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India: Will Khalistan become an election issue for Modi?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
October 2, 2023

Simmering tensions between India and Canada over a Sikh separatist movement could spill into India's 2024 election season.

https://p.dw.com/p/4X34a
Canadian PM Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with Indian PM Modi during the G20 Summit in New Delhi
In the past, too, Modi projected the image of a 'strongman' when it came to dealing with security issuesImage: Sean Kilpatrick/AP/picture alliance

The fallout of the ongoing diplomatic dispute between India and Canada over the killing of a Sikh separatist is providing an important political narrative ahead of general elections scheduled for May.

India and Canada engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as part of an intensifying row over the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia over three months ago.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that Indian agents were involved in the murder of Nijjar, a charge that has been dismissed by India as "absurd."

Can the Sikh tensions be used for political gain?

After the flare-up of tensions with Canada, political commentators and analysts in India believe that Sikh separatism and its repercussions for national security have the potential to be an electoral campaign issue.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi "capitalized on violent Islamic militancy originating from Pakistan in the 2019 general elections to create a political wave. Khalistan looks like a potent issue with which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may cash in, putting the Opposition parties on the back foot," political commentator Faraz Ahmad told DW.

During India's last general election, the killing of 40 paratroopers in Kashmir by Pakistan-backed terror groups was a huge issue that helped the BJP.

Ahmad said turning the Khalistan controversy into a political prop could prove more difficult.

"While the BJP's presence in Punjab is negligible, the prime minister may seek to reap the Khalistan harvest in adjoining territories like Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, if the issue is kept alive," Ahmad said.

Canada, India in diplomatic row over Sikh activist's killing

In the 2022 Legislative Assembly elections in Punjab, the BJP managed to win only two out of 117 seats.

In addition, its only political ally in the region, the center-right Shiromani Akali Dal party, has left the ruling BJP alliance, partly buoyed by the massive farmer protests against the government's agricultural policy.

Nijjar was an ardent advocate of Khalistan movement, which calls for establishing a Sikh homeland in India's northern Punjab region.

Indian officials viewed Nijjar as a terrorist member of the banned Khalistan Commando Force, which the government has linked to targeted killings of political and religious figures.

At the time of his killing, Nijjar was organizing a nonbinding referendum in Canada to drum up support for an independent Sikh nation.

Although the Khalistan separatist movement has died down in India, overseas Sikh activism has increased.

Outside India, the movement persists, and pro-Khalistan groups in the US, Australia, UK and Canada continue to support separatism, with sections of the Sikh diaspora holding protest demonstrations against  Modi, accusing him of undermining the interests of minorities.

Nearly 800,000 Sikhs live in Canada, the largest community outside India, while about 2 to 3 million Sikhs form the diaspora scattered throughout the world.

National security as a campaign issue

Modi could use cracking down on the Khalistan movement to project his tough-on-terrorism image to a wider audience in India.

Last week, India's anti-terror National Investigation Agency conducted raids at 53 locations in five states and two union territories, targeting a nexus of terrorists and drug smugglers with alleged links to Canada-based gangsters.

"The cases relate to conspiracies of targeted killings, terror funding of pro-Khalistan outfits, extortion by the gangsters, many of whom are lodged in various jails or are operating from various foreign countries, including Pakistan, Canada, Malaysia, Portugal and Australia," a statement by the NIA said.

The raids appear to be part of a wider crackdown by Indian agencies against alleged criminals with links to pro-Khalistan elements.

Some Sikh outfits believe that the BJP seeks to polarize Sikhs and Hindus to woo voters outside Punjab. Kanwarpal Singh, spokesperson for the pro-Khalistan organization Dal Khalsa, told DW that the BJP will attempt to "pit Sikhs against the rest of India."

Why the Sikh community no longer feels safe in Canada

Some voices from India's security establishment believe the issue of national security will be an important theme in the election, especially if the Khalistan issue does not die down in the upcoming months.

"If Khalistan continues to be stoked, and there is trouble in our missions, or if diplomats are targeted, or even trouble back home, it can snowball into a big issue," a senior Indian intelligence official told DW on condition of anonymity.

"The country has legitimate concerns. If vested interests try to re-energize the [Khalistan] campaign, its repercussion will be felt in the electoral arena ... but that is still a while away," he added.

Given that there is little support in Punjab for Khalistan secession, an idea that emerged decades ago, some civil society members feel that the Khalistan issue will not gain traction.

"The BJP flogging the issue of Sikh separatism is like using a product whose expiry date has long passed," Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told DW.

"It will only reconfirm the alienation towards Delhi's rule," he said. "This flogged-dead-horse electoral ploy has few takers in most of India."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11