- By Aleem Maqbool
- Religion Editor, BBC News
Given the dramatic developments in Canada, where Prime Minister Trudeau said there was credible evidence to suggest India was involved in the murder of a Canadian Sikh, it is not surprising that rumors are now swirling of the deaths of other Sikh activists around the world, including in Canada. UNITED KINGDOM.
Avtar Singh Khanda, 35, was well known for his support for the creation of a separatist Sikh homeland, Khalistan.
He died after a sudden illness in Birmingham in June, and some of his relatives insinuate there was foul play.
West Midlands Police said they had investigated the matter thoroughly and there were no suspicious circumstances and there was no need to re-investigate the matter.
But British Sikhs have long said they feel under undue pressure, with the Indian government openly demanding that British authorities do more to root out “extremism” within the community.
Gurpreet Johal is a lawyer and Labor councilor from Dumbarton. He says he got into politics because of what happened to his family.
Six years ago, Gurpreet’s brother Jagtar – a well-known Sikh rights activist – traveled to India to get married.
Mr. Johal’s family claims that in the town of Rami Mandi, Punjab, he was forced into an unmarked car. He has since been in prison, accused of extremist activities.
Jagtar Johal claims to have been tortured and forced to sign a confession. It took years for him to be charged and he was never tried.
“Fair play to Justin Trudeau,” says Gurpreet Johal. “The Canadian Prime Minister stood up for his citizens, while the British government failed to do so.”
Human rights organization Reprieve says it has irrefutable evidence that Mr Johal’s arrest in India followed a tip-off from British security agencies.
British Sikh organizations have expressed outrage at this, but also that even after a UN working group called for Jagtar Johal’s release – saying his detention had been based on arbitrary and discriminatory grounds – the British government has not done the same.
“It seems the UK government cares more about doing a trade deal with India than its citizens,” Mr Johal says.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that demanding the release of Jagtar Johal would not help matters and could even make things worse. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he is “determined to see Mr Johal’s case resolved as quickly as possible”.
There are close ties between India and the United Kingdom, but the issue of Sikh activism in Britain is frequently raised by Indian officials.
In March this year, Prime Minister Modi’s administration expressed concern when pro-Khalistan and Sikh rights protesters vandalized the Indian High Commission in London during a demonstration. The Indian government has reiterated its frequent calls for Britain to tackle “extremism”.
After its peak in the 1980s, support for a separatist Sikh homeland has waned in India, with all major political parties strongly opposed to the idea. But this phenomenon has experienced a resurgence in recent years, particularly within the Sikh diaspora.
For the most part, pro-Khalistan support in the UK has taken the form of peaceful activism, and tension between Delhi and London can sometimes be over what constitutes “extremism” and what freedom is. of political expression. But there were occasions when violence was used.
In 2014, while visiting 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, Lieutenant General Brar had led the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It is the holiest shrine of Sikhism, but it was also the residence of the main separatists at the time.
Hundreds of Sikhs were killed during the Golden Temple operation; among them separatists but also a large number of pilgrims gathered in 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 2014 London stabbing attack and his attackers, including a British Sikh who lost his father and brother in the Indian army’s operation on the Golden Temple, been imprisoned.
But aside from the imprisonment of Scottish Sikh Jagtar Johal, many British Sikhs cite other incidents in recent years as evidence that their community is under pressure due to demands made by Delhi.
In 2018, searches were carried out at the homes of five Sikh activists in London and the Midlands.
No charges were ever brought, but Sikh groups here said the fact that details of the raids appeared in Indian media and were not made public by British police suggests that Delhi had participated in the operation.
Once again this year, British Sikhs across the political spectrum have shared their confusion and concerns over the findings of a recent study of the British religious landscape carried out by the British government’s religious engagement advisor, Colin Bloom.
After years of research, Mr. Bloom devoted more of his final report to the “extremist and subversive activities” of Sikhs than to Muslim, far-right and Hindu extremism combined.
Many Sikh leaders have said publicly that they believe the report’s findings are a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, which has long been vocal about wanting the governments of countries to large Sikh populations – particularly Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom – are taking action. more to counter Sikh activism.
Last month, the UK Home Office announced an additional £95,000 to combat “pro-Khalistani extremism”.
Calls for separatism in Khalistan may have waned in recent decades in India, but the issue continues to cause tension and division among British Sikhs, prominent voices in the community who do not support the creation of a Sikh homeland sometimes subject to online intimidation.
But it seems these often polarized sections of the community are united in their concern about misrepresentations.
“The Sikh community has integrated into British society and is known for its level of education and seva (selfless service),” says Jagbir Jhutti Johal OBE, professor of Sikh studies at the University of Birmingham. Even if she doesn’t talk about it, Professor Johal is one of those who have already faced the wrath of pro-Khalistanis. But lately she has been deeply troubled by the pressure she says is being placed on the entire community.
“This recent investigation, which is a result of the Indian and British governments’ focus on ‘extremism’, unfairly creates a negative impression of the community. This leads many Sikhs to question the intentions of both governments,” she says.
Professor Johal warns that all the efforts made in recent years to combat Sikh extremism in this country are potentially futile and counterproductive.
The U.K.’s tactics and news from Canada will raise concerns among young Sikhs, she says. They may not have been interested before, but now they will study the concept of Khalistan, alleged violations of Sikh human rights and restrictions on freedom of expression.