The ongoing long-drawn farmers’ protest against the three farm bills continues without any let up. Whether it is succeeding in its aim is one thing but among its consequences is the virtual exhumation of the long-dead Khalistan issue.
Strangely, the attempts by the state and its agencies to project the agitation as part of some grand conspiracy involving Khalistani backers have managed to divert attention from the protests while zeroing in on unsuspecting young activists like Disha Ravi who were supporting the farmers’ demands on social media.
The police charge against Ravi is that her social media posts circulating a “toolkit” tagged a pro-Khalistan organisation which is claimed to be a confirmation that the protests are somehow linked to the secessionist movement.
What is puzzling is that the Khalistan movement, by all accounts, was crushed in the 1990s. In other words, the movement is non-existent today. It is history.
The flag used to represent a separate Khalistan is like the Confederate flag in the United States. The secessionist Confederates triggered a civil war in the US that lasted four years from 1861. But that is in the past. The flag is used occasionally by people during protests. The latest was in the attack on the US Capitol in November. None is prosecuted for holding the flag. The reason is simple. The chances of the US returning to a civil war is remote.
A return of the Khalistan movement in India is equally remote. After the mid-1990s there has not been a single instance of any activity that points to a re-emergence of this separatist movement in Punjab. Bringing it up now for extraneous motives borders on the ludicrous.
The movement for a separate Sikh nation took hold of Punjab and the nation for two decades, 1980s and 1990s. As quickly as it emerged, it was put down equally swiftly by the then Congress government under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for which she paid a price with her life, eventually.
According to academic Surinder Jodhka (EPW, April 21, 2001), “…after 15 years of violence and bloodshed, Sikh militancy began to decline by the early 1990s and by the middle of the 1990s the Khalistan movement was virtually over.”
“More than 30,000 people, a large majority of whom were Sikhs, had lost their lives in Punjab and elsewhere in India in the violence linked to the crisis,” writes Jodhka.
The violent secessionist movement comprised an extreme faction of the Akali Dal and sections of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF). Led by a militant Sikh priest Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the secessionists held sway over the state for nearly two decades.
Eventually, the Indira Gandhi government embarked on Operation Blue Star in June 1984. The Indian Army ruthlessly mowed down the Khalistanis who were based inside the precincts of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikh’s holiest shrine. Bhindranwale was killed in the operation. The government followed this up with Operation Woodrose, under which the army fanned out across Punjab and defeated the Sikh militants.
Ms Gandhi paid for the military actions with her life. After her assassination in October 1984 by Sikh bodyguards and the anti-Sikh riots that followed, the Khalistan movement started to lose steam. Within Punjab too, people uninvolved in the movement grew tired of the incessant violence. It came to a head following the assassination of Akali Dal chief Sant Longowal in 1985 by militants following a peace accord with the Rajiv Gandhi government.
Having lost sympathy of fellow Sikhs and in combination with the pressure exerted by security forces under Operation Black Thunder I and II in the late 1980s, the Khalistan movement fizzled out by the mid-1990s. Since then, Punjab has never looked back and has gone far beyond the secessionist phase.
Central rule in Punjab was lifted briefly in 1985 when the Akali Dal came to power. Two years later central rule was re-imposed. In 1992, the Congress returned to power after the Akali Dal boycotted the elections. Since then, the Akali Dal and the Congress have been voted to power at different times. The BJP too came to power as part of an alliance with the Akalis. All in all, a sign that the state had turned its back to secessionist militancy.
Since then, the Khalistan movement has largely been confined to history. Among the biggest backers of the separatists during their heyday was a section of the Sikh diaspora in Canada and the United Kingdom. Even their activities, for all practical purposes, has died down. Even if they have remained tagged as “pro-Khalistan” supporters, their effect on Punjab politics is nil, for all practical purposes.
A movement that was long finished has now returned centre-stage not in its original form, but as a memory that has been exhumed to somehow use it to discredit the Sikh-dominated farmers’ protests.
From the beginning, the farm unions spearheading the protests have made it amply clear that they have nothing to do with the Khalistan movement. Holding the national tricolour and chanting patriotic songs they have made it a point to distance themselves from any possible charge of being influenced by the Khalistanis.
Attempts by pro-government media outlets to link the protesting Sikh farmers to the Khalistan movement has been met with palpable anger and outrage among the agitators.
Moreover, though news has been widely circulated across mainstream media and on the Internet to make it appear that only Sikh farmers in Punjab are protesting, it is clear from ground reports that farmers from West Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan are very much part of the agitation. So too are farmers from several other parts of the country including Karnataka and Maharashtra who have periodically come out on to the streets in solidarity.
The protests began in Punjab in August last year soon after the passage of the three farm bills. In end-November the protesters from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan moved to the borders of Delhi where they have dug themselves in for the long haul.
For the central government, which viewed the protests as something that could be handled by granting some concessions, the fortitude of the farmers has negated its efforts to find a solution. The protesters, in their thousands, want nothing short of total repeal of the three laws which they fear will affect their livelihood.
Having come up short, a section of members and supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have attempted to discredit the protests by linking it to the now-defunct Khalistani movement.
Activists like Disha Ravi, who largely do their activism online, appear to have got caught in the crossfire of a furious standoff between the government and protesters. A trivial toolkit, or guide, that largely advises netizens on how to express peaceful support for farmers and a singular Tweet in support of the agitation by a young UN-celebrated climate activist Greta Thunberg and a pop sensation and much-followed Rihanna have been turned into ingredients to fuel the Khalistan conspiracy.
The resurrection by the government’s agencies of “Khalistan” is paradoxical as for the GenX and the millenials who may have only vaguely heard of the secessionist movement, it is now holding centre-stage – and being given an importance that may well turn Indira Gandhi in her grave.