali Dal (Amritsar). Rather, political parties closed ranks in condemning the bogey of Khalistan. Chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh called the London event “an attempt by a handful of frustrated ISI-backed foreign-based Sikhs to foment trouble in India”. Equally emphatic was the moderate Shironmani Akali Dal’s denunciation of the bogey of Khalistan, saying those behind Referendum 2020 were people living abroad who will never come back to Punjab. “It’s a futile exercise and has no takers in Punjab,” said SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal

Ties under strain

The fallout of the event will largely be on India-UK relations. New Delhi made no effort to hide its irritation over allowing “a separatist activity which impinged on India’s territorial integrity and seeks to propagate violence, secessionism and hatred”. Indian intelligence agencies have a reason to be wary of radicals choosing London for their secessionist propaganda. In the 1980s, Britain had emerged as an epicentre of pro-Khalistan movement spearheaded by Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a leading light of Sikh separatism. The latest episode has further strained the already not-so-cordial India-UK ties in the uncertain times of Brexit and its impact on bilateral trade.

But, what is certain is that India will keep up its tough stance on Sikh radicals active in some foreign countries. Earlier, New Delhi had driven home its no-nonsense approach to Canada, forcing it to course correct its mollycoddling towards the anti-India fringe in the Sikh diaspora. Security agencies see a renewed radical agenda as “germs that need to nipped in the bud”. Already, there is a growing unease over radicals-sponsored copycat rallies planned in Canada and Australia, the two countries with sizeable Sikh population. In that sense, the London event is a wake-up call for India to not lower its guard on security and diplomatic fronts.

First Published: Aug 13, 2018 21:34 IST