The Khalistan movement: A futile dream

Why the sparks flying around just now in India and abroad are likely to end as damp squibs, burning bright only as far as the next general elections, in all probability

Pro-Khalistan preacher and 'Waris Punjab De' chief Amritpal Singh was arrested from Moga's Rhode village in Punjab early Sunday morning (Photo: Punjab Police)
Pro-Khalistan preacher and 'Waris Punjab De' chief Amritpal Singh was arrested from Moga's Rhode village in Punjab early Sunday morning (Photo: Punjab Police)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

The recent crackdown on Amritpal Singh and his associates in April showed the limitations of the Khalistan project in Punjab. There was hardly any protest against his incarceration, along with his associates, in Dibrugarh jail—except online and among the Sikh diaspora abroad.

In the Jalandhar by-election, which included Shahkot, the area from where the operation against Amritpal started, neither he nor Khalistan were electoral issues. The party of Simranjit Mann, the veteran Khalistan leader, barely managed to secure 2 per cent of the votes.

Stepping back for the big picture

After the state crackdown, most Khalistan supporters disappeared even from social media. Despite lacking any popular support on the ground, either in the form of popular mobilisation or by way of electoral success during the last 35 years, Khalistan has been a useful ploy for ruling politicians in the state and the Centre to activate “Hindu anxieties”, shore up dwindling support and secure electoral dividends.

Both Parkash Singh Badal of the Akali Dal in the aftermath of the beadbi issue in 2015 and Capt. Amarinder Singh during his last regime (2017–22) used the Khalistan bogey to bolster their support base. The Narendra Modi-led Union government used the media during the farmers’ movement (2020–21) to discredit the latter as Khalistanis too. In the aftermath of the crackdown on Amritpal and his associates, the media again had a field day playing up the ‘Khalistan conspiracy’, blowing it vastly out of proportion to the situation on the ground.

This narrative of a muscular State out to destroy ‘anti-national Khalistanis’ in their foreign bastions is now being spread by assorted YouTube influencers and reports in sections of the press. This can come in handy during the 2024 national elections for the BJP, as well as shoring up its support base among Hindus in the Punjab in general, as it is making a determined effort to expand itself in the region.

A dissipating dream

The idea of Khalistan originated in the 1940s, in response to the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. But the Sikhs were only 14 per cent of the population in undivided Punjab, and were soon reconciled to the Partition, siding with the Indian National Congress.

It would not be resurrected until the 1970s. Half a century after its modern birth in the pages of the New York Times—when Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a doctor-turned-activist who had briefly served as Punjab’s finance minister in 1969, took out a half-page ad at the height of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971—Khalistan remains a futile fantasy, however.

It didn’t even get much traction until the late 1970s, with the emergence of Bhindranwale and the vicious politics of oneupmanship between Giani Zail Singh and Darbara Singh.

While it reached its zenith in the wake of Operation Bluestar, the riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination lending it some extra steam,

Through all this, there has been no map agreed upon, no boundaries envisioned for the state, nor any vision or governance model for it. The idea has largely been pushed around by discredited leadership and has lacked any support on the ground in Punjab, even as it has been deployed by cynical politicians for cheap electoral gains.

The history of the Khalistan demand indicates that it has ebbed and flowed in reaction to specific circumstances, rather than as an organic movement of the people.

Most Khalistani elements abroad—the ones we now hear of in the news of referendums for Khalistan in Canada, Australia and other Western countries, the vandalisation of the Indian High Commission in London and the recent attempt to set fire to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, besides clashes between pro-India and pro-Khalistan elements in Australia—are believed to have close ties with both foreign and Indian intelligence agencies.

The strong diplomatic statements by the Indian government against Khalistani acts of vandalism and the synchronised murders and deaths of some known Khalistanis in Pakistan, Canada and England suggest a shift in Indian policy, likely with an eye to the upcoming general elections.

Punjab in India, meanwhile, has moved on from the 1980s even though memories persist of the death and destruction at the height of the Khalistan movement. The people of the state have other, more pressing concerns—unemployment, drugs, migration and climate change—but despite these very real worries, there is communal harmony in Punjab.

It is only the politicians, aided and abetted by a pliant media, who keep flogging the dead horse of Khalistan to serve their narrow political ends.

This is an edited excerpt from a version of this article slated for publication in the National Herald on Sunday, dated 16 July 2023

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