India calls Canada a ‘safe haven for terrorists’ after suspending visas for Canadian nationals

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India has called Canada a “safe haven for terrorists” following its suspension of visas for Canadian citizens, as the fallout grows over Ottawa’s accusation that New Delhi is potentially behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist activist on its soil.

In a strongly worded statement to reporters Thursday, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said Canada needed to “worry about its international reputation” in the wake of its explosive allegations.

He added: “If you’re talking about reputational issues and reputational damage, if there’s any country that needs to look at this, I think it’s Canada and its growing reputation as a place, as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists, and for organized crime.”

His comments followed India’s move to suspend visa applications for Canadian citizens over what it says are “security threats” against diplomats in the country.

“The issue is of incitement of violence, the inaction by the Canadian authorities, the creation of an environment that disrupts the functioning of our high commission and consulates, that’s what’s making us stop temporarily the issuance of visas or providing visa services,” Bagchi added.

Relations between the two countries plummeted this week after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said India was potentially behind the June killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist activist, who was gunned down by two masked men in Surrey, British Columbia.

India has vehemently denied the claims, calling them “absurd and motivated.” Bagchi said Canada has provided “no specific information” to support the allegations.

India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Thursday issued an advisory to television channels, asking them to refrain from “giving any platform to persons who are facing serious charges, such as terrorism or belonging to organizations proscribed by law.”

The Indian government has long accused Canada of inaction in dealing with what it says is Sikh separatist extremism aimed at creating a separate Sikh homeland that would be known as Khalistan and include parts of India’s Punjab state.

Nijjar was an outspoken supporter of the creation of Khalistan. India considers calls for Khalistan a grave national security threat.

A number of groups associated with the idea of Khalistan are listed as “terrorist organizations” under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Nijjar’s name appears on the list of UAPA terrorists and in 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency accused him of “trying to radicalize the Sikh community across the world in favor of the creation of ‘Khalistan.’”

Several Sikh organizations overseas say the movement is being falsely equated with terrorism by the Indian government, and say they will continue to peacefully advocate for the creation of Khalistan, while bringing to light what they say is years of human rights abuses faced by the community in India.

The history of Khalistan

Sikhs once had their own kingdom in the Punjab and the push for the creation of Khalistan dates back decades, to around the time India gained independence from its British colonial rulers in 1947.

When Partition hastily divided the former colony along religious lines – sending Muslims to the newly formed nation of Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs to newly independent India – Punjab, which was sliced in half, saw some of the worst violence.

Sikhs suffered heavily in the ensuing bloodshed, and the community felt mistreated in the new Hindu-majority nation, prompting some prominent leaders to advocate for the creation of Khalistan. Over the years, violent clashes have erupted between followers of the movement and the Indian government, claiming many lives.

In the 1980s, Punjab witnessed a decade-long insurgency by some Khalistani militants, who committed a series of human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, indiscriminate bombings and attacks on Hindus, according to Human Rights Watch.

In counterinsurgency operations, Indian security forces arbitrarily detained, tortured, executed, and “disappeared” tens of thousands of Sikhs, the rights group said. The Indian government also enacted counterinsurgency legislation that facilitated human rights violations and shielded security forces from accountability for these violations, it added.

In 1984, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian troops to storm Amritsar’s Golden Temple – Sikhism’s holiest shrine – to kill Sikh separatists, in an operation that caused huge anger within the Sikh community.

Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath, prompting a renewed bout of violence that killed more than 3,000 people, mostly Sikhs.

A year later the violence spilled over to Canada, when Sikh separatists bombed an Air India plane that had taken off from Toronto airport, killing all 329 people aboard, including numerous Canadians of Indian descent.

The Khalistan movement now

There is no insurgency in Punjab today and analysts say supporters of the Khalistan movement remain very much on the margins in India.

However, the movement continues to evoke a level of sympathy from some Sikhs within the global diaspora, particularly in Canada, Britain and Australia.

A small but influential number of those Sikhs support the idea of Khalistan, with referendums periodically held to reach a consensus to establish a separate homeland.

Nijjar’s death shocked and outraged many within the Sikh community in Canada, which has more than 770,000 members and is one of the largest outside India.

Canadian police have not arrested anyone in connection with Nijjar’s murder. But in August, police said they were investigating three suspects and issued a description of a possible getaway vehicle, asking for the public’s help.

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