By Girish Linganna
After India gained freedom from Britain in 1947, some people didn’t think a country with so many different regions could stay together. India has managed to stay united, but there have been challenges to its unity. One significant challenge is the Khalistan movement, which wants to create a separate homeland for Sikhs. On September 18th, Canada’s leader, Justin Trudeau, claimed that Indian government agents were responsible for the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader who supported Khalistan independence in June. India’s government denies any involvement and accuses Canada of sheltering “terrorists and separatists.” How serious is the Khalistan movement?
The Khalistan movement has its roots in Sikhism, a religion followed by 23 million people in India and 3 million worldwide. Sikhism began in the 15th century in Punjab, a region in northern India that was then controlled by the Mughals. In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the leader of Sikhism, made significant changes to the religion. He did this because he was unhappy with living under Muslim rule and saw corruption among Sikh priests. His reforms, known as the “khalsa” tradition, transformed how Sikhism was practiced and organized. It also had a political aim: to establish Sikh rule in Punjab.
When India gained independence, some Sikhs wanted to create their own country, but there weren’t many of them. In the 1941 census, Sikhs made up about 15% of the Punjab province in British India. The British divided Punjab into two parts, giving some to India and some to Pakistan. Most Sikhs who lived on the Pakistani side decided to move to India.
The idea of Khalistan didn’t go away. It came back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, driven by Sikh communities in countries like Britain and Canada. In 1980, a doctor named Jagjit Singh Chauhan in London claimed to be the president of the “Republic of Khalistan.”
India’s government wasn’t too worried about Khalistan at first because they were more concerned about the politics in Punjab, a state in India. In the 1970s, people in Punjab were demanding more self-rule and policies that favoured Sikhs. The ruling party in India at the time, Congress, thought these requests were a step toward breaking away from India. In the 1980s, this demand for self-rule in Punjab turned into violence.
Some of the violence was because more and more people were following Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a preacher who had extreme views. He said that Sikhs were like “slaves” in independent India and wanted them to go back to the core beliefs of their religion. Bhindranwale didn’t openly ask for Khalistan’s independence, but he said he wouldn’t say no if it was offered. His words made the violence between different groups of people even worse.
The most critical moment happened in 1984. At that time, Bhindranwale and his followers had occupied the Golden Temple, the most sacred place in Sikhism, located in the city of Amritsar in Punjab. They were trying to lead their rebellion from there. As violence spread in the state, the Indian government made the decision to go into the temple to remove the terrorists.
Operation Blue Star had a significant impact on the Khalistan movement. It’s estimated that over 3,500 people lost their lives during this operation, including many government soldiers, pilgrims, and even Bhindranwale himself. This violence deeply affected the Sikh community, creating a lasting emotional scar. Shortly after, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the operation, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This event led to even more violence, with Sikhs being attacked across India, resulting in the deaths of thousands.
As a result, the Khalistan movement gained strength. Sikhs in both India and other countries joined the cause, and violence by Khalistani militants increased. In 1985, Khalistani terrorists placed a bomb on an Air India flight travelling from Montreal to London. This horrific act resulted in the loss of 329 lives, primarily Canadians.
Over time, the Khalistan movement in India weakened. This was due in part to government actions and improvements in the economy. While some Sikhs still see Bhindranwale as a martyr, very few attempt to follow his path, and those who do are swiftly halted. The only political party that supports Khalistani independence received less than 3% of the vote in the most recent state election.
Outside of India, the Khalistan movement remains active. There are groups in the United States, Australia, Britain, and Canada that still advocate for separatism. India’s relationship with Canada was already tense before Mr. Nijjar’s killing and Mr. Trudeau’s accusation. Similar tensions could arise with other countries. While Khalistan might not pose a threat to India’s internal unity anymore, it continues to have an impact on its foreign policy. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru)