Will it be 1984 like situation again? Are we going to see one of the biggest riots in India? India had already witnessed the gruesome riot of 1984, “The anti-Sikh riot”, followed by Indira Gandhi’s assassination. It was back then when Khalistan movement gained the limelight.
But there has been a situation lately due to which the issue is once again popping up. We are talking about Amritpal Singh, who claims to be a follower of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Discussing this, how can we skip Punjab? Afterall, all of it happened there? There are two contentions regarding the rise of Khalistan. What are they? Is Khalistan anti-national? What do they want? Let’s discuss all of these in this article.
History of Khalistan movement
India has a Sikh population of around 20 million which makes it the country having the largest concentration of Sikhs worldwide. Out of these 20 million, 16 million Sikhs are from the state of Punjab. Punjab region is a prosperous state whose economy is primarily based on its agriculture representing the “granary” of India. The state had not only witnessed the earliest cradle of civilisations. But also had a long history of violence and persecution, such as anti- sikh riots, the Jallianwala bagh massacre or partition etc. The state has shrunk in size since India lost almost 66% of the state to Pakistan at partition. Agitated mainly by partitions and division of this state into Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh further, the Khalistan issue came into the limelight.
Starting in the early 1980s, the Khalistan issue came to the limelight, which refers to the Sikh separatist movement wanting a separate nation in the Punjab region. These Sikh separatists led a campaign to extract an independent, theocratic Sikh state called Khalistan (Land of the Pure) in Punjab and various other parts of Punjab.
What is the Khalistan movement?
A Sikh separatist movement aimed at creating a homeland for Sikhs by establishing a sovereign state, known as the Khalistan (‘Land of the Khalsa’), in Punjab. The Punjab province, divided between India and Pakistan, saw large-scale communal violence and generated millions of refugees who fled from their countries to avoid persecution. After partition, various historic Sikh Empire capital like Lahore, and sacred Sikh sites like Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, went to Pakistan.
Who was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale?
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was an Indian militant who was the leading figure of the Khalistan movement; although he did not personally advocate for a separate Sikh nation, his role in the same is mostly talked about. This militant Sikh leader was killed due to 14 bullet wounds during the army assault upon Golden Temple. Now, let’s discuss the two contentions on the rise of the Khalistan movement.
1. India’s Partition & Trifurcation of Punjab
British Colonial period- The core of Khalistan dates back to the British colonial policies of the late 1800s, which was aimed at separating Sikhs & Hindus. More Sikhs were recruited into the British army against Hindu rulers who rebelled against the British Raj.
Alleged failure of 1857- It is also alleged that the Sikhs are generally blamed for collaborating with the British in the revolt of 1857. Some considered them traitors, which led to the failure of this war of 1857, thus, beginning the rule of the British Crown.
Post-independence phase- Later, in 1947, in the post-Indian independence phase, tensions between the state of Punjab and the Indian government popped up, leading to grievances of many Sikhs against the Indian government.
Trifurcation of Punjab- Such problems resulted in the shrinking of the size of this region, like it was trifurcated into the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh in 1966 (the passing of Punjab Reorganization Act, 1966), along linguistic lines (Punjab as a Punjabi-speaking state, and Haryana and Himachal Pradesh as Hindi speaking states).
Resentment amongst Sikhs- This trifurcation led to resentment amongst many Sikhs as Punjab had already lost its territory to Pakistan after partition, and now it was again sub-divided.
Religious majority in Punjab- However, we can say that this sub-division allowed the Sikhs to enjoy a religious majority in the state as the Hindu populations shifted to Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
Joint capital sharing- There was also resentment with regard to the sharing of the joint capital of Chandigarh with Haryana, and the water sharing agreements with Haryana, which were considered favourable for farmers there and not in Punjab.
These issues combined urged many radical Sikh leaders to believe their interests would be safe only if they had an independent Sikh country, “Khalistan”. Hence, violent clashes between radicalized Sikh groups led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale & the Nirankari sect (Followers of the formless one; God) in April 1978 are considered the beginning of the Khalistan movement. This movement gained limelight in the 1980s when Bhindranwale and his supporters started targeting Hindus and assassinated Lala Jagat Narain, the publisher of Punjab Kesri, a vernacular newspaper, & a vocal critic of Bhindranwale.
2. Punjabi Suba Movement & Anandpur Sahib Resolution
Beginning of Punjabi Suba movement- A small minority of Sikhs (2% of the population) in the country were left. The political struggle for greater autonomy started with the Punjabi Suba Movement for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state. The Punjabi Suba movement was a political agitation launched by Punjabi- speaking people demanding the creation of an autonomous Punjabi Suba, or Punjabi-speaking state.
Rejection for Punjabi Suba- The States Reorganisation Commission report (1955) rejected this demand for Punjabi Suba, meaning no autonomy would be given to the state, but Punjab was reorganised (trifurcated into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh) in 1966.
The Anandpur Sahib Resolution- The Punjabi Suba movement had encouraged the Akali Dal, which concluded the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (1973) demanding autonomy (but not secession from India) for Punjab. This demand went viral in 1971 when an advertisement in The New York Times proclaimed the birth of Khalistan
Bhindranwale & civil disobedience movement- By the 1980s, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s appeal generated trouble for the government. Then in 1982, with support from the Akali Dal’s leadership, he launched a civil disobedience movement called the Dharam Yudh Morcha and gained residence inside the Golden Temple, leading the demonstrations and clashes with the police.
Who is Amritpal Singh?
Amritpal Singh is a truck driver who ran a car rental business in Dubai, but he suddenly rose after the most controversial farmers’ protests in 2020 against new agricultural laws proposed by Narendra Modi (these farm laws were, however, repealed in November 2021).
During the farmer protests, Amritpal Singh joined Waris Punjab De, an organization founded by actor and activist Deep Sidhu, to mobilize farmers. After Sidhu was killed in a car crash, Singh took over the organization in 2022 & continued to campaign for Sikh rights but against Hindu nationalism sentiments. Apart from this he also helped the state in dealing with other social issues as well like rampant drug addiction in Punjab.
Rise of Bhindranwale 2.0
Singh also claims that he is a follower of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh separatist figure who led the Khalistan movement and was killed by the Indian army in 1984 on the orders of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Consequently, Indira Gandhi was also assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Why in news?
Due to the police crackdown on radical preacher Amritpal Singh and his associates in Punjab, a group of pro-Khalistan protesters attacked & damaged the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, US. The protesters broke open the makeshift security barriers raised by the city police and installed two Khalistani flags inside the Consulate premises (these were removed later). Due to the growing Khalistan issue, the state of Punjab had to impose internet shutdowns for security purposes.