The Khalistan movement is India’s most divisive and intricate political and historical topic. Identity, religion, nationalism, human rights, and democracy are all in one movement. It also represents the difficulties and hopes of a pluralistic society that values similarity and difference.
The Sikh Khalistan movement, which aspired to establish an independent Sikh state in Punjab, occurred during one of the most turbulent times in India’s history. Sikhs felt that the Indian government was treating them unfairly, especially after 1947 when India and Pakistan were divided.
A militant group under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale waged a bloody uprising against the government in the 1980s and early 1990s, calling for Sikh autonomy and self-determination. In Amritsar, Punjab, Bhindranwale and his followers reinforced the Golden Temple, the holiest site of Sikhism. The Indian government, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, launched Operation Blue Star in June 1984 to clear the temple complex of militants. Heavy casualties on both sides and significant damage to the temple resulted from the operation, which lasted several days.
Many Sikhs saw the operation as an insult to their religion and a degradation of a holy site. In retaliation for Operation Blue Star, two of Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her four months later, on October 31, 1984. Thousands of Sikhs were murdered, injured, or driven from their homes due to these riots in Delhi and throughout India. Some members of Gandhi’s Congress party were widely perceived to have orchestrated the violence.
The assassination and subsequent riots fueled the insurgency in Punjab and inflamed the Khalistan movement even more. In retaliation, the Indian government arrested, tortured, or killed thousands of people in extrajudicial operations who were thought to be militants or sympathizers. Nearly 20,000 people lost their lives, and the economic and social fabric of Punjab was ripped to shreds as a result of the bloodshed that lasted for nearly a decade.
Loss of public support, the rise of democratic alternatives, infighting among militant organizations, and international pressure to combat terrorism all contributed to the Khalistan movement’s decline by the late 1990s.
Some members of the Sikh diaspora, however, continue to advocate for Khalistan through political and legal channels; thus, the movement is far from extinguished.
Recently, the situation for Sikhs in India has deteriorated. The Indian police detained and tortured Amritpal Singh Sandhu, a Sikh activist, after he revealed offenses committed against his community. After his arrest, protests and violence broke out in Punjab, the homeland of the Sikhs. In response to Sikh protests, Indian authorities imposed a curfew, severed communication connections in Punjab, and launched a violent crackdown.
For their support of Amritpal Singh Sandhu and their demands for justice for the Sikh minority, the Indian government has also targeted the overseas Sikh community. The Indian intelligence service RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) launched a covert operation to disrupt Sikh groups and communities worldwide, including in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries. The RAW agents intended to demonize the Sikhs, foster discord among them, and incite fanaticism and violence.
The Indian government is actively attempting to silence and persecute the Sikh community, putting them in grave peril. The Sikh community must band together to combat this tyranny and garner international support for their cause.
The Sikh Diaspora, known for its vocal opposition to the ongoing oppression of Sikhs in India by security forces, is now confronted with a new challenge in the shape of targeted assassinations. In June 2023, two notable Sikh activists, Hardeep Singh Nijjar and Avtar Singh Khanda, were victims of homicide within three days, with the incidents occurring in Canada and the United Kingdom, respectively. Both individuals had actively protested in solidarity with the Khalistan movement, a socio-political campaign advocating for establishing an independent Sikh homeland within the borders of India while expressing opposition towards the Indian government.
Khanda assumed the role of head of Sikhs for Justice, an organization dedicated to promoting awareness regarding the mistreatment of Sikhs in India. In contrast, Najjar was the administrator of a Sikh Gurdwara located in Surrey, Canada, and held leadership responsibilities within the Khalistan Tiger Force. Najjar and Khanda met their demise due to violent gunfire near the Gurdwara. Nijjar sustained multiple gunshot wounds while in his vehicle.
In contrast, Khanda’s demise was attributed to the development of blood clots after she complained of physical discomfort, suggesting the possibility of poisoning.
There is suspicion that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the intelligence agency of India, may be responsible for these homicides, as it has a track record of targeting and expelling foreign critics.
These criminal acts not only infringe upon the fundamental human rights of the victims but also pose a significant risk to the well-being and security of Canada and the United Kingdom.
Sikhs have faced persecution by Hindu extremists since establishing their religious tradition, and this mistreatment has also been observed in various countries. It is imperative for the international community to duly acknowledge these egregious acts and ensure that India is held responsible for its transgressions against human rights. The recent correspondence from a group of 75 lawmakers urging Vice President Biden to address these matters with India represents a promising advancement.
The Author is a student of International Relations at the National Defense University Islamabad. He worked in many think tanks and his expertise lies in the regional dynamics of South Asia as well as with publications highlighting the different issues at various outlets. He tweets at @MussawerSafi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org