Why is the Khalistani movement seeing a resurgence abroad?

The movement that last peaked in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination was thought to have been quelled by the mid-1990s. But in recent years, it has grown shrill once more

Representative image of Pro-Khalistani flags and banners. (photo: IANS)
Representative image of Pro-Khalistani flags and banners. (photo: IANS)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

The spectre of Khalistan haunted Punjab for half a century, with the demand for a separate Sikh state resulting in the loss of thousands of lives in the 1980s and early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, the movement had been crushed, but it seems to have reared its head again. The shrillness surrounding Khalistan has certainly grown, both in Punjab and abroad, in recent years. The emergence of figures like actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu and the Bhindranwale clone Amritpal Singh and the unexpected victory of Simranjit Mann in the Sangrur by-elections of 2022 have all contributed to this resurgence.

Daring rocket attacks on the intelligence office of the Punjab police in Mohali and high-profile Khalistani activities overseas have also brought the issue to the forefront.

These activities include the organisation 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.

The deaths of several Khalistani activists in recent times, such as Paramjeet Singh Panjwar, Avtar Singh Khanda and Hardeep Singh Nijjar, also raised the suspicion among many that Indian agencies may be involved in covert operations to neutralise Khalistani activists, on the lines of Israeli spy agency Mossad’s operations.

The origins of ‘Khalistan’

The idea of a separate Sikh state, or ‘Khalistan’, first emerged in the 1940s in response to the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. The Sikh leaders and intellectuals had mooted several proposals, including Azad Punjab, Sikhistan and Khalistan, in order to safeguard the political, economic and cultural interests of Sikhs.

However, Sikhs were only 14 per cent of the population in undivided Punjab and were thinly spread throughout the state. This, along with lack of conviction among its leadership and little popular support from below, ensured that ultimately the Sikh leadership reconciled itself to the division of Punjab and India, and sided with the Indian National Congress.

Reaching peak Khalistani spirit

Khalistan was again resurrected in the 1970s through the activities of Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a doctor-turned-activist who had briefly served as Punjab’s finance minister in 1969.

Chauhan had, at the height of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971, placed a half-page advertisement mustering support for Khalistan in the New York Times on 12 October 1971. Courted by Pakistan and a section of the diaspora, Chauhan spent the 1970s promoting the idea of Khalistan. G.B.S. Sidhu, a former official of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external spy agency, in his book The Khalistan Conspiracy narrates that it was during this time that both the ISI (Pakistan’s spy agency) and RAW became actively involved with Khalistan.

For the ISI, Khalistan was a revenge for Bangladesh as well as a strategic asset to break India’s links with Kashmir. For the Indian agency, Khalistanis were strategic assets to be used for domestic politics. It was not until the late 1970s, however, with the emergence of Bhindranwale and the vicious politics of oneupmanship between Giani Zail Singh and Darbara Singh, that Khalistan started getting wider traction.

Dal Khalsa, an outfit explicitly demanding Khalistan, was formed in 1978 with the blessings of Zail Singh. It was involved in some high-profile incidents of airplane hijacking to draw attention to the demand for Khalistan. The national press of the day also played its part in going overboard over Khalistan, and even termed the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of the Akali Dal, demanding restructuring of federal relations, as ‘secessionist’. The Khalistan movement reached its zenith in Punjab and abroad in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star and the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984.

Khalistan was declared a sovereign state in the Sarbat Khalsa of 29 April 1986, and armed militants fanned across the countryside. Meanwhile, a number of organisations like the WSO (World Sikh Organisation) and the ISYF (International Sikh Youth Federation) were formed in Canada, the USA and the UK to support the movement. Riding on Sikh grievances and supported by Pakistan, the movement saw thousands losing their lives until it was crushed by the Indian State in 1993.

Transition to a diasporic dream

The return of normalcy in the 1990s saw the Khalistan movement retreating abroad and gradually losing the support it had in Punjab. This was epitomised by the free fall of Simranjit Singh Mann’s party from the commanding heights it had gained in 1989 by winning six seats in the state.

Many former militants’ entry into USA or Canada was facilitated by Indian agencies during this time, to use them as assets in future. While the radical Sikh right was marginalised in mainstream politics, the popularity of radical ideas like Khalistan and causes related to the 1984 Sikh massacre continued to simmer in Punjabi vernacular literature and media. With the relaxation of the State’s control in the 2000s, formerly proscribed literature promoting radical Sikh figures like Bhindranwale became more widespread.

The advent of new ICT technologies such as the internet allowed radicals, especially among the Sikh diaspora, to promote their version of the 1980s’ Sikh struggle and attract educated Sikhs who came of age after that period.

Religious parchaar (preaching) by new missionaries with radical overtones further intensified religiosity among the masses. In addition, the influence of intellectuals like Ajmer Singh and the proliferation of radically oriented media channels connected the global Sikh community.

Where Khalistanis are now

Those who support Khalistan and the 2020 referendum include clean-shaven Sikhs, particularly those from rural backgrounds, and form a significant part of the neo-panthic movement. These neo-panthics are highly factionalised, intolerant of dissenting views and often abusive on social media. Their strength and momentum have grown through various agitations, including the Sacha Sauda incident in 2007, the Balwant Rajoana clemency issue in 2012 and the Bargari and farm agitations in recent years.

The decline in credibility of both moderate and radical ‘old panthic’ groups, as seen in the collapse of the Sukhbir Badal-led Akali Dal and the failure of radical-led movements related to incidents of sacrilege and desecration, created the political space for the rise of neo-panthic groups and new leaders like Deep Sidhu and Amritpal Singh. Also, the rise of Hindu nationalist forces since 2014 (when the BJP formed a majority government at the Centre and Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office) and the clamour for a Hindu Rashtra have also served to legitimise the demands for Khalistan.

Meanwhile, a highly organised and vociferous minority among the radical Sikhs has kept the Khalistan cauldron boiling among the diaspora in countries like Canada, USA, UK and Australia. Taking advantage of the liberal laws and their concentration in areas like Surrey and Brampton, supporters of Khalistan have penetrated into all political parties in Canada.

The elevation of Harjit Singh Sajjan and Jagmeet Singh in Canadian politics is largely attributed to the support of Khalistani networks. Khalistanis active on the western coast of USA have routinely heckled Indian politicians and held anti-Indian demonstrations. Gurpatwant Singh Pannu and his much-publicised 2020 referendum for Khalistan in Western countries is also based in the USA. England too has always been a hotbed of Khalistanis.

Several pro-Khalistan digital channels like KTV have also come up in Western countries to add visibility to the propaganda.

Pakistan—one of the original sponsors of Khalistan—continues to provide safe haven to many militants, including Harwinder Singh Sandhu, alias Rinda, who has been accused of masterminding the rocket attack on the Punjab intelligence headquarters in Mohali in 2022. Pakistan also continues to deliver drugs and arms through drones in the border areas, although its domestic political and economic turmoils have considerably weakened it.

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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