Sikh Identity Crisis in Diaspora: Fanning the Flames of Khalistan

by Parminder Singh Sodhi

In recent years, the clamour around Khalistan, a proposed Sikh sovereign state, has found a louder voice not in its putative homeland, Punjab, but rather among the Sikh diaspora in Canada, Australia, the US, and other nations. The roots of this movement can be analyzed through the lens of an identity crisis among Sikh individuals abroad, exacerbated by politicians who play the identity politics card to bolster their electoral appeal.

The concept of Khalistan continues to thrive among the diaspora, notably in diverse societies like Canada that have welcomed numerous migrants from Punjab. Over three decades ago, Benedict Anderson (1992) posited that Sikh nationalism in Canada epitomized ‘long-distance nationalism’, a term he coined to describe a form of nationalism devoid of ‘responsibility or accountability’. Sikhs make up about 2% of Canada’s population, mirroring their demographic representation in India. Contrastingly, the focal issues in Punjab are youth unemployment, and a burgeoning drug crisis. However, the shadow of Khalistan continues to cast a significant imprint within the diaspora.

Khalistan sympathizers in the west, albeit a small faction, tend to paint a narrative that Sikhs are marginalized in India, a claim that starkly contrasts with reality. India, with its ethos of equal opportunity, has been a fertile ground for numerous success stories across religious and ethnic spectrums. A case in point is Ajay Banga, the current Head of the World Bank and former CEO of MasterCard. Born and educated in India, Banga’s narrative is a testament to the possibilities that the nation provides to its citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliations. His endorsement of that he is the perfect ‘Make in India’ example resonates with the ethos of inclusivity and opportunity that India represents. There are many more such examples like Milkha Singh, Jiggs Kalra, ISRO scientist Harjot Singh Moga, and several others.

A significant portion of the Sikh diaspora, however, struggles with maintaining a distinct cultural and religious identity while integrating into their adopted homelands. This struggle often magnifies issues such as the Khalistan movement, which provides a rallying point around which a unique Sikh identity can coalesce. The diasporic discussion around Khalistan often transcends the political or territorial discourse, metamorphosing into a symbol of Sikh identity and unity.

Politicians, aware of the potent mix of identity and diasporic nostalgia, often harness these sentiments to build a loyal voter base. A prime example of this is Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP). Starting his political journey with a modest profile, Singh has adeptly navigated the complex landscape of identity politics, leveraging his Sikh identity to gain a formidable following. His visibility and outspoken stance on Sikh issues resonate with many among the Sikh diaspora, who see in him a figure championing their identity and concerns on a political platform.

Singh is not an isolated case. Politicians in other nations with significant Sikh populations have also engaged in identity politics, echoing the sentiments of the Khalistan movement to varying degrees to capture the Sikh diaspora’s attention and votes.

The narrative of Khalistan sympathizers often seeks to anchor the Sikh diaspora to a past era, evoking a shared political and religious identity harking back to the epoch of the Khalsa order and the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Under Singh’s stewardship, a sprawling empire stretching to modern-day Afghanistan’s borders showcased a dominant Sikh minority, despite its multi-religious fabric. The British faced stiff resistance, engaging in two wars before annexing the territory post Singh’s demise. This historical narrative is frequently invoked during visits to gurdwaras abroad, especially in places like Canada where anti-India and pro-Khalistan sentiments find a voice. Alarmingly, some instances have seen the emergence of posters bearing violent threats against Indian diplomats, a discourse that starkly contrasts with the peaceful tenets of Sikhism as propagated by Guru Nanak Dev ji and subsequent Sikh Gurus. This dichotomy between historical nostalgia and contemporary reality underscores the complex interplay of identity politics and the Khalistan discourse among the Sikh diaspora.

While the conversation around Khalistan might seem to be about carving out a sovereign state, its fervour among the Sikh diaspora reflects a deeper quest for identity preservation and recognition. The political landscape, with figures like Singh at the helm, often amplifies these sentiments, presenting a simplified narrative that resonates with individuals grappling with dual identities.

The Khalistan issue is thus not a geographical or political debate, but an issue of the Sikh diasporic identity crisis. Politicians might ride the wave of identity politics to electoral success, but the question remains whether this serves the long-term interests of the Sikh diaspora or merely perpetuates a cycle of identity-based polarization.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Khalsa Vox or its members.

Parminder Singh Sodhi

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