By Girish Linganna
As the BJP gears up for the 18th Lok Sabha elections, slated for early 2024, there’s speculation about whether Khalistan will become a central campaign issue for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s worth noting that Modi secured a resounding victory in the 2019 elections for the 17th Lok Sabha, surpassing even his 2014 win. His success in 2019 was propelled by the heightened attention generated by the tragic incident where 40 CRPF personnel were killed while travelling from Jammu to Srinagar by road. Modi’s perceived retaliatory airstrike on Balakot in northwest Pakistan further bolstered his image as a strong and resolute leader prepared to impart a lesson to Pakistan.
Following the three-day G20 summit from September 8-10, during which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brought up the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the President of the Surrey Gurdwara in British Columbia. Nijjar, who was also identified by the NIA as the leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), was reportedly killed by two unidentified assailants believed to be Indian agents. As a result, the Indian government has reignited discussions surrounding the Khalistan issue, which had previously been dormant and settled.
Trudeau garnered verbal backing from the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance, consisting of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. This support came after Trudeau’s remarks to the Canadian Parliament, where he raised concerns about Indian involvement in Canada’s domestic matters, asserting that it posed a threat to Canada’s sovereignty and unity, particularly through the killing of a Canadian citizen within its borders.
However, within hours of Trudeau’s speech in his own Parliament, Prime Minister Modi took more significant action. India made the decision to downgrade all diplomatic and related activities involving Canada, sending shockwaves, particularly among the Punjabi community, especially Sikhs who have close family ties in Canada. Canada is home to the second-largest Sikh population globally, following India, and Sikhs hold pivotal positions in Canadian politics and government. Seven Sikh Members of Parliament hold ministerial roles, in addition to numerous high-ranking government officials. Many Sikhs have become Canadian citizens and maintain connections to their homeland, frequently travelling back and forth, often to tend to their agricultural lands in Punjab. To facilitate these connections, there are currently a couple of direct flights operating between Amritsar and Toronto.
Naturally, when Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal raised these concerns with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, it sparked a sense of unease among Punjabis, particularly Sikhs, but extending to others as well. It’s essential to note that the BJP doesn’t wield significant political influence in Punjab. When the party has secured parliamentary constituencies in the state, it has typically relied on alliances with the Akali Dal or leveraged the popularity of Bollywood figures like Vinod Khanna. In a recent instance, when the BJP lacked a compelling candidate for the Gurdaspur seat, they convinced Hema Malini to persuade film star Sunny Deol, who showed little political inclination, to run for office, resulting in a BJP victory. However, the BJP’s ability to secure seats in Punjab relies on substantial support from the Sikh electorate. Overemphasizing the Khalistan issue is likely to alienate Sikh voters, particularly within Punjab.
However, considering how Prime Minister Modi leveraged the Pulwama-Balakot events during the elections for the current Lok Sabha, it appears that Khalistan has the potential to become a powerful issue that the ruling party can capitalize on, potentially placing the INDIA bloc at a disadvantage. The Congress party has already expressed its support for the government’s stance on this matter. Once Modi takes a strong stance on the Khalistan threat, the Opposition may find it challenging to maintain a strong position, particularly concerning national security. A similar scenario unfolded during the Kargil conflict in 1998-99 and again in 2019 following the Pulwama attack.
An additional advantage in this situation is the geographical distance from Canada. Unlike the Pulwama-Balakot episode, which carried concerns about potential escalation between India and Pakistan, Canada’s involvement presents a different scenario. Moreover, the other four members of the Five Eyes alliance, all of which maintain substantial trade and defense relationships with India, would likely restrain Canada from taking actions beyond verbal criticism. Trudeau may continue to consolidate his political base, especially considering that his Liberal Party is gearing up for national elections next year, where Sikh votes hold significance in forming a winning coalition in Canada.
Adding to the escalating tension between the two nations is the recent killing of another Sikh individual, Sukhdool Singh Gill, also known as Sukha, who the NIA has identified as a Khalistani terrorist. On September 20, Sukha met a fate similar to Nijjar as he was fatally shot in Winnipeg, Canada, by perpetrators labelled as “unidentified.” Sukha hailed from a prosperous farming family in Punjab and sought refuge in Canada in 2017. These two prominent killings in Canada, both involving individuals on the NIA’s list of Khalistani terrorists, share notable similarities. Both victims were politically active, advocating for Sikh issues, and both fell victim to assailants described as “unidentified.” The question now arises whether these events will further fuel tensions or prompt the Canadian government to take steps to deescalate the situation. (IPA Service)