Canada-India row puts spotlight on Sikh activism in UK

Given the dramatic developments in Canada, where PM Trudeau has said there is credible evidence to suggest India was involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh, it is unsurprising that rumours now swirl around the deaths of other Sikh activists around the world, including in the UK.

Avtar Singh Khanda, 35, was well known for his support of the creation of a breakaway Sikh homeland, Khalistan.

He died from a sudden illness in Birmingham in June, and some of those close to him insinuate there was foul play involved.

West Midlands Police say they thoroughly reviewed the case and there were no suspicious circumstances and that there is no need to re-investigate.

But British Sikhs have long talked about feeling under undue pressure, as the Indian government has openly demanded that the UK authorities do more to stamp out “extremism” within the community.

Gurpreet Johal is a lawyer and Labour councillor from Dumbarton. He says he entered politics because of what happened to his family.

Six years ago, Gurpreet’s brother Jagtar – a well known pro-Khalistan and Sikh rights activist – went to India to get married.

Mr Johal’s family says that in the town of Rami Mandi in Punjab, he was forced into an unmarked car. He has been in prison ever since accused of extremist activities.

Jagtar Johal says he was tortured and forced to sign confession statements. It took years for him to be charged and he has never been tried.

“Fair play to Justin Trudeau,” says Gurpreet Johal. “The Canadian prime minister has stood up for his citizens, whereas the UK government has failed to do so.” caption,

Watch: Trudeau accuses India in killing of Canadian Sikh

The human rights group Reprieve says it has compelling evidence that Mr Johal’s arrest in India followed a tip-off from British security agencies.

British Sikh organisations expressed outrage at that, but also at the fact that even after a UN working group called for the release of Jagtar Johal – saying his detention had been made on arbitrary and discriminatory grounds – the UK government has failed to do the same.

“It seems like the UK government cares more about getting a trade deal with India than it does about its citizens,” says Mr Johal.

The Foreign Office has said that calling for Jagtar Johal’s release would not help matters and may even make things worse. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he is “committed to seeing Mr Johal’s case resolved as soon as possible”.

There are strong ties between India and the UK, but the issue of Sikh activism in Britain is frequently raised by Indian officials.

In March this year, Prime Minister Modi’s administration expressed its concern when Sikh rights and pro-Khalistan protestors vandalised the Indian High Commission in London during a demonstration. The Indian government reiterated its frequent call for Britain to deal with “extremism”.

After its peak in the 1980s, support for a breakaway Sikh homeland waned in India, with all major political parties strongly opposed to the idea. But it has seen a resurgence in recent years, particularly in the Sikh diaspora.

For the most part, pro-Khalistan support in the UK has taken the form of peaceful activism, and the tension between Delhi and London can sometimes be over what constitutes “extremism” and what is freedom of political expression. But there have been occasions when violence has been used.

In 2014, while on a visit to London, retired Indian general Kuldeep Singh Brar was attacked and had his face and throat slashed with a knife.

In 1984, at a time of growing unrest and agitation for a Sikh state, Lt Gen Brar had led the Indian army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It is Sikhism’s holiest shrine, but at the time it was also where leading separatists had taken residence.

Hundreds of Sikhs were killed in the Golden Temple operation; among them separatists but also large numbers of pilgrims packed into the complex on what was a Sikh holy day.

It was a pivotal moment. In revenge four months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, precipitating widespread anti-Sikh riots across India in which thousands died.

To some extent, these events still have a profound impact on Sikh consciousness.

Lt Gen Brar survived the London knife assault in 2014 and his attackers, including a British Sikh who lost his father and brother in the Indian army operation on the Golden Temple, were imprisoned.

Canadian Pro-Khalistan Sikhs protest against the Indian government in 2012
Image caption,Pro-Khalistan activism has been mostly peaceful, such as this protest in Canada

But, as well as the imprisonment of Scottish Sikh Jagtar Johal, many British Sikhs cite other incidents from recent years as evidence that theirs is a community under pressure because of demands being made by Delhi.

In 2018, there were raids carried out on the homes of five Sikh activists in London and the Midlands.

No charges were ever brought, but Sikh groups here have said the fact that details of the raids appeared in the Indian media that had not been made public by the British police suggests that Delhi had a hand in the operation.

Just this year, British Sikhs across the political spectrum shared their confusion and concern about the findings of a recent review into Britain’s faith landscape by the UK government’s Faith Engagement Advisor, Colin Bloom.

After years of research, Mr Bloom devoted more of his final report to Sikh “extremist and subversive activities” than it did to Muslim, far right and Hindu extremism combined.

Many Sikh leaders said publicly that they felt the report’s findings were a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, that has long been vocal about the fact it wants the governments of countries with large Sikh populations – particularly Canada, Australia and the UK – to do more to counter Sikh activism.

Last month, the UK Home Office announced a further £95,000 to tackle the issue of “pro-Khalistani extremism”.

Calls for Khalistan separatism may have diminished over recent decades in India, but the issue continues to cause tensions and divisions among British Sikhs, with prominent voices in the community who do not support the creation of a Sikh homeland sometimes receiving online intimidation.

But it appears these often polarised sections of the community are coming together in their concern about misrepresentation.

“The Sikh community has integrated into British society and is known for its educational attainment and its seva (selfless service),” says Jagbir Jhutti Johal OBE, professor of Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham. Though she does not discuss it, Professor Johal is one of those who has previously faced the ire of pro-Khalistanis. But of late, she has been deeply troubled by pressure she feels is being put on the whole community.

“This recent scrutiny as a result of the Indian and UK Government’s focus on ‘extremism’ is unfairly creating a negative impression of the community. That’s causing many Sikhs to question the intentions of both governments,” she says.

Professor Johal warns that all the focus and talk in recent years of tackling Sikh extremism here is potentially unhelpful and counterproductive.

The UK’s tactics and the news from Canada will be raising concerns for younger Sikhs, she says. They may not have been interested before but they will now study the concept of Khalistan, the alleged human rights abuses against Sikhs and the restrictions on freedom of expression.

(BBC News)

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