Another siege in the offing
KHALISTAN, a proposed autonomous Sikh state to be established out of the Indian state of Punjab, is named after two words: “Khalsa,” which means “pure,” and “stan,” which means “land.” When Sikhs started to feel cut off from the rest of India in the early 20th century, the demand for Khalistan grew. The need for Khalistan has risen and fallen over the years, but recently it has once again received some attention.
The Khalistan Movement has its origins in the time of British rule in India, when Punjab was dominated by the Sikh community. With the partition of India in 1947, Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan. The Sikhs have felt excluded by both nations ever since. In 1973, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was passed, demanding greater autonomy for Punjab. Jiwan Singh Umranangal, a former officer in the Indian Army, attempted to establish a Khalistan State in 1978 but failed.
The creation of the Khalistan Commando Force and the Babbar Khalsa International gave the Khalistan Movement a boost in the 1980s. Targeting Indian politicians and civilians, the militants carried out a string of bombings and assassinations with some alleged tacit support. In an effort to drive militants from the Amritsar Golden Temple complex, the Indian government launched Operation Blue Star in June 1984 which led to the death of hundreds of people, including civilians. The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards came in the wake of the Operation Blue Star. Thousands of Sikhs died in Delhi alone as a result of the anti-Sikh riots that followed.
Sikhs in India and abroad are calling for the creation of a distinct Sikh state, reviving the Khalistan Movement which had been dormant for many years. A pro-Khalistan organisation started the “Referendum 2020” campaign in June 2021 in an effort to convene a referendum on the subject of Khalistan. The drive to support Punjab’s independence from India is being backed by separatist organisations and Diaspora Sikhs in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. The campaign has been outlawed in India because, according to the government, it promotes secession and is prohibited. Sikh activists engaged in significant numbers in the recent “Referendum 2023” in Australia to voice their demand for a separate nation. Even the Indian High Commission’s flag was taken down and raised Khalistan flag on its place.
The Indian government has been cracking down on Khalistani activists, accusing them of being involved in anti-national actions. A Dalit activist from Punjab named Nodeep Kaur was detained by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in January 2021 while she was demonstrating against the agriculture rules of the Centre. She spent more than a month in jail after being accused of extortion, sedition and attempted murder. As a result of yelling pro-Khalistan chants, several additional activists have also been detained and accused of violating the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Amritpal Singh, a young Sikh separatist leader who has reignited calls for an independent homeland in India’s Punjab state, is involved in the recent situation that has greatly alarmed the Modi Administration. Amritpal is wanted by the Indian government on charges of attempted murder, obstructing law enforcement and causing social unrest. The whole State of Gujarat was cut off from mobile internet connectivity by the Modi Government in order to “prevent any incitement to violence,” knocking roughly 27 million people offline in what is undoubtedly the biggest blackout in Indian history.
The demand for Khalistan is not new and has been festering for decades. The Sikh people have a strong sense of self and consider their religion and culture to be unique from that of the rest of India. Their demand for a separate state has increased as a result of the Indian government’s reluctance to address their issues and complaints. The Sikhs believe that the Indian government is discriminating against them and that their voice is not being heard. They consider themselves to be entitled to a place of origin where they can carry out their religious, cultural and social goals.
It is impossible to minimise the Khalistan Movement as a simple law and order issue because of its complexity. It is a legitimate demand of the Sikhs, who have felt marginalised and discriminated against for decades. It is the role of the Indian government to address their issues and frustration and to find a solution that is acceptable to everybody. The Khalistan Movement cannot be put down with the use of force, which the Indian Government has already brutally used in Operation Blue Star. Modi Government is already well known for promoting Hindutva ideology and suppressing minorities in India. It would be impossible to suppress the independence movements in the ongoing environment of continued oppression. This movement has now spread throughout the world wherever there is a Sikh community.
The increasing use of force and RSS thugs’ brutality against minorities during the Modi regime has further deteriorated the already shattered trust, respect and understanding among minorities. For minorities to coexist peacefully in a diversified country like India, there must be deep understanding, trust and harmony among them. Over the past ten years, however, these qualities have rapidly deteriorated. Minorities were further disappointed by Indian Supreme Court decisions that largely upheld the steps taken by the Modi Administration or the relevant state government. The independence of Khalistan is inevitable, given the bubbling pot of marginalised or deprived feelings of Sikhs.
—The writer is an Islamabad-based media analyst and quasi columnist.
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