Growing Communalism in India: Rise of Khalistan Movement

The South Asian region is marked by a huge diversity, encompassing various religious groups living side by side. Communalism continues to be one of the greatest threats to the Indian society. It revolves around the love and respect for one’s community, on the other hand it adopts a derogatory attitude towards the other community, influenced by intolerance and systematic discriminative policies. Previously it was prevalent in India; due to the sudden inclusion of various socio-economic and religious policies, as well as the role of British Empire in India. The nature of this ideology changed with the period of the time along with gaining strength. After partition of India, the importance of this ideology got more prominence and significance as it was understood with regards to the conflict and the presence of hatred between the India’s two major communities; Hindus and Muslims.

In India, though communal ideology was preached on a minor level during the 1830s, it emerged as a more structured and refined ideology in the 1870s and 1880s. Gradually, communal violence became a force in India in 1920s. It is because, during the years leading to the division of sub-continent, (1939 to 1945) communalism was on a persistent rise in India, both among Muslims, Hindus as well as among Sikhs. An example of this growing communalism is the Punjab state in India. It was believed that the partition had solved the communal problem in Punjab, because before 1947, Hindu and Sikh communities were on one side while being anti-Muslim, and Muslim communities were on the other side and they were anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh. So, it was assumed that with the partition and with the virtual abandonment of Muslims from Punjab, communalism would die out. When people talked about communalism in Punjab, they talked about the anti-Muslim sentiment, which was fed by migration from west Punjab to east Punjab and to Delhi. However, Hindu and Sikh communalism continued to grow from 1947 onwards. The policy makers were constantly warning against the spread of communalism in Punjab in the 1950s. Furthermore, Jawaharlal Nehru was particularly very conscious of it, although nothing was done in this regard. Thus, what happened in the 1980s was precisely the consequence of what had been happening since 1947.

With the partition in 1947, it was thought that problem of communalism would end soon. However, the politics around communalism grew further. The Muslims who remained in India after partition, had a desire for further partition of the country. The years following up to 1970 witnessed usual communal uprising in the country on the same pattern as it was before. However, the situation changed quietly after 1980, when the Khalistan movement started in Punjab. From the mid-1980s onwards, a new wave of Hindu nationalism appeared within the Indian social fabric. Most of the Hindu nationalists had made a propaganda that Muslims were in minority in India but remained a threat to the Hindu majority. This was the time when the notion to make India a Hindu nation only emerged. During this period, BJP and other political parties played an important role in mobilizing people on the name of religion and nationalism. The Khalistan movement, propagated by members of the political-religious group Akali Dal, in Punjab struggled to achieve an independent state of the Sikhs, which they have managed till date, to make a prominent mark in the realm of Indian and global affairs. The Sikh Diaspora has maintained a solid connection, both with their homeland of Punjab and with their religion, which would ultimately be called Khalistan. The presence of the Sikh community in the Punjab’s political affairs was minimal till 1980s. However, their political mobilization was a consequence of the assault on the Golden Temple under Operation Blue Star in June 1984, and the violence sponsored against the Sikh community after the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984, just four months after the Operation.

Under the latest struggle of Sikhs for the independent state of Khalistan, the Punjab Referendum Commission announced to hold the “Punjab Independence Referendum” from October 31, 2021 and onwards. The Commission has been appointed by the United States-based Khalistani separatist group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ). The SFJ supports and calls for an independent state of Khalistan in the Indian state of Punjab, forcing India to denounce the group as anti-national and secessionist. It announced that the Punjab Independence Referendum would be in line with the international norms and the result will be used as the basis for the Sikh community to request an official binding vote from the United Nations for establishing a region of Punjab as an independent homeland for the indigenous people. The SFJ’s legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun termed the movement as a democratic move to liberate Punjab from Indian occupation and punish the perpetrators of the 1984 Sikh Genocide.

As the Khalistan movement became active in India and abroad, the Indian government blamed Pakistan for training, arming and financing the Sikh militants. Despite Pakistan’s repeated assurances that it did not support the Sikhs in their movement, the Indian government has tried repeatedly to drag Pakistan in the Khalistan issue. However, it was later revealed that Sikh organizations such as World Sikh Organistaion (WSO), All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), Babbar Khalisa, and International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) all got their support from Sikh Diaspora based in UK, Canada, US and other countries.

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, while speaking to his United Kingdom’s counterpart stated that the Indian government condemned the UK’s move allowing a referendum on affairs of a minute section of the Indian diaspora. Furthermore, India accused the UK of ignoring and allowing the open radicalization of the Indian diaspora by the Sikh banned groups to promote their agenda. Now, the Indian government is posed with a challenge of a renewed Sikh struggle that it believes will open up the grievances around the 1984 riots. While addressing the occasion at referendum, Paramjeet Singh Pamma, the UK Coordinator for Khalistan Referendum stated that a large number of Sikhs marked their presence at the event which indicates that Sikhs would never forget India’s persecution of the Sikh community. The SFJ has been fighting a long peaceful legal battle against the Indian government and politicians involved in the 1984 deadly operation against Sikhs. It had previously filed criminal and human rights cases in the US courts against prominent members of the parliament allegedly involved in Golden Temple massacre.

Not only this, a week before the referendum, the SFJ released a new map of India. The new map was a major development in the Sikh’s struggle for an independent state which showed Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and several districts of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh as part of Khalistan. SFJ has designated areas that would be seceded from India for the establishment of Khalistan. In Rajasthan, far-flung Bundi and Kota have also been counted as one of those areas.

As the Khalistan movement became active in India and abroad, the Indian government blamed Pakistan for training, arming and financing the Sikh militants. Despite Pakistan’s repeated assurances that it did not support the Sikhs in their movement, the Indian government has tried repeatedly to drag Pakistan in the Khalistan issue. However, it was later revealed that Sikh organizations such as World Sikh Organistaion (WSO), All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), Babbar Khalisa, and International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) all got their support from Sikh Diaspora based in UK, Canada, US and other countries.

This latest move by the Sikh community, fully supported from all over the world, is one of the many signs of the anxiety of the persecuted minorities in India to get out of the hands of the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not only this, it is another major concern for the Indian Policymakers. It is because the creation of Khalistan will demoralize India to large extent as the Sikhs form a major and an important part of the Indian military. The demands of Sikhs also reveal that minorities of India now clearly understand that the future of their community and the coming generations is threatened. The global community, human rights organizations and the important stakeholders must take appropriate measures to avert the looming crisis for the minorities in general and Sikhs in particular.

Newsletter SignUp

About Zukhruf Amin 5 Articles
The author is working as a Research Associate at COPAIR. She holds an MPhil degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from NDU. She has previously worked at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Research, and Analysis (ISSRA). Her areas of interest are South Asian Politics, Peace and Conflict Transformation, and Climate Change.