Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Gateway to Sikhism


Meredith Weiss 25 June 2002


Widespread Sikh demands for an independent state rather than just greater autonomy under a reformed federalist India are a relatively new phenomenon. The actions of the central state have been key to the shift from communal self-awareness and religious revival, to linguistic ethnonationalism, to secessionism. The commitment of the Indian state upon independence to forging state borders around linguistic groups encouraged pursuit of a state for Punjabi-speakers, a goal ultimately realized only in 1966. A combination of economic forces (particularly the frustration of those disadvantaged by the ‘green revolution’), unmet demands for greater devolution of power from the central to the state government, and religious revivalism among Sikhs, compounded by a series of harsh crackdowns by the central state and mounting antagonism between Sikhs and Hindus, led to demands for a sovereign Sikh state of Khalistan by the 1980s. These demands were articulated perhaps even more stridently abroad, among the Sikh diaspora, than in India. However, by the mid-1990s, Sikh militancy had tapered off and politics had begun to normalize anew.


India is home to approximately 16 million Sikhs. Sikhs constitute a majority in the Punjab (61 percent, with most of the rest Hindu), but just under 2 percent of India’s total population. What is now referred to as Punjab has shrunk in size since independence in 1947, not least since India lost almost 66 percent of the state to Pakistan at partition. In the colonial period, Sikhs constituted only 14 percent of Punjab’s population. Punjab today consists of 5,033,000 hectares and has a population of just over 20 million (70 percent rural, 30 percent urban) (Deol 2000). Rural Sikhs have been concentrated since partition in the eastern third of the previous region, where they have sustained intensive and reasonably productive agriculture. Its economy based on agriculture, Punjab is a prosperous state and represents the “granary” of India. The region is the birthplace of Sikhism and home to numerous historic Sikh shrines. Punjab has strategic significance since the region borders Pakistan and Kashmir.

The Punjab region was under Hindu rule for centuries, then under Islamic dominance for five hundred years. Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1779-1839) then established a short-lived Sikh empire. Sikh political power collapsed on 29 March 1849, when the British conquered Punjab after two Anglo-Sikh wars. During the colonial era, the population of Punjab was plural, with a Muslim majority in the west, a Hindu majority in the east, and Sikhs prevalent in the center. Under colonial rule, Punjabis were favorite military recruits and Sikhs were heavily over-represented in the armed forces (comprising around one-third of the force by World War I). Both Muslim and Sikh peasants benefited from a network of canals developed in western Punjab, and Punjabi peasants in particular enjoyed a protective patron-client relationship with British administrators (Tatla 1999:16).

Independence in 1947 and the partition of Pakistan from India brought a massive reorganization of Punjab’s territorial boundaries. Nine years later, Patiala as well as Punjab and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) were incorporated into Punjab. These borders shifted again in September 1966, with the Punjab State Reorganization Bill. The southern, Hindi-speaking plain districts formed the new state of Haryana; the northern, Hindi-speaking hill districts merged with neighboring Himachal Pradesh; and the remaining Punjabi-speaking areas formed the new state of Punjab. Those who invoke Khalistan as a Sikh homeland tend not to be specific about to which incarnation of Punjab they refer (Oberoi 1987:30).

Sikhs differ in religion, but not in language, from other ethnic groups in northern India. However, even the Punjabi language is now closely identified with Sikhs, as wider use of Punjabi has declined since the spread of schools and colleges under colonial rule. The community has “succeeded in acquiring a high degree of internal social and political cohesion and subjective self-awareness,” as well as political significance within the Indian state (Deol 2000:2). Sikhs have no history of antagonism with Hindus (and Sikhism originally derived from Hinduism in the late medieval period); relations with Muslims have been less placid. Sikhs were generally loyal in a political sense toward India until 1984, despite their strong sense of constituting a separate community with its own history, language, religion, and territory. This duality became generally problematic only after the central government attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhs’ holiest shrine, in June 1984 (Tatla 1999:11).

History of the Khalistan Movement

Precolonial and colonial period

Sikhs trace their ancestry to ten gurus. The first was Nanak (1469-1539); the last was Gobind, who founded the Khalsa Panth (Society of the Pure, marked by its dress code and initiation ritual) at the turn of the eighteenth century. The value system of Khalsa is egalitarian, with collective and spiritual authority vested in the holy book, Guru Granth (compiled by another of the ten gurus, Arjan). Sikh identity is based more on history, myths, and Punjab-based memories than on an abstract creed. The religious tradition of the Khalsa Panth, “subsumes social, cultural, political and territorial identities” (Tatla 1999:14). Most Sikhs came from the lower social classes of the Punjabi Jat peasantry. The significant factors in Sikh identity include allegiance to the ten gurus and identification with their teachings, the foundation of congregations and pilgrim centers, the convention of a communal meal, and the Guru Granth. The most visible markers of Sikh identity are the “five Ks,” the external symbols declared by Guru Gobind: unshorn hair, a comb, a steel bracelet, short breeches, and a sword. In addition, the suffix Singh (“Lion”) has been common especially among Sikh men since the eighteenth century and the Golden Temple at Amritsar has been the foremost center of Sikh pilgrimage since the same era. Territory has not been key to Sikh identity until recently, though it first became an issue at the time of independence, when the British showed a willingness to let Hindus and Muslims divide up Punjab and granted statehood along religious lines.

By the late nineteenth century, both Hindus and Sikhs elites had embarked upon competing religious revivals, making communal lines sharper and more antagonistic. The Arya Samaj (Aryan Society) movement developed among urban Hindus in northern India and the Singh Sabha movement (1870-1919) among Sikhs. The former was not overtly political – focusing largely on linking Hindu religious values with modern life – but it spread anti-Sikh propaganda in the late 1880s and later formed the basis for radical Hindu parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Singh Sabha (the most important of a series of similar groups) focused on weeding out remnants of Hinduism from Sikhism. Young, educated Sikhs found themselves disillusioned with the Arya Samaj (which at first had seemed compatible with Sikhism) and wanted to re-evaluate Sikh identity. The movement took up issues such as mass education, reform of social customs, women’s rights, economic development, and theology, including through the establishment of educational institutions and newspapers. Despite differences of opinion about specific issues among Sikh reformers, their main thrust “was about clear demarcation of Sikh communal boundaries and the defence of the Sikh religion from attacks by other religions” (Deol 2000: 73). The question of Sikh identity had become a controversial legal and public issue by 1880s, especially in light of challenges to the Sikh faith by the Arya Samaj. In the meantime, new, vernacular print media (for instance, using the Gumukhi script in Punjabi printing presses) further elaborated group consciousness and ethnic boundaries.

Part of the aim of Sikh reformists was to retain control of religious practices and institutions. The Akali Dal formed in 1914 to take over control of Sikh shrines. Since the 1920s, the Akali Dal has presented itself as sole representative of the Khalsa Panth, arguing that the religious and political interests of Sikhs are inseparable, that one’s identity as Sikh transcends all other identities, and that Sikhs’ loyalty to the central state must be contingent upon the state’s recognition of the community as a collective group with historic “theopolitical status.”

A period of nonviolent noncooperation against colonial authorities by Sikhs peaked with the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre of 13 April 1919, when troops opened fire on a peaceful gathering. The incident prompted a restructuring of the management of the Golden Temple. Tensions between Akali activists seeking control of Sikh shrines and local government resulted in recurring conflicts and culminated in a massacre at the Nankana shrine. These struggles put strains on the generally amicable Anglo-Sikh relationship and helped consolidate the relationship between Akalis and Indian nationalists. Concerned with the escalating controversy over control of Sikh shrines, the colonial government instituted the Sikh Gurudwaras and Shrines Act of 1925, which conceded management and control of all Sikh religious institutions to the community.

The government handed over management of Sikh gurdwaras (temples) and shrines to the Akalicontrolled Shiromani Gurudwara Prabahandak Committee (SGPC), formed in December 1920 by orthodox Sikhs. The SGPC holds regular elections which are almost always won by the Akali Dal. The SGPC controls significant material, institutional, human, and moral resources. Akalis’ ties with the politically-important SGPC has allowed them to help shape Sikh identity through intermediate institutions, historic shrines, schools, and missions, including the promulgation of Sikh heroes, honorifics, holidays, symbols, and so forth rather than Indian “national” ones. The Akali Dal thus emerged as an important political party with the 1925 act (Tatla 1999:30-4; Telford 1992:973-4).

Like the Akali Dal, the SGPC has tried to represent itself as working for all Punjabis rather than just Sikhs (i.e., it has assumed a more political than just religious stance). Shared language, traditions, and culture have resulted in strong bonds between Sikhs and a large number Punjabi Hindus despite communalism. After the 1925 act, however, “The primary political objective of the Akali Dal was to safeguard Sikh religious liberty by maintaining and promoting separately the political existence of the Sikhs and securing greater political leverage for Sikhs” (Deol 2000:82). As a dispersed group and permanent minority in Punjab, and one with strong historical, cultural, and even religious ties with Hindus, the Sikhs did not demand a separate state initially, but focused on questions of representation. Separate electorates for Sikhs were granted in 1921. The Akali Dal also urged Sikhs to participate in the nationalist campaign.

Nationalist fervor was never predominant in Punjab, despite some revolutionary groups, mostly because of preferential British policies and the fact that the consociational Unionist Party of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu rural leaders formed the local government. This phase was undermined by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s assertion of the aim to create a separate Muslim state. Sikhs were caught between Muslims’ vision of an Islamic state and the Congress Party’s Hindu-dominated India. Sikhs demanded an Azad Punjab (Free Punjab), not as a separate Sikh state, but as province in which no single community could dominate; the population would be 40 percent each Hindu and Muslim and 20 percent Sikh. The British deemed such a state impractical and Indian leaders rejected the plan. Then, in March 1946, declaring Sikhs a nation, the Akali Dal adopted a resolution calling for a Sikh state to protect Sikh economic, religious, and cultural rights. Akali leaders gave up these demands only upon promises from Congress leaders that Sikhs would have special status in independent India (Tatla 1999: 18-20; Deol 2000: 82-3). Partition and the internal migration it sparked (there had been approximately two million Sikhs on each side of the new border) left the Sikhs concentrated in a more compact geographical area rather than a small, dispersed minority. As such, Sikhs could better protect their language, culture, and religious traditions. Partition ultimately changed the Sikh claim on the Punjab as homeland and holyland from an “imaginative vision into a realistic project” (Tatla 1999:22). The Akali Dal continued to press for a unified Punjabi-speaking state after independence.

Upon independence, India adopted a unitary constitutional structure. The Congress Party government scrapped the colonial system of weighting representation for minorities and reservation of seats, except for scheduled tribes and castes, and ruled out the principle of selfdetermination for regions and nationalities for fear of territorial disintegration. It was the language issue that most endangered Indian unity at the time of independence. The controversy was primarily between Hindu and Urdu, with Gandhi’s suggestion of Hindustani as the national language narrowly defeated in a 1946 vote. To resolve the linguistic issue, all major regional languages were granted status in India’s constitution. However, Hindi, the language of the north Indian Hindu majority, is India’s official language, with English coexisting for official purposes. Moreover, a massive reorganization of states in the 1950s-60s aligned territorial boundaries with linguistic ones. Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu were the only three major languages not considered for statehood in this reorganization. This omission spurred the Akali Dal’s first major agitational movement, which began in August 1950.

Sikh nationalism in the postcolonial period

The Sikhs changed from a religious congregation in the sixteenth century, to an ethnic community in the eighteenth century, to a nation in the late twentieth century. Even in the 1960s, the Akalis were fighting for a culturally congruent region; they only extended their claim to statehood in the 1980s. The evolution of the Sikh community and the fact that the demand for a separate Sikh state has only recently come to be articulated is traceable to economic factors (especially the green revolution and the dislocation or alienation of the peasantry that has accompanied the commercialization of agriculture); tensions in Indian federal-state relations with increasing centralization of power and the Congress Party’s manipulation of regional elites to build up its electoral base; changes in social communications (the spread of literacy, development of a vernacular press, and addition of language to the otherwise religious symbols bonding the community); and the religious ideals of Sikh community (particularly the emphasis on being a community of warriors and martyrs) (Deol 2000; Tatla 1999). As Tatla explains, “Sikh ethnic conflict should be viewed as a ‘nationalist project’ thrown up by the modernization of a traditional Sikh society in contact and in conflict with certain imperatives of hegemonic features of Indian state nationalism” (Tatla 1999:13).

The radical changes entailed by the green revolution have been critical to the development of the Khalistan movement. Small farmers have been marginalized, alienated, and dislocated. The government combated shortages in particular areas by preventing the free sale of agricultural products; pricing issues and rising costs for agricultural inputs (including fertilizers, electricity, and river water) have reduced the margins for wheat and rice production, squeezing small farmers’ profits in particular. Official repression has propelled aggrieved peasants into armed struggle on ethno-regional lines. Educated youths, particularly from families of small-scale farmers, find their chances of employment limited by the lack of a significant industrial base in Punjab to take the place of agricultural work as well as by the migration of cheap labor from other provinces. Uneven development has also aggravated environmental disorders. Moreover, wealthier farmers want better terms of trade from the central government. Akalis have identified the central government, dominated by the Hindu bourgeoisie, as the culprit to give a target to these grievances.

The nature of the Indian state and the direction of Indian nationalism are also critical to the evolution of the contemporary Khalistan movement. Part of the conflict represents a constitutional crisis, which intensified upon the election of Indira Gandhi in 1971. Central government and state elites held differing attitudes toward economic development and agriculture, reflected, for instance, in the history of the Land Reform Act and in “conceptions of the overarching governmental and legal structure within which these problems ought to be solved” (Leaf 1985:480). Given prevailing taxation policies, the central government has a bias toward industrialization and commercial growth, or urban development, while state governments are more oriented toward agriculture. Indira Gandhi’s government sought to strengthen the central government vis-à-vis the states’, especially in terms of economic development strategies (while Punjab and most other states preferred decentralization), making these conflicts more intense (Leaf 1985). Conflicts over control of resources have played out notably with regard to river water. With the separation of Punjab and Haryana, Punjab felt it was paying the costs for canals without gaining benefits in return and that Haryana lacked rights to the rivers in question, especially at times of shortfalls in water supply and hydroelectric power generation.

Moreover, issues of religious authority and orthodoxy have arisen with modernization, rising prosperity, urbanization, and the commercialization of rural society, especially since the Akalis have made pragmatic alliances with Hindu political parties. As more orthodox groups came to challenge the Akalis, Congress exploited these divisions – and religion remains the dominant social bond among Sikhs, despite the institutions of the modern Indian nation-state. The central government offered at least token support to the Nirankari sect of Sikhs, who clashed violently in 1978 with Sikhs led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, for instance, and an Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked in 1980 to protest the arrest of Bhindranwale in connection with the vigorously-pursued investigation of the murder of the head of the Nirankali movement. Questions of control over religious institutions have also been involved, as represented in the Sikh demand for an all-India Gurudwara Act rather than leaving control of Sikh shrines in the hands of state-level temple management committees or in the refusal of the central government (which holds a monopoly on broadcast rights) to grant a radio license for the Akalis to broadcast Sikh ceremonies from the Golden Temple. In addition, the Hindu resurgence today equates being Hindu with being Indian. Such a stance is considered exclusionary by non-Hindus, since “it equates assertions of the separateness of their religious traditions with treason” (Mahmood 1996: 244). Rising literacy rates and the availability of oral forms of communication (for instance, cassettes were key in the rise of the charismatic Bhindranwale) have furthered these processes. On the other hand, the movement has been slowed down by the strong institutional linkages between the traditional, bourgeois Sikh leadership and existing political and economic structures, as well as by the organizational weakness of Sikh guerilla groups (Tatla 1999; Deol 2000).

All along, practical and electoral considerations tempered Punjabi Sikhs’ drive for independence, such that no major Sikh leader (even Bhindranwale) demanded outright independence. Combining religious fervor and political realism, he Akali Dal’s usual strategy has been to share power at the provincial level and to promote Punjabi nationalism by offering to form a coalition government with Punjabi Hindus (Tatla 1999:30-34; Kohli 1997:336). As Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party tried harder through the 1970s to divide Sikh voters and consolidate the party’s grip on Punjab state politics, the Akali Dal had to up the ante by demanding greater control over Sikh affairs and edging closer to demanding a sovereign state (Kohli 1997:336).

• 1950s – 1970s

Language became a symbol of group identity for Sikhs and central organizing issue for the Akali Dal. The party argued for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state, presented as a linguistic issue. Deol claims, “However, the fundamental issue was not so much a linguistic one as a question of the rights and claims of a minority community. .... Thus, the language controversy became a symptom of a deeper quest for recognition and power by a minority community in a multi-ethnic state. … The main driving force of the Punjabi suba [state] movement was that the Sikh leadership saw a separate political status for the Sikhs as being essential for preserving an independent Sikh entity” (Deol 2000: 94, 98). At the time, Sikhs comprised 35 percent and Hindus 61 percent of Punjab’s population, leaving Sikhs worried about their survival as a separate entity and their political leverage. The aggressive campaigns of the Arya Samaj in favor of Hindi and against Punjabi among Hindus in Punjab exacerbated the situation.

In 1952, with India’s first general elections, the Akali Dal issued a memorandum pressing for the establishment of a culturally congruent Punjabi-speaking suba. Since the drive for a Punjabi state was articulated largely through Sikh religious organizations, religious motivations were important. However, the basis of the state was supposed to be linguistic. The States Reorganization Commission (formed in 1953) rejected the memorandum because it did not recognize Punjabi as significantly different from Hindi and because the movement lacked the general support of people in the region. Sikhs were more upset by the former justification – the rejection of a separate status for the language – than of their demand for a state (Deol 2000:95).

The rejection of Akali demands prompted the party to launch the Punjabi Suba Slogan Agitation of 1955. The campaign used political demonstrations and nonviolent tactics. 26,000 Sikhs were arrested in these campaigns (Deol 2000:96). After a series of compromises with the central government in 1960-61, including the merger of the heavily-Sikh PEPSU into Punjab, and a change of party leadership (from Master Tara Singh to Sant Fateh Singh) in 1962, the Akali Dal launched its second campaign for a Punjabi-speaking state. The latter campaign shifted from a demand for a state with a 56 percent Sikh majority to a secular demand for a Punjab based on language and culture, without regard for the population percentage of Sikhs. This secular strategy was to placate the Indian government, which remained suspicious of religious demands after partition. Nonetheless, in 1965, the party adopted a resolution calling Punjab the homeland of Sikhs and India their motherland (Telford 1992:970).

The central government eventually agreed to the reorganization of Punjab in 1966, after the death of Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru, who had consistently rejected the Akalis’ demand as communal. The reorganization created a Punjabi suba in reward for Sikhs’ efforts in the Indo- Pakistan War that had broken out the previous year. With the September 1966 Punjab State Reorgnization Bill, for the first time, Sikhs formed the majority of the population of Punjab (54 percent Sikh and 44 percent Hindu). The Hindi-speaking south broke off to form the state of Haryana, and the Hindi-speaking northern region merged with neighboring Himachal Pradesh.

The Akali Dal insisted upon the need for Sikh political unity if the religion were to survive (Deol 2000: 98). Nonetheless, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Akali Dal could not form a government on its own (though it formed coalition governments from 1967 onward) as its electoral base was too narrow. Sikhs were divided among the Akali Dal, Congress, and small communist parties due to caste and other cleavages. So for example, in 1977, the Akali Dal formed a coalition government with the Janata Party. The Akalis had to present themselves as comparatively moderate and secular, since too nationalistic a stance would bring down their government in Punjab, and because they could not too aggressively attack a central government also dominated by the Janata Party (Telford 1992:971-3). Moreover, between 1967 and 1980, as the Congress-led central government “changed decisively from the Nehruvian policy of accommodation to an active manipulation of provincial governments,” three Akali coalition governments were dismissed by the center, even as the Akali Dal sought more concessions for provincial powers (Tatla 1999:22-24). For instance, Emergency Rule was instituted for nineteen months beginning in June 1975 in consequence of legal challenges to Indira Gandhi’s reelection in 1971 – although the imposition was justified as being to halt corruption and cope with economic problems. Some measures under emergency rule were beneficial and helped to combat political corruption but other policies were less benign, such as an attempt at mass sterilization. The vulnerable position of party moderates gave space for more nationalistic Akalis. Tatla explains, “Akali leaders’ changing perception, from religious nationalism to ‘Punjab nationalism’, was as much to do with changes of leadership from urbanite Sikhs as with socioeconomic changes in the Punjab.” This was particularly the case when combined with the incorporation of more Sikhs from the lower classes or economic sectors, which “demanded a more liberal vision than a traditional religious nationalism” (Tatla 1999:24-25).

The Anandpur Sahib Resolution drafted in October 1973 showed the shift among Akalis as the party tried to appease its Sikh constituency and appeal to Sikh nationalists. The resolution outlines the guiding policies and programs of the Akali Dal. The core political demand of the resolution is “to preserve and keep alive the concept of distinct and independent identity of the Panth and to create an environment in which national sentiments and aspirations of the Sikh Panth will find full expression, satisfaction and growth” (quoted in Tatla 1999:27). The document offers seven key objectives to reach this political goal:

• transfer of the federally-administered city of Chandigarh to Punjab rather than leaving it shared with Haryana; • readjustment of the boundaries of Punjab to incorporate certain Sikh-populated, Punjabi-speaking areas contiguous to the state; • provision of a measure of provincial autonomy for all Indian states vis-à-vis the center; • land reform (so as to benefit the weaker in the population), nationalization of key industries, and central government investment in establishing heavy industry in Punjab; • promulgation of an all-India gurudwara act to bring all Sikh shrines and temples under the control of the SGPC; • protection for Sikh minorities outside Punjab; and • non-reduction of the recruitment quota for Sikhs in the armed forces.

Although controversial, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was endorsed by a significant number of Sikh intelligentsia, servicemen, and politicians. The Akali Dal denied that the resolution envisaged autonomous Sikh state of Khalistan, but just a system under which Sikhs could live without interference in their religious way of life (Deol 2000: 101-2). The Resolution’s demands were actively pursued, however, only as Hindu-Sikh and center-Punjab relations deteriorated in the early 1980s.

• 1980s – 1990s

Faced with declining provincial power under the centralizing government of Indira Gandhi, Akalis mobilized the Sikh peasantry in a major campaign for Punjab’s autonomy in 1980. The initiative centered around a combination of economic, cultural, constitutional, and religious demands. Between August 1980 and September 1981, the Akali Dal held seven peaceful agitations. The party decided in February 1981 to strive for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The resultant Dharam Yudh Morcha (Righteous Struggle) of 1981-84 presented four key demands: recasting the Indian constitution to increase states’ autonomy, the return of Chandigarh to Punjab, state control over river waters, and an all-India gurudwaras act. “However, its major concern was a radical renegotiation of powers for the centre and the states, and an explicit recognition of India as a multinational state” (Tatla 1999:27). In September 1981, as the SGPC adopted the slogan, “Sikhs are a nation,” the Akalis submitted a list of forty-five demands to the central government. The demands reflected the Anandpur Sahib Resolution’s core objectives along with two new ones: halting the reallocation of river water from Punjab to non-riparian states and a reduction in government control over hydroelectric installations; and recognition of Sikh personal law. These demands were reduced to fifteen as negotiations began in late 1981.

The Akali Dal’s adoption of more narrow demands like the constitutional recognition of Sikhs as separate “nation” and declaration of Amritsar as a “holy city” followed the raising of the Khalistan slogan by non-Akali Sikhs in 1981 and a sudden decline in Sikh-Hindu relations after the murder of Punjabi Hindu press baron Lala Jagat Narain in 1981 (discussed below). The mainstream Akali leadership still preferred negotiation to confrontation, if only to retain the support of key Sikh industrialists, businessmen, professionals, and landowners who could not afford to cut themselves adrift from India through attachment to a regional separatist movement, but was not entirely “moderate” given the more radically separatist preferences of some factions in the party and the persistence of confrontation between the Akali Dal and the Indian state (Major 1987:46-48).

The central government responded to the rising Sikh movement with a campaign of manipulation and repression, justifying their actions in terms of saving India from dissolution. Moreover, Congress wanted to break up the Akali Dal because of its success as an opposition party and alliance with the Janata Party upon Congress’s defeat in 1977, to end Akali domination of the SGPC, to end Akali domination of SGPC, and because the Akali Dal was opposed to the extension of police power (Deol 2000: 103-4). The Congress Party took steps to foment disunity among Sikhs and took punitive and repressive measures against movement leaders, affecting – and radicalizing – Sikhs as a community in the process. The key such instance was the attack on the Golden Temple in 1984. This strike was seen by Sikhs in Punjab and elsewhere as sacrilegious and as an attack on their community’s dignity and integrity. It shifted many Sikhs’ loyalty toward Punjab and strengthened Sikhs’ feelings of collective identity and fate (Tatla 1999:28).

One of the ways the central government sought to capitalize upon rifts within the Sikh community was by supporting dissenting voices. Most prominent among these was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of an orthodox sect, whom Congress leaders supported as counterweight to the Akali Dal starting in 1979. However, Bhindranwale soon became an outspoken critic of Congress. Though he probably accepted some financial support from Congress in the 1979 SGPC elections, Bhindranwale exploited first Congress, then the Akali Dal, in his effort to overcome the hegemony of the Akali Dal. He aimed to rejuvenate Sikhism, promoting orthodoxy and austere living, and to establish himself as a leader of the Sikh panth. He came to the fore especially for his attacks against the Congress-linked Nirankaris, who had already been declared enemies of the panth in 1973 by priests of Golden Temple because of doctrinal differences. In 1978, Bhindranwale precipitated a violent confrontation with the Nirankaris. After he gave a stirring sermon at the Golden Temple, his followers marched out and clashed with a Nirankari procession in Amritsar. This incident marked the beginning of the radicalization of Sikh politics. Within three years, Bhindranwale had become one of the most popular Sikh leaders in Punjab (Telford 1992:974-6; Deol 2000:104).

Bhindranwale developed a mass base among the emerging underclass of educated Jat Sikh youths, mostly from Amritsar and Gurdaspur, produced by the green revolution. He allied with the All-India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF), a group which drew most of its support from poorer to middle-income Sikhs (not all of them students). The Akali Dal, in contrast, was comprised mostly of more middle class and urban or prosperous farmers, primarily from the Malwa region. While Punjab was wealthy overall, the benefits of the green revolution were spread unevenly. In addition, at the time of partition, Pakistan inherited the core industrial sector of the Punjab region and there had been little industrial development in the state since then. Most militants were youths from farming families in areas that did less well, such as the Majha region, suggesting a regional and class dimension to the conflict (Telford 1992:969-81). The AISSF had been formed in 1943 by the Akali Dal to bring the Sikh intelligentsia closer to the party. The organization was intimately involved with Akali politics, fighting for an independent Sikh state at partition, then for a Punjabi suba. The AISSF has always been on the militant end of the Akali spectrum. However, the AISSF was in disarray by the early 1970s. The AISSF became hugely popular when under the presidency of Amrik Singh (as of July 1978) and with the help of Bhindranwale, it started touting the ‘repression’ and ‘victimization’ of Sikhs. The AISSF echoed Bhindranwale’s ambiguous stance on Khalistan (neither for nor against secession). By May 1981, the group had nearly 300,000 members and links with important militant Sikh groups in Punjab and outside India, despite being banned. The AISSF was mostly concerned with insults to the Panth and questions of Sikh identity (Major 1987:49-51). The revival of the AISSF and popularity of Bhindranwale put pressure on the Akali Dal (Telford 1992: 982-5).

As of the early 1980s, the vernacular press in the Punjab was active from both sides in fomenting the religious divide between Hindus and Sikhs. The assassination of newspaper mogul and Arya Samaj leader Lala Jagat Narain in September 1981 sparked off incidents of mob violence. The government charged Bhindranwale with the assassination. Meanwhile, acts such as arson by the police drew sympathy from a broad array of Sikhs (Deol 2000: 104-5). Under Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, the Akali Dal formed an uneasy, mutually exploitative coalition with Bhindranwale and launched a campaign of demonstrations and passive resistance against the central government in August 1982. 30,000 male and female volunteers were arrested in two and a half months, though the government eventually released all of them as a conciliatory gesture. In late 1982, the Akali Dal announced that it would hold peaceful demonstrations in Delhi during the Asian Games. Government harassment to prevent their doing so (including against prominent ex-servicemen) further antagonized Sikhs (Deol 2000: 106). Despite the resumption of negotiations, no settlement was found, not least because of divisions among Sikhs supportive of the more hardline Bhindranwale or the more moderate and ready-to-compromise Akali leadership (Deol 2000:105). The violence escalated in Punjab, with bank bombings, railroad station burnings, the killing of politicians, the desecration of religious places, and more. Bhindranwale was generally considered to be the main organizer of a terrorist campaign that caused the random killing of several hundred Hindus. After an attack on a bus carrying Hindu passengers, fearing mass unrest, the Indian government dissolved the Punjab legislative assembly in October 1983, placing the state under President’s Rule (central government control). However, the violence and agitation continued (Deol 2000:106).

The Akali Dal launched a mass non-cooperation campaign in June 1984, preventing the movement of food grain out of Punjab and stopping payment of land revenues and water rates to the government. In response, the government sealed Punjab’s borders and imposed censorship; set a curfew at Amritsar; and cordoned off the Golden Temple at the time of the anniversary of the martyrdom of its founder, Guru Arjun, when an estimated 10,000 pilgrims were there. Bhindranwale, who had made himself a target for retribution, had set up his headquarters in the Golden Temple. In doing so, he effectively dared the authorities to violate the temple to capture him.

On 4 June 1984, in an operation codenamed Bluestar, 2,000 army troops moved in to arrest Akali leaders inside the temple. This action incited thousands of Sikh peasants to converge upon Amritsar. The military dispersed the crowds and launched a full-scale attack on the Temple, taking control of it. In the process, an estimated 5,000 civilians, including Bhindranwale, and 700 officers were killed.1 The army also attacked forty other gurudwaras where Sikh activists were allegedly hiding. The temple sustained substantial damage in the attack, including to manuscripts and other artifacts. In the wake of the attack, “The entire Sikh community was outraged, not so much by the death of Bhindranwale but by the all-out assault on their premier shrine by the Indian army” (Deol 2000:108). A number of Sikh troops deserted the military and tried to march toward Amritsar, several Sikhs resigned from Parliament or other government posts, and Sikh intellectuals returned government-given honors in protest. The government rebuilt the shrine, but their doing so was popularly seen as the government’s again taking control and attempting to humiliate the Sikhs.

In the following months, the government conducted Operation Woodrose, arresting and sometimes torturing or killing thousands of Sikhs, including all prominent Akali leaders, and instituting ordinances for detention without trial, extraordinary rules for evidence, and so on. Most of the AISSF’s rank and file went underground, though a number of leaders were arrested or killed. Also, a large number rural Sikh youths crossed the border into Pakistan. The state was sealed off with additional troops, martial law was declared, complete press censorship was established, and the Golden Temple was occupied militarily. Leaf suggests that this disproportionate, inappropriate response just “served as evidence of what [Bhindranwale] was trying to prove:” Indira Gandhi’s government’s hostility to Sikhs and shift away from basic democratic procedures and toward autocracy (Leaf 1985:494).

The Indian government explained its own perspective in the July 1984 White Paper on the Punjab Agitation (Government of India 1984). The report pinned the agitations in Punjab since 1981 on the Akali Dal. The government labeled the movement communal, extremist, and inhumanely brutal; said it engaged in secessionist and anti-national activities; and claimed it involved criminals, smugglers, and anti-social elements who took advantage of situation for their own ends. According to the report, secessionists and terrorists had been stockpiling weapons in the Golden Temple and other gurudwaras, while secessionist and anti-national groups supported by foreign organizations seeking India’s disintegration were attempting to drive a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs. The Akali Dal, explained the government, had surrendered leadership of the movement to terrorists who were not willing to negotiate reasonably with government. For its part, the government had met consistently with the Akali Dal over the demands in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution since 1981. The government had made concessions, agreed to further study (for instance, on the river water issue), or explained how current system was adequate (for instance, regarding the holy status of Amritsar or the teaching of Punjabi in schools). The Akali Dal did not unequivocally denounce the killings, arson, and looting or misuse of shrines for weapons accumulation that came along with expressions of communal separatism. Between the Akali Dal’s tolerance of militancy and violence and the support for Khalistan (even via violence) from abroad, the situation had become incendiary by 1984. The army was called in to control terrorist, extremist, and communal violence, including by attacking the military-trained terrorists in the Golden Temple, who refused to lay down their arms and surrender. The report explained that the army found weapons, ammunition, explosives, and arms manufacturing capabilities on temple grounds. Hence, concluded the report, “The action which the Government has had to take in Punjab was neither against the Sikhs nor the Sikh religion; it was against terrorism and insurgency” (Government of India 1984:26).

On 31 Oct 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Punjabi Sikh guards from her own security force, presumably in retaliation for the attack on the Golden Temple. Anti-Sikh riots promptly broke out in several parts of India. 10,000 Sikhs were murdered2 and 50,000 were rendered refugees in Delhi, while a huge amount Sikh property was looted or burned. Media and human rights organizations’ reports implicated politicians and other authorities in coordinating or facilitating the attacks, but the government refused to order an official inquiry into the riots. This reluctance further enraged Sikhs: “The actions of the government dramatically compounded the alienation felt by the Sikhs and gave ample credence to the widespread belief of an official conspiracy against the Sikhs” (Deol 2000: 109). As Leaf describes, almost all Western press interviews of victims “expressed disillusionment, a sense of betrayal, and sadness. Many said they no longer considered India their country; they would rather live anywhere else” (Leaf 1985: 495). At the same time, even progressives in India remained largely ambivalent regarding the attacks against the community, as Sikhs had been happy (“distributing sweets”) upon Indira Gandhi’s death, and because of “the recognition that in the face of India’s unspeakable poverty the Sikhs have been, in fact, a privileged community in economic terms,” while some were religious “fundamentalists” (Mahmood 1996:141). Punjab remained largely isolated from the outside world from June 1984 through July 1985 by rigid press censorship and the presence of an army of occupation. Journalistic sensationalism and a dearth of unbiased information meant news from the period tended to be highly distorted and labels (“moderate,” “extremist,” “fundamentalist,” “terrorist,” “secessionist”) carelessly applied (Major 1987:42-58).

The Akali Dal and SGPC threatened further agitation if the government did not release a number of detained leaders and institute an inquiry into the pogroms of November 1984. A group of Akali leaders were released in March 1985 and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal was reinstated as head of the party. In May 1985, the Akali Dal demanded a government apology and official inquiry into the riots, the withdrawal of draconian judicial and anti-terrorist measures then in force, the release of additional detainees, and more, but still insisted that the party did not want a separate Sikh Khalistan. The government, headed by Rajiv Gandhi since December 1984, invited Longowal for secret negotiations. The result was the Rajiv-Longowal Accord of July 1985. The agreement did not directly concede any Akali demands, but referred several issues to committees for further study. Some Akali leaders called the accord a sell-out. Indeed, as Rajiv Gandhi’s political position became more tenuous, the government failed to implement the accord as planned, undermining the Akali Dal’s authority. The AISSF, too, denounced the Rajiv-Longowal Accord as inadequate, arguing that it ignored issues like the treatment of Sikh army deserters, the plight of thousands of Sikh youths in detention, the abuse of powers given to police and military under “Black Laws,” and the question of punishing the instigators of the November 1984 riots.

Division within the Akali Dal led to the formation of a rival United Akali Dal, led by Baba Joginder Singh (Bhindranwale’s father). The AISSF forged strong links with the United Akali Dal. Together, the two groups campaigned for a boycott of the September 1985 Punjab elections, then concentrated on building up opposition to the Akali Dal-led regime that won in a clearly communally-divided race (Major 1987:49-51). Unrest continued amid the flow of 20-30,000 Sikh refugees into Punjab from other parts of the country and the assassination of Longowal in August 1985 (Deol 2000:111).3 In May 1986, the central government again took control of Punjab in light of continuing acrimony between the Sikh government and its Sikh opponents. Tatla explains that the central government’s policies exacerbated the situation, as it: “defined a limited demand for regional autonomy as ‘secessionist’, and dismantled the means to pacify an ethnic community’s ‘public humiliation’ by dismissing a popularly elected Akali government in May 1987” (Tatla 1999:29). Overall, despite the extent of violence and distorted rhetoric, “genuine commitment to the creation of a separate Sikh state is still rare within the Punjabi Sikh community; it is, in fact, strongest among overseas Sikhs” (Major 1987:57-58).

As Kohli describes, “once mobilized, Sikh militants very quickly gained political advantage over moderate Sikh leaders” (Kohli 1997:337). He suggests the move toward succession was primarily a political ploy for most moderate Akalis, but once the discourse had shifted in that direction, any efforts moderates made to work with the central government just undermined their leadership: “normal politics made the moderates look like opportunists not worthy of a leadership mantle” (Kohli 1997:337). As a militancy and repression cycle first set in, Indira Gandhi refused to compromise in 1982-84 on non-secession “bread and butter” issues like control over river waters, agricultural subsidies, and Chandigarh, as she did not want to seem to be appeasing minorities. That recalcitrance weakened Sikh moderates and privileged militancy. When in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi offered some compromises as well as elections in Punjab that year, the level of violence dropped. However, when Rajiv Gandhi found himself unable to implement those compromises, Akali moderates were again undermined and the militancy/repression cycle returned (Kohli 1997: 337-8).

A guerilla force, the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), developed among Sikhs motivated by Bhindranwale and his messages or else antagonized by Operations Bluestar and Woodrose. Sikh village youths in particular were driven to terrorist acts by the army and police force’s misuse of power. Most were motivated by a sense of injustice and inequality, although the religious context and presumed moral imperative to restore social and economic justice, was seen to validate armed resistance. The strength of the guerilla groups (which got arms via Pakistan and Afghanistan) surged in 1987-88, although these efforts were uncoordinated at first. Among the “terrorists” were a large number of former Naxalites (Maoist-inspired revolutionaries), suggesting some continuity – though it is unclear how much – between the radical youth struggles of the early 1970s and Sikh terrorism of the early 1980s. It was those with trade union experience who initiated attempts to resurrect the guerilla movement after most movement leaders were killed or driven underground in 1984. Some informal gangs of smugglers and criminals also joined forces with Sikh militants to take advantage of the unsettled situation. From 1987 on, the central government set its security forces loose in Punjab, granting them extraordinary discretionary powers in combating Sikh militants. The government was more concerned with suppressing militancy via brute force and counter-insurgency than with remedying the underlying causes of the conflict. Extrajudicial killings, torture, anonymous arrests, and more were prevalent, along with another assault on the Golden Temple (Operation Blackthunder, in May 1988). Indian paramilitary forces eventually eliminated most of the Sikh activists involved. In the meantime, civilians were squeezed between warring security forces and militants. By 1991, civilian casualties accounted for nearly three-fourths of all killings. Amid the situation of general lawlessness, any who could abandoned their land and migrated to the cities (Major 1987:55-6; Deol 2000: 112-14).

The guerilla movement (comprised of around twenty militant organizations in Punjab) was fractured by rifts over policies and tactics, plus struggling with finding sufficient resources and recruits, by 1988 and increasingly so by the early 1990s. The question of whether to raise social reform issues during the period of armed struggle or to hold off on these was especially divisive. Moreover, given the nature of the movement and high casualty rate, there was a constant need to recruit new guerillas but no time for ideological or disciplinary training. The necessarilydecentralized organizational structure of the guerilla organizations and weakness of prevailing institutional structures aggravated the situation. Importantly, too, the guerrillas had lost ideological credibility and their support base among much of the Sikh community by 1991-92. Initially, the movement had gotten a sympathetic response from the Sikh professional classes, even if these individuals would not themselves risk reprisals or endangering their institutional ties to the government by engaging in overt political protest. As the movement’s methods became more violent, however (attacking Hindus on a train, assassinating candidates for office, etc.), that support waned, especially since the government fostered rifts among Sikh political factions through incarceration or harassment (Deol 2000: 112-15). Although a core of militants remained committed to Khalistan, by the early 1990s, the ideological coherence and moral purpose of the movement had faded with the escalation of violence and the poor economy a decade of instability had wrought (Telford 1992:986).

Approximately 15,000 Sikhs died before the state gained the upper hand in 1992. The popular outcry against human rights abuses (especially from among the Sikh diaspora) led the government to appoint a National Human Rights Commission in September 1993 as well as to hold a farcical election (boycotted by all the major parties) in February 1992 to bring back “democracy.” In those polls, Congress formed the state government with a mere 8 percent of the popular vote. The Chief Minister was then killed in August 1995 by a suicide bomber (Deol 2000:116-7). The Akalis were allowed back into the political field in 1995 and an Akali Dal/BJP coalition came to power with the February 1997 elections. In the end, the Indian state proved strong enough to retain control, even if just through brute force in containing or repressing Sikh militants until waning popular support and flagging recruitment rates caused the militancy of 1980s to dwindle (Kohli 1997: 337-8). Tatla concludes, “The realpolitik of resources bargaining and distribution has returned, the Indian state has ‘managed’ another ethnic conflict and the aggrieved group has retuned to normal politics by sharing power for the state government” (Tatla 1999:30).

Responses from the state

The actions of the Indian state clearly influenced the course of the Khalistan movement, reshaping Sikh identity and radicalizing what otherwise may have been a far more benign initiative. First, the Congress Party’s acceptance during the colonial era of the principle of linguistic states helped fuse territoriality and Sikh ethnicity. When the new government then refused to carve out a Punjabi-speaking state – seeing demands for a Punjabi suba as a Sikh communal ploy, wary of the security threat implied by having such a state on the border with Pakistan, and fearing that caving in would sour relations between Sikhs and Hindus – the issue became more incendiary. The struggle to attain the Punjabi suba that was finally realized in 1966 forged a nexus between Punjab and Sikh consciousness, such that Sikhs evolved into an “ethnoterritorial community” (Oberoi 1987:31-40). Moreover, “modern institutions, such as the state and census reports, reinforced the fusion of linguistic and communal identities.” Hindi became tied to Hindus and Punjabi to Sikhs, with popular mass media such as the vernacular press compounding these impacts (Deol 2000:101).

Sikhs’ feelings of marginalization are understandable inasmuch as the post-colonial Indian state is an “ethnocracy” that has privileged dominant Hindus both through their disproportionate recruitment into civil, military, and government elites and by using Hindu cultural attributes and values to define the national ideology, history, language, religion, and moral values. India’s institutions, constitution, laws, and power arrangements empower the dominant ethnic group. In fact, the postcolonial state has dismantled rules and safeguards for fair representation of minorities that were established under British rule in favor of universal franchise and constitutional centralism (both of which disadvantage minorities and regional nationalisms). At the same time, the rise of Hindu nationalist parties (especially the BJP) has helped to forge a new, more unified Hindu identity (although this project remains incomplete) and added anxiety for religious minorities. These trends could mean greater homogenization rather than maintenance of a pluralist vision of the nation-state, further alienating Sikhs and other minorities (Tatla 1999:34-39).

Kohli highlights the significance of the degree of institutionalization of the Indian polity over time in how minorities’ claims have been handled. In the 1950s, India was relatively wellinstitutionalized as a polity. Congress was firmly in control and the civil service and armed forces were professional. Nehru could thus be relatively accommodating of opposition and of demands for self-determination; he was secure enough that granting concessions showed magnanimity rather than threatening his position. Some of these political institutions weakened over time, such that, “if the 1950s were a decade of relatively effective institutions, the 1960s are best thought of as a decade of transition during which the nationalist legacy declined, political competition and challenges to the hegemony of the Congress Party increased, and a new type of political system – a more populist system – with noninstitutional methods of securing electoral majorities was created by Indira Gandhi” (Kohli 1997:331-2). Indira Gandhi was more suspicious of challenges than Nehru had been, and re-centralized power. Political institutions weakened further in the 1970s and 1980s, especially as “personalistic leaders damaged the institutions that constrained their discretionary powers” (Kohli 1997:331-2). Congress was largely destroyed as an institution; the police, civil service, and armed forces grew less professionalized and more political; parliament lost efficacy; and the judiciary became less autonomous. The disintegration of the Congress Party in the late 1970s led to the manipulation of regional elites and appeals to dominant Hindu voters to save the “nation in danger” and to avoid allowing in a “foreign hand” or dealing with “agitators and extremists.” Still, Rajiv Gandhi (especially in the first two years of his tenure) and Narasimha Rao were both more flexible than Indira Gandhi had been (Kohli 1997:331-3).

It was largely the uncompromising stance of the centralizing state that spurred the metamorphosis from seeking devolution of powers to seeking sovereign statehood. Tatla asserts, “The struggle for a Sikh state arose as a direct result of the Indian state’s action at the Golden Temple. … Given the Sikhs’ religious tradition of tolerance and the Akali Dal’s experience of coalition politics, a yearning for statehood could find accommodation in a federalized Indian polity” (Tatla 1999:34). Particularly with regard to significant economic issues, “Punjabis have been consistently frustrated by impositions of the central government. There is no real claim on the part of the central government that its measures are in the interest of Punjab; Punjabis furthermore cannot even see how they are in the interest of India as a whole” (Leaf 1985: 490-1). Since the late 1970s, Punjabis have identified the problem of an anti-farmer/rural bias in the structure of the government. Most important mainstream Punjabi (Sikh and otherwise) groups and parties have proposed the solution of “federalism,” and “not based on ‘Sikh fundamentalism,’ separatism,’ or any sort of terrorist ideology” (Leaf 1985: 491).

As Sikh demands went unmet or even unacknowledged as legitimate, as described above, particularly in the 1980s, the population became progressively more disenfranchised and more centrist politicians were silenced in favor of voices from the fringes (Leaf 1985: 491). Most dangerously, Indira Gandhi used her access to national and international media “to consistently describe the opposition as religious fanatics who advocated secession and separatism motivated by ‘communalism’ and ‘regionalism.’” She referred more often to extremists’ than to moderates’ actions and statements to substantiate this characterization, until “In the end it became selffulfilling prophecy. It had the logical effect of magnifying the extremists and discouraging the moderates, even through they never actually ceased to try to present their case. It had the political effect of tapping the well of prejudice that is available wherever there are religious and ethnic differences and of gaining widespread acceptance in India and the world for the idea that the conflict was indeed communal and religious – that the anger of the Punjabis was irrational and antinational and that tolerating it would be tantamount to allowing India to drop back into the eighteenth century. Punjabis in their turn were aware of this misrepresentation of their concerns and its acceptance, and it only increased their frustration and anger” as well as their willingness to tolerate and not to root out extremists like Bhindranwale (Leaf 1985: 493). Continuing strife drove a wedge in Punjab between rural Sikhs and urban Hindus and between the two major parties involved (Akali Dal and Jan Sangh).

Most clearly, Operations Bluestar and Woodrose (the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple and subsequent sweep of Akali Dal leaders) “far from curbing extremist activity … fomented considerable alienation among a broad cross-section of the Sikh population” (Deol 2000:111). The anti-Sikh riots that followed and the government’s failure to curb or investigate the violence provided fertile ground for Sikh separatism to develop, including as represented by guerilla groups. Sikhs in India and abroad felt oppressed, insulted, and inadequately accommodated in the Indian state, so more aggressively sought an alternative.

Key issues

As described in detail above, the key issues motivating the Akali Dal and more radical Khalistan movement activists are political, economic, religious, and social. Class and regional differences have influenced groups’ preference for negotiation and compromise with the central government or radical opposition and secession: those with less to lose have generally been less staunchly moderate.

The Anandpur Sahib Resolution, drafted by a working committee of the Akali Dal in 1973 in response to the failure of state officials to resist central impositions, articulates the core issues at stake throughout the Punjab crisis. The document lists two principles and four aims, with ten programs to secure those (mainly religious) aims, as well as seven more politically-oriented objectives. The main grievances expressed in the resolution are: to add to the state the main Punjabi-speaking regions left out in the 1967 delineation (which included sites important to Sikh history) despite acceptance of the linguistic criterion; to limit central government intervention to defense, foreign affairs, post and telegraph, currency, and railroads in the states; to develop a more “federal” Indian state, with all states equally represented at the center; and to eliminate discrimination against Sikhs and other minorities in government service and civil life outside Punjab. Issues such as the cost of agricultural inputs in relation to support prices, canals, the relative industrial development of Punjab, and employment opportunities were also included.

Much of the support for an independent Sikh state of Khalistan has come not from the Akali Dal or other local parties, but from Sikh expatriates abroad. The Sikh diaspora comprises approximately two million Sikhs (of eighteen million total), located primarily in England (the largest community), Canada, and the United States. Most had been rural peasants, driven abroad, for instance, by land rights legislation that created unfavorable economic and social conditions in the early twentieth century. Sikhs represent an increasingly middle class or prosperous community abroad. While some diasporic Sikhs supported the idea of secession much earlier, after the events of 1984, the community offered vociferous support for the formation of an independent Khalistan. Support for Khalistan by diasporic Sikhs is generally attributed to anomie or alienation from migration; the desire to establish power and credibility as a community; and

the strong ties these Sikhs have consistently maintained with Punjab through kinship, culture, and economic links (Deol 2000). Tatla, for instance, suggests that, “there appears to be an interplay of culture, group consciousness and the uncertainty of migrant status in the host society,” with the desire for a homeland in which such threats would not arise (Tatla 1999:210). Similarly, Mahmood suggests that there has been a reinscription of Sikh identity among the diaspora onto a territory, much as has occurred with Zionism. As such, “it seems clear that the power of the Khalistan idea is enhanced, not diminished, by the dispersion of Sikhs outside of Punjab and India. And this is expressed in monetary, political, and moral support for Khalistan from diasporan Sikhs despite the fact that many or most would not move to Khalistan if it were indeed created” (Mahmood 1996:254).

The Sikh diaspora represents a critical resource for the Khalistan movement. It maintains contacts with human rights organizations in Punjab, lobbies in the United Nations and via groups like Amnesty International, and has direct links with the main political parties of Punjab. The diaspora has also provided the movement with funds, support, and mobilization since the 1960s. Groups in the Punjab have had ties to Sikh societies abroad since the colonial era. These ties increased as Sikhs set up Singh Sabhas in the Far East, East Africa, and elsewhere. Antiimmigration measures and general racism spurred new sorts of Sikh organizations in North America. Sikhs have been organized there since the early twentieth century to coordinate their activities, to support Indian independence, and to counter racial discrimination and antiimmigration laws. For instance, the Khalsa Diwan Society formed in 1907 in Vancouver and the revolutionary organization, Hindustani Workers of the Pacific Coast (known as the Ghadr, or “Revolution,” Party), formed in San Francisco soon after with the primary objective of liberating India from Britain. The latter enjoyed wide support from Sikhs in North America and began publishing a weekly newspaper in November 1913. Ghadr’s first phase (1913-18) highlighted nationalist rhetoric, but its second phase (1916-19) was more socialist. An incident over a Japanese passenger ship transporting 346 prospective Sikh migrants to Canada, the Komagata Maru, mobilized the community (and also garnered considerable sympathy in Punjab) in May 1914. The passengers were not allowed to disembark in British Columbia, then the ship was returned to Calcutta. A fracas ensued when the Sikh passengers refused immediately to board a train to Punjab. Eighteen were killed and others were wounded or interned. Such incidents fostered a militant mood (Deol 2000:118-21; Tatla 1999: chap. 4).

Diasporic Sikhs made a “feeble demand” for a Sikh homeland for the first time in the 1940s, but this only became an issue in the 1960s, then gained momentum only in the 1980s and especially after 1984 (Deol 2000:121-3). Anticolonial intellectuals first agitated both for Indian independence and for the special status of Punjab. Overseas Sikh political groups maintained links with Punjabi parties from the 1960s: with the Communist Party of Punjab and leftists groups, organizing around immigration, racism, and workers’ rights; with Congress; and with the Akali Dal. Issues of Sikh identity, the teaching of Punjabi, religious practice, and dress have been particularly significant to these organizations. The idea of Sikh separatism appealed to few in Britain or Canada before 1984, although the unwillingness of the Indian government to intervene for Sikh issues in those countries encouraged some support, as did reports of atrocities against Sikhs in India or of violent conflicts among factions (with the Indian government criticized for encouraging problematic sects) from the late 1970s on. A small group in Vancouver even applied to the UN for “observer status” in 1981 and set up a “Republic of Khalistan” office in 1982. The Akali Dal’s 1981 Dharam Yudh Morcha campaign for Punjab’s autonomy got much support from diasporic associations, with marches, resolutions, and more in Canada and Britain, and Harchand Singh Longowal, president of the Akali Dal, appealed directly to diasporic Sikhs to raise awareness and support. The demand for an independent homeland then became a major rallying point among the community when Indian forces invaded the Golden Temple. This incident triggered a strong emotional reaction, as it was interpreted as a threat to the community, such that all Sikhs were vulnerable and affected. The attack thus fostered a sense of collective fate, affected the dynamics of Sikhs’ religious identity, and weakened the attachment of Sikhs abroad to India (instead of to their Sikh identity and host country). The rise of effective new leaders helped to sustain the movement beyond easy initial phase of mobilization. The movement has also fostered connections among constituencies (centered largely around gurudwaras) of the Sikh diaspora in various countries, and not just with Sikhs in Punjab (Deol 2000; Tatla 1999).



  1. Deol, Harnik. 2000. Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab. London: Routledge.
  2. Government of India. 1984. White Paper on the Punjab Agitation, a Summary. New Delhi: Government of India Press.
  3. Kohli, Atul. “Can Democracies Accommodate Ethnic Nationalism? Rise and Decline of Self- Determination Movements in India.” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 56, No. 2 (May, 1997), pp. 325-344.
  4. Leaf, Murray J. “The Punjab Crisis.” Asian Survey, Vol. 25, No. 5 (May, 1985), pp. 475-498.
  5. Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley. 1996. Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh
  6. Militants. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Major, Andrew. “From Moderates to Secessionists: A Who's Who of the Punjab Crisis.” Pacific
    Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 42-58.
  8. Mitra, Subrata K. “The Rational Politics of Cultural Nationalism: Subnational Movements of South Asia in Comparative Perspective.” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 57-77.
  9. Oberoi, Harjot S. “From Punjab to ‘Khalistan’: Territoriality and Metacommentary.” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 26-41.
  10. Tatla, Darshan Singh. 1999. The Sikh Diaspora : The Search for Statehood. London: UCL Press.
  11. Telford, Hamish. “The Political Economy of Punjab: Creating Space for Sikh Militancy.” Asian Survey, Vol. 32, No. 11 (Nov., 1992), pp. 969-987.


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