Khalistan: 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 India’s Sikh 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 cause 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 country carved out of a continent of several diverse states, and is no stranger to separatism. Aside from the Pakistan/Indian split, nationalist unrest has led to conflict 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.

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 theocracies. Sikhism had originated in what are the now India-Pakistan borderlands, with Guru Nanak himself having been born in Nankana Sahin, within modern-day Pakistani Punjab. A Sikh dyntasy led by Ranjit Singh had ruled the area prior to the arrival of the British. 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 Indian National Congress Congress, Sikh separatism dwindled in light of promises of extensive autonomy within an independent India. The heavy influence of Islam in Jinnah’s Pakistan prompted  violence towards Pakistani Sikhs and mass emigration to India in hope of religious freedom.

The reality of existence as a religious minority within a state in which Hinduism was so central soon became apparent. A minority even within Punjab, tensions and civil unrest boiled over in the 1950s following the declaration of Hindi as India’s main language. 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. Religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale led the occupation 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 were killed along with hundreds more as part of a wider operation aimed at crushing Sikh nationalism.

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. Babbar Khalsa are also understood to have been behind another bombing at Narita Airport, Japan, on the same night. These incidents brought Sikh nationalism into the western media spotlight, where it quickly 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 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. However the need for Trudeau to express his commitment to a united India, in order 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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