Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire, center left, daughter Ella Grace and son Xavier tour the Golden temple in Amritsar during their visit to India last month. Photo: Reuters /Adnan Abidi

The Indian state’s ties with the Sikh community in the United Kingdom have hit a new low – at a time when Canada has been accused of supporting Sikh separatists.

Three days before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India began, an umbrella body of Sikh groups in Britain announced that 225 of the 270 Sikh gurdwaras – places of worship – in the UK were barring entry of Indian officials on political grounds. However, their announcement was lost in the din surrounding the Trudeau family’s visit.

Nonetheless, after fierce lobbying by Sikh groups, the Theresa May government told Parliament last week that it would take up the issue of alleged persecution of Sikhs and Christians in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is scheduled to visit the UK next month for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

The Sikh community, both in and outside India, has increasingly grown hostile toward Indian authorities after several contentious incidents in recent months.

Unending hostilities

A critical factor was the incarceration of Jagtar Singh Johal, a British Sikh national, in November last year by police in the Indian state of Punjab. Johal has been charged with involvement in targeted killings of Indian leaders of different faiths over the last three years.

Sikh groups in Britain rallied against Johal’s arrest, noting reports of alleged torture, which have been denied by the Punjab police.

Last September, sections of the community launched a major campaign calling on the UK government to stop identifying them as ‘Indians’ in the UK Census. Instead, campaigners demanded that a separate ‘Sikh’ ethnic category be created for them. The campaign snowballed into a major galvanizing issue which was backed by over 140 British MPs.

Supporters say the demand is aimed more towards ensuring greater attention towards the development of Sikhs and cornering more funds in the budget. But the actual problem goes deeper than that.

There has been a deep-rooted angst among Sikhs in the UK, which was revealed by a survey in 2016. The Sikh Network, a body of activists and professionals, surveyed 4,500 community members and found that 97% of them said had little or no faith that the Indian state would deliver justice for killings during anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Given this, 94% wanted to do away with the ‘Indian’ tag in the census.

Similarly, last year, Sikh bodies strongly opposed any move by Britain to return the Kohinoor diamond to India.

This long-running underlying communal resentment explains why Johal’s arrest in India and New Delhi’s strong responses to Canada’s alleged sympathy for Sikh extremists have inflamed tensions. Some Members of Parliament have also raised the Johal matter in the House of Commons.

India vs Sikhs

The antagonism toward India by Britain’s 430,000-strong Sikh community is partly shaped by historical distrust and a growing nervousness over the rise of Hindu right-wing influence in their homeland.

Dr Opinderjit Takhar, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University and an expert in Sikh studies, said: “No Sikh can overlook the events of 1984 and the atrocities that the Sikh community has suffered. Hence, many in the diaspora feel that they must do more towards seeking justice.”

Successive Indian governments have been apathetic about bringing to book those accused of orchestrating the mass killings of Sikhs in 1984 in response to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Three decades after the bloodshed, the Supreme Court of India appointed a fresh team – earlier this year – to re-investigate 186 cases of rioting and massacres.

This lack of a proper closure for the community seems to have fueled much of the anger. Many feel that the Indian authorities have misread these demands for justice as support for Khalistan, the idea of a separate Sikh nation-state carved out of India.

But the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindu right in India has also played a role. “The Hindu right-wing has traditionally believed that Sikhs are Hindus and hence, there can’t be an independent Sikh identity,” says Dr Subir Sinha, a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

“According to the Hindu right, being Indian means being Hindu. These attempts to redefine the Indian identity have caused the Sikh community to reassert itself and its distinct identity,” he said.

London-based commentator and writer Sunny Hundal agreed, adding that the rise in attacks in India targeting Dalits and Muslims had upset the Sikh community. “Many felt Sikhs would be next. There is a real fear within the community that right-wing Hindu organizations want to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra and Sikhism will be subsumed.”

Fundamentalism within the Sikh diaspora

Hundal, however, believed that antagonism toward the Indian state was also spurred by the rise of Sikh extremists in the UK. He said it was worrying that younger Sikhs had increasingly been taking to extremism.

Takhar said the Khalistani movement was now increasingly spearheaded by Sikh youths, who see Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the slain militant leader and head of the Damdami Taksal killed in Operation Blue Star, as someone who stood up to injustice.

There have been instances of young Sikh men storming gurdwaras and disrupting interfaith marriages. In fact, prominent Sikh groups have defended these disruptions by simply stating that the Sikh religious ceremony — Anand Karaj — was only meant for Sikhs.

Sukhwant Dhaliwal, a London-based academic who has closely followed the Sikh diaspora in the country, believes there has been a resurgence of Sikh fundamentalism. “Fundamentalist groups are increasingly positioning themselves as guardians of the community. Anyone who doesn’t agree with their position on Khalistan will automatically get de-legitimized through this,” he said.

More turbulence ahead

Resolving these issues is likely to take considerable time and effort from both sides, so the acrimony is expected to intensify before things improve.

To make matters worse, a British tribunal is due to rule on a plea filed by an author on declassifying files which contain details of the UK government’s role in Operation Blue Star. The UK government has opposed this move so far to safeguard its relationship with India.

Prominent Sikh groups have also threatened to disrupt PM Modi’s visit in April with mass protests unless Johal is released from prison. So, the turbulent relations between the Indian government and the Sikh community look likely to continue.

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