In recent times, due to the growing tension between Pakistan and India, India has been blaming Pakistan for something that has nothing to do with reality. When it comes to the Khalistan movement, India has always accused Pakistan of promoting the Khalistan movement and illegally funding the Sikhs living in England and Canada, which they have succeeded in arousing. But the allegations have nothing to do with reality. Readers look at the real facts of who is supporting the Khalistani movement and why it is growing.
Migration to the UK can be traced back to 1854, when Maharaja Duleep Singh, was brought to England after the annexation of Punjab. Having played a significant role in supporting the allied war effort in both world wars, after the Second World War Sikhs, alongside other South Asians were invited to satisfy the British demand for labour in the late 1940s to assist in the reconstruction efforts after the Second World War, and post-war economic expansion. Some of the migration around this time was also in response to the 1947 Partition of India.
The majority of Sikhs was from rural Punjab and had traditionally practised agriculture and petty trading. After British immigration laws were tightened in the 1960s, the male Sikhs were joined by their wives, children, parents and other relatives. Today, according to the 2011 Census, there are 432,429 Sikhs throughout the United Kingdom, with the vast majority of them in England alone (England: 420,196, Wales: 2,962, Scotland: 9,055, NI: 216). The highest number of Sikhs can be found in the West Midlands in Birmingham, Sandwell and Wolverhampton, with a slightly smaller number in Coventry and Walsall. They can also be found in large numbers in outer London in Ealing, Hounslow and Hillingdon.
Recently there has been a growing trend of using the internet to propagate the message of Sikhism, not with a view to conversion but to aid understanding of the Sikh faith. One of the most prominent organisations in this field is ‘Basics of Sikhi’, whose founder Jagraj Singh, brother of report author Sunny Hundal, had become the most popular teacher of Sikhi in Britain by the time he died from cancer in 2017. He was also a rare Sikh evangelist who was comfortable explaining the religion to people outside the religion, with many videos attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers. Through his charisma and unique style of delivery, Singh was successful in stimulating religiosity amongst younger Sikhs in the UK and abroad.
If defined in spiritual terms Sikhs were becoming less religious not more. Many are adopting this very religious identity which is very outward in form but less based on a deep understanding of the faith. Partly due to increased religiosity and partly through activism, voices who want an independent homeland for Sikhs in Punjab, Khalistan, also seem to be getting louder. The Indian government certainly says so. Traditionally, the demand for a separate homeland has been seen by the Indian government through the lens of terrorism and extremism.
A significant portion of Sikhs came to Britain and Canada in the 80s to escape Indian government persecution and are attracted to this idea of ethnonationalism (Juergensmeyer 1989, 1993). It is hard to say how many Sikhs in Britain want an independent homeland, as there is little solid polling on the question, but it is certainly true that the events of 1984 in Amritsar and New Delhi, and subsequent events over the years have super-charged demands for Khalistan. Supporters say calls for ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ (long live Khalistan) which is regular and popular at community events including Vaisakhi processions.
British Sikhs who are strongly assimilated into British society and have lower religious affiliation have less support of Khalistan. While British Sikhs who are politically and economically disenfranchised by British society but have a stronger religious affiliation are more strongly embedded in their support for Khalistan.
“I cannot identify as a Sikh without also calling myself a Khalistani and wanting to achieve a sovereign homeland for my people. Khalistan is our birthright; the foundations for Khalistan were laid by the Gurus themselves and there is supporting evidence written in Gurbani too. Also, the injustices Sikhs have faced under the oppressive regime of the Indian government have made it clear that that the only way Sikhs will exist with their own civil rights is if we have our own homeland.” Said Jasmine Kaur.
Because of the injustices, Sikhs are facing in India. Sikhs are saying that if we are not going to get justice in India, we can seek justice in our own land and we can live our lives as how we want to live as Sikhs. Sikhs have been asking for justice for so long, they don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
The theme of injustice is a common thread. Most Sikhs saw Khalistan as an abstract concept; a proxy for anger over events from 1984 and the treatment of Sikhs in India as second-class citizens. Some who did not support Khalistan have the perception that idea also remained popular because of the actions of the Indian government towards Diaspora Sikhs. In recent years, the Indian government has repeatedly accused Diaspora Sikhs of turning towards extremism and funding terrorism in India.
Among some Sikhs, there is a simmering discontent towards India, which culminates from events post-partition, the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple and the subsequent killing and lack of justice for the thousands of Sikhs killed in New Delhi following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The current rise of Hindu nationalism is also stoking tensions.
Attitudes towards India had improved while Manmohan Singh, a turban-wearing Sikh, was Prime Minister of India from 2004 – 2014. However, in 2014, the relationship began to change again with the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and the growing nationalist agenda in India. When India’s Narendra Modi first came to Britain as PM in November 2015, relations with British Sikhs were strained but cordial. He held a small private meeting with some members of the Sikh Council UK. Some Sikhs held a small protest but it did not make much noise.
They deteriorated sharply from November 2017 when Indian police arrested and detained British Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal. Johal has alleged torture and remains to be fully charged or put on trial. A highly vocal campaign in his support in Britain has also highlighted other cases of Sikh activists being detained without charge in India.
In early 2018, nearly 200 gurdwaras in Canada, the US and the UK announced a ban on working with Indian government officials. They cited Indian interference in Sikh affairs and Johal’s arrest. When Prime Minister Modi returned to the UK in April 2018 he got a very different reception. Sikh protesters tore down the Indian flag in London’s Parliament Square and posted the videos to social media. The incident sparked outrage among British-Indian groups and the Indian media, with some calling for legal action against protesters.
The Indian government and media are deliberately trying to raise the temperature for political gain. Allegations surrounding the ‘Referendum 2020’ campaign highlight this point. Late last year, the New York-based group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) mobilised between ten 10 to 30 thousand Sikhs around Trafalgar Square to promote a Referendum on Punjab’s independence in 2020. Indian officials claimed the group was a Pakistani plot, but its members have denied such claims.
There are some Indian news outlets who will only publish news about Sikhs if they can present them in a bad light. It creates a vicious cycle: Sikhs behave in more extreme ways because of their treatment in the Indian media, and then the Indian media treat Sikhs worse because of what they see as extreme behaviour.
Due to the rise of Modi-inspired nationalism, any protests against the Indian state are now being taken as an attack on Hindu identity. Relationship between Hindu and Sikh groups has been strained since last year.
India media focuses on Sikhs being trained, funded and armed by Pakistan, ISIL. They (the media) should be stopped from fuelling the conflict from the sidelines. We have never seen evidence of this, but what is clear is that this is creating tensions between Sikhs and the Indian State, but also with some Hindu groups. And this is becoming evident in the UK when Sikhs protest against the Indian State and Hindus turn out to counter the demonstrations.
There was little tension between most British Sikhs and Hindus at ground level. However, with the growth of Hindu nationalism in the UK could worsen relations between British Sikhs and Hindus. Criticism of India was now being perceived as either anti-Hindu or on behalf of Pakistan. The narrative of the Indian government and Indian media was also strengthening the hand of advocates of separatism.