- The Khalistan movement is a Sikh separatist movement seeking to create a homeland for Sikhs by establishing a sovereign state, called Khalistān in the Punjab Region. Such a state existed in Punjab from 1709 to 1849.
- The proposed state would consist of land that currently forms Punjab, India. The geographical area of proposed state is variable and several propositions have been made by different groups, but all plans which have been primarily considered involve land that currently forms Indian Punjab, Chandigarh and some parts of the neighbouring Indian states, most particularly bordering Punjabi-speaking areas of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan along with Lahore as it’s proposed capital as it was once the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa Empire which was established in the year of 1799 AD.
- Over the years, it has survived in various forms, in various places and amongst different populations.
- The movement was crushed in India following Operation Blue Star (1984) and Operation Black Thunder (1986 and 1988), but it continues to evoke sympathy and support among sections of the Sikh population, especially in the Sikh diaspora in countries such as Canada, the UK, and Australia.
- The origins of the movement have been traced back to India’s independence and subsequent Partition along religious lines.
- The Punjab province, which was divided between India and Pakistan, saw some of the worst communal violence and generated millions of refugees: Sikhs and Hindus stranded on the west (in Pakistan) rushed to the east, whereas Muslims in the east fled westward.
- Lahore, the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s great Sikh Empire, went to Pakistan, as did holy Sikh sites including Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. While most Sikhs found themselves in India, they were a small minority in the country, making up around 2 per cent of the population.
- The political struggle for greater autonomy began around the time of Independence, with the Punjabi Suba Movement for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state.
- The States Reorganisation Commission, in its 1955 report, rejected this demand, but in 1966, after years of protest, the state of Punjab was reorganised to reflect the Punjabi Suba demand.
- The erstwhile Punjab state was trifurcated into the Hindi-speaking, Hindu-majority states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, and the Punjabi-speaking, Sikh-majority Punjab.
Anandpur Sahib Resolution:
- The Punjabi Suba movement had galvanised the Akali Dal which became a major force in the new Sikh-majority Punjab, and gave the Congress hard fights in the Legislative Assembly elections of 1967 and 1969.
- But in 1972, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s resounding victory in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, the Akali Dal’s performance in the state was underwhelming.
- The party met at the sacred town of Anandpur Sahib, the birthplace of the Khalsa, in 1973, and released a list of demands that would guide the political path of the Akali Dal. Among other things, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution demanded autonomy for the state of Punjab, identified regions that would be part of a separate state, and sought the right to frame its own internal constitution.
- The Akali Dal was trying to cash in on the growing demand for an autonomous state which had emerged alongside the Punjabi Suba movement and had gone global by 1971 — when an advertisement appeared on The New York Times proclaiming the birth of Khalistan.
- While the Akalis themselves repeatedly made it clear that they were not demanding secession from India, for the Indian state, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was of grave concern.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale:
- Many in Punjab sought to go beyond just a demand for greater autonomy.
- One such man was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic preacher who soon positioned himself as “the authentic voice of the Sikhs, in contrast to the Akali Dal’s lukewarm, vacillating leadership
- Some accounts claim that Bhindranwale was propped up by Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s son, to stand against the Akalis for Congress’s political benefit.
- However, by the 1980s, the appeal of Bhindranwale had grown so much that he started to become a problem for the government.
- He found a captive audience in the state’s youth, especially those in the lower rungs of the social ladder, and massed a massive following. He and his followers were also getting increasingly violent.
- In the summer of 1982, Bhindranwale, with support from the Akali Dal’s leadership, launched a civil disobedience movement called the Dharam Yudh Morcha. He took up residence inside the Golden Temple, directing demonstrations and clashes with the police.
- The movement was geared towards the demands first articulated in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, especially the socio-economic demands, which addressed concerns of the state’s rural Sikh population.
- However, amidst growing religious polarisation, sectarian violence, and Bhindranwale’s own harsh rhetoric against Hindus, Indira Gandhi’s government declared the movement tantamount to secession.
Operation Blue Star:
- By 1984, the situation in Punjab had become increasingly untenable for the government.
- Bhindranwale had given a call to arms, and instances of violence against Hindus as well as government officers had become common.
- Indira Gandhi took the fateful decision to order the Indian Army to flush out militants from the Golden Temple and neutralise Bhindranwale.
- Operation Blue Star began on June 1, 1984, but due to fierce resistance from Bhindranwale and his heavily armed supporters, the Army’s operation became larger and more violent than had been originally intended, with the use of tanks and air support.
- The image of Indian Army tanks shelling the holiest shrine of Sikhism was traumatic, and the very large number of civilian casualties that occurred during the operation added to the trauma.
- According to the government, 83 Indian Army soldiers were killed and 249 were injured in the operation. A total 493 militants and civilians were killed in the operation.
- While the operation was ostensibly successful in its aims — Bhindranwale was killed and the Golden Temple was freed of militants — it gravely wounded the Sikh community around the world.
- It also galvanised the demand for Khalistan.
- On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards.
- This triggered the worst communal violence since Partition — even according to conservative estimates, over 8,000 Sikhs were massacred in massive anti-Sikh street violence.
- A year later, Sikh nationalists based in Canada blew up an Air India flight killing 329 people. They claimed that the attack was to “avenge Bhindranwale’s killing”.
- Punjab saw the worst violence, becoming the hub of a long drawn out insurgency that lasted till 1995.
Khalistan movement- the tangle of different countries
The Khalistan movement which started on Indian Soil is no more restricted to India and the movement has slowly gained attraction from many countries due to people supporting the movement or state support to the movement.
- International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), established in 1984 seeks to establish a separate country for the Sikhs of India called Khalistan but operates in the countries like the UK, Canada. It was also responsible to polarize people and pursue violent means Ex: Jaspal Atwalwas involved in shooting the Punjab Minister as part of the Khalistan movement in 2018.
- US-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) is a pro-Khalistan group that is also involved in terrorist activities to support secessionist activities.
- In Canada– Immediately after Operation Blue Star, authorities were unprepared for how quickly extremism spread and gained support in Canada, with extremists involved in killing thousands of Hindus and also include blowing up Air India flights. Canada has become a safe ground to Khalistani’s where they can operate events in India.
- Pakistan- with a long aspired to dismember India through its Bleed India strategy, Pakistan has actively supported the Khalistan movement and turn the Sikhs against India.
Pakistan Role in Khalistan Movement
The report, released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute(a Canadian think tank) and titled “Khalistan: A project of Pakistan“, alleges that Khalistan is a geopolitical project nurtured by Pakistan, and threatens the national security of Indians and Canadians.
- An Indian Army veteran has claimed that Khalistanis, the secessionists demanding a separate homeland in the sovereign territory of India, are getting support from Pakistani Muslims in Britain and Canada
- The home ministry had said 9 individuals were operating from Pakistan and other foreign soil and were involved in various acts of terrorism and designated as terrorists under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
- Pakistan is also involved with funding the organizations and involving them in drug smuggling and money laundering to strengthen secessionist movements.
- A former Pakistan army general, Mirza Aslam Beg, has also been openly pushing the government to assist the movement.
- Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) and Referendum 2020 are supported by Pakistan.
- Intelligence officials said the websites of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) share their domain with and source content from a Karachi-based website.
- The issue of Sikh radicalism has been worrying India, especially in view of the presence of Khalistan sympathizers in the Pakistani side who play a role in the management of holy Sikh places in Pakistan.
- India had earlier protested after such individuals featured in Pakistan’s team for the Kartarpur corridor project.
The link between the Khalistan movement and the Kashmir issue
Of the many separatist insurgencies, India has faced since independence, those in the states of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir have proven the most destructive and potent threats to the country’s territorial integrity.
- Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) is also trying to radicalize the youth of Kashmir and openly extending support for the secession of Kashmir from India.
- Links between Khalistan leaders and Insurgency agents of Pakistan An example is the leading Khalistani figure in Pakistan, Gopal Singh Chawla, who makes no bones about his friendly alliance with the Pakistani jihadist Hafiz Saeed, leader of the feared Lashkar-e-Taiba.
- In the last 30 years, LeT, claiming to be fighting on behalf of J&K, has mostly drawn recruits from the eastern and central areas of Punjab. Now with the rise of farmers protest it will be easy for terrorist grouping like LeT, ISIS to recruit the grievance farmers to revive the Khalistan movement in India.
- With the increase in technology penetration, it will also be easy for ISIS to radicalise people especially the minorities and farmers to attack the security of India by using farmers protest as a reason.
What is the status of the Khalistan movement today?
- Punjab has long been peaceful, but the movement lives among some Sikh communities overseas.
- The diaspora is composed predominantly of people who don’t want to live in India.
- The deep rooted anger over Operation Blue Star and the desecration of the Golden Temple continues to resonate with some in the newer generations of Sikhs.
- However, even as Bhindranwale is viewed as a martyr by many and the 1980s remembered as dark times, this has not manifested into tangible political support for the Khalistan cause.
- There is a small minority that is clinging to the past, and that small minority remains significant not because of popular support, but rather because they are trying to keep up their political influence with various political parties both from the left and the right.
- Trained Armed Forces
- Police must be effectively trained to deal with this new phenomenon of urban terror.
- Every state should have an NSG-type of commando force to counter lethal terror strikes.
- Rehearsals should be periodically undertaken for search-and-rescue operations after large-scale terrorist strikes and different contingencies should be simulated and practised.
- Good governance and socioeconomic development: Focussing on development work and its actual implementation on the ground for which a clean, corruption-free and accountable administration is imperative to weed out such movements.
- An increase in intelligence sharing and coordination between agencies such as NIA, IB and state police, etc. is a must to prevent such incidents.
- International Cooperation: India must actively collaborate with countries like Canada and UK to have a coordinated attack on the Khalistan movement.
- A multi-pronged strategy focusing on rational and logical counter-propaganda should be adopted with the help of civil society, NGOs, etc. We need to have very strong online surveillance capabilities. Social media monitoring capabilities to counter such kind of radicalization of youth by Khalistan supporters.
- Deterrence to be built by a strong legislature. This may require special laws and effective enforcement mechanisms, but with sufficient safeguards to prevent its misuse.
- The secessionist movements such as the Khalistan movement should be tackled smoothly without hurting the sentiments of Sikhs.
- It is need of the hour that the Indian government must take steps and measures to prevent the movement from gathering attraction by arresting the sympathizers and supporters of Khalistan.