When Partition was imminent, the uncertainty faced by the Sikhs first took the shape of Sikhistan.
By late noon on February 23, the country was abuzz with footage of a huge crowd of Sikhs—armed with lathis, swords, and guns—breaking barricades and taking over the Ajnala Police Station in Punjab’s Amritsar district. The police stood down because the bus they had arrived in carried the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy scripture. The person at the centre of the chaos was Amritpal Singh, the Sikh religious preacher whose Waris Punjab De faced a police crackdown on March 18.
At the time of going to press, Amritpal Singh was still on the run but, according to official versions, over 112 of his associates had been arrested. Mainstream television media is pushing the theory of Amritpal Singh being sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI, showing 24/7 footage of arms recovered. There are also rumours that Amritpal Singh was arrested on March 18, but that the police declared him a fugitive. There is much that remains ambiguous, but Punjab is holding its peace.
Last year saw police stations attacked in Katihar in Bihar, Hubballi in Karnataka and Vizhinjam in Kerala as well. As in Ajnala, policemen were injured. They made news for a day, then the clamour died. However, for days after February 23, media and commentators have been asking ad infinitum whether the Ajnala incident signals a revival of the Khalistan movement. One asks why.
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It could perhaps be because the protesters, all Sikhs, were armed; also, Amritpal imitates Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the radical Sikh leader of the 1980s. There are other parallels with the 1980s situation: the State administration seems paralysed, the police ineffective, the Sikh institutions, even religious ones, silent.
In Punjab, the labelling is met with hostility. They say, the government and the media called the unarmed demonstrators during the farmers’ protest of 2020-21 as Khalistanis and anti-nationals too. A poster held up then sums up the mood: “When we die to save Hindus, you call us angels; when we die to save the nation, you call us martyrs; when we ask for our rights, you call us terrorists”.
Punjab is convulsing
Almost a quarter century after 1993 — when militancy had supposedly ended in the State — I travelled to Punjab to examine if peace had returned. In the end of 2015, I reached a site where farmers were protesting the devastation of their cotton crop by whitefly infestation. One night before the farmers decided to call off the agitation, an incident of sacrilege targeting the Guru Granth Sahib took place at Bargari village. Then, police fired at a gathering in Kotakapura, killing two unarmed protesters. The Deputy Chief Minister promptly said: “This is revival of Khalistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is behind the incident.”
Punjab erupted in anger. For over 15 days, religious scriptures were randomly torn even as people of all faiths carried out peaceful demonstrations. Eight years later, despite two commissions, special investigations teams, multiple reports, two governments, and three Chief Ministers, the cases have not been resolved. This is an instance of how a farmers’ protest, about a political economy issue, was given a religious twist. This is also an example of how the State’s police-judicial-political system invariably fails to deliver justice.
During my travels through Punjab, at farmer union platforms, I heard, “When India was hungry, we fed her. Now as we die of thirst, India does not look at us.” From religious-oriented groups, I heard, “Punjab has been reduced to being a food-producing colony for India.” From Left-oriented unions I heard: “Green Revolution was Green Genocide”. To me it is clear that Punjab is convulsing, but neither the Centre nor the State has ever addressed its fundamental concerns. Punjab is an agrarian powerhouse, but its intense wheat-paddy agriculture cycle has depleted the ground water levels. Once the “breadbasket of the nation”, Punjab is fast becoming a desert. Heavy use of chemicals has turned the State into a cancer belt. Mafias dominate every revenue source, from sand to gravel to transport.
Dying industry, dropping education levels
Punjab being a border State, the Centre has always been reluctant to install big industry here. Small- and medium-scale industry is dying out because of a huge electricity crisis and the labour exodus. Education levels have dropped, health facilities are dismal. Once the country’s number one State, Punjab has now moved to a middling 16th position in GDP ranking. The State’s loan burden is over Rs.3 lakh crore. The average individual farmer loan exceeds Rs.2 lakh. In the last two decades, about 20,000 farmers and labourers have died by suicide, a number close to the official count of those who died during the Khalistan movement of 1978-93 (the unofficial count is higher).
If militancy plunged Punjab into a crisis, after militancy, politicians of all hues — traditionally Congress and Akali Dal, and now the new Aam Aadmi Party — have displayed apathy and unwillingness to untie Punjab’s knots and give it the healing it needs. A former Chief Minister kept talking about security threats from across the border but never answered why Pakistan viewed the State as ready for the picking and if his own government had assuaged Punjab’s woes. The Centre deployed the Border Security Force in half of Punjab, along the India-Pakistan border, yet ironically, the drugs everyone talks about proliferates in this very belt.
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Discontent brews under the surface, people are disenchanted with the system, they are tired with all the labelling. Despair and nihilism are growing among the young — over one-fourth the State’s population, roughly 75 lakh people. Every year, about 1.5 lakh of them escape abroad legally, some illegally. At Ajnala, the armed Sikhs rushing to the police station were also desperate youngsters who have now started seeing hope in Amritpal Singh.
Sense of siege
Punjab is a Sikh majority (57 per cent) State. The Sikh religion historically incorporates memories of struggle and valour. In the early 20th century, Akali Dal politics started with the Gurdwara reform movement, and religion was its mainstay. The Indian government’s various acts of omission have layered the community’s sense of being under siege—Operation Blue Star; the lack of justice for the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984; Article 25 (b) of the Constitution, which considers Sikhs to be part of the Hindu community, all have contributed to this.
Amritpal Singh has recently returned from Dubai. He appropriated Waris Punjab De, a nascent organisation set up by the young leader Deep Sidhu, who had advocated a religious approach to the farmers’ protest. He passed away early last year, reportedly in a road accident. After taking over, Amritpal has picked on topical issues: the drug menace, the exodus of youth, alleged destruction of Punjabi culture by the influx of migrant labour, conversions to Christianity, and so on. He rejects Western ideas of feminism and talks of how the Sikh religion assigns women equal status. He advocates Amrit Prachar, the initiation into the Sikh religion.
In costume, mannerisms, and tone of speech, Amritpal casts himself as Bhindranwale: “If not these clothes from the Gurus’ times, then which ones? If I give my plans for Khalistan, would you agree?” During my travels, in many rural drawing rooms I saw three pictures — Bhagat Singh, Bhindranwale, and the migrant son. The rural Sikh considers them his heroes — those who can save them from a life of ignominy and penury.
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When Amritpal came on the scene last September, Punjab’s Internet-based media celebrated him. It seemed like an elaborate exercise to launch him politically, but one does not know its sponsors. Given how the Central government has been coming down on minority communities and their leaders, Amritpal seems to enjoy a lot of impunity.
In contrast, in December, when Amritpal burnt down benches in a Jalandhar gurdwara, the Sikh response was split. Given that young people hardly come to gurdwaras, many followers asked if Amritpal wanted even the elderly and infirm not to attend by removing the benches meant for them. After the Ajnala episode, where police did not act because the van accompanying the mob was carrying the scripture, many in the community criticised Amritpal and his cohorts for carrying the Guru Granth Sahib when they raided the police station.
Amritpal’s following waxes and wanes depending on the issue he picks and how he deals with it. The masses are wary of his use of the term “Khalistan”. Punjab has learnt, memorably through the farmers’ protest, that within the framework of democracy, however flawed, triumph is possible if the movement is non-violent. Having witnessed Partition and a bloody decade-and-a-half of militancy, Punjab does not want history repeated.
How it began
In 1995, the Supreme Court held that the term Khalistan was not seditious and could be used to further a non-violent movement. However, since the term is invoked so often to slander Punjab, let us try to understand it. First, the term has a history going back to pre-Independence days. It appeared in a pamphlet in the 1940s. When Partition became imminent, the Sikhs asked what would happen to them. Their demand took the shape of Sikhistan and Azad Punjab, but the Second World War and other events scuttled the demand. Eventually, the Sikhs threw in their lot with India.
Second, in 1973, after over a quarter century of being with India, the Sikhs challenged the Central government’s policies and demanded Punjab’s rights. The Akali Dal prepared the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Beyond its lengthy religious-sounding preface, the salient demands were decentralisation, more power to States, diversification of crops, need for small-scale industry, control of river headworks, and so on. Two years earlier, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu had prepared the Rajamannar Panel Report, which too sought similar changes. A few years later the West Bengal Memorandum also sought changes in the Centre-State relationship. The core point is that the Constitution describes India as a Union of States. All these charters focussed on the “States” but the Centre focussed on the “Union”. The Centre rejected the suggestions, the consequences of which are painfully apparent today when the right-wing government has taken centralisation to an extreme and reduced the States to minions.
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Third came the Khalistan separatist movement, which harmed Punjab greatly. It gained momentum after Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh pogrom in cow-belt States. It was fuelled by the extreme high-handedness of the police. While it raised some issues such as river water distribution, it failed because there was no clear vision of a new nation state. Even at its peak, the movement lacked popular support. Large-scale internecine rivalries between the armed factions of the struggle enabled the state to penetrate their ranks and create havoc.
While the anger and anguish the Sikhs feel over the denial of justice is genuine, those who support the demand for Khalistan need to reflect on whether the community has overcome the weaknesses of the movement that led to its failure. With the Badal family having extensively damaged Sikh institutions in the last two decades, today the Sikhs are more splintered than ever before. Half the population – the women; one-third population – the Dalits; and, about 40 per cent Hindus remain silent.
For the last year, I have been travelling to learn about the Sikhs who live outside Punjab in the rest of India. The total Sikh population worldwide is about 26 million. Around 18 million live in Punjab, four to five million live in the rest of India, another three to four million live abroad. In my conversations I have found near unanimity in that while they want Punjab to be prosperous and developed they don’t want to fan the Khalistan sentiment. These Sikhs, spread out from Assam to Kutch, Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, are mostly well settled, well networked, have businesses spread across the country. They remember the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984. Many of them said that when pro-Khalistan sentiments rise in Punjab, they find it difficult to explain it to their neighbours.
“The term Khalistan has taken on different meanings in different times. Today, for Punjab, it appears to stand for justice.”
The Sikh diaspora abroad behaves differently. In the troubled 1980s, many Sikhs took asylum abroad. They remain closely connected with Punjab, follow, and even sponsor developments back home. In their host countries, they have developed a kind of identity politics connected with Sikh issues in India. The young among them carry inter-generational trauma, have a greater degree of free speech and are vocal about issues here. The more they believe that India denies the Sikhs justice, the more wind their Khalistan sail gathers. Often, they take positions for one-upmanship with Sikhs living in Punjab. These are emotional outbursts, not strategy.
Law and order crisis
When Amritpal’s group raided the Ajnala police station to demand the release of his accomplice Lovepreet Singh Toofan, the police quickly agreed that Toofan was innocent and arrested on false charges. The incident shone a light on one of Punjab’s darkest secrets: were those killed in encounters by the police also perhaps innocent? There are no state records, but two independent organisations, Ensaaf and Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project, have compiled the numbers of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the 1980s-90s. Their work is ongoing, yet the number of dead comes up to 8,000. What does this tell us about the extent of human rights violations in Punjab?
After the end of militancy, Punjab’s politicians began to patronise gangs. Today, according to police, Punjab has some 70 gangs. Over the last decade, gang wars have become common. Even popular songs reflect an alpha-male celebration of guns, violence, and misogyny. Last summer, singer Sidhu Moose Wala was murdered, allegedly by a gang run by Canada-based Goldy Brar and Lawrence Bishnoi, then lodged in Tihar Jail. On March 14, a television channel telecast an hour-long interview with Bishnoi, supposedly from Bathinda jail, where he is now lodged, in which he claims that Moose Wala was killed because he was responsible for the murders of Bishnoi’s associates. The free run of politically sponsored gangs is causing great damage in Punjab.
In the 1990s, the Indian government curbed the Khalistan movement when India still laid claims to being a secular nation. For the last eight years, a Hindu majoritarian government has been in power. Muslims are lynched, Christians targeted, and Parliament reverberates with religious chants. Demands for a Hindu Rashtra are habitually asserted. Opposition voices, whether centrist, leftist or liberal, have failed to counter this redefining of the nation. The thrust on Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan has sparked a counter demand for Khalistan. The logic is clear: if Hindus can demand Hindu Rashtra, what is wrong with Sikhs seeking Khalistan?
Ironically, the rhetoric of Khalistan in the time of Hindu Rashtra serves the BJP well. Punjab has never been saffron. For over a quarter century, the BJP aligned with the Akali Dal and contested from urban Hindu constituencies, notching up double-digit tallies. Since the Akali Dal’s downfall, and the breakdown of its longstanding alliance with the BJP in 2020 over the now repealed farm laws, the BJP’s strength in the Punjab Assembly is reduced to two seats.
In 2017, the BJP seats went to the Congress; in 2022, to the AAP. It is too early to assess Amritpal Singh’s role in Sikh politics, but Hindus and Sikhs are both anxious to not repeat the 1980s. This helps the BJP. Given the AAP’s struggles in its first year in government, the electoral dynamics remain fluid. If the BJP wins even a few seats, it will get a foothold. As we saw in Nagaland and Meghalaya, the BJP will align with whoever forms the next government and get into power. For the Hindu Rashtra project, optics is all that matters.
Punjab is on a boil purely because of misgovernance. Whether Deep Sidhu or Amritpal Singh, radicals will pop up as long as the state does not provide succour. The term Khalistan has taken on different meanings in different times. Today, for Punjab, it appears to stand for justice. It is in the nation’s interest to provide the justice, healing and help that this border State needs.
Amandeep Sandhu is a Homi Bhabha Fellow and author of Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines.
- A maverick separatist leader like Amritpal Singh becomes so quickly popular because rural Punjab is desperately seeking a hero to deliver it from its present penury.
- The labelling of Amritpal Singh’s escapades as an indication of a revival of the Khalistan falls in a pattern of all political unrest in the State being labelled thus.
- Mafias dominate every revenue source, from sand to gravel to transport, in a Punjab that is fast becoming a desert. Once the country’s number one State, Punjab has now moved to a middling 16th position in GDP ranking.
- If militancy plunged Punjab into a crisis, after militancy, politicians of all hues—traditionally Congress and Akali Dal, and now the new Aam Aadmi Party—have displayed apathy and unwillingness to untie Punjab’s knots and give it the healing it needs.