Contesting Khalistan: the Sikh diaspora and the politics of separatism

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Gunawardena, Therese Suhashini

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This dissertation examines the Sikh diaspora's role in the effort to carve a separate Sikh state--Khalistan--out of territory that presently constitutes the Indian Punjab. While many scholars note the involvement of overseas Sikhs in the Khalistan movement, the campaign for Sikh sovereignty has not been universally endorsed and a broad continuum of opinion exists within the diaspora regarding self-determination. Moreover, there have been various disputes regarding ideology and strategy even between pro-Khalistan factions that share the common goal of secession. Internecine conflict within the pro-Khalistan bloc has thus served to undermine its legitimacy within the larger diasporan Sikh community and in the international political arena.

This raises the following inter-related questions that form the focus of this study: Why is the Khalistan coalition so weak, given its constituent members' consensus on the ultimate goal of secession? Why do pro-Khalistan groups that possess a common adversary (the Indian state) choose competition over cooperation given that the latter would be more expedient in realizing their political objectives?

In addressing this, I draw upon the literature on exile politics and formulate a social movement type that I classify as a Separatist Diasporan Movement (SDM). I define an SDM as a coalition of political organizations comprising coethnics of migrant origin that: (1) sustains a strong attachment to their homeland, (2) maintains numerous networks among coethnics in other countries, and (3) seeks to create a separate homeland out of territory that forms part of an existing state because of real or imagined feelings of persecution. I further argue that because they lack institutionalized legitimacy and the instruments of state power, SDMs are intrinsically unstable entities whose authority is contested and re-contested from both within and without.

In supporting my argument, I examine the rhetoric and political tactics employed by Khalistani groups in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Data was obtained through fieldwork in the three countries, a variety of primary sources, and pro-Khalistan websites. My findings indicate that the schisms that emerged within the Khalistan SDM result from this absence of a unanimously-recognized authority and the persistence of conflicting pre-coalition identities.