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The gurdwaras that fuel the Khalistan movement around the world

While a majority of Sikhs, and gurdwaras, around the world do not care for the separatist Khalistan movement, a handful of gurdwaras in the United Kingdom, Canada, and now in Australia are working to spread the violent separatist movement which has, in the past, been responsible for numerous acts of terrorism.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's giant poster outside UK's biggest gurdwara in 2020.

Reports of the revival of the Khalistan movement have been surfacing as a new Khalistan referendum was organised in Melbourne, Australia. The tensions amidst the referendum also resulted in violent clashes between the pro Khalistan and pro India factions of the Indian diaspora and even the vandalisation of Hindu temples across Australia. Interestingly enough, this was the first ‘Australian chapter’ of the Khalistan referendums that were being held in various locations all around the world. This was a non-binding, non-governmental referendum organised by the Sikhs for Justice outfit to display ‘the will of the people’ in favour of the self-determination of the Sikh land. Consequently, the communal and political tensions among the vibrant Indian community in Australia has proven to be worrisome for the peaceful nature of the multicultural Australian society.

Over the years, the Khalistan movement had carved its footholds in the West, largely in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom and the first instance of the movement’s activities in Australia could be alarming for the country. Apart from various pro-Khalistan militant organisations, there have been constant reports of the involvement of religious centres, especially gurdwaras in fueling the movement further.

Before analysing the roles of these Gurdwaras in the Khalistan movement, it is first imperative to understand what the movement is about and how it came to form a stronghold in the countries outside India.

Tracing the Khalistan movement

This movement can be, without question, categorised as a separatist movement. In the simplest of terms, the Khalistan supporters demand a sovereign state of Khalistan to be carved out of the Indian Punjab.

It could be said that the Khalistan movement was yet another byproduct of the British divide and rule policy of the 1800s and the 1900s which sought to sow the seeds of religious divisions in Indian society. While the difference created between the Hindus and Muslims ultimately led to the partition of British India into independent states of India and Pakistan, the divisions between the Hindus and the Sikhs started to gain root as India became independent.

The demand for a separate state of Khalistan started surfacing soon after independence and it led to the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966 as well. The act divided the state of Punjab into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh along linguistic lines. However, this moderate solution was not enough for the radical pro-Khalistan factions who took to the route of extremism to prove their point. The decades of 1980s and 90s were marked by severe violence, bloodshed because of the militant activities of the separatists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The Khalistan movement immediately evokes the memories of the infamous Bhindranwale and the Operation Bluestar that led to the subsequent assassination of the militant leader. One consequence of the Operation Blue Star was also the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the year became stained with mass riots, killings, kidnappings and devastation ignited by communal tensions among the Sikhs and the Hindus.

International foothold

The fight for a separate Sikh state is not just a problem for internal security in India but it has spread over through the Indian diaspora all around the world as well. This is evident in the functioning of Sikh factions such as Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) which is a US based outfit that organises events to mobilise people towards the secessionist agenda.

Apart from forming transnational organisations, there have been reports of a Pakistani involvement in terms of providing refuge, training to the militants and financial assistance to these organisations. Creating a network of pro-Khalistan secessionists in countries such as Canada, UK and the US has also allowed for raising funds and material as well as ideological support.

Not just the factor of mass mobilisation, the international foothold of the Khalistan movement has also led to the expansion of their militant activities in these areas. One case in point is the infamous bombing of the “Emperor Kanishka”, the Boeing 747 Air India Flight which exploded mid air enroute from Canada to India, killing all the passengers inside. The 1984 incident occurred as a part of the pro-Khalistan terrorist spree and it was later revealed that the bomb was planted in Canada itself.

However, one curious detail in the international activities of the Khalistan movement has been about the role of the Gurudwaras in fueling such activities further. Gurudwaras have traditionally played an important and symbolic role in the Khalistan movement- whether it be the epicentre of the Operation Blue Star through the Golden Temple in Amritsar or the centerstage of many pro-Khalistan activities all over the world.

Gurudwaras and the Khalistan movement

It was only last year, February 2022, that four Gurudwaras in Australia were reported as organising a pro-Khalistan event all across the country. The Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Craigieburn, Miri Piri Gurdwara in Melbourne, Gurdwara Sahib in Tarneit and Gurdwara Sahib, Plumpton were involved together in organising an event for the supporters of Khalistan in Australia.

While activities in Australia are a fairly recent phenomenon, some gurudwaras in the UK have been actively displaying their support for Khalistan through symbolic measures. The Gurudwara Sri Singh Sabha in Greater London displayed two large banners saying ‘Khalistan’ inside the premises. The establishment even went ahead to display large images of the infamous Khalistan militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Luton and the Sikh Temple in Leeds have also held various rounds of Khalistan referendum in the UK in the past. The biggest gurudwara in the UK in Southall called Gurdwara Guru Singh Sabha has also made news in 2020 by putting up a giant photo of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at its entrance.

Back in 2015, India has also shared an official dossier highlighting the activities of many gurdwaras across the UK that are involved in training the youth in militant activities and even providing the knowledge of developing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The dossier aimed at prompting the UK government towards taking action against the clearly anti-India activities breeding on their grounds.

In Canada, gurdwaras in Vancouver have reportedly banned the entry of Indian envoys in the past and the pro-Khalistan factions have claimed credit for the same. Interestingly enough, the Pakistani Consul General Janbaz Khan was warmly received in 2022 in two prominent pro-Khalistan gurdwaras- Sri Dashmesh Darbar and the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, Vancouver. This is evidence enough of the role of the Pakistani state in this anti-India movement.

In another concerning instance, the Fremont Gurdwara in California, USA is also reportedly linked to terrorist activities and openly supporting the creation of the Sikh state by working with pro-Khalistan factions such as the Sikh Youth of America.

These Gurdwaras, widely regarded as the holy, sacred and peaceful place across the adherents of different faiths, are now the breeding ground of violence and extremism. Whether their involvement is just symbolic and just limited to displaying banners and portraits of militants or more severe, i.e. training these militants and funding them; this aspect is all the more concerning for not just the Indian state but also the countries with a strong Sikh diaspora.

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