The Sikhs and ‘Referendum 2020’ 

There aren’t many takers for Khalistan, although a section of Sikhs abroad continues to campaign for it. DGPC chief Manjeet Singh GK, on a visit to US, was assaulted by them. How serious are they?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Vipin Pubby

As a community, Punjabis are known for their fetish for foreign lands. The dream of the majority of Punjabi youth is still to settle down abroad with Canada, the US, the UK and European countries among favoured destinations.

It is pretty well-known that almost every family, particularly in the Doaba region of Punjab, has at least one member abroad and several other members queuing up for a one-way flight to their land of dreams. The turmoil that the state faced in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the demand for Khalistan and the clampdown by the government, accelerated the trend with more people wanting to be away from the dance of violence. The period also witnessed a large number of Sikhs seeking political asylum on the ground of alleged persecution in India. Some of them possibly had valid grounds for seeking asylum, but many others sneaked in under the pretext.

Peace was restored after a prolonged period due to a variety of reasons in the late 1990s, which left thousands killed and suffering for unaccountable number of their kith and kin who have lived their lives without their loved ones. Yet, due to the traditional resilience of the people of the region, almost all have moved on. The state has remained calm and peaceful over the last two decades with no major incident of violence.

The support that a section of hardliners had enjoyed during that period has withered away. What more evidence of this fact is needed than that popular votes in their favour has dwindled sharply and borders now on the negligible.

It is well established that the hardliners had been getting funds from abroad and even some political parties, like factions of Akali Dal, had been receiving funds for elections, etc

In fact, none of the candidates supported by such hardliners has been able to save their security deposits, much less win, in any election over the last two decades. There are certainly minor groups who off and on raise the bogey of Khalistan or try to fish in troubled waters, and there is a section of youth who have been made to believe that militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a hero, but the vast majority has distanced itself from the ‘movement’.

That, however, is not true for some of those who sought asylum or willingly left the country for greener pastures abroad. They appear to have stood frozen in time.

These people hold the belief that Sikhs living in Punjab are ‘oppressed’, that they are denied equal opportunities, that they are discriminated against despite the duly elected governments headed and dominated by Sikhs.

This section of the diaspora has not only refused to accept the changing dynamics in the country but has also indoctrinated its children in the same mould. They appear convinced of the alleged “atrocities being committed” against the Sikhs and ‘discrimination’ against them in various fields.

While some of them must be having, or would have been taught, to have strong anti-India sentiments, fingers are also pointed at them on the “actual motives”.

Leaders like Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh say that the organisations which raise such demands are “money-making machines” and occasionally raise banners to get funds from the rich Diaspora. He had refused to receive or meet the Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan on his visit to Punjab for his alleged sympathies with Khalistanis. Later, however, he had met him following clarifications that he was not in favour of an independent Khalistan.

It is well established that the hardliners had been getting funds from abroad and even some political parties, like factions of Akali Dal, had been receiving funds for elections, etc.

The SFJ has been declaring that it believed in “ballot not bullet” and was seeking a referendum through votes not violence. It recently tweeted that either the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee should pass a resolution to support Referendum-2020 or its chief Manjit Singh GK would not be allowed to visit the US or Canada, or any other foreign country

One of the most active of groups demanding Khalistan is Sikhs for Justice. The Canada-based group kickstarted its campaign to petition the United Nations with a demand for a separate state of Khalistan at a rally organised at Trafalgar Square on August 18. It was attended by a few thousand Sikhs from various countries even as a group of anti-Khalistanis held a rally a little distance away.

The ‘London Declaration on Punjab Independence Referendum 2020’ as the organisers called the rally, resolved to approach the UN and its member countries “to let them know about the independent state of Punjab that once existed and now seeks to be re-established”, as per Gurpatwant Singh Pannun of the Sikhs for Justice.

The organisation has launched a campaign for Referendum-2020, which asks Sikhs living across the world to build a consensus in favour of Khalistan and sign a declaration for the formation of a sovereign and independent country in “India occupied Punjab”.

Pannun said that “Sikhs are the indigenous people of Punjab and have a historical homeland, are a separate religion and have the right to self-determination” and added that “after an unofficial referendum in 2020, we plan to ask United Nations to get it done officially”.

The organisation had also put out posters in some areas of Punjab last year carrying photographs of Bhindranwale and asking people to prepare for Referendum-2020. These posters were pulled down and some sympathisers were also taken into custody.

While the vast majority in Punjab can see through the claims made by such organisations, there is always the fringe that is gullible. They believe that the UN can take a decision on forming nations!. During his recent visit to the US, he was physically assaulted and some campaigners for Referendum-2020 have been arrested for the attack.

Last year the members of Sikhs for Justice protested against Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the University of California, Berkeley. They held a demonstration and carried placards blaming the Congress for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. They have been threatening to organise more such protests abroad.

Besides the US, Canada and the UK, some of these groups had been organising signature campaigns and protests in European countries. The governments in these countries had been allowing such activities as part of their policy for free speech.

Recently in the UK, a section of the Sikh Diaspora demanded that they be no longer identified as ‘Indian’ in the UK census surveys. They demanded a separate ‘Sikh’ ethnic category. The growing clout of the Diaspora is reflected in the fact that about 140 Members of Parliament in that country backed the demand.

However, evidently, such demands are not being made by the majority. An annual report on Sikh community in that country noted that 87 per cent of the Sikhs continue to identify themselves as Indians and had no desire to be counted as a separate group in official records.

There is now enough evidence of the Pakistan hand behind the militancy in Punjab. Some of the absconding militants and ideologues continue to get shelter in Pakistan and they have links with the like-minded Khalistan activists in other countries.

However, they appear to be living in a world of their own make belief unmindful of the ground realities in Punjab. They certainly have more supporters abroad than in Punjab.

This article first appeared on National Herald Sunday.

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