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Is the Khalistani Threat and Support for Sikh Separatist Movement Abroad Overstated?

British Sikhs protest against India's new farming legislation in Trafalgar Square in London, Britain, December 6, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville

British Sikhs protest against India's new farming legislation in Trafalgar Square in London, Britain, December 6, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Clearly some Khalistan groups had a hand in mobilising support among their own for the farmers rally. But purely numerically, that was still only a relative handful in a rally attended by several thousands. The Khalistan slogans and flags at the farmers support rally sought to ‘own’ a rally far bigger than they managed on a purely Khalistan call.

The posters were circulated all over the place on social media: ‘Shut down Indian embassies’ on December 10 in the name of Khalistan. Indian officials prepared themselves accordingly, and the police stepped in with barricades outside the Indian high commission in London.

Three journalists turned up to cover the protest. That was three more than the number of Khalistanis.

They had evidently called off their protest in London. Some did turn up outside the Indian consulate in Birmingham, mostly in cars that did the round of the streets around the consulate. But this was a long way from shutting down anything. Could we be overstating the Khalistan threat? The extent of support for it abroad, that is?

There was more Khalistan noise at the rally called in support of the farmers’ agitation on Sunday December 6. Some Khalistan flags were raised, and groups chanted slogans in support of Khalistan at the rally in front of the Indian high commission and another at Trafalgar Square nearby, and en route between the two. They made themselves audible, and certainly visible. The appearance of someone like Paramjit Singh Pamma was certain to superimpose a Khalistani picture on the turnout.

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Clearly some Khalistan groups had a hand in mobilising support among their own for the farmers rally. But purely numerically, that was still only a relative handful in a rally attended by several thousands. The Khalistan slogans and flags at the farmers support rally sought to ‘own’ a rally far bigger than they managed on a purely Khalistan call.

After that attention-grabbing participation, they may have run out of steam and stamina for yet another rally so soon after. Or, they decided to focus on Birmingham on December 10 to the extent they could, which turned out to be not a lot.

Not all Khalistani groups are on the same page, and therefore, the same platform. It’s rather plain that different factions within a broadly Khalistani leaning have been pulling different ways. Leaders have been jostling to become ‘the’ leader. They came together through the kisan rally as different – and differing – groups riding along rather than a cohesive group with a capacity to mobilise and organise on scale.

The one Khalistani rally that did draw a sizeable crowd was the Trafalgar Square rally in August 2018 called by the group Sikhs for Justice led by Gurpatwant Singh Pannu. That appeared a triumph more of financial than ideological mobilisation. A very large number of those who attended appeared to have been flown in from around Europe or bussed in from towns across the UK; many that we spoke to said as much.

No doubt Khalistanis are planning more. But for now it would seem they have a more forceful presence in media than among their own.

Boris Johnson again

Just what was Boris Johnson thinking when he answered that question in Parliament as he did?

The question that Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi raised in Parliament in the context of the farmers’ agitation in India was: “So, will the prime minister convey to the Indian prime minister our heartfelt anxieties, our hopes for a speedy resolution to the current deadlock, and does he agree that everyone has a fundamental right to peaceful protest?”

Boris Johnson’s reply: “Our view is that of course we have serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan but these are pre-eminently matters for those two governments to settle.”

No word since from Boris Johnson’s office why he heard one question – if he did - and answered another. He clearly appeared not to have been listening. Who can guess what was on his mind. We may never know and it doesn’t matter. The noblest possible excuse could be that he was preoccupied with negotiations with the EU that seemed to be going nowhere, that threaten Britain with a New Year’s Day crisis that could last well into the New Year, and longer. But it came as another signpost toward a gathering reputation that Boris Johnson is, well, not quite there.

Dhesi tweeted later that “it might help if our PM actually knew what he was talking about.”

Boris Johnson appears to have got away with this gaffe because in current British politics, the issue raised is so peripheral as to be inconsequential. Britain needs Boris Johnson to get it right with Brexit, that brought him into his position as Prime Minister, and that appears to be driving Britain into a mess.

So it doesn’t matter much that he got it wrong with farmers and India and Pakistan. He now needs to get it right for Britain, and it’s not looking like he will.

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