Revival of Khalistan militancy in Punjab

The attack on the Nirankari Bhawan (November 19, 2018) in Punjab has once again brought back the apprehensions of the revival of the Khalistan separatist movement in Punjab. Nirankaris, a spiritual cult believing in the authority of the living guru in addition to their reverence for the scriptural authority of Guru Granth Sahib carry an image of a heretic Sikh cult in the popular Sikh perception. They have always been at the receiving end of the violence orthodox and radical Sikh extremists for worshipping a living Guru as against the conventional Sikh belief of absolute loyalty towards the holy book. On 13th April 1978, the bloody clash between Nirankaris and extremist Sikhs left 13 dead. Later, in 1980, Nirankari sect’s spiritual head Baba Gurubachan Singh was killed in Amritsar. The incidents mentioned marked watershed moments that brought the Sikh extremist leader Bhindrawale into prominence and propelled Punjab into a dark and bloody decade of militancy.

India’s unity was threatened by Khalistan separatist movement which started in the 1970s. The separatist movement was supported by Pakistan morally, in logistics and weapons. It turned extremely violent in the 1980s after the operation blue star (1984) and anti-Sikh riots (1984), allegedly engineered by the Indian National Congress leaders, in a reaction to the assassination of its leader and India’s former PM Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards. The militancy was crushed with a heavy hand by 1993.

Since then, Punjab has seen relatively peaceful and prosperous times. It emerged as one of the most prosperous and peaceful states in India, with robust agriculture, industry and huge inflow of remittances. Decade ago, a nightmare, was becoming one of the most preferred choices for young administrative and police services recruits. However, the fears of a revival of the Khalistan movement had never died completely and were always lurking in the shadows. The Sikh separatist sentiment, though driven out from the mainland of Punjab, was still flourishing among the Sikh diaspora in the US, UK, Europe and Canada. On September 13 2013, Sikh extremists in central London attempted to murder retired Lt. Gen. Kulwant Singh Brar, the man who commanded operation blue star, stabbing him in the neck. In the mainland Punjab, Sikh organizations like Dal Khalsa and Dumdami Taksal have kept the Khalistan issue alive. They even succeeded in erecting a statue of the slain Sikh terrorist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Initially, there was some opposition, but now the place has become a revered one.

The 2nd generation in the Sikh diaspora, which hardly had any real-time exposure of living in India, lacked the understanding of India’s cultural dynamics, inter-religious harmony and diversity. They have been nurtured on the politically-motivated propaganda engineered by Sikh extremist leaders and the ISI, of injustices and killings that Sikhs faced in India during the separatist movement. The false propaganda machine also thrives on lies that even now the Sikhs in India are facing suppression in India at the hands of the Indian state and the Hindu nationalist parties. They are the members of proscribed terrorist organizations like Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) and International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF). US’s National Counter-Terrorism Strategy unveiled in October 2018, categorically stated that Babbar Khalsa wants to establish an independent Sikh state through terror and violence. After the Sikh militancy was crushed in Punjab, the groups mentioned above had largely confined themselves to low-profile activism. However, from 2015 the Khalistan movement has been on the rise again. Informed sources indicate that the Sikh extremist groups have moved beyond activism and have started indulging in violent activities. India Today, in a story on the revival of Khalistan movement, quoting Punjab Police, gives the following data on the militant activities of Khalistan movement-

Year Terrorists Killed Weapons Seized Grenades Seized Ammunition Rounds Seized


4 6 1003
2016 18 12 622
2017 17 25 5 663


In several incidents of terrorist violence since 2015, Hindu nationalist leaders and the leaders of heretic Sikh cults have been assassinated. The India Today story provides details on the busting of six terror modules and the arrest of 23 Khalistan terrorists in Punjab, since April 2017. The common patterns emerging from the majority of the investigations point towards foreign actors making desperate attempts to revive terrorism in Punjab. The interrogations revealed the links between the cadres arrested in Punjab and the Sikh extremist leaders like Lakhhbir Singh Rode (ISYF chief) and his cohorts based in Western Europe and Khalistan Liberation Force’ Harmeet PhD, allegedly sheltered in ISI safe-house near Lahore military cantonment in Pakistan.

Besides, several psy-operations to revive terror in Punjab are also afoot. Since 2015, more than 150 incidents of the sacrilege of the holy scripture of Sikhs; Guru Granth Sahib have been reported. It appears that the aim behind such incidents is to rejuvenate the perceptions of injustices against the Sikh community. Social media is flooded with the extremist audio and video content. The Indian agencies have detected 140 Facebook messenger groups, 125 Facebook pages and hundreds of WhatsApp groups being used to radicalize Sikh youth in Punjab. Informed sources from Indian security agencies reveal that such operations are planned and executed by Sikh extremists based abroad with robust support from Pakistan. Further, the Indian agencies inform that the rise of Hindu nationalist groups and their activities in Punjab is also being used to create the perceptions of fear among the Sikh community, as already there is a backlash against the increasingly vocal presence of Hindutva groups in Punjab and in the country.

The international arm of Sikh separatism is visible more in the form of civil rights activism and sophisticated propaganda operations. “Sikhs for Justice” (SFJ), a Sikh human rights advocacy group has given a call for “Referendum 2020”- a campaign to liberate Punjab from India and make it a nation-state. Referendum 2020 purports to ascertain the wishes of the Sikh community settled across the globe on the issue of Punjab’s liberation by 2020 and then pursue a referendum through the intervention of the United Nations. SFJ organized an event in London at Trafalgar Square this year in August and announced the London Declaration for the referendum 2020. The government of India registered its protest but the British government allowed the event on the condition of conducting it within the limits of the law. Besides, on various occasions, Indian diplomats and consular officials have been banned from entering Gurudwaras in Canada and the US.

That said, the fault lines in India are becoming sharper on the lines of caste and religion. Such fault lines constitute India’s Achilles’ heel and can hamper its emergence as a world power. The world of geopolitics is ruthless and brutal. Such fault lines will always be played upon by international forces to obstruct India’s growth.

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