Reviving ‘Khalistan’?

Two-thirds of Punjab’s 24.5  million population are Sikh, and nine million are Hindu. Sikh extremist violence in Punjab, Chandigarh, Delhi and Haryana of the 1980s and early 1990s was horrific. In 1984, Indian Security Forces had stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, after it was occupied by Sikh militants, under the command of a seminary student turned extremist, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The holy complex was badly damaged. Thousands were killed in the assault, including Bhindranwale, as well as Sikh and Hindu pilgrims caught in the crossfire. Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India. This provoked the massacre of about 3000 Sikhs by mobs in Delhi alone and some Congress stalwarts were actively involved in the mayhem.

India’s north-western state, Punjab is the historic homeland for the Sikhs. At a small construction site in one corner of Golden Temple workmen brought from Rajasthan are preparing spectacular marble panels inlaid with semi precious stone, for a new place of worship or gurdwara. It is a memorial dedicated to those who died in the armed attack of the Golden Temple by Indian Security Forces in 1984. Even though for most of the population that is all history, events that stunned India thirty years ago, continue to rouse passions. The Sikh community is aggrieved by the alleged failure of the government to punish those responsible for the attack on the Golden Temple, the mob violence or abuses by Security Forces, during the insurgency. The creation of an independent Sikh state, Khalistan is now a rallying cry, rather than a genuine demand. Few in the Punjab now talk of the violence of previous decades. There are other issues such as deep and widespread poverty. Sikh militancy is not taught in schools or even in universities, other than as an optional subject of post-graduate courses on terrorism.

The memorial shrine has been mooted since 2005, but permission was granted after the local ruling Akali Dal Party faced widespread protests over the hanging of a jailed Sikh militant in 2012. Substantial funds have been donated to the new shrine from Sikhs overseas.
The revival of Sikh identity is hugely influenced by diaspora Sikhs. Many Sikhs in western countries feel humiliated by demands to remove traditional knives at airports or take off their turbans for official photographers. In the last decade there have been incidents, in which Sikhs have been attacked, often mistaken for Muslims. There was shooting in a Gurdwara complex in Wisconsin (USA). October 2012 saw the London attack on 78-year-old retired Lt Gen Kuldeep Singh Brar, who had led the bloody assault on the Golden Temple. Once proscribed Dal Khalsa Organiation views the new memorial as a commemoration for all those killed, except those from the Indian state.

With the decline of left movements, identity politics now sweeps the country, stretching from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Given the authoritarian and unitary nature of Indian governance at the centre, this identity politics, be it in Punjab or elsewhere, is bound to give rise to violence.

Vol. 45, No. 21, Dec 2-8, 2012

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