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Attacks by Indian separatists in the West aim to resurrect a dangerous past

People inspect damage to the entrance to the Consulate General of India as protesters stand outside barricades in San Francisco, Monday, March 20, 2023. San Francisco police had erected barriers and parked a vehicle nearby as people protested outside the Consulate General of India to protest the capture of Amritpal Singh. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In early March, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was seen in rainbow colors dancing with the Indian defense minister in the celebrations of the Indian festival of Holi in New Delhi. She was in New Delhi, talking about supply chains,  promoting women’s empowerment and signing MOUs on semiconductor cooperation. 

From defense to semiconductors and women empowerment, the U.S.-India partnership today runs the gamut. Recently, it was even reported that U.S. intelligence was crucial for India to thwart Chinese troops at its border.  

The celebrations, the agreements signed and the intel shared signaled that the relationship was strong and evolving from the dated “South Asia” silo to the Indo-Pacific realm.  

As if a state was beginning to get jealous of the bonhomie between the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia and India, a ghost of the Cold-War era was revived to play spoilsport.  

Earlier this week, members of the Khalistani militant group, a violent separatist organization banned in several countries, attacked the Indian consulates in San Francisco and the high commission in London. And not long prior, members of the same movement were protesting near the Indian consulate in Brisbane, Australia. 

The South Asia paradigm, considered done and dusted, is appearing to come back to life — reviving the prism where terrorism and drug trade took center stage and a false equivalency is drawn between democracies, communist nations and military dictatorships in the region.   

And notably, the violence is not limited to Indian consular missions. Innocent members of the Indian diaspora, mostly Hindus and their places of worship have been targeted by the militant group.  

Samir Kalra, director of the Hindu American Foundation, commented that “these latest attacks are an escalation of related incidents we have witnessed over the past year. There have been at least three incidents of vandalism carried out against Hindus by supporters of the Khalistan separatist movement. Hindu temples in New York City, in Canada, and in Australia have all been targeted.”  

Who are these militants and why are they vandalizing Indian government property and attacking innocent bystanders in the West?  

The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement for an independent Sikh state carved out of India. Throughout the 1980’s the group engaged in violence not just in India but throughout the world. The movement was linked to the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto to Mumbai that left 329 dead and the failed bombing of another Air India flight in Tokyo on the same day. As a result of clashes with the authorities and police in the northern state of Punjab and other parts of India, over the course of 15 years, more than 25,000 Sikhs died.  

Fortunately, the movement lost steam in India by the early 1990s. Since then, while there has been the occasional incident, there has not been a coordinated campaign against the Indian state as we witness with the recent incidents and over the last few years.  

Several esteemed scholars have suggested the movement was not an organic one borne out of legitimate concerns of discrimination or ostracization by the Indian state but one that is part of the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence organization’s “bleeding India by a thousand cuts” doctrine.   

The Indian-Pakistan conflict dates back to the partition of the two nations and their independence from the British. The two have been at loggerheads ever since and they’ve fought multiple wars. Pakistan, a state that is one-third of India by land area and one-sixth by population and mostly governed by military generals and corrupt leaders, had a persistent sense of insecurity vis-a-vis its neighbor with a billion-plus population and a history of stable democratic governance. This translated to it arming itself with nuclear weaponssheltering the Taliban in Afghanistan and allegedly supporting separatist elements such as the Khalistani movement. Over the years, policy papers such as the one published by the Hudson Institute have added credence to that argument.  

Whether or not a state such as Pakistan or a non-state actor was shaman-ing these ghosts from the 80s, it is high time Western nations did an exorcism ridding of these devils of the past. If not, the “Hawaii to the Himalayas” partnership will be distracted and hijacked by these nefarious actors.    

Moreover, just Monday, we looked back on the Iraq war that started over 20 years ago. Its lasting impact on American civil society and the lives and families it destroyed is often overlooked and underestimated compared to the money lost. One of the immigrant groups that were indirectly impacted by the war was the Sikh community. Several innocent Sikhs were verbally and physically abused and even killed in racist attacks.  

A revival of this separatist movement, particularly on American soil will not only act as an impediment to capitalizing the momentum in the U.S.-India relationship but will affect the lives of innocent Hindus and Sikhs through increased othering, ostracization and even abuses in the Western world.  

In order to keep the partnership on track and maintain peace and harmony in the States, the Biden administration should crack down on these separatist elements swiftly and without much noise.  

Akhil Ramesh is a fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has worked with governments, risk consulting firms and think tanks in the United States and India. Follow him on Twitter: Akhil_oldsoul. 

Tags Gina Raimondo India–Pakistan relations Politics of the United States Sikh Americans terrorist attacks

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