Khalistan: The outlawed Sikh separatist movement

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau's allegations of "potential" involvement of Indian government agents in the killing of Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar

Khalistan Movement

The Khalistan movement is a fight for a separate, sovereign Sikh state in the present day Punjab (both India and Pakistan). Over the years, it has survived in various forms, in various places and amongst different populations. The movement was crushed in India following Operation Blue Star (1984) and Operation Black Thunder (1986 and 1988), but it continues to evoke sympathy and support among sections of the Sikh population, especially in the Sikh diaspora in countries such as Canada, the UK, and Australia.

When did the movement start & why?

The origin of the movement have been traced back to India’s independence and subsequent partition along religious lines. The Punjab province, which was divided between India & Pakistan, saw some of the worst communal violence and generated millions of refugees; Sikhs and Hindus stranded on the west (in Pakistan) rushed to the east, whereas Muslims in the east fled westward.

Lahore, the capital of Maharaj Ranjit Singh’s great Sikh Empire, went to Pakistan, as did holy Sikh sites including Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. While most Sikhs found themselves in India, they were a small minority in the country, making up around 2% of the population. The political struggle for greater autonomy began around the time of Independence, with the Punjabi Suba Movement for the creation of a Punjabi- speaking state.

The States Reorganisation Commission, in its 1955 report, rejected this demand, but in 1966, after years of protest, the state of Punjab was reorganised to reflect the Punjabi Suba demand. The erstwhile Punjab state was trifurcated into the Hindi-speaking, Hindi-majority states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, and the Punjabi- speaking, Sikh-majority Punjab.

Anandpur sahib Resolution

The Punjabi Suba movement had galvanised the Akali Dal which became a major force in the new Sikh-majority Punjab, and gave the congress hard fights in the Legislative Assembly elections of 1967 and 1969. But in 1972, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s resounding victory in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, the Akali Dal’s performance in the state was underwhelming. The party met at the sacred town of Anandpur Sahib, the birthplace of Khalsa in 1973, and released a list of demands that would guide the political path of the Akali Dal.

Among other things, the Anandpur Sahib resolution demanded autonomy for the state of Punjab, identified regions that would be part of a separate state, and sought the right of frame its own internal constitution. The Akali Dal was trying to cash in on the growing demand for an autonomous state and had gone global by 1971- when an advertisement appeared on The New York Times proclaiming the birth of Khalistan. While the Akalis themselves repeatedly made it clear that they were noy demanding secession from India, for the Indian state, the Anandpur Sahib resolution was of grave concern.

Operation Blue Star

By 1982, the situation in Punjab had become increasingly untenable for the government. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (a charismatic preacher who soon positioned himself as “the authentic voice of the Sikhs, in contrast of the Akali Dal’s lukewarm, vacillating leadership”) had given a call to arms, and instances of violence against Hindus as well as government officers had become common. In 1983, a senior police officer was shot dead after praying at Golden Temple and his body was left to decay in the sun, while the local police station did nothing- perhaps bot out of fear and sympathy to Bhindrawale’s cause.

Indira Gandhi took the fateful decision to order the Indian Army to flush out militants from Golden Temple and neutralise Bhindranwale. Operation Blue Star began on June 1, 1984, but due to fierce resistance from Bhindranwale and his heavily armed supporters, the Army’s operation became larger and violent than had been originally intended, with the use of tanks and air support. The image of Indian Army tanks shelling the holiest shrine of Sikhism was traumatic, and the very large number of civilian casualties that occurred during the operation added to the trauma.

According to the government, 83 Indian Army soldiers were killed and 249 were injured in the operation. A total 493 militants and civilians were killed in the operation. Other estimates peg the number of casualties much higher- as much 3,000.

What happened after Operation Blue Star?

While the operation was ostensibly successful in its aims- Bhindrawale was killed and the Golden Temple was freed od militants- it gravely wounded the Sikh community around the world. It also galvanised the demand for Khalistan. On October 31, 1984, Prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. This triggered the worst communal violence since partition- even according to conservative estimates, over 8000 Sikhs were massacred in massive anti-sikh street violence.

A year later, Sikh nationalists based in Canada blew up an Air India flight killing 329 people. They claimed that the attack was to “avenge Bhindrawale’s killing”. Punjab saw the worst violence, becoming the hub of a long drawn out insurgency that lasted till 1955. While the movement was alleged supported by Pakistan to cause internal unrest in its neighbouring country, it would slowly peter out by the 1990s as the violence took its toll. The bulk of the population turned against the militants, and Inda headed towards economic liberalisation.

Punjab has long been peaceful, but the movement lives among some Sikh communities overseas. The deep rooted anger over Operation Blue Star and the desecration of the Golden Temple continues to resonate with some in the newer generations of Sikhs. However, even as Bhindrawale is viewed as a martyr by many and the 1980s remembered as dark times, this has not manifested into tangible political support for the Khalistan cause. 

Hardeep Singh Nijjar & Khalistan tiger force

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, head of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara Sahib in Surrey, Canada, was killed on June 18, evening. He was the chief of the separatist organisation Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF). Nijjar, who was 46, was shot dead by two identified men on the premises of the gurudwara, as he headed home for the day. The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara was being presided over by Nijjar himself for the past four years, giving rise to speculation that funds from the shrine were being embezzled for funding terror activities in Punjab. Nijjar had moved from Punjab to Canada in 1997, where he worked as a plumber. He had been the president of the Surrey gurudwara body since 2020.

According to the Indian government, as the leader of the KTF, Nijjar was actively involved in the operationalisation and networking of the organisation, and the training and financing of its members. He alleged visited Pakistan in 2013-14 to meet with Jagtar Singh Tara, who is currently serving a life sentence in India for his involvement in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh. Tara had escaped from jail in 2004, but was rearrested in Thailand in 2015 and brought to India. Nijjar was also friendly with Dal Khalsa leader Gajinder Singh, one of the five hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight in 1981. Gajinder Singh is currently in Pakistan. 

The NIA had declared a cash reward of Rs 10 lakh for Nijjar. His name was on the wanted list that former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh handed over to Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau during the latter’s visit to India in 2018. Nijjar was named in the FIR that the NIA registered in December 2020 when farmers were protesting against the three farm laws in Delhi. Nijjar, along with Gurpatwant Singh Pannum and Paramjit Singh Pamma, were accused of conspiring to create an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness, causing disaffection among people, and inciting them to rise in rebellion against the Government of India.

Link with Sikh for Justice

Nijjar was also associated with Sikh for Justice, a separatist organisation that is banned in India. He was seen in Australia during the voting for so-called Khalistan Referendum there. His properties in Punjab were attached in 2020 in relation to a case against Sikhs for justice for their online campaign for the so-called referendum.

Is the movement still active?

There is no active insurgency in Punjab today, but the Khalistan movement still has some supporters in the state, as well as in the sizable Sikh diaspora beyond India. The Indian government has warned repeatedly over the years that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also intensified the pursuit of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders from various outfits that are linked to the movement.

Earlier this year, Indian police arrested a separatist leader who had revived calls for Khalistan and stirred fears of violence in Punjab. Amritpal Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, had captured national attention through his fiery speeches. He said he drew inspiration from Bhindranwale.

How strong is the movement outside India?

India has been asking countries like Canada, Australia and the U.K. to take legal action against Sikh activists, and Modi has personally raised the issue with the nations' prime ministers. India has particularly raised these concerns with Canada, where Sikhs make up nearly 2% of the country's population.

Earlier this year, Sikh protesters pulled down the Indian flag at the country’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s window in a show of anger against the move to arrest Amritpal Singh. Protesters also smashed windows at the Indian consulate In San Francisco and skirmished with embassy workers.

India’s foreign ministry denounced the incidents and summoned the U.K.’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London.

The Indian government also accused Khalistan supporters in Canada of vandalizing Hindu temples with “anti-India” graffiti and of attacking the offices of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during a protest in March.

Current situation

Tensions between Canada and India have reached new heights with dueling diplomatic expulsions and an allegation of Indian government involvement in the killing of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil. Amid a diplomatic row between India and Canada, an Indo-Canadian lawmaker from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's party has expressed dismay at the “glorification of terrorism” and hate crime targeting Hindus in this country in the name of “freedom of expression”.

The row centers around the Sikh independence, or Khalistan, movement. India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement, which is banned in India but has support among the Sikh diaspora.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament described what he called credible allegations that India was connected to the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. The Indian government denied any hand in Nijjar’s killing while also saying Canada was trying to shift the focus from Khalistan activists there.

After that the sharp reaction from Chandra Arya, who represents the riding of Nepean in the House of Commons of Canada, came as extremist elements backed by a leader of the Khalistan movement openly asked Hindu Canadians to go back to India. A few days back Khalistan movement leader in Canada and the president of Sikhs for Justice which organises the so-called referendum Gurpatwant Singh Pannun attacked Hindu Canadians asking us to leave Canada and go back to India, also said “I have heard from many Hindu-Canadians who are fearful after this targeted attack. I urge Hindu-Canadians to stay calm but vigilant. Please report any incident of Hinduphobia to your local law enforcement agencies".

India has rejected the charges as "absurd" and "motivated" and kicked out a senior Canadian diplomat in a tit-for-tat move to Ottawa's expulsion of an Indian official.

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