A prominent pro-separatist Sikh organization says it plans to hold polls in several Canadian cities as part of a worldwide referendum for an independent Sikh nation called Khalistan in India‘s Punjab state.
Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) says it is targeting Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver to join some 100 cities worldwide where Sikhs will be polled in a non-binding referendum as part of a campaign dubbed “Referendum 2020.”
The group, which has branches in New York, Toronto and London, says it’s seeking to use the planned November 2020 referendum to assess the appetite for an independent Khalistan, before presenting its case for a binding referendum to the United Nations.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office said the Liberal government would not recognize any such referendum.
In a statement, Freeland’s office sought to strike a balance between supporting Canadians’ right to expression and respecting the sovereignty of a country with whom relations were strained following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s troubled state visit there in February.
“Canada’s position on a united India has not changed and our government would not recognize such a referendum,” a spokesperson for Freeland told Global News. “Canadians have the right to freedom of expression and speech. Canadians have the right to peacefully express their views.”
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Global News has also reached out to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to request comment on how they would handle the matter if they find themselves in the prime minister’s seat come 2020.
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The issue of Sikh separatism was a major flashpoint of Prime Minister Trudeau’s trip to India, which was marred by Indian allegations of Liberal leniency towards Sikh separatist elements in Canada.
In April, two months after Trudeau’s trip, an Indian diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council that Canada needed to prevent people from misusing their right to freedom of expression to “incite violence and glorify terrorists as martyrs.”
The statement was made shortly after Indian counter-terrorism officials filed a First Information Report against a Surrey, B.C. man who they accused of plotting to carry out a terrorist attack in Punjab.
Their mention of terrorists being glorified as martyrs could be seen as a reference to posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar — believed to be responsible for the 1985 Air India bombing — being displayed at a Sikh temple in Surrey.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, SFJ’s legal adviser, said his group is indifferent to how the Canadian and Indian governments view the referendum.
“We’re not asking any political party or any Member of Parliament for their support,” Pannun told Global News. “This referendum is not for the political leaders, this is for the Punjabi community.
The Indian government has been steadfast in its opposition to the creation of an independent Khalistan, and has been particularly vociferous in trying to curtail SFJ’s activities.
In early August, the country’s minister of external affairs asked U.K. authorities to deny SFJ permission to hold a gathering in London’s Trafalgar Square. The U.K. rebuffed the request, however, and SFJ held an Aug. 12 gathering in which it issued its so-called “London Declaration” demanding a Khalistan referendum.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs described the campaign as “a separatist activity which impinges on India’s territorial integrity” and “seeks to propagate violence, secessionism and hatred.”
India’s home minister, whose ministry oversees domestic security, said last month that the Khalistan campaign is being abetted by Pakistani intelligence, according to the Times of India.
The Times of India reported that Indian intelligence officials had identified the Pakistani military officer who they believed to be one of the masterminds of the Referendum 2020 campaign.
The news outlet also reported that it traced documents published on the SFJ website back to a Pakistani website, and that the two sites were hosted by the same virtual server.
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SFJ denies any links with Pakistani intelligence or involvement in violence.
“We are for ballot, not for bullet,” said Pannun. “We condemn all violence whether it’s by a state or any particular group.”
Despite the denials, Indian authorities blocked access to SFJ’s YouTube channel and Facebook page earlier this year. Separately, Pannun’s Twitter account was taken down worldwide by the micro-blogging site, prompting him to set up a fresh account in early September.
Pannun urged Canadian political leaders to resist caving into any pressure from the Indian government to stifle the Khalistan movement.
“The United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives all people the right to self-determination. The Canadians have given that right openly to the Quebecois, the British have given it to the Scottish,” he said.
Pannun said the Khalistan campaign is justified because it seeks simply to re-establish a state that existed from 1799 to 1849, when it was annexed by the British.
“The political leaders in Canada should side with the law, they should side with UN conventions which give all people the right to self-determination,” he said.
“Us Sikhs qualify. We were a country before we were annexed by the British in 1849, and we just want to re-establish — per UN norms — our own independent country.”