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Khalistan: A Sikh separatist movement that haunts India

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The Khalistan movement is a Sikh separatist movement seeking to create a homeland for Sikhs by establishing a sovereign state called Khalistan (land of the Khalsa ) in the Punjab region of South Asia. The movement has its origins in the colonial and post-colonial history of India, and has been revived in recent years by some elements of the Sikh diaspora, especially in Canada, the UK, and the US. The movement has been a source of tension and conflict between India and its Sikh minority, as well as between India and some of its international allies.

The Punjab region, which includes parts of modern-day India and Pakistan, has been the historical homeland of the Sikhs, a monotheistic faith that emerged in the 15th century as a reaction to the oppression and persecution of Muslims and Hindus by the Mughal Empire. The Sikhs established their own empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century, which was annexed by the British after two Anglo-Sikh wars. After the partition of India in 1947 along religious lines, Punjab was also divided between India and Pakistan, leading to massive violence and displacement of millions of people. The Sikhs, who constituted a majority in undivided Punjab, became a minority in both countries, and faced discrimination and marginalization.

The idea of Khalistan was first proposed by a Sikh scholar named Dr. Vir Singh Bhatti in 1940, in a pamphlet titled “Khalistan”. He envisioned a sovereign Sikh state that would include all the Sikh-majority areas of Punjab, as well as some adjacent regions. However, the idea did not gain much traction among the Sikhs at that time, who were more concerned with securing their rights and representation within India. The Khalistan movement gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, when some Sikh leaders and organizations began to demand greater autonomy and recognition for their religious and cultural identity. The movement also received support from some sections of the Sikh diaspora, who felt alienated from their ancestral homeland.

The Khalistan movement reached its peak in the late 1980s, when a militant group called the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale launched a violent campaign against the Indian state and its symbols. The KCF targeted government officials, security forces, politicians, journalists, and civilians who opposed their cause. They also occupied the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in Amritsar, and used it as their base. The Indian government responded by launching Operation Blue Star in June 1984, a military operation to flush out the militants from the temple complex. The operation resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, as well as damage to the temple structure. The operation sparked widespread outrage and resentment among the Sikhs, who felt that their sacred site had been desecrated by the Indian army.

The aftermath of Operation Blue Star was marked by more violence and turmoil. In October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, who were allegedly avenging the attack on the Golden Temple. This triggered anti-Sikh riots across India, especially in Delhi, where thousands of Sikhs were killed by mobs incited by some members of Gandhi’s Congress party. The riots further alienated and radicalized many Sikhs, who saw themselves as victims of state-sponsored genocide.

The Khalistan movement declined in the mid-1990s, due to several factors such as increased security measures by the Indian government, loss of public support among the Sikhs due to the atrocities committed by the militants, factionalism and infighting among the separatist groups, and political dialogue and reconciliation efforts initiated by some moderate Sikh leaders. The movement also faced international pressure and isolation, as many countries banned or curtailed the activities of Khalistani organizations on their soil.

Today, the Khalistan movement is largely dormant within India, where most Sikhs have integrated into the mainstream society and polity. However, some remnants of the movement still exist among some segments of the Sikh diaspora, especially in Canada, where there is a sizable Sikh population. Some Canadian Sikhs have been accused of providing financial and moral support to the Khalistan cause, as well as lobbying for its recognition by the Canadian government and other international bodies. The Khalistan issue has also been a source of diplomatic friction between India and Canada.

The most recent example of this was the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Khalistani leader, who was shot dead in British Columbia in June 2023. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of playing a role in the assassination, while the Indian government dismissed the allegations as “absurd”.

The Khalistan movement is a complex and contentious issue that has shaped the history and politics of India and its Sikh community for decades. It is also a reminder of the challenges and opportunities that arise from the diversity and pluralism of India’s society and culture. While the movement may have lost its relevance and appeal within India, it still poses a potential threat to India’s security and stability, as well as its relations with some of its key allies.

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