A pro- and an anti-Khalistan rally took place in central London on Sunday, with a considerable police presence.
In a rally at the Trafalgar Square, over 2,000 pro-Khalistan demonstrators took part in support of a non-binding referendum in 2020, dubbed the London Declaration, for an independent Sikh nation. The group was organised by the US-based group Sikhs for Justice, though the rally attracted demonstrators from across the UK.
Chanting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabad”, the demonstrators waved flags and wore T-Shirts supporting the referendum. Alongside speeches and chanting prayers took place.
Among those to speak at the rally was Lord Nazir Ahmed, a non-affiliated member of the House of Lords, who organised an anti-India rally outside the Indian High Commission on Republic Day earlier this year. “I believe in Khalistan for my Sikh brothers and sisters,” he said at the rally.
He is not the only parliamentarian to have voiced support for the referendum: others to have made their support public include Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, and Matt Western, Labour MP. “We want to take back Punjab,” said Garbaksish, a young protestor from Birmingham who joined the rally.
Around 200 people attended a counter rally that included drumming, dancing, and food, on the other side of the square to support India, waving placards such as “Sikhs for a United India” and “We stand for one united strong India.” “We want to show the unity of India, it is a country for all religions and in our diversity we are stronger,” said Bharathi, from London, who attended the rally.
“UK-India relations are strained at the moment and these omissions won’t help,” said Kuldeep Shekhawat, president of the Overseas Friends of BJP (UK), who attended the counter-rally.
He said the counter-rally wasn’t about numbers but sending the message that the diaspora stood for a united India “whatever happens.” He added that they had been raising their concerns about the rally for over a year now with UK authorities, and said he believed that there was external influence, including from Pakistan, in the organisation of the rally.
The rally comes in the wake of the controversy over the shredding of an Indian flag on Parliament Square during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit for CHOGM earlier this year, for which the police had faced criticism for not intervening early enough.
At Trafalgar Square on Sunday, there was a sizeable police presence, which kept the two rallies apart. At several points small groups of participants in the pro-Khalistan rally attempted to walk close to the barrier near the Indian group but were told to move back by the police.
The rally took place despite India’s strong and publicly stated reservations about the event, which it viewed as an impingement on “India’s territorial integrity.” The UK insisted that people had the right to gather together and demonstrate their views, provided they did so within the law.