British Columbia

A U.S.-based Sikh group is rallying the diaspora in B.C. to vote for an independent state in India

U.S.-based group Sikhs for Justice is mobilizing members of its diaspora to vote in what it describes as a referendum, including one scheduled in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday to create an independent Sikh homeland in northern India called Khalistan.

Here’s what you need to know about the Khalistan vote

Two people hold up devices releasing smoke amongst other people carrying yellow flags that say Khalistan
Supporters of the Khalistan movement are pictured protesting outside of the Consulate General of India Office in Vancouver, B.C, on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

U.S.-based group Sikhs for Justice is mobilizing members of its diaspora to vote in what it describes as a referendum, including one scheduled in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday to create an independent Sikh homeland in northern India called Khalistan.

The vote has been on a world tour since 2021 with more events planned to tap into separatist sentiments in the Sikh diaspora.

Organizers have conducted votes in London, Melbourne, Rome, Geneva and in Ontario, which attracted thousands of people in Brampton last year, and thousands in Mississauga this July. The group's ultimate goal is to hold a vote in Punjab in 2025.

However, the vote is not legally binding in India.

Here's what you need to know.

How will the vote work?

New York-based lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a spokesperson for Sikhs for Justice, says the group intends to bring results to the United Nations to garner support for Sikh self-determination on the basis of religion and language.

"Once the voting is complete we are going to present our case to the United Nations seeking them to push India to get an official referendum just on the lines of the way Scottish people did it in the U.K.," Pannun said.

But Sikhs for Justice is banned in India and accused of supporting violent extremism, according to January 2020 charges filed in New Delhi published online by the country's ministry of home affairs.

The group, which has actively drawn attention to human rights abuses in India since 2009, has encouraged demonstrations at Indian consulates globally over the past two years.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), which has advocated for Sikh rights since 1984, says it has no ties to the group.

WATCH | Khalistan movement 'complex,' say academics: 

What is Khalistan? A look at the movement for an independent Sikh state

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Some Sikhs have historically been seeking an independent Sikh homeland in northern India called Khalistan. Experts say the history of the movement is complex, emotional and evolving.

"They're not a group that we've worked with in the past but having been said there is nothing to suggest from what we've seen that they are a terrorist organization as the Indian government alleges," said WSO spokesperson Balpreet Singh.

The vote comes as the Indian government is in the process of strengthening laws targeting separatist activities on its soil, including the use of signs promoting the cause, electronic communication used by protest groups, and financial support.

Under a new bill, Section 150 of the Indian Penal Code, minimum jail terms for such activities have doubled from three years to seven.

Why is it important?

The vote in Surrey, which is part of Metro Vancouver, is scheduled for Sept. 10 — the second day of the G20 summit hosted in Delhi.

Sikhs for Justice says that date was deliberately selected to draw attention to the treatment of Sikhs.

Almost 25 per cent of the world's Sikhs live outside of India, including more than 750,000 in Canada.

Indira Prahst, an instructor in the sociology and anthropology department at Langara College, says the vote will not likely result in the formation of a new country, but images of Sikhs lined up to vote, waving yellow and blue Khalistan flags are an important optic.

"It's powerfully symbolic because what it's showing … it's rekindling the spirit of Khalistan that it has not been quashed," said Prahst.

Images of slain Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale have become popular on posters, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Dozens of people carrying yellow flags that say Khalistan walk down the street in Vancouver
Supporters of the Khalistan movement are pictured protesting outside of the Consulate General of India Office in Vancouver, B.C, on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The separatist movement has re-emerged ahead of India's general election between April and May 2024, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces criticism over high inflation, unemployment and a failed attempt to bring in new farm laws.

Who can vote and who will oversee the process?

One of the key questions about the vote is who will oversee it and whether that oversight is independent and accountable.

Sikhs for Justice says anyone who is Sikh, is 18 years old or above can vote, regardless of where they were born.

Spokesperson Gurpatwant Pannun says while Sikhs for Justice is facilitating the vote, a separate group — the Punjab Referendum Commission — will do the count.

A yellow and grey map
The group Sikhs for Justice has drafted its vision for an independent Sikh homeland, called Khalistan, in yellow on this map of northern India. (Sikhs for Justice)

On its website, the commission describes itself as a panel of independent democracy and political experts, with a mailing address in Arlington, Va. It says it is not responsible for selecting voting locations, determining registration requirements or voting dates.

To vote, members of the Sikh community need to bring one piece of identification to get their voter ID and a ballot, Pannun said.

Asked by CBC News whether he has any concerns about the security of voter information that is being collected, Pannun said he does not.

"There is no chance of anybody misusing this data or this data going to anybody."

What happens after?

That the vote could lead to the formation of Khalistan is quickly dismissed by Shinder Purewal, political science professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Purewal — who comments regularly on local and international political issues on Surrey radio stations, and has authored books exploring politics in Punjab, Sikh Ethnonationalism and the Political Economy of Punjab and Tandoori Democracy — says to be legitimate under international law, a referendum should be held in the state of Punjab, not abroad involving people who have left the region.

A person wearing black kneels as they burn the Indian flag
Supporters of the Khalistan movement are pictured burning the flag of India outside of the Consulate General of India Office in Vancouver, B.C, on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"You don't hold [a] referendum outside in diaspora to establish a country. In the history of mankind, it has never happened. It will never happen," Purewal said.

However, he says people have the right to express their opinions, and he sees the vote as a way to keep interest in the Khalistan movement, and donations to the cause, alive.

What else do I need to know about the movement?

Some Sikhs have historically called for the creation of Khalistan as a path to equality in the face of human rights abuses, however the movement has also been steeped in violence and controversy.

Experts say the movement's history is complex, emotional and evolving.

"Contemporary ideas of Khalistan continue to be fraught with difficulty with polarization, with people on one side or the other," said Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. 

People are pictured lined against a wall, holding a yellow flag that reads, "Long live Republic of Khalistan."
Protesters hold a flag representing Khalistan outside the Consulate General of India's office in Vancouver on June 24, following the fatal shooting of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., on June 18. (Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press)

Bains says key flashpoints in recent history include Indian military troops storming the Golden Temple, Sikhism's most revered shrine, in June 1984. Sikh activist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and some of his supporters, who were heavily armed and had taken refuge inside the temple, were killed.

Later that year, in October, following the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, riots against the minority group in Delhi and elsewhere led to attacks against Sikhs.

The massacre of thousands of Sikhs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5, 1984, was etched into the collective memory of Sikhs who have left India, and escalated calls for Khalistan around the world.

"The term 'Khalistan' is one of the ways that people can express this frustration," said Harjeet Grewal, assistant professor in religious studies at the University of Calgary.

A group of protesters are pictured with their fists raised and carrying yellow flags.
Protesters chant outside the Consulate General of India's office in Vancouver on June 24 following the shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C. (Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press)

In Canada, a group of Sikh separatists came under suspicion after the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985, which killed 329 people travelling from Montreal to Mumbai via London. Another bomb that went off at Tokyo's Narita Airport killed two baggage handlers. Only one man, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was ever convicted in the case.   

Langara College instructor Indira Prahst says the bombings shifted how Sikhs in India were perceived.

"Air India comes up in the narrative and in the context of terrorism, Khalistan associating the turban with terrorism and so what it's done is any kind of legitimate cause or atrocity gets tarnished by Air India discourse."

Decades later, wealthy businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik — a suspect in the Air India case who was acquitted on mass murder and conspiracy charges in 2005 — was shot to death in his Tesla in July 2022. Two suspects have been arrested but the motive remains unclear.

More recently, several groups have called for police to investigate the role of foreign interference in the death of Hardip Nijjar, a Sikh temple president who was gunned down in his truck on June 18.

Nijjar, who had been a vocal advocate for the vote, was killed after a religious service at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara — where Sunday's vote is set to take place. RCMP say they have not linked the shooting to foreign interference.

Satwinder Bains, director of the University of the Fraser Valley's South Asian Studies Institute, discusses the shooting death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. She explores how he may have been targeted for his support of Khalistan, a Sikh homeland.

University of Victoria professor Neilesh Bose, who teaches the history of modern India, says the Khalistan movement is considered a destabilizing threat to India, which borders Pakistan.

"India is constantly concerned with its borders and with what they perceive to be violent threats to its integrity," said Bose, adding the relationship between Sikh activists and Pakistan has long been under scrutiny.

But Khalistan is not a major issue among people living in India, where Sikhs are only 1.5 to 2 per cent of the 1.5-billion population, he says.

"I would say no, that it is not a central front-page burning issue for India either in terms of the official activities of the state, nor even in the Punjab itself."


  • A previous version of this story said the vote in Surrey will be held a day before the G20 Summit. In fact, the vote will be held on the second day of the summit, which runs from Sept. 9-10.
    Sep 08, 2023 9:53 PM PT