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Melbourne Khalistan referendum: Did Australia fail India?

Khalistan referendum: When clashes broke out between Sikh and Hindu communities at Melbourne's Federation Square

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Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s comments at a press conference in Canberra late last year about the resurgence of the Khalistan issue in the Sikh diaspora, were blunt.

“As to the Khalistan issue (that you have raised), you know from time to time, we have engaged the Canadian government,” he said in relation to a question from this writer. “I have myself engaged my counterpart on this issue and we have flagged the need to ensure that freedoms in a democratic society are not misused by forces which advocate violence and bigotry. So, it’s important for countries to understand today how democracies should function not only at home but also the responsibilities that democracies have to other democracies abroad.”

The above statement was made at a joint press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who visibly was caught unawares when the question about the Khalistan referendum being held in Canada was asked.

After EAM Jaishankar’s sharp reply, she rushed to add, “Just from Australia’s perspective – relevant to the question you asked  – the Indian diaspora is a valued and important contributor to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society.”

Penny Wong S Jaishankar
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong with India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, October 10, 2022. (Image: AAP)

The Australian government would have been aware of the socially and political explosive situation brewing in Melbourne during January.  The Australian national newspaper reported in December 2022 that senior Indian government officials have raised the alarm over the growth of Sikh separatism in Australia and its links to terrorist groups in India, warning the Albanese government ministers of the movement’s propensity for violence. The report in the paper also attributed a source in the Indian government having concerns that the local Khalistani movement leaders were recruiting impressionable Indian Sikhs in Australia “who didn’t know what they were getting into.”

In January came reports of three acts of targeted vandalism against Hindu temples in Victoria, with slogans of Hindustan Murdabad, Khalistan Zindabad (Death to India, Long live Khalistan) splashed around. While the police registered complaints, there were press releases and tweets condemning these acts by both Federal and Victorian politicians. Yet, there were no visits to the local Sikh gurudwaras or temples to pacify the community, unlike the regular visits before the Federal elections in May 2022 and Victorian elections in November 2022.

Organised by the US-based organisation Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), the Melbourne Khalistan referendum asked Sikhs to vote on the question, “Should Indian-governed Punjab be an independent country?” While acknowledging the importance of freedom of speech, perhaps more steps could have been taken to stop the ugly scenes of 29 Jan at Federation Square, when clashes broke out between Hindu and Sikh communities.

Indian High Commissioner Manpreet Vohra called it out and said that the potential for violence was always clear.

“We are … quite disappointed that action could not be taken in time to stop this violence,” Mr Vohra said. “The potential for this was something that we had repeatedly raised with the Australian authorities.”

Calls for more violence have now seeped into community social media. Inflammatory comments in response continue to grow. (These will not be reflected in this article).

The Indian government, in a Union Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi in 2019, had banned the pro-Khalistani group Sikhs for Justice for its purported anti-national activities.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs had said then, “In the garb of the so-called referendum for Sikhs, SFJ is actually espousing secessionism and militant ideology in Punjab.”

India has been calling on other countries to ban SFJ.

In light of the ugly incidents following the Melbourne Khalistan referendum, it is time for Australia to showcase “the responsibilities that democracies have to other democracies abroad.”

READ ALSO: Temple vandalism shocks community

Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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