Khalistan movement

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Flag used by the NGO[1][2] Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization to represent Khalistan[3] from 24 January 1993 to 4 August 1993; the membership was permanently suspended on 22 January 1995.

The Khalistan movement is a Sikh separatist movement, which seeks to create a separate country called Khalistān (Punjabi: ਖ਼ਾਲਿਸਤਾਨ, "The Land of the Pure") in the Punjab region of South Asia to serve as a homeland for Sikhs flourishing in the Indian state of Punjab, which has a Sikh-majority population and has been the traditional homeland of the Sikh religion.[4] The territorial definition of the proposed country Khalistan consists of both the Punjab, India along with Punjab, Pakistan and includes parts of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Rajasthan.[5][6][7][8]

The Khalistan movement started around the time of partition of India when there were calls for an independent Sikh state but the idea was unviable due to lack of sufficient sikh population as compared to other religions in Punjab. The movement flourished in the Indian state of Punjab, which has a Sikh-majority population and reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s when the seccessionist movement caused largescale violence among the local population including assassination of PM Indira Gandhi and bombing of Air India plane killing 328 passengers.[9] 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,[10] and the movement failed to reach its objective due to multiple reasons including a heavy police crackdown on separatists.[11]

Support recently surfaced in early 2018, with some pro-Khalistan groups arrested by police in Punjab.[11] Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh claims the revival is backed by a "foreign hand" of Pakistan's ISI, as well as "Khalistani sympathisers" in Canada, Italy, and the UK.[12] Pakistan "categorically" rejects Indian allegations and labels them as attempts to "incite Sikh pilgrims" travelling to Pakistan.[13]


The Sikhs have traditionally been concentrated in Punjab region of undivided India although not in a majority in either Punjab in Pakistan or Punjab in India. 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 Indian Punjab. Before its conquest by the British, it had been ruled by the confederacy of Sikh Misls founded by Banda Bahadur ruled over the entire Punjab from 1767 to 1799,[14] until their confederacy was unified into the Sikh Empire by Maharajah Ranjit Singh. However, the region also has a substantial number of Hindus and Muslims, and before 1947, the Sikhs formed the largest religious group only in the Ludhiana district of the British province. When the Muslim League demanded a separate country for Muslims via the Lahore Resolution of 1940, 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 Khalistan, envisaging it as a theocratic state covering a small part of the greater Punjab region.

After the partition was announced, practically all 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. Following India's independence in 1947, the Punjabi Suba Movement led by the Akali Dal aimed at the creation of a Punjabi-majority state (Suba) in the Punjab region of India in the 1950s.[15] Concerned that creating a Punjabi-majority state would effectively mean creating a Sikh-majority state, the Indian government initially rejected the demand. After a series of protests, violent clampdowns on the Sikhs, and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, the Government finally agreed to partition the state, creating a new Sikh-majority Punjab state and splitting the rest of the region into the states of Himachal Pradesh and the new state of Haryana.[16] Subsequently, Sikh leaders started demanding more autonomy for the states, alleging that the Central government was discriminating against Punjab. Although the Akali Dal explicitly opposed the demand for an independent Sikh country, the issues raised by it were used as a premise for the creation of a separate country by the proponents of Khalistan.

In 1971, the Khalistan proponent Jagjit Singh Chauhan travelled to Pakistan and the United States. He placed an advertisement in The New York Times proclaiming the formation of Khalistan and was able to collect millions of dollars from the Sikh diaspora.[17] On 12 April 1980, he held a meeting with the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi before declaring the formation of a "National Council of Khalistan", at Anandpur Sahib.[18] He declared himself the President of the Council and Balbir Singh Sandhu as its Secretary General. In May 1980, Jagjit Singh Chauhan 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. The inaction of the authorities in Amritsar and elsewhere was decried by the Akali Dal headed by the Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal as a political stunt by the Congress party of Indira Gandhi.[19]

British India

Before the British conquest of India, a large part of the Punjab region was ruled by a Sikh dynasty founded by Ranjit Singh, for 50 years, from 1799 to 1849 CE. 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. Among the three major religions (Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism), Sikhs formed the largest group (41.6%) only in the Ludhiana district.[20] The Sikhs and the Muslims had unsuccessfully claimed separate representation for their communities in the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909. When the Muslims proposed the creation of an Islamic-majority Pakistan, many Sikhs staunchly opposed the concept.[21]

The term Khalistan was coined by the Sikh leader Dr. Vir Singh Bhatti in March 1940.[22] He made the case for a Sikh country in the pamphlet Khalistan, published as a response to the Muslim League's Lahore Resolution. His idea was based on the presumption that Pakistan, containing Sikh-inhabited territories, would be formed as an Islamic theocratic state one day, and it would be hostile to Sikhism. The country which he proposed would include parts of present-day Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab (including Lahore), and the Simla Hill States.[23] 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.[22] The idea was supported by Baba Gurdit Singh.

In the 1940s, a prolonged negotiation transpired between the British and the three Indian groups seeking political power, namely, the Hindus, the Muslims, and the Sikhs. During this period, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stated that a resolution was adopted by the Congress to satisfy the Sikh community.[24] Jawaharlal Nehru reiterated Gandhi's assurance to the Sikhs at the All India Congress Committee meeting in Calcutta in 1946.[25] Nehru assured the Sikhs that they would be allowed to function as a semi-autonomous unit so that they may have a sense of freedom.[26] A resolution passed by the Indian Constituent Assembly on 9 December 1946 envisaged the Union of India as an "independent sovereign republic, comprising autonomous units with residuary powers".[27]

During a press conference on 10 July 1946 in Bombay, Nehru made a controversial statement to the effect that Congress may "change or modify" the federal arrangement agreed upon for an independent India, for the betterment of a united India; this claim outraged many people. The Sikhs felt that they had been tricked into joining the Indian union. On 21 November 1949, during the review of the draft of the Indian Constitution, Hukam Singh, a Sikh representative, declared to the Constituent Assembly:[28]

Naturally, under these circumstances, as I have stated, the Sikhs feel utterly disappointed and frustrated. They feel that they have been discriminated against. Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this [Indian] Constitution. I wish to record an emphatic protest here. My community cannot subscribe its assent to this historic document.

Initial allegations of discrimination in independent India

Map of the present-day Indian state of Punjab. Following the partition, East Punjab became PEPSU, which was further divided in 1966 with the formation of the new states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh as well as the current state of Punjab. Punjab is the only state in India with a majority Sikh population.[29]

After British India was partitioned on a religious basis in 1947, Punjab province was divided between India and newly created Pakistan. 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.[30]

In 1947, Kapur Singh, a senior Sikh Indian Civil Service officer, was dismissed by the Government on charges of corruption. After his dismissal, he published a pamphlet alleging that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, through Governor Chandu Lal Trivedi, had issued a directive in 1947 to all the Commissioners in Punjab recommending that Sikhs in general must be treated as a criminal tribe.[31] The pamphlet stated:[32]

In 1947, the governor of Punjab, Mr. C. M. Trevedi, in deference to the wishes of the Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister, issued certain instructions to all the Deputy Commissioners of Indian Punjab...These were to the effect that, without reference to the law of the land, the Sikhs in general and Sikh migrants in particular must be treated as a "criminal tribe". Harsh treatment must be meted out to the extent of shooting them dead so that they wake up to the political realities and recognise "who are the rulers and who the subjects".

— Kapur Singh

In reality, Nehru had not sent out any such directive, and in fact, Kapur Singh's case had been scrutinised by his own colleagues before he was dismissed.[31] Nevertheless, Kapur Singh was later supported by the Akali Dal leader Master Tara Singh, who helped him win elections to the Punjab Legislative Assembly and the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament). Kapur Singh later played an important role in drafting the Anandpur Resolution, which postulated preservation of "the concept of distinct and sovereign identity" of the Khalsa, or simply the Sikh (Nation).

Pritam Singh Gill, a retired principal of Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar, also made allegations of "the Hindu conspiracy to destroy Sikhs; kill the language, kill the culture, kill the community".[31]

Punjabi Suba

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 officially never demanded an independent country for the Sikh nation, and at times explicitly opposed it. However, 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.

Language issues

A map of the distribution of native Punjabi speakers in the Indian subcontinent.

In the 1950s, the countrywide movement of linguistic groups seeking statehood in India resulted in a massive reorganisation of states according to linguistic boundaries, in 1956. As part of the reorganisation, the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) was merged with Punjab, which included large numbers of Punjabi as well as Hindi speakers. At that time, the state of Punjab included the present-day states of Punjab, Haryana, parts of Himachal Pradesh, along with Chandigarh. The vast majority of Sikhs lived in this Hindu-majority Punjab. The Government of India was wary of carving out a separate Punjabi-language state, because it effectively meant dividing the state along religious lines: Sikhs would form a 60% majority in the resulting Punjabi state.[31]

The Akali Dal, a Sikh-dominated political party active mainly in Punjab, sought to create a Punjabi Suba ("Punjabi Province"). Sikh leaders such as Fateh Singh tactically stressed the linguistic basis of the demand, while downplaying its religious basis – a country where the distinct Sikh identity could be preserved.[33] Fresh from the memory of the partition, the Punjabi Hindus were also concerned about living in a Sikh-majority state. Hindu newspapers from Jalandhar exhorted the Punjabi Hindus to declare Hindi as their "mother tongue", so that the Punjabi Suba proponents could be deprived of the argument that their demand was solely linguistic. This later created a rift between the Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab. The case for creating a Punjabi Suba was presented to the States Reorganisation Commission established in 1955. The States Reorganization Commission, not recognising Punjabi as a language that was grammatically very distinct from Hindi, rejected the demand for a Punjabi state. Another reason that the Commission gave in its report was that the movement lacked general support of the people inhabiting the region. Many Sikhs felt discriminated against by the commission.

However, Sikh leaders continued their agitation for the creation of a Punjabi Suba. The Akal Takht played a vital role in organising Sikhs to campaign for the cause. During the Punjabi Suba movement, 12,000 Sikhs were arrested for their peaceful demonstrations in 1955, and 26,000 in 1960-61. Finally, in September 1966, the Indira Gandhi-led Union Government accepted the demand, and Punjab was trifurcated as per the Punjab Reorganisation Act.[34]

Areas in the south of Punjab that spoke the Haryanvi dialect of Hindi formed the new state of Haryana, while the areas that spoke the Pahari dialects were merged into Himachal Pradesh, (a Union Territory at the time). The remaining areas, except Chandigarh, formed the new Punjabi-majority state, which retained the name of Punjab.[30] Until 1966, Punjab was a Hindu-majority state (63.7%). But during the linguistic partition, the Hindu-majority districts were removed from the state.[35] Chandigarh, the planned city built to replace Punjab's pre-partition capital Lahore, was claimed by both Haryana and Punjab. Pending resolution of the dispute, it was declared as a separate Union Territory which would serve as the capital of both states.

River waters dispute

A map of the Punjab region ca. 1947 showing the doabas formed by Ravi River with other rivers of the Indus River system.

The major rivers of Punjab — Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi — are of high importance due to the agricultural economy of the region. Before 1966, the issue of sharing river waters and the development of projects had led to disputes between India and Pakistan, as well as between Indian states. The Indian Government had initiated planning for the development of the Ravi and Beas rivers with treaty negotiations, which involved contributions from the states of Punjab, PEPSU, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) within the ambit of the already developed Bhakra Nangal Dam project on the Sutlej River. The merger of PEPSU with Punjab caused further complications, leading to the Interstate River Water Disputes Act of 1956.[36]

The 1966 reorganisation further created competing demands for the river waters. Before the reorganisation, Punjab was a riparian state as far as the rivers Yamuna, Beas, and Ravi were concerned. However, after 1966, the Yamuna ran only through Haryana, while the Beas and Ravi ran only through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Since the Beas project was already underway and was envisaged for the undivided state, Haryana was also given a share of the river waters. However, in 1976, when the Ravi was made shareable, Haryana was given a share in it, while Punjab received no share of the Yamuna waters.[37] Punjab politicians alleged that the decision was highly unjust to Punjab and had been influenced politically by the Haryana chief minister Bansi Lal, who was also a Union Cabinet minister at the time.[37] A section of Sikhs perceived this diversion of river waters to the Hindu-majority Haryana as unfair and as an anti-Sikh measure.

1955 Harmandir Sahib Punjabi Suba Protest

On 4 July 1955, the Punjab police, under orders of the Punjab government, attempted to disperse protesters demanding Punjabi Suba (Pubjabi speaking state) in the vicinity of the Harmandir Sahib, firing teargas.[38] Some of the teargas shells are reported to have fallen into the Sarovar (holy water). Hundreds of Sikhs were humiliated, beaten with lathis and rifles, and arrested; this included several hundred Sikh women. For demanding Punjabi to be the official language of Punjab, a total of 15,000 individuals, mostly Sikhs, demonstrated in 1955,[39] eleven individuals including Tara Singh were arrested,[40] Gurcharan Singh Tohra,[41] and Jathedar of Akal Takht Achchhar Singh.[42] The troops also went out on a flag march, first through the streets of Amritsar Sahib, and then around the Harmandir Sahib complex itself, where police established themselves in charge for four days.[43]

Akali Dal's demands

Akali Dal, the Sikh political party, was defeated in the 1972 Punjab elections.[44] Some of the Akalis urged a return to a more Sikh-based orientation for the Akali Dal. In 1973, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was drafted, which defined the Sikhs as qaum (nation) and called for a radical devolution of power from the centre to the states. The demands of the Akali Dal were based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which was adopted by the party in October 1973 to raise specific political, economic, and social issues. The major motivation behind the resolution was the safeguarding of the Sikh identity by securing a state structure that was decentralised, with non-interference from the central government. The Resolution outlined seven objectives:[45]

  1. The transfer of the federally administered city of Chandigarh to Punjab.
  2. The transfer of Punjabi-speaking and contiguous areas of Haryana to Punjab.
  3. Decentralisation of states under the existing constitution, limiting the central government's role.
  4. The call for land reforms and industrialisation of Punjab, along with safeguarding the rights of the weaker sections of the population.
  5. The enactment of an all-India gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) act.
  6. Protection for minorities residing outside Punjab, but within India.
  7. Revision of government's recruitment quota restricting the number of Sikhs in the armed forces.

Khalistan National Council

While the majority of the Akali leaders pursued the idea of a more empowered Sikh-majority state within India, some other Sikh leaders such as Jagjit Singh Chauhan pursued the idea of a sovereign Khalistan. Two years after losing the Punjab Assembly elections in 1969, Chauhan moved to the United Kingdom, and also went to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan to attempt to set up a Sikh government. He then 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. After returning to India in 1977, Chauhan travelled to Britain in 1979, and established the Khalistan National Council.[46]

Operating from a building termed "Khalistan House", he remained in contact with the Sikh religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Chauhan also maintained contacts among various groups in Canada, the USA, and Germany. He visited Pakistan as a guest of leaders like Chaudhuri Zahoor Elahi. Chauhan declared himself president of the "Republic of Khalistan", named a Cabinet, and issued Khalistan "passports", "postage stamps", and "Khalistan dollars".

Apart from Punjab, Himachal, and Haryana, Chauhan's proposal of Khalistan also included parts of Rajasthan state.[47]

Politics of the early 1980s

The late 1970s and the early 1980s saw the increasing involvement of the Sikh religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab politics. 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.[48] 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.[48][49] 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.[48] Armed Khalistani militants of this period described themselves as "Kharku".[50]

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 toungue 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.[51] The White Paper issued by the government of India, mentioned that Narain was assassinated because of his criticism of Bhindrawale.[52] 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.[53]

Dharam Yudh Morcha

The Akali Dal was initially opposed to Bhindranwale, and even accused him of being a Congress agent.[48] 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 Battle for Righteousness") in collaboration with Bhindranwale. The goal of the organisation was the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. 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.[48]

Indira Gandhi considered the Anandpur Resolution as a secessionist document and evidence of an attempt to secede from the Union of India. Akali Dal was classified as a separatist party.[22] The Akali Dal officially stated that Sikhs were Indians, and the Anandpur Sahib resolution did not envisage an autonomous Sikh State of Khalistan.[45]

The Government of India decided to repress the mass agitation with a heavy hand: over a hundred people were killed in the police violence.[48] Security forces arrested over thirty thousand Sikhs in two-and-a-half months.[45]

Fear of Protest during Asian Games

In November 1982, Akali Dal announced the organisation of protests in Delhi during the Asian Games. Congress leaders like Bhajan Lal ordered selective frisking of Sikh visitors to Delhi, which was seen as humiliation by the Sikhs.[54] Later, the Akali Dal organised a convention at the Darbar Sahib attended by over 5,000 Sikh ex-servicemen, 170 of whom were above the rank of colonel. These Sikhs claimed that there was discrimination against them in government service.[45]

Militant activities

There were widespread murders in Punjab by followers of Bhindrawale. In the two year perion between 4 August 1982 January 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.[55] One such murder was that of DIG Avtar Singh Atwal, who was killed on 25 April 1983 at the gate of the Darbar Sahib.[56] 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.[57][58]

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.[48] 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.[48] 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.[53]

Religious confusion

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.[59]

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.

Operation Blue Star

In the 1980s, some Khalistan proponents turned to protest. As the law and order situation deteriorated, one of the leaders of the Khalistan movement, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, moved into the Harmandir Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple) with some followers. He began to fortify the temple with heavy machine guns and self-loading rifles. The Indian Prime Minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, ordered the commencement of Operation Blue Star in June 1984 to flush out Bhindranwale and his supporters. The Indian Army, Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, and Punjab Police were all involved. Bhindranwale was killed in the operation, although there were significant military and civilian casualties as well, alongside significant damage to the temple. Many Sikhs strongly maintain that the attack resulted in the desecration of the holiest Sikh shrine. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation. Following her death, thousands of Sikhs were massacred in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi allegedly by Congress activists and mobs.[60]

The Sikh separatist forces within the Harmandir Sahib were led by former Major General Shabeg Singh

The Darbar Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, is the holiest of Sikh temples. While Bhindranwale had stated that he neither supported nor opposed the concept of Khalistan, a number of his supporters were pro-Khalistan. In 1984, Bhindranwale's followers, led by Shabeg Singh, had placed ammunitions and militants in the temple. Unsuccessful negotiations were held with Bhindranwale and his supporters, following which Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to storm the temple complex.

A variety of army units along with paramilitary forces, led by General Kuldip Singh Brar, surrounded the temple complex on 3 June 1984. The army kept asking the militants to surrender, using a public address system. The militants were asked to send the pilgrims out of the temple premises to safety before they started fighting the army. Nothing happened. Some people have said that no one was told to come out of the temple.[61] General Brar then asked the police if they could send emissaries inside to help get the civilians out, but the police said that anyone sent inside would be killed by the militants. They believed that the militants were keeping the pilgrims inside to stop the army from entering the temple.

The army had grossly underestimated the firepower possessed by the militants. Thus, tanks and heavy artillery were used to forcefully suppress the anti-tank and machine-gun fire. After a 76-hour firefight, the army finally wrested control of the temple complex. According to the Indian Army, 700 army personnel were killed[62] and 249 injured. In all, 493 people in the complex were killed and 86 injured; the Government report also mentions that 1,600 people were unaccounted for, though it does not state what fraction were killed or injured.[63] Unofficial figures go well into the thousands. Along with insurgents, many innocent worshipers were caught in the crossfire. Though the operation was militarily successful, it was a huge political embarrassment - as the attack coincided with a Sikh religious festival, a large number of pilgrims were staying inside the complex. The Sikhs alleged that the civilians were targeted for attack by the Indian army. The opponents of Indira Gandhi also criticised the operation for unnecessary use of force. However, General Brar later stated that the Government had "no other recourse" as there was a "complete breakdown" of the situation, and Pakistan would have come into the picture declaring its support for Khalistan.[64]

The Khalistan activists have alleged that the Indira Gandhi government had been preparing for an attack on their shrine for over a year. According to Subramanian Swamy, then a member of the Indian Parliament, the central government had allegedly launched a disinformation campaign in order to legitimise the attack.[65]

Assassination of Indira Gandhi and massacre of Sikhs

On the morning of 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two Sikh security guards (Satwant Singh and Beant Singh) in New Delhi in retaliation for Operation Blue Star. The assassination triggered fulminant violence against Sikhs 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.[66] Senior Congress leaders such as Jagdish Tytler, H. K. L. Bhagat, and Sajjan Kumar have been accused by Sikhs of inciting the mobs against them.[67]

Other political parties strongly condemned the riots.[68] 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.[69]

Rise of militancy

The carrying out of Operation Blue Star, which the Sikhs answered with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the anti-Sikh riots that resulted from her death, paved the way for the rise of Sikh militancy and acts of terrorism. The brutality of the violence that spanned the next 15 years in Punjab may be understood in the context of what sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as a "cosmic war," in which he argues that the presence of certain conditions increases the likelihood of violence undertaken in the name of religion.[70] In Terror in the Mind of God, Juergensmeyer cites three characteristics that are associated with the elevation of a spiritual struggle to that of a cosmic war in which religious terrorism will occur. They are as follows: 1) the conflict is seen as necessary to affirm identity and to uphold dignity, 2) the suffering of defeat is unimaginable, and 3) the struggle has been stymied, is perceived to be at the point of crisis, and appears to defy resolution in real time.[71]

The 1984 government storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the subsequent killing of movement leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, may well have been the single most critical developments in the framing of the Sikh struggle as a cosmic war. That the Indian government would conduct a military operation in so sacred a place deeply offended many Sikhs, an insult that was profoundly made worse by the careless, en masse cremation of the dead whose number went unrecorded due to the many unidentifiable pilgrims who had gathered at the Golden Temple to worship.[72] Furthermore, the battle continued for nearly three days, which heavily damaged the religious centre and caused a fire which destroyed irreplaceable library manuscripts.[73]

The army occupation of Punjab which followed Operation Blue Star continued to enrage and alienate the Sikhs. Authorities combed the countryside in a quest to quell the resistance, subjected young Sikhs to abuse and torture designed to elicit confessions, and jailed them for further questioning if they were unsatisfied with their answers. Once imprisoned, they were hidden from sight and nearly impossible to locate.[74] The anti-Sikh riots that ensued after the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister further inflamed Sikh passions and heightened their collective sense of injustice. It is estimated that in the aftermath of Gandhi's murder, some 10,000 people were killed in the violence that gripped Punjab,[75] with many Sikhs being tortured and killed by mobs headed by Congress leaders.[76] Consequently, many who had previously been unsympathetic to the militants felt compelled to join the struggle once they witnessed the violence being visited on their brethren. They became part of numerous militias in order to carry out revenge killings, a mission that was seen as divinely necessary in order to restore balance to the world,[77] and resulted in an escalation of violence on the part of both sides.

The factors discussed above lend some support to Juergensmeyer's cosmic war rubric. The actions by the Indian Government overall were viewed as a profound attack on the symbols of Sikh faith, whereupon the Sikh resistance became a matter of preserving religious identity and honour. Since the attack launched against their temple and their persons was perceived as a threat to their very existence, defeat was unacceptable, whatever the cost. And finally, the protracted and brutal nature of the violence allowed the struggle to take on a deeply spiritual importance which raised the war to a sacred plane.

In January 1986, the Golden Temple was occupied by militants belonging to the All India Sikh Students Federation and Damdami Taksal.[78] 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.[79][80][81] Pro-Khalistan organisations such as Dal Khalsa (International) are also active outside India, supported by a section of the Sikh diaspora.[82]

Partial Chronology of Events

On 29 April 1986, an assembly of separatist Sikhs at the Akal Takht made a declaration of an independent state of Khalistan.[83] 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 Nirankari group, an organisation formed by less conservative Sikhs aiming to reform Sikhism.[84] 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.[85]

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.[86][87] 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.[87]

In August 1991, Julio Ribeiro, then Indian Ambassador to Romania, was attacked and wounded in a Bucharest assassination attempt by gunmen[88] identified as Punjabi Sikhs.[86] 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.[86][89] Radu was released unharmed after Sikh politicians criticised the action.[90]

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.[86]

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.[91] A 2006 press release by the Embassy of the United States in New Delhi indicated that the responsible organisation was the Khalistan Commando Force.[92]

While the militants enjoyed some support among Sikh separatists in the earlier period, this support gradually disappeared.[93] 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.[94]

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.[95][96][97][98]

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.[99][100] Punjab Rights Forum claims that several Sikh women were reportedly gang-raped and molested by the Punjab police and the Indian security forces during house-to-house searches. It also claims that looting of the villagers' properties and the ransacking of entire villages occurred during this period.[101] Amnesty International has also 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.[102] Ram Narayan Kumar, the author of Reduced to Ashes, claims that the issue of Khalistan was used by the State to divert attention from real issues of democracy, constitutional safeguards, and citizens' rights.

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.[103]

Khalistan militant outfits

The major pro-Khalistan militant outfits include:

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 Bhinderanwala 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.[119]

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,[120] that a hitherto unnamed person, Lakhbir Singh Rode, had masterminded the explosions.

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."[121]

In 1999, Kuldip Nayar, writing for, stated in his article "It is fundamentalism again", that the Sikh "masses" had rejected terrorists.[122] By 2001, Sikh extremism and the demand for Khalistan had all but abated.[123]

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".[124] Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Centre for Global & International Studies, UCSB, reported in his paper "From Bhindranwale to Bin Laden: Understanding Religious Violence", "The movement is over," as many militants had been killed, imprisoned, or driven into hiding, and because public support was gone.[125]

Support from outside India

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."[126][127] 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".[128]

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.[129][130] On 24 January 1995,[131] 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.[132][133]

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.[106] In response, the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), a Canadian Sikh human rights group that opposes violence and extremism,[134] 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.[135]

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.[136]

In 2008, a CBC report stated that "a disturbing brand of extremist politics has surfaced" at some of the Vaisakhi parades in Canada,[106] and The Trumpet agreed with the CBC assessment.[137] Two leading Canadian Sikh politicians refused to attend the parade in Surrey, saying it was a glorification of terrorism.[106] In 2008, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, expressed his concern that there might be a resurgence of Sikh extremism.[138][139]

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 Feb 22, 2018 over the issue.[140] Trudeau assured Singh that his country would not support the revival of the separatist movement.[141][10][142] Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal was quoted saying Khalistan is "no issue, either in Canada or in Punjab".[143]

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.[144] 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.[145]

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."[146] The ISYF is listed in the UK as a "Proscribed Terrorist Group" [107] but it has not been included in the list of terrorist organisations by the United States Department of State.[147] It was also added to the US Treasury Department terrorism list on 27 June 2002.[148]

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.[146][149] 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.[150] 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."[150] There are claims of funding from Sikhs outside India to attract young people into these pro-Khalistan militant groups.[151]


India has accused Pakistan of supporting the Khalistan movement in the past, to allegedly seek revenge against India for its help in creating Bangladesh and, according to India, to "destabilize" the Indian state.[152]

A June 2008 article by Vicky Nanjappa, writing for, stated that a report by India's Intelligence Bureau indicated that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence organisation was trying to revive Sikh militancy.[153]

In 2006, an American Court convicted Khalid Awan of providing money and financial services to the Khalistan Commando Force chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar in Pakistan.[92]

Rajiv-Longowal 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.

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, who was assassinated a few months later. 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.

The Khalistani separatists have alleged that the Indian government has not implemented several of the points outlined in the Rajiv-Longowal Accord.

Failure of the movement

The Khalistan movement reached its peak in late 1970s and 1980s[154] and the insurgency petered out in the 1990s.[10] The movement failed to reach its objective due to several reasons. Among the prominent reasons were

  • Heavy Police crackdown on the separatists under the leadership of Punjab Police chief KPS Gill.[11]
  • 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[155]
  • The increased vigilance by security forces in the region against rise of separatist elements.[154]
  • The confidence building measures adopted by the Sikh community helped in rooting out the Khalistan movement.[154]

Present situation

The present situation in Punjab is generally regarded as peaceful, and the militant Khalistan movement weakened considerably. The Sikh community maintains its own unique identity and is socially assimilated in cosmopolitan areas. Some organisations claim that social divisions and problems still exist in rural areas, but the present situation remains largely peaceful; support for an independent homeland may remain strong among the separatist Sikh leaders[156] popular in the expatriate Sikh community outside India (mainly in Europe and North America).[157] In India, minor political parties such as Khalsa Raj Party and a few others seek to establish Khalistan through non-violent means.

Although the situation in Punjab appears to be normal, recent developments are troubling and signal bad news for India. Information is surfacing about the revival of the Khalistan Movement by Sikh extremist groups operating from other countries. Notably, India has warned the US about the role of pro-Khalistan elements in the launch of a Sikh Congressional Caucus inside the United States itself. It was confirmed that the principal movers of the Sikh caucus were Khalistani activists trying to revive separatist sentiments. There are also increasing fears that the 2015 Gurdaspur attack was an outstanding attempt to revive the Khalistan movement.[158] According to India's intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, Sikh resurgence is imminent, given the increased activities of Sikh radical organisations globally, allegedly in countries such as Germany, UK, France, US, Pakistan, and Malaysia.[159]

Recently, many signs have been raised in several places in support of the Khalistan movement. 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.[160] 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.[161] 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.[162]

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.[163]

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Further reading

  • Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood by K P S Gill
  • The Ghost of Khalistan - Sikh Times
  • The Punjab Mass Cremations Case: India Burning the Rule of Law (PDF). Ensaaf. January 2007. 
  • Kaur, Jaskaran; Sukhman Dhami (October 2007). "Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India" (PDF). 19 (14). New York: Human Rights Watch. 
  • Lewis, Mie; Kaur, Jaskaran (5 October 2005). Punjab Police: Fabricating Terrorism Through Illegal Detention and Torture (PDF). Santa Clara: Ensaaf. 
  • Silva, Romesh; Marwaha, Jasmine; Klingner, Jeff (26 January 2009). Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India: A Preliminary Quantitative Analysis (PDF). Palo Alto: Ensaaf and the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). 
  • Parvinder Singh (2009). "1984 Sikhs Kristallnacht" (PDF). Retrieved 11 January 2010. 
  • Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues With Sikh Militants. University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0-8122-1592-3.
  • Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. A Sea of Orange: Writings on the Sikhs and India. Xlibris Corporation, ISBN 1-4010-2857-8[self-published source]
  • Ram Narayan Kumar et al. Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2003.
  • Joyce Pettigrew. The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerrilla Violence. Zed Books Ltd., 1995.
  • Anurag Singh. Giani Kirpal Singh's Eye-Witness Account of Operation Bluestar. 1999.
  • Patwant Singh. The Sikhs. New York: Knopf, 2000.
  • Harnik Deol. Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab. London: Routledge, 2000
  • Satish Jacob and Mark Tully. Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle. ISBN 0-224-02328-4.
  • Ranbir Singh Sandhu. Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Ohio: SERF, 1999.
  • Iqbal Singh. Punjab Under Siege: A Critical Analysis. New York: Allen, McMillan and Enderson, 1986.
  • Paul Brass. Language, Religion and Politics in North India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
  • Julio Ribeiro. Bullet for Bullet: My Life as a Police Officer. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1999.
  • Harjinder Singh Dilgeer. "Sikh History" in 10 volumes (volumes 7,8,9). Waremme, Belgium: Sikh University Press, 2010-11.
  • Harjinder Singh Dilgeer. "Akal Takht: Concept and Role". Waremme, Belgium: Sikh University Press, 2011.
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