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Kashmir turmoil

Pakistan backs India's Sikh separatists as Kashmir tensions rise

New Delhi's worried over Islamabad's renewed push for an independent 'Khalistan'

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor project held in November 2018.   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD -- As India looks to resolve the issue of Kashmir's status, it finds itself facing another problem as Pakistan-backed separatists renew calls for creation of an independent Sikh state.

A number of India's Sikhs -- a minority religious group concentrated in the northern state of Punjab -- have for years been advocating for creation of the independent state of Khalistan on the border with Pakistan

At their peak, Sikh extremists in the pro-Khalistan movement were responsible for the assassination of India's then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the downing of an Air India flight off the coast of Ireland the following year that claimed the lives of 329 passengers and crew.

Now, as relations between Islamabad and New Delhi near breaking point, Pakistan seems intent on reviving the Sikh separatist movement.

On August 31, an international conference will be held in the eastern Pakistan city of Lahore featuring prominent Sikh leaders, businesspersons and activists from around the world. Ostensibly billed as a religious event, many view the timing of the one-off conference -- and the choice of Pakistan-based, pro-Khalistan leader Gopal Singh Chawla to lead the proceedings -- as a not-so-subtle reminder that the Khalistan movement remains very much alive.

A former Pakistan army general, Mirza Aslam Beg, has also been openly pushing the government to assist the movement. He recently told Indian media, "The Pakistan army and government should use the Khalistan movement to foment trouble for India."

India revoked autonomy for the state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 in a move to clamp down on alleged separatists in the region. Pakistan also claims sovereignty over the state, and questioned the legality of New Delhi's decision.

But Islamabad never received the international support it expected, so is seen to be shifting tactics by backing the Khalistan movement.

Despite worsening relations, both countries are still cooperating on the creation of the Kartarpur Corridor, which allows India's Sikh pilgrims visa-free travel to the Sikh shrine of Gurdwara in Pakistan. The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to complete the corridor by this November, however the project became embroiled in controversy after Islamabad allowed Chawla a seat in the organizing committee.

The decision drew criticism from India's ministry of external affairs in March, saying that Pakistan appointed "controversial elements" to the committee. Though Pakistan responded in July by removing Chawla, India still has concerns; namely that Indian Sikhs visiting Gurdwara are being exposed to anti-India propaganda.

Anil Gour, formerly a captain in the Indian military and now a Jammu-based defense analyst, told the Nikkei Asian Review that India now faces the same crisis as the one at the height of the Khalistan movement in the 1980s, when hundreds of innocents were killed in the state of Punjab. He said that Pakistan now fully supports the separatist movement after failing to achieve its objectives in Kashmir, with the likely result being heightened extremism in Punjab.

Jitender Singh, a Canada-based businessman and Sikh activist, told Nikkei that India's decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir's autonomy is a blessing for Sikh separatists. "It has given new life to our demand for a separate homeland for Sikhs," he said, adding that "Kashmiris and Sikhs will get rid of Indian rule soon."

He emphasized that Sikhs for Justice -- a US-based organization -- has finalized arrangements for a referendum in 2020 calling for an independent Khalistan.

According to 2011 figures, India's 21 million Sikhs comprise about 2% of the country's population. But in Punjab, Sikhs are the majority. Globally, there are estimated to be about 25.8 million Sikhs, with many in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., the latter country which saw both pro- and anti-Khalistan rallies during India's Independence Day on Aug. 15.

Meanwhile, pro-Khalistan tweets continue from accounts that appear to be of Pakistani origin. Many express solidarity with Kashmir, which is currently under Indian control, and call for separate Kashmir and Khalistan entities.

Contributing writer Arjun Sharma in Jammu, India contributed to this story.

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