The Platform

The Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India. (Arian Zwegers)

Indian Sikhs have long felt oppressed.

The Khalistan movement, vying for an independent Sikh state in Punjab, India, is a highly complex political and historical subject, wrapped in a thorny bundle of identity, religion, nationalism, human rights, and democracy. It represents the challenges and aspirations of a pluralistic society striving to reconcile similarities and differences.

Emerging during a period of considerable tumult in Indian history, the Khalistan movement reflected the profound sense of grievance among Sikhs, who felt marginalized by the Indian government, particularly after the divisive partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a militant group led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale instigated a violent uprising, advocating for Sikh autonomy. Their stronghold was the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s most sacred site, situated in Amritsar, Punjab. The Indian government, under the auspices of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sought to dislodge the militants through Operation Blue Star in June 1984, a mission resulting in heavy casualties and significant temple damage.

For many Sikhs, Operation Blue Star was a desecration of their sacred space, prompting outrage and further resistance. Indira Gandhi’s subsequent assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984 triggered a wave of riots across India, resulting in the widespread persecution of Sikhs. Accusations of orchestration by members of Gandhi’s Congress party persist to this day.

The assassination and subsequent riots exacerbated Punjab’s insurgency and fanned the flames of the Khalistan movement. The Indian government responded with severe extrajudicial operations, claiming thousands of lives. Nearly a decade of bloodshed left Punjab’s social and economic fabric in tatters.

By the late 1990s, the Khalistan movement began to wane due to dwindling public support, the emergence of democratic alternatives, infighting amongst militant organizations, and mounting international pressure to combat terrorism. Nevertheless, elements of the Sikh diaspora continue to lobby for Khalistan, indicating that the movement is far from extinguished.

Recently, the predicament of Sikhs in India has worsened. After revealing crimes committed against his community, Sikh activist Amritpal Singh Sandhu was arrested and reportedly tortured by Indian police. His arrest sparked protests and a subsequent violent crackdown in Punjab, the Sikhs’ ancestral homeland.

In the face of protests, Indian authorities imposed curfews, severed communication lines, and launched aggressive operations. The Indian intelligence service, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) has also been implicated in a covert operation aimed at destabilizing Sikh communities worldwide, further escalating tensions.

The alleged assassination of prominent Sikh activists Hardeep Singh Nijjar and Avtar Singh Khanda in June marked a chilling turn of events. Both victims, who were active in advocating for Sikh rights and the Khalistan movement, met violent ends in Canada and the United Kingdom, respectively. Accusations of foul play involving India’s RAW intelligence service have emerged, raising concerns over India’s alleged breaches of human rights.

The persecution Sikhs have faced since the establishment of their religion, both in India and abroad, demands international attention. Recent actions by a group of 75 lawmakers urging President Biden to address India’s alleged human rights abuses with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly represents a promising step forward. However, the complex and volatile situation in Punjab underlines the urgent need for dialogue, understanding, and a commitment to peace.

Abdul Mussawer Safi is an author at various platforms such as Modern Diplomacy, Kashmir Watch, and Eurasia Review. He is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from National Defense University. He has a profound interest in world politics, especially in the regional dynamics of South Asia. His academic strengths are critical and SWOT analysis.