Pakistan has been the lifeline for the Khalistani movement since it began 50 years ago

Poonam Sharma spoke with the veteran Canadian journalist Terry Milewski about his book, Blood for Blood: 50 Years of the Global Khalistan Project.

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Initially the Canadian government treated the Air India bombing as an Indian tragedy, with the then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney speaking to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to condole “India’s loss”. It was not until 2005 that Canada declared the anniversary of the bombing a national day of mourning. Observing the 20th anniversary of the bombing, Prime Minister Paul Martin acknowledged, “Make no mistake: The flight may have been Air India’s, it may have taken place off the coast of Ireland, but this is a Canadian tragedy.” Do you feel that Canada initially treating this as an Indian tragedy affected what happened to the case many years later?

Yes I think it had a lot to do with it. I think at the outset the reaction of Canadian officials was two-fold. First, it’s a foreign aircraft, it’s an Indian aircraft. And they thought of most of the people on board as Indians. Actually most of them were Canadian citizens. Roughly 280 of them, out of 329 were Canadian, of Indian descent to be sure, but they were Canadians. Secondly, Canadian officials wanted to avoid any liability. Their thoughts went immediately not to the victims’ families, but for how the government could get off the hook for letting this happen. At first, amazingly enough, the Canadian government even argued that you couldn’t prove that there was even a bomb. Maybe it was some freak accident. So don’t blame Canada. That argument, of course, turned out to be nonsense. And the Canadian government denied any forewarning, any signs that such a thing was going to happen, but in fact it turned out that there were a whole lot of warnings. There were abundant, timely and specific warnings, which were ignored in sort of an alphabet soup of police and security agencies who didn’t work together, dropped the ball, kept secrets from each other. So yes, this certainly affected the response. And it took a very long time, far too long, for the government to accept, as you noted, that it was a Canadian tragedy.

You talk about the ferocious religiosity of Khalistanis in the 80s and 90s, who marked Hindus for death because of their religion. Sikhs who weren’t devout enough faced the same fate. I’m reminded of one particular session of the Air India hearing in Vancouver describing an incident that took place in the Ross St Gurdwara. A Sikh woman brought her son to the gurdwara to buy him a kara, the plain bracelet that is worn by Sikhs, because they were traveling to India and she wanted him to wear one because he would be meeting his grandparents and other relatives. That woman and her son, both died on Air India flight 182. I don’t remember now who it was that commented that they deserved to die, because they were not true Sikhs and were just following Sikh customs for appearances. That was terrifying to hear for all of us who were listening. Tell me a bit more about this.

It certainly was evident, that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the father figure of the Khalistan movement, wasn’t much of a Khalistani himself. He wasn’t campaigning for Khalistan. He was campaigning, in fact, for a more rigorous, puritan form of Sikhism. He railed more about smoking and drinking than he did about Khalistan. And people who tried to engage him in political discussions, to try to get him to lead a more overtly Khalistan movement, generally failed. The incident that you mentioned, is another example of this religiosity. The testimony you are referring to was actually about one of the accused at the Air India trial, Ripudaman Singh Malik, alleged to have paid for the bombing. A wealthy businessman. He was alleged to have said, look, these weren’t real Sikhs. Here’s an example. This woman was only buying a bracelet to make sure that the grandparents weren’t upset. They weren’t really dyed in the wool Sikhs. Nor was he, by the way, when he first came to Canada. He got religion, as it were, after he came to Canada. There are many other examples of the rampage of Khalistani terrorists inside Punjab, where if you put a foot wrong, it doesn’t matter if you were yourself a Sikh. You were also a candidate to be wiped out, or machine gunned, or bombed in public places, or in a bus. And that is one of the reasons why most of the victims in the Khalistani insurgency in the 80s and 90s were Sikhs. They included for example Sikh policemen, who were fighting to preserve order in the state. And members of their families, murdered by the dozen, by the hundreds, in order to discourage people from joining the police. And KPS Gill, the Sikh policeman, who effectively conquered that insurgency in the early 90s, by the end of ‘93 say, he noted – having counted all the bodies – from the figures, from every police station all over Punjab. He counted 21,000 victims, of which 60 percent were Sikhs.

And Bhindranwale, as you write in your book, chided Ujjal Dosanjh for cutting his hair as well.

Dosanjh was one of those who did try to engage Bhindranwale in political conversation. Visiting with his children to show them the old country. From Canada. He was a clean shaven, educated lawyer. Went to the Golden temple with his three sons, who were asking him, Dad, why do these men have weapons in a holy place? You told us the Golden Temple was the holiest place of the Sikhs, and there are men going around with AK-47s. So what’s that about? And their father said, well that’s a good question. And he challenged Bhindranwale at his daily open house, if you will, and in front of the assembled congregation, tried to get him to talk about what were his political views, what were his political ambitions. And Bhindranwale didn’t want to engage. He was more interested in the fact that Dosanjh had cut his hair. And he said that made Dosanjh a bastard, and he threatened to cut Dosanjh’s throat. Pointing to the armed men around him, you know we could cut your throat for that. So cutting throats was ok, but cutting hair was not. So that gives you a flavor for how this religious fanaticism had a lot to do with it. I don’t say that it had everything to do with it. There were indeed Khalistanis who didn’t have this additional affliction. But it was certainly, at the root of the struggle, there’s no question that this was an anti-Hindu movement. To get back at the Hindus, to get revenge at the Hindus. As one of the accused at the Air India trial put it in his speech, in 1984, at the height of the troubles, in New York, the founding convention of the World Sikh Organization – Until we kill 50,000 Hindus we will not rest. 

You write in your book that the curse of Khalistan doesn’t have a favorite party, it dooms them all. Even today, Talwindar Singh Parmar’s image is proudly displayed in the Dashmesh Darbar gurdwara in Surrey. Let’s talk about what happened with the 2018 Public report on the terrorism threat to Canada.

That’s an embarrassing episode for one party, particularly the party that was in power, but similar episodes happened with the other party. It’s not a left and right thing, it’s not a liberal conservative thing. They all do it. They all pander to the Khalistanis. And that’s one reason why they don’t point the finger and react when the others do it. Because they have no standing to do that. Everybody does it and they all know it. So they don’t criticize each other for it. Which is another reason why it continues, and what I mean by it, is this pandering whereby Khalistanis in Canada, keeping the flame of the cause of independence alive, are very well organized, and diligent about developing their political influence by helping out aspiring politicians at election time. They say look, we’ve got our agenda. And we want you to help us, and in return, we’re well enough organized that we can bring you thousands of votes. What do you say? And the politicians say, bring it on. I’m your friend. I will look the other way when we go to the Vaisakhi parade, and posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the Air India bomb plot, and thereby, Canada’s worst ever mass murderer, are paraded in the Vaisakhi parade and garlanded with gold tinsel. Making him out to be a hero, a model to Sikh youth, a martyr of the Sikh nation. This man butchered 300 completely innocent civilians who had nothing to do with any actions by the Indian government against the Sikhs or anything like that. He didn’t care who he was killing. There were more than 30 Sikhs on the plane. More Sikhs dying in this supposedly holy cause for the Sikhs. So the fact that all the parties benefit and play footsie with the Khalistanis, at election time, means as I say that they tend not to criticize each other for doing that. Which means that the whole thing goes on. Nobody objects. So that when something happens like  the World Sikh Organization led a lobbying campaign to edit the public safety terrorism report, which you mentioned, to take out the threat, to edit out the threat of Khalistani terrorism, then the politicians say oh well we want to keep in the WSO’s good graces. We want to please them in the hope that they’ll help us again in the next election. So yeah, they’ll take it out, edit it. And score 1 for the WSO. They succeeded. Political influence works. And they’re very good at keeping it. 

This is the political spinelessness that Ujjal Dosanjh refers to when he says, “We are on the way to becoming a nation of panderers and politically correct people, and that’s almost spineless.” And he himself has been a very successful politician and never needed the support of these groups as you have pointed out. Politicians can take a stand, it won’t affect them getting elected.

Yes, that’s true and it’s a very important point that, for all that I just said, there is this you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours arrangement between the Khalistani lobby in Canada and the various political parties. It’s not really based on reality, because if you examine the record, you will find that the Sikhs don’t go out and vote for the overwhelmingly pro-Khalistani candidate. Because most Sikhs want nothing to do with the WSO. The vast majority are not interested in these old country politics. That’s one reason they live in Canada. They are done with all of that. It’s a bad memory. Remember that in Punjab, their homeland, it’s a really bad memory. Those 21,000 dead were their uncles, cousins, and aunts, sons, wives and daughters. If you look at the record, and you mentioned Dosanjh, probably the most successful Sikh politician of his generation in Canada. Always, since he first came to Canada, clean shaven, secular, but still a Sikh. His father was a Sikh, his grandfather spent years in British jails fighting for independence. Pretty good Sikh pedigree if you want to put it that way. He was elected, and re-elected for 20 years in Canada, both provincially, rising to the post of Premier of British Columbia. And federally, rising to the post of Minister of Federal Health in the Paul Martin government. Despite the fact, and he did this openly, and many didn’t have his guts to put it bluntly. Despite the fact that he openly condemned the violence, and went against a very threatening small minority of Sikhs who wanted to pursue a violent course of action in their fight against India. And who threatened his family with death repeatedly, hounded them, left messages on their answering machine – We’ll kidnap your wife, we’ll kill your children. And he carried on. And he was re-elected every time, which tells you something. His riding of course was heavily Sikh population. Vancouver South was his riding when he ran federally. So you can’t tell me that what he was doing was somehow anti-Sikh. It was anti a small minority Khalistani Sikh. And that’s a key point we may get to if you like. It’s often as though when you take on that small minority, they always complain that you’re anti-Sikh. It’s like if I say I condemn white supremacy, and they say you shouldn’t say that because it’s against all whites. No it isn’t, it’s against white supremacy. But that is the nonsense you encounter, and even Dosanjh himself a Sikh encountered when criticizing a small minority. They pretend that the entire Sikh community identifies with them. And I thank you for raising the point. In Dosanjh’s case and many others, it turns out that’s not true.

In your book you write, “Sikhs were not aliens in India. They weren’t before partition, and they aren’t now.”  In a recent Pew Research Center Report on survey of religion in India, 95% of Sikhs said they are very proud to be Indian and 70% said a person who disrespects India can’t be a Sikh. In such a scenario, what makes the Khalistani idea still survive amongst the diaspora in the West- especially in Canada, UK and US?

It is a puzzling question. And I wish I had better answers for you. It’s true that enormous majorities in India reject the Khalistan movement. You may recall there is a section in my book where I discuss voting results. The outcome is microscopic, in terms of their share of the vote, for 30 years. Last time out they got 0.3 percent, so not quite one third of one percent. It’s absolutely as close to zero as you can get. In fact, none of the above got a higher vote total than the separatists did. So why does it survive in the diaspora, well that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a small minority, and the evidence is that it is a small minority. Just that that small minority is organized, they are smart about the media and politics as we’ve already discussed. And their memory of India, since many of them were banned for many years from visiting India, they didn’t realize, they weren’t familiar with what India is like. And India has grown up, they’ve had a Sikh president, they had, the last Prime Minister was a Sikh. For 10 years. A Sikh of great distinction, Manmohan Singh. So I think that the isolation outside India of the diaspora to some degree accounts for the survival of the Khalistani idea in the diaspora. They’re not really clued in to what it is like in India, where millions voted for example for Captain Amarinder Singh as the Chief Minister of Punjab. A fervently anti-separatist Sikh. And finally I should say that this small minority is self-selected. The diaspora is self-selected. They didn’t want to live in India. So naturally the people who are not in favor of India tend to be greater in number in the diaspora, proportionately, than they are in India. As I say, I wish I had better answers as to why it survives. But we’ve already discussed the principal one which is the tolerance and pandering of mainstream political parties. They can prosper in that environment where the Sikh majority is not involved in politics. They are doing the same thing as the rest of us, they are trying to get to work on time, raise their children, and so on. Where that is the case, and it is the case in Canada, the UK, the US, Germany – wherever there is a large proportion of Sikh immigrants. They simply opt out of politics, and that leaves the field clear for those who wish to manipulate. 

As you said, it is a small minority that supports this movement. They moved away for a reason, so if they want Khalistan, I don’t see the diaspora moving back. 

You’re right. The cause is dead. You know, this is interesting history, but the cause is dead. Well, not exactly. Bear in mind there is a very active lobby group that is trying to organize a referendum. They are very vocal on Sikh independence, they are very active on social media. They organize rallies and protests, and they vilify the Indian government, and they talk about 1984, what they call the Sikh genocide, the massacre of Sikhs, the inexusable massacre of Sikhs that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. So they keep it up, but in addition, there have – in the past two-three years – been some half a dozen killings, actual murders, inside Punjab, which the police suspect have a Canadian angle, meaning that money was paid, money was raised to pay the killers in Punjab. And money was raised in Canada. So far I haven’t seen indictments, in one case, directly attributing crimes in India to Canadian personalities, or to Canadian money. But there does seem to be evidence in a number of cases, so many in fact that when Mr. Justice Patel of the Delhi high court had to rule on the government’s ban, on this group Sikhs for Justice which was campaigning for a referendum, he cited a number of actual criminal cases which the government was able to show which were brought against people who seemed to have contacts outside the country and notably in Canada. 

The Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) have aligned themselves with China and Pakistan against India. You’ve reported in your book that they sent a letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, they also sent a letter to China’s leadership saying that we are with you against India. That we support you. The SFJ website is banned in India. In fact, one of the interviews that our later founder and Editor Tejinder Singh did with Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was banned on YouTube by the Indian government. But you published their proposed map of Khalistan in your book, which includes much of India but not an inch of Pakistan, which is surprising as many areas of importance to Sikhism are in Pakistan such as Nankana Sahib – the birthplace of Guru Nanak – and Kartarpur Sahib. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

Well it is a puzzle, it’s extremely hard to explain except for the fact, and it is a fact, that Pakistan has been the lifeline for the Khalistani movement since it began 50 years ago. Even when Khalistan was just an idea in the mind of Jagjit Singh Chauhan, living in London in 1971, and hearing from the then Pakistani leadership that we need to get back at India for the Bangladesh war for 1971 we need to get our revenge for our defeat, at the hands of India, so we’d like to tear off a piece of India just as Bangladesh was torn off and became no longer east Pakistan, but an independent country. So we’ll help the Khalistan movement. It is extremely revealing, it’s not just puzzling is it, it’s extremely revealing that with all of the places, and you’ve mentioned a few, in Lahore, was the capital of the Sikh empire 200 years ago under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. A legendary figure, not just in Sikh history but in Indian history. Kept the British at bay better than a lot of others for his entire reign. It was only after he died that the Sikh empire was slowly absorbed into the British empire. But that’s ancient history. How do you explain now, today, that with all of that Pakistani Punjab history, how come the Khalistanis do not claim one inch of Pakistani territory? Because they are very free with the territory they claim on the Indian side, saying they are going to end “India’s illegal occupation of Punjab”. But not Pakistan. So why is that? Well, it’s very hard to explain unless you admit that they can’t do without Pakistani support. They simply can’t trespass on the generosity, they can’t presume upon the generosity of Pakistan, without jeopardizing, the only country that has sustained the Khalistan movement for all of these five decades.

And for people who claim to be supporters of Sikhism, they don’t protest against the treatment of Sikhs in Pakistan, the abduction of young girls, forced conversions, and attacks on gurdwaras. You don’t hear anything about that from them.

And that’s very puzzling too, you’re right to bring that up. Remember that at the time of partition, in Punjab as a whole, there were about two million Sikhs resident there. Now in Pakistan it is down to a few thousand. Well, why? What happened to them? Answer, they’ve been driven out by the abuses against all religious minorities in Pakistan. You speak for example of forced conversions, abductions of Sikh girls. There have been something like 55 or 60 cases over the last couple of years. And then if Sikh families try to get their girls back, there have been attacks on gurdwaras. Even Ranjit Singh’s statue has been defaced. It’s only been up for two years and it has been defaced twice already. People took a hammer to it and knocked his arm off. I mean he was a heroic figure in the history of the entire region. So I think that this only adds to the case, it becomes more than a suspicion at this point, that Pakistan is playing, as it always has, a crucial role in providing safe haven for the Khalistani movement. Places where they can train, hide out, get medical care, and muster and then smuggle across the border into Punjab. Been happening since 1971. 

In your book you write “Western governments were not keen to take sides in India’s internal battle.” The arrest of Jagtar Singh Johal from Scotland in India in 2017 for several targeted killings in Punjab shows the continuing danger for India of the Western indifference for Khalistani supporters active  in their backyard. What is your advice for India- what should it do to educate the world on the dangers of this approach?

The Indian government has not scored a great success in the propaganda war over this. They have been unable over many years to convince western governments to be more proactive, more aggressive, packing down on the Khalistani movement. In part because they always had very weak answers on the difficult questions they faced in reply. Take 1984 for example. An enormously sensitive subject for the Sikhs, because of the massacre that we mentioned after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Well, did the Indian government have a good answer? No they did not, because for decades, decades went by when the cover up continued. Did the Congress party come forward and say yes, we admit, we will confront the members of our party who encouraged, winked at, aided or were complicit in those massacres? I didn’t hear that, did you? Nobody heard that. They kept up the cover up. The police likewise. Pains anyone to say, the police were standing by and letting it happen in many cases. And they too were complicit, and they too, they covered up for each other. So when the Sikhs reasonably raised this as an example of government oppression, and discrimination against Sikhs, guess what? They were right. And so it has only been in recent years that this long denied, long delayed justice has started far too late to be realized. Now Sajjan Kumar I believe is still in jail, he’s an old man now of course. Justice came very late and insufficiently. It’s only been in recent years that Manmohan Singh, a Sikh Prime Minister, was the first to stand up and on behalf of the nation and apologize, as qualified as the apology may have been, but still it was something, better than nothing you have to admit. For that reason and among many others, the Indian government, well, they could only really step up themselves and say look, the killings by Sikh terrorists are intolerable and disgraceful if they admitted that the killings by Hindu mobs were also intolerable and disgraceful. And what have they got. And now they have a situation where SFJ routinely refer to the massacres as Sikh genocide, and almost nobody knows about the 21, 000 killed in Punjab. Much greater numbers of Sikhs and Hindus murdered in Punjab. All of those Sikh policemen and all of those Sikh policeman’s families, and they Hindus dragged off buses and machine gunned in the ditch. People don’t know about that. The Sikhs frankly have done a better job at propaganda, making their case. Because they were handicapped, the Indian government was unable to make that case. Because they didn’t want to talk about the massacres. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be silent about one massacre and make a fuss about the other. It’s got to be both, and it’s only now that really the Indian government has admitted all of that and confronted all of that. That would have made it more persuasive in previous decades if they’d said that look, to western governments, we admit the errors of the Congress party and the police. And we’re going to put people in jail about it. We’re going to pursue them aggressively in court. We’re going to do something about it. Then fairness would have required, then western governments would say that now we’re going to listen to you. and not talk about the other. 

After your report “Khalistan: a project of Pakistan “ came out last year, there were reports of ‘50 Sikh scholars ‘ asking the Macdonald-Laurier Institute to retract the report. The names interestingly included those of supporters of Kashmiri separatism like Dr Hafsa Kanjwal and Dr Idrisa Pandit. Do you think there has been an active effort to link the Khalistani project with Kashmiri separatism from India over the years, and how far has it succeeded?

Yes there certainly has been on the Pakistani side. Going back to, you may have noticed in the book, I discuss in some details, about Talwinder Singh Parmar, the founder of the Babbar Khalsa in British Columbia and the leader of the Air India bomb plot. And it was notable that he died in the company of five other gunmen, two of whom were Pakistani agents. One Kashmiri. And in the files of the investigation you will find detailed evidence of the close links, common training, common strategy between Khalistani militants and Kashmiri militants. It’s the so called K2 strategy: we’re stronger together. We both have a common agenda, to at the very least bleed India, make trouble for India. Kashmiris don’t care if Khalistanis get their own country. Khalistanis may not care if Kashmiris get theirs. But they both care if they can double their effectiveness by working together and they certainly did. For Pakistan as a geopolitical matter of course, that’s equally essential. The Pakistanis were hardly backing the Khalistan movement because they are romantic about the Sikhs and they love the Sikhs and they want them to have their own country out of the goodness of their heart. Quite the reverse. In the words of Jagjit Singh Chauhan, the father of the Khalistan movement himself, the Pakistanis were cynically exploiting the situation of the Sikhs. They just wanted the Sikhs to make trouble for India to get back at India, to keep India on the back foot in the long running geopolitical contest between these two arch enemies. To work together, it simply made sense. It’s been remarkably ineffective. Certainly in recent years, because if you are going to support an independence movement in Punjab, there needs to be an independence movement in Punjab. You can have all the strategic reasons you like for helping them out, but who’s they? At a time when they get a fraction of one percent of the vote, there’s no there there. The actual movement wanting independence in Punjab has died out to the point where people outside trying to promote it have no one to work with.

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Poonam Sharma, Managing Editor, America Times

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