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Is a Sikh separatist movement seeing a resurgence four decades after sparking terror in India?


Unsurprisingly, recent acts of vandalism by suspected Sikh separatists in Australia and North America have sparked a déjà vu.

In March groups of separatists destroyed the Indian consulate in San Francisco. Another group of separatists blocked and forced access to the Indian Consulate in Brisbane close to temporary. This followed attacks on three Hindu temples in Australia, reportedly by supporters of a group called Sikhs for Justice.

Graffiti at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco last month.
Jeff Chiu/AP

There are also tensions rising in India about the same Sikh separatist movement, with sporadic bouts of violence and the recent arrest of a fiery preacher and independence leader, Amritpal Singh, under the National Security Act of India.

Elsewhere, the alleged military chief of a Sikh separatist group, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, was shot down in Lahore, Pakistan, last week. Responsibility was not immediately claimed.

The separatists are demanding the establishment of a Sikh state, “Khalistan”, in northern India. In various cartographic fantasies, this new state would include the Indian capital of New Delhi and Lahore, the capital of the great Sikh leader, Ranjit Singh, in the early 19th century.

Do these recent acts mark the resurgence of a full-fledged Sikh separatist movement like the one that took place in India in the 1980s?

Nearly four decades ago, the demand for a separate homeland for Sikhs sparked widespread terror, particularly in the Indian state of Punjab. It also radicalized parts of the overseas Indian diaspora.

A violent history

There was a certain amount of discontent within the Sikh community after the division of Punjab between Pakistan and India in the partition of 1947. In later years, Sikhs demanded certain things from the Indian government (e.g. better water sharing rights and more language protection ). Some also expressed a deeper and more powerful claim about their religious identity.

This simmering sense of alienation and insecurity was hijacked in the 1980s by Pakistan-backed militant groups, especially those sworn to lead the controversial Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whose followers occupied the Akal Takht in the Golden Temple complex in 1984 – the most important religious site for Sikhs.

Image of a group of men walking into a Sikh temple with swords
Sikh separatists shout pro-Khalistan slogans and brandish swords after a 2019 memorial for those killed during Operation Blue Star in 1984.
Raminder Pal Singh

Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army to chase the terrorists away, also killing many civilians. In the aftermath, Gandhi was assassinated by her personal Sikh security guards.

Less than a year later, an Air India plane flew from Montreal to Mumbai blown up in the middle of the air, which killed more than 300 passengers. After two decades behind bars, Inderjit Singh Reyat – the only convict – was released by Canadian authorities in February 2017.

By the early 1990s, however, a combination of government policies—both carrots and sticks—and the Sikhs’ inherent pragmatism had restored peace to Punjab.

Read more: British role in 1984 temple attack will tarnish British Sikh identity

Sikhs in contemporary society

The current acts of violence and vandalism do not have the potential to be sustainable, nor do they have much support in India or the Sikh diaspora.

There are more than 30 million Sikhs worldwide, the majority in the Indian state of Punjab.

Punjab remains a symbol of India’s growth story. And within India, the Sikhs are seen as a remarkable community: hardworking, resilient and usually without a strong caste-based social hierarchy. They have traditionally thrived in the security forces and as farmers.

Sikhism was founded in the 15th century and is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak. The last of the ten gurus who followed him, Gobind Singh, organized the Sikhs into a warlike force, the Khalsa.

Today their teachings are collected in the holy book, Granth Sahibwhich serves as a life guide for Sikhs.

Read more: Who are the Sikhs and what are their beliefs?

The Sikhs have built a niche identity abroad as mostly loyal, reliable and law-abiding citizens who have thrived even in times of great adversity. Their temples, called gurdwaras, are open to all religions and the karah prasada simple lunch with sweet pudding, is offered to visitors, regardless of their opinion or status.

US President Joe Biden recently nominated a Sikh, Ajay Bangaas President of the World Bank.

Can the violence of the 1980s be repeated?

There are some similarities between today’s Punjab and that of the 1980s. But this is only on the superficial level.

First, today’s problems are identifiable and manageable. These include unemployment and a lack of opportunity for young people, widespread substance abuse, farmer discontent over controversial laws that have since been repealed, and a lack of progressive leadership.

On the other hand, there is support for the separatists only on the fringes, both in the Punjab and in the diaspora.

Admittedly, the decline of the traditional political parties in Punjab (Congress and the Akali Dal) has created a power vacuum. This space has been occupied by the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (the Ordinary Man’s Party), which currently rules Punjab, and groups like Waris Punjab De (Heirs of the real Punjab), led by the firebrand, Amritpal Singh.

Singh returned to Punjab in 2022 after years of working in Dubai as an apparent social reformer. He campaigned against drug use and for Puritan Sikihism, but also advocated for a separate Sikh state of Khalistan.

With increasing radicalization, the situation in the state could possibly worsen. The political vacuum must be filled with legitimate, well-organized, politically responsible voices. This is even more important after the recent death from Prakash Singh Badal, a five-time chief minister of Punjab, who had been a voice of common sense and statesmanship.

The Indian government and key stakeholders in Punjab seem well aware of the dangers of allowing the situation to deteriorate again. There is a deep understanding that they must not repeat history.

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