Khalistan movement: How it started, why's it surfacing in Canada now
The demand for Khalistan can be traced to the 1940s, when the British partitioned India and created Pakistan
The escalating diplomatic war between India and Canada over the killing of Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has brought the issue of a separate Sikh homeland back in the spotlight.
While Sikhs constitute a majority in Punjab, they form a minority in India, making up only 2 per cent of the country's vast population of 1.4 billion. The movement’s proponents demand the formation of Khalistan, which translates to “the land of the pure”, from Punjab. Over the years, this demand has resurfaced, with one of its most violent periods occurring during an insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s that gripped Punjab for more than a decade.
The demand for Khalistan can be traced to the 1940s when the British partitioned India and created Pakistan. It created a sense of fear and disaffection in the Sikh community, as they suddenly found themselves divided between a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India. Punjab’s Sikh community was also impacted by the Green Revolution, an initiative in the late 1960s to improve agricultural production. While this benefited Punjab economically, it created resentment among Sikhs due to inequitable distribution of wealth, lack of non-agricultural development and the central government’s monopoly over agricultural policy.
Sense of injustice
Another issue contributing to the Sikhs’ sense of injustice was the diversion of water from the Sutlej that flowed through Punjab to the neighbouring states of Haryana and Rajasthan. However, the movement was quiet until the 1970s, primarily due to the Indian government’s move to divide Punjab into a Punjabi speaking majority Sikh state (Punjab) and a Hindi-speaking state (Haryana) in 1966. Though the move addressed various demands of Sikhs, it again left them dejected on one count. Sikhs were unhappy with the fact that they had to share their state capital of Chandigarh with Haryana. The movement traced its roots to widespread dissatisfaction with the economic, social and political conditions for Sikhs in post-independence India.
In the late 1970s, Punjab saw the emergence of Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who gave voice to the resentment that had been brewing among people for a long. He claimed that the government was discriminating against Sikhs and intentionally undermining Sikh identity. Bhindranwale soon became a prominent political leader in Punjab, taking refuge in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. He virtually established a “parallel government” there, fortified with weapons.
A violent political mass movement swept through Punjab during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The need to protect Sikh religion and identity, and address the rising unemployment in the agricultural community and Sikh youths drove the demand for a separate independent homeland. The Khalistan movement reached its peak in the 1980s when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, under Operation Bluestar, ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, in Amritsar where Bhindranwale and his aides had taken refuge, in June 1984.
Operation Bluestar further angered and alienated the Sikh population, including the large diaspora around the world. However, the worst wasn’t over yet, as thousands of Sikhs were killed in New Delhi by rampaging mobs after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in November 1984. Subsequently, Punjab witnessed bloodshed for years as the state was plunged into turmoil during the dark days of terrorism from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. This was a period of violence and draconian policing measures used to suppress the separatist movement. It was only in the late 1990s that the sense of normalcy returned to Punjab with the resumption of the democratic process.
Pak fueling trouble
The Indian government has time and again claimed over the years that Pakistan has provided support to exiled Khalistani groups in terms of funding and arms training to promote disharmony in India.
Earlier this year, the emergence of a self-styled Sikh preacher, Amritpal Singh, in Punjab revived the dark memories of the Khalistan movement. Though it stirred fears of renewed violence in the border state, the government stepped in to take control and he was arrested along with his aides. Intelligence agencies had again blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI for 'planting' Amritpal in Punjab with twin objectives of fanning separatist sentiments in the border state and facilitating trafficking of drugs and arms into India.
The Khalistan movement has always had a transnational character. The Indian army’s operation in Amritsar and the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 created an enduring memory for many Sikhs that has transcended India’s borders.
While the Khalistan movement has lost traction within India, it continues to find support among elements of the Sikh diaspora in countries like Canada, the US, and the UK. Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside Punjab, comprising more than 2% of the country’s population, apart from having a significant political representation. However, it’s essential to emphasise that not all Canadian Sikhs support Khalistan.
The movement primarily resonates among Sikhs who left India during the 1980s when the movement was at its peak. These individuals retain memories of that time, keeping the movement alive despite changing ground realities in Punjab. Support for the movement within the diaspora has dwindled over the years, especially among the newer generation of Sikhs with less personal connection to India.
Signs of resurgence
In recent months, a series of attacks targeting Hindu temples and instances of anti-India graffiti have been witnessed in various parts of the Western world, including Australia and Canada. Besides, emergence of pro-Khalistani posters threatening Indian diplomats in Canada prompted New Delhi to lodge a strong protest with Ottawa.
These events have sparked apprehensions that Khalistani separatist groups may be attempting to regroup and make a resurgence in India while operating from foreign soil. Much of the graffiti prominently advocates for Khalistan and voices opposition against the Modi government. Moreover, incidents of clashes between pro-Khalistan and pro-India supporters have also occurred in countries like Australia.
Referendums advocating for an independent Khalistan state have also been conducted in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Despite India expressing concerns about the potential consequences of such referendums, the governments of these countries chose to permit them, citing them as an exercise of democratic rights by their citizens.
A key factor that may have contributed to the Khalistan movement regaining momentum is the decline in credibility of both moderate and radical panthic groups in Punjab as reflected in the virtual collapse of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in the aftermath of incidents like the Akal Takht granting pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in blasphemy case and subsequent instances of Guru Granth Sahib’s sacrilege. It created a political space for the rise of neo-panthic groups. The rise of Hindu nationalist forces in India since 2014 and the clamour for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ have also served to legitimise the demands for Khalistan.
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 almost all political parties in Canada.