A History of Khalistan Movement – Will India See Its Rise Again?

Until today, the Khalistan demand has not died down. Recent reports indicate a rise in pro-Khalistan sentiments among the Sikh diaspora overseas, they are determined to revive the secessionist movement, says the analyst.

Posted on 04/19/21
By Ikram Sehgal | Via Pakistan Week
(Photo by jasleen_kaur, CC license)

Sikhs are followers of a monotheistic religion – Sikhism – that originated in the 15th century in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. One could understand the need for this new religion as the need to uncover the basic truth that over the centuries had been submerged under ‘meaningless rituals’ in earlier religions had established in the subcontinent. When studying Sikh major scriptures, such as the “Adi Granth” or the “Dasam Granth” one finds references to Hindus and Muslims that convey one message: that of the unity of mankind under one God. But this fundamental truth is concealed by meaningless doctrines and rituals, which artificially divide mankind.

One of the most forceful expressions of this irenic belief is to be found in a famous passage of the Dasam Granth: “Some are called Hindus, others are Muslims, members of sects such as Shia or Sunni. Let it be known that mankind is one, that all men belong to a single humanity. So too with God, whom Hindu and Muslim distinguish with differing names. Let none be misled, for God is but one; he who denies this is duped and deluded.” This amazing truth, over more centuries, has been again covered by many meaningless rituals and doctrines within Sikhism itself with the result that Sikhs today form another clearly segregated community in the subcontinent.

Ruled by the Sikhs for significant parts of the 18th and 19th centuries Punjab in northwest India has a majority Sikh population, sizeable communities of Sikhs exist around the world. In 1920 the Akali Dal was founded as the political representative of the Sikh community under its leader Tara Singh. The months leading up to the 1947 partition of India were marked by a tussle between the Indian National Congress (INC) led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Muslim League (ML) led by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah for their support in the negotiations about partition lines. Nehru is on record of having promised a Sikh state, probably within the Indian Federation in return for Sikh political support during the partition negotiations.

On behalf of the ML, the Quaid offered very generous terms to the Sikhs (Master Tara Singh, Maharaja of Patiala and others) to dissuade them from demanding the partition of Punjab if India was partitioned. He offered that a Sikh state would be independent and consist of unpartitioned Punjab minus one or two southern districts. Traditionally closer to the Congress the Sikh leaders did not take this offer, one factor was their apprehension whether Pakistan would follow through with the plan in case of the Quaid’s demise.

This offer throws an interesting light on Quaid-e Azam’s ideas about partition and his vision about the future of the subcontinent. During the months leading up to partition in early 1947 he had agreed to the suggestion of Fazlul Haq and Suhrawardy for an independent Bengal comprising of an undivided Bengal and Assam.  In his policy statement as President of the All-India Muslim League on June 17, July 11 and again on July 30, 1947 the Quaid stated that Indian princely states had every right to declare independence in addition to their right to join India or Pakistan. That kept the option for an independent Kashmir open.

Just imagine a subcontinent with Pakistan, Kashmir, Punjab and Bengal – including the seven sisters, i.e. Nagaland, etc. Such a vision put Quaid much ahead of his time.  Missing this historic opportunity is now a cause of regret for a vast majority of Sikhs. The 1960s saw growing animosity between the Hindus and Sikhs because of Sikhs demand for the creation of a Punjabi state on a linguistic basis similar to other states in India. To partially fulfill the Sikh demands Chandigarh was made a union territory in 1966 as the capital of both Punjab and Haryana. That did not satisfy the Sikhs.

Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was initially supported by Sanjay Gandhi eventually triggered an armed struggle for a fully autonomous Punjab. Earlier in Nov 1982, Soviet Union leader (and former Head of KGB) Yuri Andropov approved the fabrication of Pakistan intelligence documents detailing ISI plans to create an independent Sikh state.  This disinformation including purported secret CIA support for the Sikhs was taken seriously by Indra Gandhi. When the negotiations with the militants failed the Indian PM ordered the launching of “Operation Blue Star” to rid the well-fortified Golden Temple of militants led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amrit Singh and retired Maj Gen Shabeg Singh.

Simultaneously, they were to clean out militants from many dozens of Sikh temples across Punjab. Lasting from June 1 to June 10, 1984, the actual assault started on June 3, 1984. Fiercely defended by the Sikhs the army gained control of the Gurdwara after a 40 hours firefight. The official casualty army figures were 83 soldiers dead and 249 injured; however, Rajiv Gandhi disclosed in September 1984 that 700 soldiers were killed.

The real mystery is why the Indian Army permitted 3000 pilgrims to enter the Golden Temple on this day, the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the founder of Harmandir Sahib, and then seal it off. Several hundred people lost their lives.  There is widespread suspicion among the Sikhs that the Indian Army did this to inflict maximum civilian casualties and thus demoralize the Sikhs.

Operation Blue Star had far-reaching consequences, not the least being the assassination of Indian PM Indira Gandhi later in 1984 by her own trusted Sikh bodyguards. Nearly 3000 Sikhs were estimated killed in the subsequent anti-Sikh rioting in Delhi. Sikh soldiers across India mutinied, many were killed and nearly 3000 soldiers were court-martialled.  Dozens of Sikh officers resigned from the Armed Forces.

The Government of India attempted in 1985 to seek a political solution to the grievances of the Sikhs through the Rajiv-Longowal Accord. The Accord — recognizing the religious, territorial, and economic demands of the Sikhs that were thought to be non-negotiable under Indira Gandhi’s tenure—agreed to establish commissions and independent tribunals in order to resolve the Chandigarh issue and the river dispute, laying the basis for Akali Dal’s victory in the coming elections. Not all the Sikhs accepted the truce.

Rumors abound that during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Pakistan, Ms. Benazir Bhutto sought to appease him by instructing the then Interior Minister Aitzaz Ahsan to hand over the list of Sikhs militants in the Khalistan movement to the Indians. This has been denied by Aitzaz Ahsan but the news persists, especially among intelligence circles.

By the early 1990s Indian security forces had suppressed the insurgency which was indiscriminate attacks designed to cause extensive civilian casualties: derailing trains, and exploding bombs in markets, restaurants, and other civilian areas between Delhi and Punjab. Militants assassinated many of those moderate Sikh leaders who opposed them, and sometimes killed rivals within the same militant group. As a result, Hindus left Punjab by the thousands. Until today, the Khalistan demand has not died down. Recent reports indicate a rise in pro-Khalistan sentiments among the Sikh diaspora overseas, they are determined to revive the secessionist movement. Some people were even spotted during the World Cup 2019 in pro-Khalistan jerseys but were then whisked out of the stadium.

Following RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speech on Dussehra 2019, during which he said India is a Hindu nation, Sikh community leaders such as Giani Harpreet Singh the Akal Takht Jathedar and Gobind Singh Longowal reacted sharply. Giani Harpreet Singh, objecting to Bhagwat’s remark, said: “When we oppose the RSS, then it is not the opposition of Hindus; it should be clearly understood. The RSS can preach Hinduism; we have no problem with that. But they should stop defining Sikhism. Sikhs have many institutions to decide who they are. We don’t want outsiders to tell us who we are… We are not part of the Hindu nation of the RSS.”

In Pakistan where Sikhs are a tiny minority, they have had problems with Muslims over the decades. That may have been due to the horrible memories of partition in Punjab and also because of the failure of Pakistan to provide for the necessary security, acceptance and comfort of Sikhs despite the firm determination of the Quaid to protect the minorities. Things have become better over the years; many Sikh places of worship located in Pakistan are now very well looked after, incidentally by a former DG ISI and Islamist diehard Lt Gen (Retd) Javed Nasir when he was Chairman Evacuee Trust Property Board. Consecutive Pakistani governments have allowed access to Indian Sikhs on the occasion of Sikh holidays.

With the restoration of the Sikh site in Kartarpur and the opening of the ‘Kartarpur Corridor’ that allows almost unrestricted access for all Indian Sikhs to their holy place Pakistan has shown a sharp change in its attitude towards Indian Sikhs that India has not reciprocated so far. Pakistani Sikhs are unable to use the border crossing, and cannot access Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side without first obtaining an Indian visa or unless they work there.

Real progress in relations with India cannot be expected with the fascist BJP ruling the country. But Pakistan could work for ensuring the security of Pakistani Sikhs. India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Kumar Doval (and others) openly talk about breaking up Pakistan by fomenting trouble in Balochistan and elsewhere, repeatedly and vociferously so do some of their major TV anchors. The Khalistan movement has far more legitimacy and there is worldwide support both within and outside India. Pakistan should seriously look into giving the Sikh active support to have their own homeland.  Why not Khalistan?

The writer is a defense and security analyst.

This article first appeared in Pakistan Observer. Click here to go to the original.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of ViewsWeek.

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