Western support to Sikh separatists is damaging for bilateral ties

It would be helpful to understand the context and background behind support to the Khalistanis by five western governments that particularly stand out i.e. the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, and Australia.

Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) Jun 23, 2024
Sikh separatists

The perverse action by the Canadian parliament to pay homage to a slain advocate of terrorism, championing a separatist Sikh state of Khalistan in India, reflects extreme prejudice and insensitivity, especially to the sentiments of family and friends of the 329 passengers who were killed when the Air India commercial flight 182 exploded midair, killing all passengers, of which 268 were Canadian nationals. The Khalistanis claimed responsibility. And June 23 is the anniversary of that horrific accident. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not mourn the death of the Canadian citizens on board the aircraft, but then he has simply followed the footsteps of his late father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, by openly supporting Khalistanis and an anti-India agenda.

A celebration of terrorism certainly does not promote bilateral relations. A large Indian community resides in Canada. Some went as migrants and many others as students, apart from professionals, who saw in Canadians a welcoming culture and people. At the same time, Justin Trudeau’s father suffered from an intense dislike of India. Even today, Indo-Canadian relations lack depth and substance. This possibly explains Trudeau’s megaphone diplomacy, which is aimed at his domestic constituency, while not being mindful of the long-term consequences of irreparably damaging diplomatic relations with India.

 A deeply sensitive issue 

Australia had a similar problem with India. As Federal Member of Parliament, Andrew Charlton, writes in his recent book (Australia’s Pivot to India), Prime Minister Robert Menzies never saw eye to eye with New Delhi, even arguing that India did not deserve independence from British colonialism because its people were not yet ready for it. Apartheid (South Africa) was also a significant area of disagreement, as was India’s non-alignment advocacy during the Cold War years, and opposition to US intervention in the Vietnam war.

Things have certainly improved between Canberra and New Delhi over the past decade, making it the among the fastest growing bilateral relationships in the 21st century, both in terms of scale and intensity. Unfortunately, when relationships suddenly grow rapidly and unexpectedly, the excitement blinkers the fault lines. Canberra’s support to Khalistanis through political asylum and on grounds of freedom of speech is now becoming a deeply sensitive issue that could damage the trust factor.

The recent Four Corners television report will certainly be a cause of grave concern. The approach of the western media is interesting. They engage a person of Indian origin to give the impression of authenticity and credibility. Yet the reportage and commentary are full of grave inaccuracies and things intentionally left unsaid, which can only be categorized as being mischievous.

Among the many glaring errors in the Four Corners report, two are worth mentioning. First, it diabolically suggests that the Sikh community and Khalistanis are synonymous, when they are certainly not. A minority supports separatism and have been given refuge abroad, especially in Australia, Germany, Canada, the US, and UK. To equate the two can have a strong and deeply misleading impact on common Australians, who will mistakenly assume that all Sikhs are separatist Khalistanis. This is grossly unfair to the Sikh community, as it is factually incorrect.

The second significant misreporting is mentioning that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the storming of the Golden Temple, the holiest of holy places for the Sikhs and Indians of all faiths, while withholding why this action was undertaken in the first instance. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the primary advocate of Khalistan and his heavily armed supporters, had taken over the Golden Temple, turning it into a fortress. Indira Gandhi had to free the Temple of the terrorists and hence, gave approval that the terrorists be flushed out. Several Indian soldiers died that day and it is testimony to how well prepared the terrorists were. Instructions issued to the Indian Army was that every effort had to be made to ensure that the Temple did not suffer damage during the assault. The report explicitly ignores this, reflecting its bias. 

Context of support for Khalistanis 

It is often conveniently suppressed that the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by anti-monarchists and was stormed, including by French Special Forces, causing extensive damage to the Mosque. For the Muslim community, the Grand Mosque is the holiest of the holy places of worship. Such comparisons are worth remembering, as governments grapple with limited choices at a time of grave security threats that require armed action. The killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, by US Navy Seals is a prime example of this.

It would be helpful to understand the context and background behind support to the Khalistanis by five western governments that particularly stand out i.e. the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, and Australia. Each has provided shelter and support to the separatists, starting with political asylum.

In the case of Australia, according to Andrew Charlton, Menzies had no interest in Asia or in India. He saw Australia’s future as being closely aligned to the West, especially Washington. This policy continued for decades. 

Germany had a similar view. After the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, and the division of Germany, Berlin’s preoccupations were internal and extended to integration in Europe. Both Canberra and Berlin ‘outsourced’, as it were, their foreign and security policy-thinking on Asia to Washington.

This suited Washington. Henry Kissinger, who was the primary architect of US foreign policy at that time, was known for his intense dislike of Indira Gandhi and of India’s advocacy of an independent foreign and security policy. Washington’s role in trying to intimidate New Delhi in the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh is well known. It failed to scare New Delhi. Kissinger never forgot the humiliation. For Kissinger, who believed in tough talk and mafia-style bullying, an Indian prime minister standing up to his pressure tactics and that too, a woman, was unforgivable.

That set the tone for support to the Khalistani separatists. Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the 1984 anti-Sikh  riots acted as the perfect catalyst to nurture the separatists on foreign soil that guaranteed their safety. Canberra, Berlin and Ottawa were easy to convince and opened their doors to Khalistani extremists, granting them asylum. Even the UK, which never got out of its colonial mentality, fell in line. Over the years, these asylum seekers started to act as migration agents and an entire community was established that took over existing gurdwaras and openly espoused separatism. They also became a significant vote bank.

With the passage of time, Kissinger lost his relevance and the geopolitical landscape dramatically changed. India became the fifth largest major economy in the world. It began to assert itself on the world stage. A paradigm shift took place in bilateral relations. Canberra had, by now, recognized the need to craft its own Asia policy with India holding prime place. It made sense because both countries saw a credible and hegemonic threat in China that could cause massive turbulence in the Indo Pacific. Relations with Germany, similarly, saw a surge. Most important of all, India-US relations entered an extraordinary trajectory after the signing of the historic 123 Agreement on the civilian use of nuclear energy. India had arrived.

This does not mean that the dependence on Washington had ended for Canberra or for other western powers. They continue to be locked into a relationship that has a long history. Indeed, Canberra’s recent proposed legislation to cap the inflow of international students certainly emanates from consultations with Washington and fears that unchecked migration could spiral into a security challenge. Policies have been aligned and Canada, the UK, and the US have already announced visa curbs.

Detrimental to bilateral ties 

The real reasons behind the move and the current adversarial anti-India campaign are a matter of speculation. Whatever the reason, India is least likely to succumb to arm-twisting by Western powers. The consequences would, however, be detrimental to the bilateral relationship that has taken years to forge and has the potential to contribute to global good. 

Certainly, Indo-Canadian relations will go into deep freeze and could see further reduction in diplomatic personnel. Canberra well might see a go-slow on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that it hopes to conclude early. With the UK, the relations have never really been substantive and with good reason. What should certainly worry Washington is that India might be driven even closer to Moscow.

Individual member countries need to recognize that alignment with Washington’s policies might not always be in their own strategic national interest. Washington also needs to recognize that India is central to a stable global order.

(The author is a former Indian diplomat. Views are personal.)

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