The Khalistan movement is a Sikh separatist movement seeking to create a separate country called Khalistān (“The Land of the Khalsa“) in the Punjab region as a homeland for Sikhs. The proposed country would consist of both the Punjab, India along with Punjab, Pakistan and include parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh in Pakistan; as well as Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, and Rajasthan in India. According to Jagjit Singh Chohan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the Prime Minister of Pakistan had proposed to make Nankana Sahi (currently in Pakistan), as the capital of Khalistan during his talks with Chohan after the conclusion of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
The Khalistan movement was established by expatriates. In 1971, the first explicit call for Khalistan was made in an advertisement published in The New York Times by expat Jagjit Singh Chohan. With financial and political support of the Sikh diaspora, the movement flourished in the Indian state of Punjab, which has a Sikh-majority population and reached its zenith in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the secessionist movement caused large-scale violence among the local population including assassination of PM Indira Gandhi and the bombing of Air India Flight 182 killing 329 passengers. Various pro-Khalistan outfits have been involved in a separatist movement against the Government of India ever since. In the 1990s the insurgency petered out, and the movement failed to reach its objective due to multiple reasons including a heavy police crackdown on separatists, divisions among the Sikhs and loss of support from the Sikh population.
In early 2018, some militant groups were arrested by police in Punjab. Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh claimed the recent extremism is backed by Pakistan’s ISI and “Khalistani sympathisers” in Canada, Italy, and the UK. There is some support from fringe groups abroad, especially in Canada but the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that his country would not support the revival of the separatist movement.
With the rise of Sikh nationalism in British India, the idea of a separate Sikh state first came up in the early 20th century. As a result of the British policy of divide and rule many religious nationalist movement emerged among the Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs. The process involved differentiating the religions and creating communal boundaries.
According to evidence by Harjot Oberoi, the belief that Punjab is the “homeland” of the Sikh community is a recent formulation. Despite the Sikh historical linkages with Punjab, territory was never a major element of Sikh self-definition. The attachment of Punjab with Sikhism was recent and made in 1940s. Historically Sikhism was pan-Indian, with the main Sikh scriptures Guru Granth Sahib drawing from works of saints in North as well as South India, and the several of its major seats (such as Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, Panj Takhts Takht Sri Patna Sahib in Bihar, Hazur Sahib Nanded in Maharashtra) outside of Punjab. Before its conquest by the British, the region around Punjab had been ruled by the confederacy of Sikh Misls founded by Banda Bahadur ruled over the entire Punjab from 1767 to 1799, until their confederacy was unified into the Sikh Empire by Maharajah Ranjit Singh from 1799 to 1849.
Before the partition of India in 1947, Sikhs were not in majority in any of the districts of pre-partition British Punjab Province other than Ludhiana. The districts in the region had a majority of either the Hindus or Muslims depending on its location in the British province. Among the three major religions (Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism), Sikhs formed the largest group (41.6%) only in the Ludhiana district. When the Muslims proposed the creation of an Islamic-majority Pakistan, many Sikhs staunchly opposed the concept.
In late 1930s and 1940s the Sikh leaders realized that Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu India were imminent. To make a case for a separate Sikh state within the Punjab, Sikh leaders started mobilizing meta-commentaries and signs to argue that Punjab belonged to Sikhs and Sikhs belong to Punjab. This began the territorialization of the Sikh community. The Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution demanded a separate country for Muslims. A section of Sikh leaders grew concerned that their community would be left without any homeland following the partition of India between the Hindus and the Muslims. They put forward the idea of Sikhistan, envisaging it as a theocratic state covering a small part of the greater Punjab region. The country which he proposed would include parts of present-day Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab (including Lahore), and the Simla Hill States. It was imagined as a theocratic state led by the Maharaja of Patiala with the aid of a cabinet consisting of the representatives of other units. The idea was unviable due to lack of sufficient Sikh population as compared to other religions in Punjab.
According to Oberoi, the territorialization of the Sikh community was formalized when Sikh political party Akali Dal in March 1946, passed a resolution proclaiming the natural association of Punjab and Sikh religious community.
Partition of India, 1947
British India was partitioned on a religious basis in 1947 and Punjab province was divided between India and newly created Pakistan. A majority of the Sikhs along with the Hindus migrated from the Pakistani province of Punjab to the Indian province of Punjab, which then included present-day Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The Sikh population that in 1941 was as high as 19.8% in some districts of Pakistan, dropped to 0.1% in all of them, and it rose sharply in the districts assigned to India. They were still a minority in the Punjab province of India, which remained a Hindu-majority province.
Despite the first mentions of the movement in early 20th century, a Khalistan separatist movement was never a major issue until the late 1970s and 1980s when it began to militarize.
Calls for Khalistan
There are two distinct narratives about the origins of the call for Khalistan. One refers to the events within India, and the other privileges the role of the Sikh diaspora. Both of these narratives vary in the form of governance proposed for this state (e.g., theocracy vs democracy) as well as the proposed name (Sikhistan, Khalistan). Even the precise geographical borders of the proposed state differs among them although it was generally imagined to be carved out from one of various historical constructions of the Punjab.
Events within India
After India’s independence, the Punjabi Suba movement, led by the Sikh political party Akali Dal, sought the creation of a province (suba) for Punjabi people. The Akali Dal’s maximal position of demands was a Khalistan and minimal position was to have an autonomous state within India. The issues raised during the Punjabi Suba movement were later used as a premise for the creation of a separate Sikh country by the proponents of Khalistan. The partition of India based on the religious grounds had led to a lot of bloodshed. Concerned that creating a Punjabi-majority state would effectively mean creating a state based on religious grounds, the Indian government initially rejected the demand.
In September 1966, the Indira Gandhi-led Union Government accepted the demand. On 7 September 1966 Punjab Reorganisation Act was passed in Parliament. The Act was implemented with effect from 1 November 1966. Punjab was trifurcated creating Punjab, Haryana and transferring certain areas to Himachal Pradesh. Chandigarh was made a centrally administered Union territory.
Akali Dal’s demands
Akali Dal, the Sikh political party, was defeated in the 1972 Punjab elections. To regain the public appeal the Akali Dal then put forward the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973 to demand radical devolution of power and further autonomy to Punjab. The resolution document included both religious and political issues. It asked for recognising Sikhism as a religion separate from Hinduism and transfer of Chandigarh and certain areas to Punjab. It also demanded that power be radically devoluted from the Central to state governments.
The document was largely forgotten, for some time after its adoption, but came into the limelight in the 1980s. The Akali Dal and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale joined hands to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982 in order to implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Thousands of people joined the movement, feeling that it represented a real solution to demands such as a larger share of water for irrigation and the return of Chandigarh to Punjab.
Events outside India
According to this narrative, particularly after 1971, Sikh men who were settled outside of India, began to popularize among Sikhs in North America and Europe, the notion of a sovereign and independent state of Khalistan. One such account is provided by the Khalistan Council which had moorings in West London.
Davinder Singh Parmar migrated to London in 1954 and asserted the demand for an independent state of Khalistan. According to Parmar, his first pro-Khalistan meeting was attended by less than 20 people and he was labelled as a madman and received only one person’s support. There was a lack of support but Parmar continued his efforts.
Jagjit Singh Chohan was a Sikh politician in Indian Punjab who pursued from abroad the idea of a sovereign Khalistan. Two years after losing the Punjab Assembly elections in 1969, Chohan moved to the United Kingdom, to start his campaign for creation of Khalistan.
Launch of Khalistan movement
In 1970 Parmar came in contact with Jagjit Singh Chohan in London which led to the launch of the movement. The Khalistan movement was announced formally at a London press conference. Chohan raised the Khalistani flag in Birmingham in the 1970s. Parmar and Chohan were dismissed by the community as fanatical fringe without any support.
After the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Chohan visited Pakistan as a guest of leaders like Chaudhuri Zahoor Elahi. He went to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan and toured several historical gurdwaras. He utilized this opportunity to spread the notion of independent Khalistan, that was widely publicized by the press in Pakistan. The extensive coverage of his remarks, introduced people in India and the international community, to the demand of Khalistan for the first time. The term Khalistan became recognizable even though it still lacked a public support.
According to Chohan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the Prime Minister of Pakistan had proposed to make Nankana Sahib (currently in Pakistan), as the capital of Khalistan during his talks with Chohan.
Chohan visited the United States at the invitation of his supporters in the Sikh diaspora. On 13 October 1971, he placed an advertisement in the New York Times proclaiming an Independent Sikh state. Advertisement of Khalistan enabled him to collect millions of dollars from the Sikh diaspora. He was charged in India with sedition and other crimes in connection with his separatist activities.
Khalistan National Council
After returning to India in 1977, Chohan travelled to Britain in 1979, and established the Khalistan National Council. On 12 April 1980, he declared the formation of a “National Council of Khalistan”, at Anandpur Sahib. He declared himself the President of the Council and Balbir Singh Sandhu as its Secretary General.
In May 1980, Jagjit Singh Chohan travelled to London and announced the formation of Khalistan. A similar announcement was made by Balbir Singh Sandhu, in Amritsar, who released stamps and currency of Khalistan. Operating from a building termed “Khalistan House”, he remained in contact with the Sikh extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was violently campaigning for a Sikh theocratic homeland. Chohan also maintained contacts among various groups in Canada, the US, and Germany. Chohan declared himself president of the “Republic of Khalistan”, named a Cabinet, and issued symbolic Khalistan “passports”, “postage stamps”, and “Khalistan dollars”. Embassies in Britain and other European countries were opened by Chohan. It is reported that with the assistance of a wealthy Californian supporter, a peach magnate, he opened an Ecuadorian bank account to support his operation. Apart from Punjab, Himachal, and Haryana, Chohan’s proposal of Khalistan also included parts of Rajasthan state. Axel, The Nation’s Tortured Body (2011), pp. 101–
The globalized Sikh diaspora invested efforts and resources for Khalistan, but the Khalistan movement remained nearly invisible on the global political scene until the Operation Bluestar of June 1984.
Events of the early 1980s
Rise of Bhindranwale
The late 1970s and the early 1980s the separatist movement began to militarize and saw the increasing involvement of the Sikh religious preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab politics. Over the period Bhindranwale grew up as a leader of Sikh militancy. There was a dissatisfaction in some sections of the Sikh with prevailing economic, social, and political conditions. Bhindranwale articulated these grievances as discrimination against Sikhs and the undermining of Sikh identity.
The growth of Bhindranwale was not solely by his own efforts. In the late 1970s Indira Gandhi’s Congress party supported Bhindranwale in a bid to split the Sikh votes and weaken the Akali Dal, its chief rival in Punjab. Congress supported the candidates backed by Bhindranwale in the 1978 SGPC elections. The Congress leader Giani Zail Singh allegedly financed the initial meetings of the separatist organisation Dal Khalsa, which disrupted the December 1978 Ludhiana session of the Akali Dal with provocative anti-Hindu wall-writing. In the 1980 election, Bhindranwale supported Congress candidates Gurdial Singh Dhillon and Raghunandan Lal Bhatia. Bhindranwale was originally not very influential, but the activities of Congress elevated him to the status of a major leader by the early 1980s. This later turned out to be a miscalculation as Bhindranwale’s separatist political objectives became popular among the agricultural Jat Sikhs in the region.
Assassination of Lala Jagat Narain
In a politically charged environment, Lala Jagat Narain, the Hindu owner of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers, was assassinated by Sikh militants on 9 September 1981. Jagat Narain was a prominent critic of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and a Congress leader. In 1981 Census of India was being conducted where the mother tongue of the citizens was being recorded. Lala had been writing about reporting Hindi instead of Punjabi as their mother tongue by Hindus living in Punjab. This infuriated Bhindranwale and his followers. The White Paper issued by the government of India, mentioned that Narain was assassinated because of his criticism of Bhindrawale. On 15 September 1981, Bhindranwale was arrested for his alleged role in the assassination. Bhindranwale had earlier been a suspect in the murder of the Nirankari leader Gurbachan Singh, who had been killed on 24 April 1980 in retaliation for killings of conservative Sikhs belonging to the Akhand Kirtani Jatha.
Bhindranwale was released in October by the Punjab State Government, as no evidence was found against him.
Dharam Yudh Morcha
The Akali Dal was initially opposed to Bhindranwale, and even accused him of being a Congress agent. However, as Bhindranwale became increasingly influential, the party decided to join forces with him. In August 1982, under the leadership of Harcharan Singh Longowal, the Akali Dal launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha (“Group for the Religious fight”) in collaboration with Bhindranwale to win more autonomy for Punjab. The movement was hijacked by Bhindranwale who declared that it will continue until all the demands in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution were fulfilled.
Indira Gandhi considered the Anandpur Resolution as a secessionist document and evidence of an attempt to secede from the Union of India. The Akali Dal officially stated that Sikhs were Indians, and the Anandpur Sahib resolution did not envisage an autonomous Sikh State of Khalistan. The resolution was made fundamental to Bhindranwale’s cause as the demand for autonomy was phrased such a way that would have given more authority to the Sikhs than Hindus in Punjab. Thousands of people joined the movement as they felt that it represented a real solution to their demands, such as a larger share of water for irrigation, and return of Chandigarh to Punjab.
After the launch of the Morcha, Sikh extremists began committing acts of political violence. Assassination of Chief Minister of Punjab Darabara Singh was attempted and two Indian Airlines flights were hijacked by the terrorists. By early October, more than 25,000 Akali workers courted arrest in Punjab in support of the agitation.
To restart the talks with the Akali leadership, Gandhi ordered the release of all Akali workers in mid October and sent Swaran Singh as her emissary. Bhindranwale who was then regarded as “single most important Akali leader” announced that nothing less than full implementation of the Anandpur resolution was acceptable to them. Other Akali leaders agreed to join the negotiations which ended with a compromised settlement with the governments team. The settlement was then presented in the parliament but certain parts of the agreement were changed unilaterally due to advice from Haryana and Rajasthan CMs.
Threats of disruption of Delhi Asian Games
The Akali leaders who were planning to announce a victory of Dharam Yudh morcha, were outraged by the change in the proposed settlement. In November 1982, Akali leader Longowal announced that the Akali Dal would disrupt the Asian Games that as to be held in Delhi by sending teams of Akali workers to Delhi to court arrest. Negotiations between the Akali Dal and the government followed but failed at the last moment due to the disagreement in the transfer of areas between Punjab and Haryana.
Akali leaders vowed to overwhelm Delhi with a flood of protestors with an aim to highlight the perceived “plight” of Sikhs in front of the international media covering the games.
A week before the Asian games, Haryana CM from Congress Bhajan Lal sealed the border between Delhi and Punjab. Frisking of all the Sikh visitors travelling from Punjab to Delhi was ordered. The security measures proved effective and Akali Dal could only organize small and scattered protests in Delhi. This frisking was seen as discriminatory and humiliating by the Sikhs. Many Sikhs who did not support Akalis and Bhindranwale began sympathizing with the Akali morcha.
After the conclusion of the games, the Akali leader Longowal organised a convention of Sikh ex-servicemen at the Darbar Sahib. It was attended by a large number of Sikh ex-servicemen including ret. Major General Shabeg Singh who subsequently became Bhindranwale’s military advisor.
There were widespread murders in Punjab by followers of Bhindrawale. In the two-year period between 4 August 1982 and 3 June 1984 there were more than 1200 violent incidents in which 410 persons were killed and 1180 injured. Out of which in the year 1984 itself between 1 January and 3 June 775 violent incidents happened killing 298 and injuring 525. One such murder was that of DIG Avtar Singh Atwal, who was killed on 25 April 1983 at the gate of the Darbar Sahib. His corpse remained there for 2 hours as even police officers were afraid to touch the body without permission from Bhindranwale. This showed the power and influence that Bhindranwale had over the region.
It was common knowledge that the militants responsible for bombings and murders were taking shelter in some gurdwaras. However, the Congress-led government declared that it could not enter the gurdwaras for the fear of hurting Sikh sentiments. Detailed reports on the open shipping of arms-laden trucks was sent to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; however, the Government did not take any action to stop these. Finally, after the murder of six Hindu bus passengers in October 1983, emergency rule was imposed in Punjab, which continued for more than a decade.
Armed Khalistani militants of this period described themselves as “Kharku“.
During this incident, the Akali Dal began more agitation in February 1984, protesting against clause (2)(b) of Article 25 of the Indian constitution, which ambiguously states “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina, or Buddhist religion”, though it also implicitly recognises Sikhism as a separate religion with the words “the wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion.” This clause is still deemed offensive by many minority religions in India even today, because of the failure to recognise these religions under the constitution separately.
The Akali Dal members demanded that the constitution remove any ambiguous statements that use the word Hindu to refer to Sikhs. For instance, a Sikh couple who married in accordance to the rites of the Sikh religion had to register their marriage either under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, or the Hindu Marriage Act – the Akalis demanded replacement of such rules with Sikhism-specific laws.
Events of the late 1980s/early 1990s
Sikh separatist groups did not lack substantial support. In the parliamentary elections of 1989 Sikh separatist representatives were victorious in 10 of Punjab’s 13 national seats and had the most popular support. The Congress cancelled those elections and instead hosted a Khaki election. The separatists boycotted the poll. The voter turnout was 24 percent. The Congress won this election and used it to further its anti-separatist campaign. Most of the separatist leadership was wiped out and the moderates were suppressed by end of 1993.
Operation Blue Star
Operation Bluestar was an Indian military operation carried out between 1 and 8 June 1984, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to remove militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the buildings of the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab. In July 1983, the Sikh political party Akali Dal’s President Harcharan Singh Longowal had invited Bhindranwale to take up residence in Golden Temple Complex. Bhindranwale later on made the sacred temple complex an armoury and headquarter, for his armed uprising for Khalistan. In the violent events leading up to the Operation Blue Star since the inception of Akali Dharm Yudh Morcha, the militants had killed 165 Hindus and Nirankaris, even 39 Sikhs opposed to Bhindranwale were killed. The total number of deaths was 410 in violent incidents and riots while 1,180 people were injured. Unsuccessful negotiations were held with Bhindranwale and his supporters.
Indira Gandhi ordered the army to launch the Operation Blue Star. Army units led by Indian Army Lt. Gen Kuldip Singh Brar (a Sikh), surrounded the temple complex on 3 June 1984. Just before the commencement of the operation, K.S. Brar addressed the soldiers:
The action is not against the Sikhs or the Sikh religion; it is against terrorism. If there is anyone amongst them, who have strong religious sentiments or other reservations, and do not wish to take part in the operation he can opt out, and it will not be held against him.
— Kuldip Singh Brar,
However, no one opted out and that included many “Sikh officers, junior commissioned officers and other ranks”.
The Indian Army, Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, and Punjab Police were involved. The army kept asking the militants to surrender, using the public address system. The militants were asked to allow the pilgrims out of the temple premises, before they start fighting the army. However, nothing happened until 7 PM. The army had grossly underestimated the firepower possessed by the militants. Militants had Chinese made Rocket-propelled grenade launchers with armour piercing capabilities. Tanks and heavy artillery were used to attack the militants using anti-tank and machine-gun fire from the heavily fortified Akal Takht. After a 24-hour firefight, the army finally wrested control of the temple complex. Bhindranwale was killed in the operation, while many of his followers managed to escape. Casualty figures for the Army were 83 dead and 249 injured. According to the official estimate presented by the Indian government, 1592 were apprehended and there were 493 combined militant and civilian casualties. High civilian casualties happened as the militants were using pilgrims trapped inside the temple as human shields.
The opponents of Indira Gandhi also criticised the operation for excessive use of force. General Brar later stated that the Government had “no other recourse” as there was a “complete breakdown” of the situation, State machinery was under the control of the militants, declaration of Khalistan was imminent and Pakistan would have come into the picture declaring its support for Khalistan. The Sikh militancy was not crushed with the Operation and it continued.
Assassination of Indira Gandhi and 1984 anti-Sikh riots
On the morning of 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh personal security guards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh in New Delhi in retaliation for Operation Blue Star. The assassination triggered the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots across north India. While the ruling party, Congress, maintained that the violence was due to spontaneous riots, its critics have alleged that Congress members had planned a pogrom against the Sikhs.
The Nanavati Commission, a special commission created to investigate the riots, concluded that Congress leaders (including Jagdish Tytler, H. K. L. Bhagat, and Sajjan Kumar) had directly or indirectly taken a role in the rioting incidents. Union Minister Kamal Nath was accused of leading riots near Rakabgunj, but was cleared due to lack of evidence.
Other political parties strongly condemned the riots. Two major civil-liberties organisations issued a joint report on the anti-Sikh riots, naming sixteen important politicians, thirteen police officers, and one hundred and ninety-eight others, accused by survivors and eyewitnesses.
Main article: Punjab accord
Many Sikh and Hindu groups, as well as organisations not affiliated to any religion, have attempted to establish peace between the Khalistan proponents and the Government of India.
In 1985, The Central government attempted to seek a political solution to the grievances of the Sikhs through the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, which took place between the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Harchand Singh Longowal, the President of the Akali Dal. The accord recognised the religious, territorial, and economic demands of the Sikhs that were thought to be non-negotiable under Indira Gandhi’s tenure. The agreement provided a basis for a return to normality, but it was denounced by a few Sikh militants who refused to give up the demand for an independent Khalistan. Harchand Singh Longowal was later assassinated by these militants. The transfer of Chandigarh has allegedly been delayed pending an agreement on the districts of Punjab that should be transferred to Haryana in exchange.
Rise of militancy
Main article: Punjab insurgency
The military Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple in Amritsar offended many Sikhs. The separatists used Operation Bluestar and the riots following the assassination to claim that the interest of the Sikhs were not safe in India and fostered the spread of militancy among the Sikhs in Punjab. Some sections of the Sikh diaspora started to support the separatists with financial and diplomatic support.
A section of Sikhs turned to militancy in Punjab and several Sikh militant outfits proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s. some Sikh militant groups aimed to create an independent state Khalistan through acts of violence directed at members of the Indian government, army or forces. A large numbers of Sikhs condemned the actions of the militants. According to the Anthropological studies a reason for the young men to join militants and other religious nationalist groups had been fun, excitement and expressions of masculinity. Puri et al. state that under educated and illiterate young men, lacking enough job prospects had joined pro-Khalistan militant groups with “fun” as one of the primary reasons. It mentioned that the pursuit of Khalistan was the motivation for only 5% of “militants”.
In 1986, When the terrorism was at its peak, the militants called the Sarbat Khalsa. The SGPC had the authority to appoint the jathedar, so the militants dissolved SGPC and appointed their own Jathedar. When that person refused do their bidding, militant leader Gurbachan Singh Manochahal appointed himself by force the jathedar (head) of the Akal Takht, which is the supreme religio-temporal seat of the Sikhs.
In January 1986, the Golden Temple was again occupied by militants belonging to the All India Sikh Students Federation and Damdami Taksal. On 26 January 1986, the gathering passed a resolution (gurmattā) favouring the creation of Khalistan. Subsequently, a number of rebel militant groups in favour of Khalistan waged a major insurgency against the government of India. Indian security forces suppressed the insurgency in the early 1990s, but Sikh political groups such as the Khalsa Raj Party and SAD (A) continued to pursue an independent Khalistan through non-violent means. Pro-Khalistan organisations such as Dal Khalsa (International) are also active outside India, supported by a section of the Sikh diaspora.
On 29 April 1986, an assembly of separatist Sikhs at the Akal Takht made a declaration of an independent state of Khalistan. These events were followed by a decade of violence and conflict in Punjab before a return to normality in the region. During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a dramatic rise in radical State militancy in Punjab. This period of insurgency saw clashes of Sikh militants with the police, as well as with the Nirankaris, a mystical Sikh sect that are less conservative and aim to reform Sikhism. The Khalistani militant activities manifested in the form of several attacks, such as the 1987 killing of 32 Hindu bus passengers near Lalru, and the 1991 killing of 80 train passengers in Ludhiana.
Khalistan-related militant activities continued in the 1990s, as the perpetrators of the 1984 riots remained unpunished, and many Sikhs felt that they were being discriminated against and that their religious rights were being suppressed.
GlobalSecurity.org reported that in the early 1990s, journalists who did not conform to militant-approved behaviour were targeted for death. It also reported that there were indiscriminate attacks designed to cause extensive civilian casualties: derailing trains, and exploding bombs in markets, restaurants, and other civilian areas between Delhi and Punjab. It further reported that militants assassinated many of those moderate Sikh leaders who opposed them, and sometimes killed rivals within the same militant group. It also stated that many civilians who had been kidnapped by extremists were murdered if the militants’ demands were not met. Finally, it reported that Hindus left Punjab by the thousands.
In August 1991, Julio Ribeiro, then Indian Ambassador to Romania, was attacked and wounded in a Bucharest assassination attempt by gunmen identified as Punjabi Sikhs. Sikh groups claimed responsibility for the 1991 kidnapping of the Romanian chargé d’affaires in New Delhi, Liviu Radu. This appeared to be in retaliation for Romanian arrests of KLF members suspected of the attempted assassination of Julio Ribeiro. Radu was released unharmed after Sikh politicians criticised the action.
In October 1991, The New York Times reported that violence had increased sharply in the months leading up to the kidnapping, with Indian security forces or Sikh militants killing 20 or more people per day, and that the militants had been “gunning down” family members of police officers.
Scholar Ian Talbot states that all sides, including the Indian Army, police and the militants, committed crimes like murder, rape and torture.
On 31 August 1995, Chief minister Beant Singh was killed by a suicide bomber. The pro-Khalistan group Babbar Khalsa claimed responsibility for the assassination, but security authorities were reported to be doubtful of the truth of that claim. A 2006 press release by the Embassy of the United States in New Delhi indicated that the responsible organisation was the Khalistan Commando Force.
While the militants enjoyed some support among Sikh separatists in the earlier period, this support gradually disappeared. The insurgency weakened the Punjab economy and led to an increase in violence in the state. With dwindling support and increasingly effective Indian security troops eliminating anti-state combatants, Sikh militancy effectively ended by the early 1990s.
There were serious charges levelled by human rights activists against Indian Security forces (Headed by KPS Gill – himself a Sikh), claiming that thousands of suspects were killed in staged shootouts and thousands of bodies were cremated/disposed of without proper identification or post-mortems.
Human Rights Watch reported that since 1984, government forces had resorted to widespread human rights violations to fight the militants, including arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without trial, torture, and summary killings of civilians and suspected militants. Family members were frequently detained and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of relatives sought by the police. Amnesty International has alleged several cases of disappearances, torture, rape, and unlawful detentions by the police during the Punjab insurgency, for which 75-100 police officers had been convicted by December 2002.
In November 2015, a Sarbat Khalsa, or congregation of the Sikh community, was called in response to recent unrest in the Punjab region. The Sarbat Khalsa adopted 13 resolutions to strengthen Sikh institutions and traditions. The 12th resolution reaffirmed the resolutions adopted by the Sarbat Khalsa in 1986, including the declaration of the sovereign state of Khalistan.
Present day activities by Khalistani militants include the Tarn Taran blast in which the police crackdown arrested 4 terrorists, one of whom revealed they were ordered by Sikhs for Justice to kill multiple Dera leaders in India. As of December 25, there also have been inputs by multiple agencies about a possible attack in Punjab by Babbar Khalsa and Khalistan Zindabad Force who are in contact with their Pakistani handlers and are trying to smuggle arms across the border.
Khalistan militant groups
See also: Khalistani groups
There are several Sikh groups such as the Khalistan Council that are currently functional and provides organization and guidance to the Sikh community. Multiple Sikh militant groups are organized across the countries and coordinate their military efforts for Khalistan. Such groups were most active in 1980s and early 1990s and has since receded in activity. These groups are largely defunct in India but they still have a political presence among the Sikh diaspora, especially in countries such as Pakistan where they are not proscribed by law.
The major pro-Khalistan militant outfits include:
- Babbar Khalsa International (BKI)
- Listed as a terrorist organisation in the European Union, Canada, India, and UK.
- Also included in the Terrorist Exclusion List of the United States Government in 2004.
- Designated by the US and the Canadian courts for the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on 27 June 2002.
- International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), based in the United Kingdom
- Khalistan Commando Force (KCF)
- Formed by the Sarbat Khalsa in 1986. It does not figure in the list of terrorist organisations declared by the US Department of State
- According to the US Department of State and the Assistant Inspector General of the Punjab Police Intelligence Division, the KCF was responsible for the deaths of thousands in India, including the 1995 assassination of Chief Minister Beant Singh
- All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF)
- Bhindranwala Tigers Force of Khalistan (BTFK)
- Also known variously as Bhindranwala Tigers Force of Khalistan, and Bhindranwale Tiger Force, this group appears to have been formed in 1984 by Gurbachan Singh Manochahal. After the founder’s death, the BTF (or BTFK) seems to have disbanded or integrated into other organisations.
- Listed in 1995 as one of the 4 “major militant groups” in the Khalistan movement.
- Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF)
- Listed as a terrorist organisation by the EU. Last major suspected activity was a bomb blast at the Inter-State Bus Terminus in Jalandhar, in 2006.
- Khalistan Liberation Force
- Formed in 1986; believed to be responsible for several bombings of civilian targets in India during the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes in conjunction with Islamist Kashmir separatists.
- Khalistan Liberation Army (KLA)
- Reputed to have been a wing of, or possibly associated with, or possibly a breakaway group of the Khalistan Liberation Force.
- Dashmesh Regiment
- Shaheed Khalsa Force
Most of these outfits were crushed during the anti-insurgency operations by 1993. In recent years, active groups have included Babbar Khalsa, International Sikh Youth Federation, Dal Khalsa, and Bhindranwale Tiger Force. An unknown group before then, the Shaheed Khalsa Force claimed credit for the marketplace bombings in New Delhi in 1997. The group has never been heard of since.
Air India Flight 182
Air India Flight 182 was an Air India flight operating on the Montréal-London-Delhi-Bombay route. On 23 June 1985, the Boeing 747 aeroplane operating on the route was blown up midair off the coast of Ireland by a bomb. In all, 329 people were killed, among them 280 Canadian nationals and 22 Indian nationals.
The main suspects in the bombing were the members of a Sikh separatist group called the Babbar Khalsa, and other related groups who were at the time agitating for a separate Sikh state of Khalistan in Punjab, India. In September 2007, the Canadian Commission of Inquiry investigated reports, initially disclosed in the Indian investigative news magazine Tehelka, that a hitherto unnamed person, Lakhbir Singh Rode, had masterminded the explosions. Several men were arrested and tried for the Air India bombing and Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Canadian national and a member of the ISYF, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to manslaughter is the only person who was convicted in the case. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for assembling the bombs that exploded on board Air India Flight 182 and at Narita.
Abatement of extremism
The United States Department of State found that Sikh extremism had decreased significantly from 1992 to 1997, although the 1997 report noted that “Sikh militant cells are active internationally and extremists gather funds from overseas Sikh communities.”
In 1999, Kuldip Nayar, writing for Rediff.com, stated in his article “It is fundamentalism again”, that the Sikh “masses” had rejected terrorists. By 2001, Sikh extremism and the demand for Khalistan had all but abated.
Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Centre for Global & International Studies, UCSB, reported in his paper “From Bhindranwale to Bin Laden: Understanding Religious Violence”, interviewed a militant who said “The movement is over,” as many of his colleagues had been killed, imprisoned, or driven into hiding, and because public support was gone.
Support from outside India
Operation Bluestar and its violent aftermaths popularized the demand for Khalistan among many Sikhs dispersed globally. Involvement of sections of Sikh diaspora turned out to be important for the movement as it provided the diplomatic and financial support. It also enabled Pakistan to become involved in the fueling of the movement. Sikhs in UK, Canada and USA arranged for cadres to travel to Pakistan for military and financial assistance. Some Sikh groups abroad even declared themselves as the Khalistani government in exile.
The Sikh place of worship, gurdwaras provided the geographic and institutional coordination for the Sikh community. Sikh political factions have used the gurdwaras as a forum for political organization. The gurdwaras sometimes served as the site for mobilization of diaspora for Khalistan movement directly by raising funds. Indirect mobilization was sometimes provided by promoting a stylized version of conflict and Sikh history. The rooms in some gurdwara exhibit pictures of Khalistani leaders along with paintings of martyrs from Sikh history. Gurdwaras also host speakers and musical groups that promote and encourage the movement. Among the diasporas, Khalistan issue has been a divisive issue within gurdwaras. These factions have fought over the control of gurdwaras and their political and financial resources. The fights between pro and anti-Khalistan factions over gurdwaras often included violent acts and bloodshed as reported from UK and North America. The gurdwaras with Khalistani leadership allegedly funnel the collected funds into activities supporting the movement.
Different groups of Sikhs in the diaspora organize the convention of international meetings to facilitate communication and establish organizational order. In April 1981 the first “International Convention of Sikhs,” was held in New York and was attended by some 200 delegates. In April 1987 the third convention was held in Slough, Berkshire where the Khalistan issue was addressed. This meeting’s objective was to “build unity in the Khalistan movement”. All these factors further strengthened the emerging nationalism among Sikhs. Sikh organizations launched many fund-raising efforts that were used for several purposes. After 1984 one of the objectives was the promotion of the Sikh version of “ethnonational history” and the relationship with the Indian state. The Sikh diaspora also increased their efforts to build institutions to maintain and propagate their ethnonational heritage. A major objective of these educational efforts was to publicize a different face to the non Sikh international community who regarded the Sikhs as “terrorists.”
In 1993, Khalistan was briefly admitted in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization but was suspended in a few months. The membership suspension was made permanent on 22 January 1995.
Pakistan has long aspired to dismember India through its Bleed India strategy. Even before the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then a member of the military regime of General Yahya Khan, stated, “Once the back of Indian forces is broken in the east, Pakistan should occupy the whole of Eastern India and make it a permanent part of East Pakistan…. Kashmir should be taken at any price, even the Sikh Punjab and turned into Khalistan.”
General Zia-ul Haq, who succeeded Bhutto as the Head of State, attempted to reverse the traditional antipathy between Sikhs and Muslims arising from the partition violence by restoring Sikh shrines in Pakistan and opening them for Sikh pilgrimage. The expatriate Sikhs from England and North America that visited these shrines were at the forefront of the calls for Khalistan. During the pilgrims’ stay in Pakistan, the Sikhs were exposed to Khalistani propaganda, which would not be openly possible in India. The ISI chief, General Abdul Rahman, opened a cell within ISI with the objective of supporting the “[Sikhs’]…freedom struggle against India”. Rahman’s colleagues in ISI took pride in the fact that “the Sikhs were able to set the whole province on fire. They knew who to kill, where to plant a bomb and which office to target.” General Hamid Gul argued that keeping Punjab destabilized was equivalent to the Pakistan Army having an extra division at no cost. Zia-ul Haq, on the other hand, consistently practised the art of plausible denial. The Khalistan movement was brought to a decline only after India fenced off a part of the Punjab border with Pakistan and the Benazir Bhutto government agreed to joint patrols of the border by Indian and Pakistani troops.
In 2006, an American Court convicted Khalid Awan, a Muslim and Canadian of Pakistani descent, of “supporting terrorism” by providing money and financial services to the Khalistan Commando Force chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar in Pakistan KCF members had carried out deadly attacks against Indian civilians causing thousands of deaths. Awan frequently travelled to Pakistan and was alleged by the U.S. officials with links to Sikh and Muslim extremists, as well as Pakistani intelligence.
In 2008, India’s Intelligence Bureau indicated that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence organisation was trying to revive Sikh militancy.
United States of America
The New York Times reported in June 1984 that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conveyed to Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt, both of them being former Chancellors of West Germany, that United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in causing unrest in Punjab. It also reported that The Indian Express quoted anonymous officials from India’s Intelligence establishment as saying that the CIA “masterminded” a plan to support the acolytes of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who died a few days ago during Operation Blue Star, by smuggling weapons for them through Pakistan. The United States embassy denied this report’s findings.
According to B. Raman, former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat of India and a senior official of the Research and Analysis Wing, the United States initiated a plan in complicity with Pakistan’s General Yahya Khan in 1971 to support an insurgency for Khalistan in Punjab.
Sikh diaspora in Canada
Immediately after Operation Blue Star, authorities were unprepared for how quickly extremism spread and gained support in Canada, with extremists “…threatening to kill thousands of Hindus by a number of means, including blowing up Air India flights.” Canadian Member of Parliament Ujjal Dosanjh, a moderate Sikh, stated that he and others who spoke out against Sikh extremism in the 1980s faced a “reign of terror”.
On 18 November 1998, the Canada-based Sikh journalist Tara Singh Hayer was gunned down by suspected Khalistani militants. The publisher of the “Indo-Canadian Times,” a Canadian Sikh and once-vocal advocate of the armed struggle for Khalistan, he had criticised the bombing of Air India flight 182, and was to testify about a conversation he overheard concerning the bombing. On 24 January 1995, Tarsem Singh Purewal, editor of Britain’s Punjabi-language weekly “Des Pardes”, was killed as he was closing his office in Southall. There is speculation that the murder was related to Sikh extremism, which Purewal may have been investigating. Another theory is that he was killed in retaliation for revealing the identity of a young rape victim.
Terry Milewski reported in a 2006 documentary for the CBC that a minority within Canada’s Sikh community was gaining political influence even while publicly supporting terrorist acts in the struggle for an independent Sikh state. In response, the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), a Canadian Sikh human rights group that opposes violence and extremism, sued the CBC for “defamation, slander, and libel”, alleging that Milewski linked it to terrorism and damaged the reputation of the WSO within the Sikh community.
Canadian journalist Kim Bolan has written extensively on Sikh extremism. Speaking at the Fraser Institute in 2007, she reported that she still received death threats over her coverage of the 1985 Air India bombing.
In 2008, a CBC report stated that “a disturbing brand of extremist politics has surfaced” at some of the Vaisakhi parades in Canada, and The Trumpet agreed with the CBC assessment. Two leading Canadian Sikh politicians refused to attend the parade in Surrey, saying it was a glorification of terrorism. In 2008, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, expressed his concern that there might be a resurgence of Sikh extremism.
There has been some controversy over Canada’s response to the Khalistan movement. After Amarinder Singh’s refusal to meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017, calling him a “Khalistani sympathizer”, Singh ultimately met with Trudeau 22 Feb 2018 over the issue. Trudeau assured Singh that his country would not support the revival of the separatist movement. Shiromani Akali Dal President Sukhbir Badal was quoted saying Khalistan is “no issue, either in Canada or in Punjab”.
Sikh diaspora in the UK
In February 2008, BBC Radio 4 reported that the Chief of the Punjab Police, NPS Aulakh, alleged that militant groups were receiving money from the British Sikh community. The same report included statements that although the Sikh militant groups were poorly equipped and staffed, intelligence reports and interrogations indicated that Babbar Khalsa was sending its recruits to the same terrorist training camps in Pakistan used by Al Qaeda.
Lord Bassam of Brighton, then Home Office minister, stated that International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) members working from the UK had committed “assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings” and were a “threat to national security.” The ISYF is listed in the UK as a “Proscribed Terrorist Group” but it has not been included in the list of terrorist organisations by the United States Department of State. It was also added to the US Treasury Department terrorism list on 27 June 2002.
Andrew Gilligan, reporting for The London Evening Standard, stated that the Sikh Federation (UK) is the “successor” of the ISYF, and that its executive committee, objectives, and senior members … are largely the same. The Vancouver Sun reported in February 2008 that Dabinderjit Singh was campaigning to have both the Babbar Khalsa and International Sikh Youth Federation de-listed as terrorist organisations. It also stated of Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day that “he has not been approached by anyone lobbying to delist the banned groups”. Day is also quoted as saying “The decision to list organizations such as Babbar Khalsa, Babbar Khalsa International, and the International Sikh Youth Federation as terrorist entities under the Criminal Code is intended to protect Canada and Canadians from terrorism.” There are claims of funding from Sikhs outside India to attract young people into these pro-Khalistan militant groups.
1990s – 2000s movement decline
The Khalistan movement reached its peak in late 1970s and 1980s and the insurgency petered out in the 1990s. The state and local government elections were held in 1992. The movement has failed to reach its objectives in India due to several reasons. Among the prominent are:
- Heavy Police crackdown on the separatists under the leadership of Punjab Police chief KPS Gill. Several militant leaders were killed and others surrendered and rehabilitated.
- Gill credits the decline to change in the policies by adding provision for an adequate number of Police and security forces to deal with the militancy. The clear political will from the government without any interference.
- Lack of a clear political concept of Khalistan even to the extremist supporters. As per Ram Narayan Kumar’s book, the name which was wishful thinking only represented their revulsion against the Indian establishment and did not find any alternative to it.
- In the later stages of the movement the militant lacked an ideological motivation.
- Entry of the criminals and government loyalists into the ranks of the militants further divided the groups.
- Loss of the sympathy and support from the Sikh population of Punjab.
- The divisions among the Sikhs also undermined this movement. According to Pettigrew non-Jat urban Sikhs did not want to live in a country of “Jatistan.” Further division was caused as the people in the region traditionally preferred police and military service as career options. The Punjab Police had a majority of Jat Sikhs and the conflict was referred as “Jat against Jat” by Police chief Gill.
- The moderate factions of Akali Dal led by Prakash Singh Badal reclaimed the political positions in the state through all the three, namely parliamentary, assembly and SGPC elections. The dominance of traditional political parties was reasserted over the militant-associated factions.
- The increased vigilance by security forces in the region against rise of separatist elements.
- The confidence building measures adopted by the Sikh community helped in rooting out the Khalistan movement.
Simrat Dhillon, writing in 2007 for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, noted that while a few groups continued to fight, “the movement has lost its popular support both in India and within the Diaspora community”.
The present situation in Punjab is generally regarded as peaceful, and the militant Khalistan movement remains dormant in India. The Sikh community maintains its own unique identity and is socially assimilated in cosmopolitan areas. Support for an independent homeland exists among the separatist Sikh leaders in the expatriate Sikh community outside India (mainly in Europe and North America).
Sikh groups operating from other countries are trying to revive the Khalistan Movement.
Recently, many signs have been raised in several places in support of the Khalistan movement, although the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada reports that Sikhs who support Khalistan may themselves be detained and tortured. Notably, on the 31st anniversary of Operation Bluestar, pro-Khalistan signs were raised in Punjab. In retaliation, 25 Sikh youths were detained by the police. Pro-Khalistan signs were also raised during a function of Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal. Two members of SAD-A, identified as Sarup Singh Sandha and Rajindr Singh Channa, raised pro-Khalistan and anti-Badal signs during the chief minister’s speech.
Moreover, signs in favour of Khalistan were raised when SAD (Amritsar) President Simranjeet Singh Mann came to meet Surat Singh Khalsa, who was admitted to Dayanand Medical College and Hospital (DMCH). While Mann was arguing with ACP Satish Malhotra, supporters standing at the main gate of DMCH raised Khalistan signs in the presence of heavy police force. After a confrontation with the police authorities that lasted about 15–20 minutes, Mann was allowed to meet Khalsa along with ADCP Paramjeet Singh Pannu.
Despite residing outside India, there is a strong sense of attachment among Sikhs to their culture and religion. There is persistent demand for justice for the Sikh victims during the peak of the Khalistan movement. In some ways, The Sikh Diaspora is seen as a torch-bearer of the Khalistan movement, now considered to be highly political and military in nature. Recent reports clearly indicate a rise in pro-Khalistan sentiments among the Sikh Diaspora overseas, which can revive the secessionist movement. Some people were even spotted in this world cup 2019 in pro-khalistan jerseys. They were then whisked out of the stadium.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia