Why Britain often joins hands with anti-India Khalistani radicalism thriving on its soil
In the UK and Canada, diasporic Sikh groups are mostly controlled by Khalistani sympathisers who operate in tandem with Islamist groups of Pakistani origin
The shocking recent lynchings in the Golden Temple of a likely demented miscreant and someone else at another gurdwara, possibly looking for food, have highlighted hard truths too painful for many Indians to confront. The reaction of elements within the Sikh diaspora to the distressing events has also exposed the reflexive hostility of many among them towards what they deem their enemy, which is being increasingly identified as Hindu India.
The first British woman Sikh parliamentarian, Preet Gill, instantly denounced the shocking invasion of the Harminder Sahib as an act of “Hindu terror”, which she exultantly claimed had been “prevented”. The Twitter posting by her implicitly amounted to justifying the killing of the miscreant by a mob after his apprehension as unavoidable, though she subsequently suggested due process ought to have occurred after fierce denunciations of her views. She subsequently deleted the offending tweet altogether, but did not apologise or distance herself from corrosive sentiments expressed by another offensive social media post alongside her tweet.
Sikh politics everywhere outside India is toxic beyond belief and the animosity is directed towards a supposed Hindu enemy because Sonia Gandhi’s Congress party, earlier led by her late husband, easily gets elected to govern Punjab despite being perpetrators of the horrors of the 1984 pogrom against their community. In demonstration posters abroad it is Hindus and even Narendra Modi who get demonised for alleged crimes against the Sikh community in India, repeatedly described as genocide, despite Modi’s known and long-held personal reverence for Sikhism.
In private conversations with Sikh leaders, the plea that most Hindus consider Sikhism as integral to their own very identity, just as they revere Jainism and Buddhism as essential dimensions of their eclectic Indic civilisation, cuts no ice and is indeed greeted with disdain. Even the apolitical Sikh will quickly allege long historic oppression of Sikhs by Brahmins. The nineteenth century British colonial narrative to turn the Sikh community into mercenaries in defence of Britain’s empire has become deeply and immovably ingrained.
Most British gurdwaras have long refused admission to any official or politician from India, though a solitary exception was made for Subramaniam Swamy, the BJP Rajya Sabha MP, some years ago. The major gurdwara at Southall adorns a life-size portrait of the terrorist Bhindranwale on one of its entrance columns, the other one of the revered Guru Teg Bahadur, insulting his cherished memory and instilling fear in any Hindu passer-by who might fearfully recall Bhindranwale’s penchant for sectarian murder of the innocent. Some British gurdwaras are also known to have invited clerics from Pakistan to sermonise devotees.
The upshot is that the sense of ease with which Hindus once entered gurdwaras to offer worship and partake from the langar has ceased. Indeed, one Sikh gentleman warned me not to attend an event organised in a gurdwara by the British Indian Jewish Association, of which we were both members, owing to ‘sensitivities’! Another episode that highlights the crass ignorance of Khalistani militants is illustrated by the demand made by one that the frequent use of the term Dharma by Sikhs ought to end. And the trenchant paradox remains that Khalistani militants abroad who wish to precipitate bloodshed in India to establish a sectarian state would themselves never settle in it. They would never abandon their comfortable lives in the UK and Canada, for which they mortgaged their family to realise their migrant dream.
In the UK and Canada and elsewhere, diasporic Sikh groups are mostly controlled openly by Khalistani sympathisers who operate in tandem with Islamist groups of Pakistani origin under the solicitous eye of the local Pakistani diplomatic mission. Funding is readily available for inciting anti-Indian activity, including Khalistani participation in two successive attacks on the Indian High Commission in London, a third only diverted owing to stern injunctions from New Delhi to the authorities in London.
The failure of the British police to prevent the first two unprecedented attacks on a diplomatic mission by a mob is concerning and instructive. While it is true that banning a demonstration altogether in the UK is fraught with legal difficulty because the decision would be subject to judicial review, diverting it is an administrative prerogative of the Home Secretary. The incumbent at the time, Preeti Patel, only exercised that option after India conveyed firm disapprobation on learning a third demonstration was organised and would end before its London diplomatic mission yet again. Any shortfall to fund Khalistani militancy abroad and in India is now being met by India’s other hostile neighbour which judges chaos in Punjab worth many divisions of soldiers in the event that it decides to attempt seizure of more Indian territory.
The British insouciance towards Khalistani militancy stems significantly from vote-bank politics. Unlike Indian origin British Hindus, who vote in modest numbers, the diasporic Sikh community, like Muslims, are mobilised electorally in significant numbers and increasingly able to affect the ability of the two major political parties to form a majority national government. The combined votes of diasporic Sikhs and Muslims are of the greatest necessity for the British Labour Party to win political power nationally at Westminster.
This alliance between the Labour Party and the two minority groups of voters, unfailing hostile to India, helps to control innumerable local authority governments across the country that are highly sensitive to Muslim and Sikh demands. The two smaller political parties, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, are similarly beholden to these minority votes in scores of marginal parliamentary constituencies. Both openly support the idea of a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir and the Labour Party has studiously avoided repudiating it, effectively acquiescing to demands that ultimately originate from the Pakistani diplomatic establishment in London.
The undercurrents of sympathy for Khalistani aspirations are coursing through the bloodstream of British politics, only obscured from Indian policymakers by cynical public relations and subterfuge. In April 2016, the Conservative Government of Prime Minister David Cameron succumbed to political pressure and removed the ban against the International Sikh Youth Federation, which had been proscribed earlier. The contrast between Khalistani and Islamist groups and the only truly politically active group of Hindus in the UK, largely of East African origin, is revealing, because most East African Asians are instinctively loyal to the British Crown and official British political perspectives. In addition, their direct personal economic interests are tied to the Labour Party because their livelihoods depend directly and indirectly on a well-funded public sector, which the Labour Party supports.
This is also the underlying public sector dependence, leftist socialisation part, which impels virtually all Indian-origin social scientists in the UK to challenge every policy act originating in New Delhi. They are often unspoken or even vocal supporters of cession of J&K to Pakistan, immediate dismantling of the AFSPA and advocates of earnest engagement with proponents of Khalistan as prelude to creating an autonomous homeland for Sikhs.
This pregnant reality is also the reason why virtually all Indian-origin members of the British parliament as well as nominated members of the House of Lords, Hindus as well as Sikhs, support policies openly hostile to Indian interests. Not a single Indian-origin parliamentarian spoke up in favour of India’s humanitarian CAA and they all denounced India’s new farm laws in unison, as pro-Khalistani demonstrators marched through their constituency streets, sending them a pointed message about the sentiments of voters who sent them to parliament or brought them into the limelight.
The most prominent Sikh organisation in Britain, the Sikh Federation, is currently in the British courts to force the official census to allow Sikhs not to identify as Indian by default, which is a subtle step away from self-ascription as Khalistani. The fact that few turned up to vote in favour of the recent referendum in the UK to affirm support for Khalistan is not an indication of its conscious repudiation, but recognition by the ordinary Sikh of its complete practical irrelevance to the situation in Punjab. More notable is the open or covert support of most Sikh British social science academics for the idea of Khalistan and many prominent Sikhs are regular visitors to Pakistan and don’t even bother to conceal their visit.
The most tragicomic aspect of the situation is the finesse with which the British political establishment has cajoled Indian policymakers into misreading the seriousness of the challenge to India that originates in the UK. The UK authorities have quietly mobilised influential and ambitious Indian-origin British political entrepreneurs to badger senior Indian politicians and advocate ever closer ties with Britain. Of course, these Indian-origin businessmen are usually personal beneficiaries of commercial relations between the two countries and also eager for recognition in Britain with national awards like OBEs and hope for appointment to the House of Lords as peers.
This stratagem has only grown in significance in recent years and involves very wealthy Indian entrepreneurs from the UK and others with close fortuitous personal ties to India’s political establishment. It is being insufficiently understood that Khalistani militancy in India is also powerful leverage against its policymakers that foreign policy establishments abroad find irresistible. There is no sentimentality involved, only hard calculation of unashamed national self-interest and even the known sharing of intelligence with India by Britain is unavoidable because the failure to do so would leave nothing to the imagination and create an open breach with India. But British mastery at playing such duplicitous games far exceeds Indian capacity to grasp them, a reality that has a very long history.
Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for more than two decades. Views expressed are personal.
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