Quit India: Sikh Separatism in Punjab

In February 2018 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India made headlines following an apparent snub from the Indian Government. The cold-shoulder shown by Modi and his ministers is understood to have stemmed from a long-standing belief that the Canadian Government sympathises with the Punjabi separatist movement. The ‘Khalistan’ movement, which sees significant support within the international and Canadian Sikh diaspora, is a simmering issue in India. While the widespread unrest of the 1980s has waned in recent years, its discussion within the international media may precipitate a reawakening. But what exactly is the Khalistan movement, how significant a part has it played in post-independence India, and what future do the separatists have?

Quick Facts Khalistan

India is a continent country made up of several diverse states, and is no stranger to separatism. Aside from the Pakistan/Indian split following the collapse of the British Raj, India has struggled to quell nationalist unrest in Kashmir, as well as independence movements in the remote regions of Assam and Tripura.  All of these have played a significant role in post-independence Indian politics, as has the Khalistan movement of Punjab, which seeks to form an independent Sikh nation within the north-western Indian state.

The Khalistan movement traces its origins to the Sikh dynasty of Ranjit Singh, which ruled over most of modern Punjab prior to British annexation in 1848. As British influence waned throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s calls for an independent Muslim state were closely mirrored within the Sikh community of Punjab, who feared isolation within two theocratic states. Sikhism is embedded in what are the now India-Pakistan borderlands, with Guru Nanak himself having been born in Nankana Sahin, within modern-day Pakistani Punjab. As such, Sikh nationalists envisioned a state encompassing much of what would become Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab, Lahore (once home to a thriving Sikh community), and Simla. Following negotiations with the Congress, the Khalistan movement dwindled in light of promises of extensive autonomy within an independent India. The fundamentalism of Islam to post-independence Pakistan prompted mass emigration and violence within Sikh communities, who fled centuries-old ancestral lands for hope of religious freedom in India.

The reality of existence as a religious minority within a state in which Hinduism was so central soon faced India’s Sikh population. Politically isolated due to formalities which rendered them a minority even within the state of Punjab, civil unrest boiled over in the 1950s following the declaration of Hindi as the main language of India. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested following peaceful protests. A lack of investment due to Punjab’s proximity to an aggressive Pakistan exacerbated Sikh opposition to Delhi’s rule. By 1983 militancy had spread throughout Sikh Punjab, and religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale occupied the Harmandir Sahib holy shrine in Amritsar, turning it into the headquarters of Sikh resistance. Thus followed Operation Blue Star, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, during which the holy shrine was besieged by an Indian force, the Sikh leaders killed along with hundreds more as part of a wider operation against Sikh nationalism in general. In retaliation, two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi assassinated the Prime minister in October 1984. This prompted anti-Sikh riots across much of India, with 3,000 killed in Delhi alone. The violence culminated in June 1985, when Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa detonated a bomb aboard an Air India plane flying over the coast of Ireland. A bomb also detonated in Narita Airport, Japan, on the same night, believed to also have been planted by Babbar Khalsa. The incidents brought Sikh nationalism into the western media spotlight, where it became associated with terrorism. This hindered the movement, precipitating the reduction in activity that has existed for the following three decades.

Following the election of Modi, there was hope for greater Sikh reconciliation with the government in Delhi. A number of high-profile Sikh friends meant that the Prime Minister was initially seen in a positive light by many of those in Punjab. During a 2015 visit to the state Modi visited paid respects to those Sikhs murdered by the British at Amritsar and Husainiwala. He also visited Harmandir Sahib, holy Sikh shrine and scene of the much-maligned Operation Blue Star. Initially seen as reconciliatory initiatives, many are now growing restless with regards to Delhi’s refusal to acknowledge or apologise for what occurred in Punjab during the 1980s. Indira Gandhi’s policies are regarded as anti-Sikh aggression, while the riots following her assassination are viewed by some as a genocide facilitated and unpunished by the Indian government. Mr Trudeau’s visit was overshadowed by Indian grievances surrounding Canada’s perceived role in the Sikh insurgency, but the need for him to express his commitment to a united India to endear an accommodation from Modi may set alarm bells ringing in Punjab. For while many Indian Sikhs are committed to Indian unity, the widespread violence towards their communities within post-independence India remain a sore note. Modi’s failure to acknowledge this, even when the issue is brought once again to prominence in international media, can only serve to give weight to the Khalistan movement.




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