What is the Khalistan Movement?
Sikh conflict with the Indian state emerged out of two driving forces: Sikh aspirations to sovereignty driven by the principles of patshahi1 and miri-piri2, as well as the subjugation of Punjab to serve the Indian nation- and state-building project. This project subordinated Punjab’s economy and natural resources to serve state-building and industrialization across the rest of the region—despite the devastation it wrought on Punjab itself.3 At the same time, Delhi used the institutions of the state to assimilate the region’s diverse peoples into an artificial Indian “nation.” These initiatives led to the overriding of Punjab’s constitutional powers over its own hydroelectricity, river waters, capital city, economic development, and other areas.
The manifestations of Sikh liberation movements over the past 174 years have taken a variety of forms that continue to inspire and drive Sikh self-determination today. While Sikhs in the region sought to mobilize non-violently in order to decentralize the political structure through electoral politics and civil disobedience, the armed struggle eventually emerged in the face of intense state repression.4
While over 100,000 courted arrest during the Dharam Yudh Morcha (campaign) to non-violently pressure the government into accepting the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (between 1982-1984), the genesis of armed Sikh resistance can be found in the murder of Sikh protestors under police supervision in 1978 and the police torture and killings of panthic Sikh naujawan in 1982 and 1983.5 While the early militancy featured limited retributive assassinations of particularly cruel security officials, the state’s brutality during the army invasion of Darbar sahib in June 1984, the subsequent mass arrests dubbed “Operation Woodrose” that summer, and the genocidal pogroms of November 1984, gradually transformed this militancy into a full-fledged war for national liberation. The tone and pitch of violence steadily escalated thereafter as the state continued to treat the political conflict purely as a law and order problem.
Through indigenous mechanisms of self-governance, including the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa and the establishment of several Khalsa jujharoo jathebandiyan (warrior bands), the Sikh panth has repeatedly declared the intention to secede from the Indian state and establish an independent Khalistan. The unequivocal support for this objective can be seen in the resounding electoral results of 1989 and 1992 in support of secession, and repeated ratification of this goal as recently as the Sarbat Khalsa in 2015.
The theory and praxis of Sikh political violence has been developed and deployed by Guru Granth-Panth for centuries. Not only is armed force justified for self-defence in this framework, but also expected of a Sikh to ensure the "protection of the marginalized, destruction of the tyrants" and sarbat da bhala.6 It is on these terms that Sikh jujharoos engaged in an armed political struggle against the Indian state. In their own words:
It should be clear to every person that the concept of Khalistan is no sudden revelation to Sikhs. This is neither a romantic dream of some youth who have been swept by the irretrievable emotions nor is it a conspiracy of a ‘handful of disappointed’ and astray people against the so-called unity and integrity of India, as we are accused each day. The sacred concept of Khalistan is already inscred well before us in the historical phrases of ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’ and ‘Khalsa ji de bol bale’ that have become and shall remain an inseparable part of the Khalsa Ardas. This concept has emerged from an intense desire to realize the grand ideal of Ardas into a ‘definite geographic territory’ with a ‘distinct milieu’ on this land...7
Fabricated claims that the Sikh sangarsh aimed at imposing religious uniformity or widespread killing are countered by assessing the stated objectives of the Khalsa panth within this spiritual framework. The gurmatta (Guru-Panth’s resolutions) of the 1987 Sarbat Khalsa clearly set forth the vision of the armed struggle:
This congregation proclaims for the information of the whole world that the Khalsa, who wishes welfare of all, never attacks the poor and oppressed. The present Sikh struggle is directed against those plundering and destructive raiders who have assaulted our principles, gurdwaras, Guru Granth Sahib, our form/dress and truthful earnings. The Khalsa Panth will always support the struggle of those institutions that follow the principle of equality, doing labour and sharing its products while reciting the Name. This assembly of Sarbat Khalsa strongly endorses armed struggles of the peoples of the world, especially those in India who are fighting against the tyrant colonial rule for their rights and independence…8
To this end, the jujharoo jathebandiyan “unanimously discarded their ‘terrorist’ identity since they took to violence under compelling constraints form the Indian nation-state. They were selective and purposeful about the use of violence against the exploiting classes and the state apparatus.”9
For Sikh jujharoos, such violence was tactically employed as a last resort due to the inhibitions on political organizing as a result of intense state repression which indiscriminately targeted all Sikhs.
In response, Indian security forces were mobilized to eliminate this resistance with the full backing and support of the political and judicial establishment. By firmly rejecting a political settlement on self-determination, the Indian state has remained determined to crush dissent militarily, and forcibly impose its political hegemony over the region.10
The state’s vicious counter-insurgency strategy to eliminate and permanently foreclose Sikh dissent was escalated in a well-documented formulaic process11:
Militarizing the police and overwhelming the region with an armed military presence
Enforced disappearances of human rights activists, journalists, and democratic Sikh political leadership
Incentivizing the extrajudicial murder of activists and guerrillas with impunity through an elaborate bounty system using unmarked funds
Crushing popular support through illegal detention, enforced disappearances and draconian laws
The enforced peace since the decline of the armed insurgency is maintained not through political settlement, but by maintaining the omnipresence of repressive state violence—and making this violence felt upon the bodies and voices of potential Sikh dissidents today. Restricting the public space of Punjab exclusively to Indian nationalist forces and discredited “Sikh leadership,” the state has maintained its coercive judicial-military apparatus to swiftly eliminate Sikh political opposition through extrajudicial killings, judicial repression, and the lived reality of the omnipresence of state violence. The genocidal violence maintains its lingering presence and is reproduced daily upon those who seek to dissent—forcing them to live under a regime in which violent perpetrators of crimes against humanity maintain positions of power over survivors.
The reassertion of Indian political hegemony over the region is thus not the result of a political settlement or the resolution of Sikh political demands but the imposition of a violent “peace” built upon genocide.
The above is an excerpt from “Who Speaks for Khalistan: Narrating Sikh Liberation,” which can be read in full here.
Patshahi is the expression of the complete sovereign and autonomous nature of the Khalsa due to its status as the Guru-Panth.
Miri-Piri represents the indivisibility of the spiritual and temporal realms and their manifestation in Sikh praxis by intertwining the pursuit of sovereignty and justice with the spiritual experience of merging with Akaal Purakh.
Pritam Singh, Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy (New York: Routledge, 2008).
Joyce Pettrigrew, “In Search of a New Kingdom of Lahore” (1987) 60:1 Pacific Affairs at 24.
The welfare of all elements of Akaal Purakh’s creation. This is not limited to humans alone, but includes everything within this biosphere and beyond.
[Shaheed] General Labh Singh and [Shaheed] Bhai Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala, “Eh Jang Sadi Jitt Nal Hi Mukegi” (1989) 58 Jantak Paigam translated and cited by Birinder Pal Singh, “Sikh militants’ terms of discourse: Religion, Khalistan/nation and violence” (2017) 12:2-3 Sikh Formations at 194.
Cited in Birinder Pal Singh, “Sikh militants’ terms of discourse: Religion, Khalistan/nation and violence” (2017) 12:2-3 Sikh Formations at 201.
Birinder Pal Singh, Violence as Political Discourse: Sikh Militancy Confronts the Indian State (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2002) at 76.
Gurharpal Singh, Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab (New York: Palgrave, 2000).
Ram Narayan Kumar, A. Agrwaal, J Kaur & A Singh, Reduced to Ashes (Kathmandu: South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2009).