India and the Spectre of Khalistan

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The issue is not the idea of Khalistan

Khalistan is now a four-decade old stick in the hands of the Indian government to bash the Sikh community. The latest instances are how towards the end of June, in a bizarre move, the police suddenly pounced on a number of Sikh youth allegedly for their pro-Khalistan activities.

According to the police these are members of the Khalistan Liberation Front and other terrorist organisations. The artefacts recovered from the suspects are pictures of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, literature that is freely available on the Internet, ammunition, and in one case dummy police and ITBP uniforms.

The arrests were made under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 and the Arms Act. Recently the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) also declared nine Sikh men, including Gurpatwant Singh Pannu of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), as terrorists under the amended UAPA.

In August last year, despite Opposition hue and cry, the Central government amended Section 35 of the UAPA Act whereby an individual can be declared a terrorist under Schedule IV of the Act. Prior to the amendment, only organizations could be designated this way and individuals were not covered.

While the cases are now sub judice, it is not wise to comment on whether the arrests are genuine or not. That is for the courts to decide.

However, what needs our attention is how in this period when the world and India is struggling to contain the Coronavirus, the timing of such announcements and arrests raise important issues.

First, we all are seeing report after report of how the ruling government BJP at the Centre is systematically targeting Muslims who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Sikhs played a huge role in those protests. Are they now being targeted because they stood by Muslims and other marginalized minorities?

Second, by mid-February, the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor had been open for over 100 days. Despite major media clamour and fear mongering before the inauguration of the Corridor, no untoward incident had taken place. Even the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, visited the Gurdwara and said the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor was ‘a practical proof of Pakistan’s desire for peace and interfaith harmony’. He Tweeted:

‘A corridor of hope, connecting two key Sikh pilgrimage sites. Welcome symbol of interfaith harmony.’

This kind of international praise for a beacon of peace in South Asia, initiated by Pakistan, does not sit well with the macho-nationalist Central government whose greatest plank is Pakistan-bashing. This was the period when to increase footfall of pilgrims there was talk of removing the criteria of the mandatory passport for pilgrims. The Punjab Police chief remarked:

Kartarpur offers a potential that you send somebody in the morning as an ordinary chap and by evening he comes back as trained terrorist. You are there for six hours, you can be taken to a firing range, you can be taught to make an IED.’

Though six hours to become a terrorist sounds completely outlandish, it was enough to turn the public sentiment even though the police chief later claimed the usual – he was misquoted.

Now after the lock-downs imposed to contain the Coronavirus are off, Pakistan has offered to re-open the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor. Delhi does not want it. Are these arrests part of creating evidence that Pakistan is aiding pro-Khalistan and anti-India activities?

The declaration of individuals as terrorists also seems linked to the Punjab and Indian government apprehensions that the Sikhs For Justice will push their proposal to hold a Referendum 2020 over the issue of Khalistan. What could be a better way to curb any such talk than by labelling the Referendum sponsor Pannu a terrorist?

It would all have been passé and even boring repetition of an old drill but the matter is serious. Not only are young men picked up on real or false charges, end up facing years of imprisonment, even torture, losing the prime of their life, but every time this happens once again all Sikhs anywhere in India are looked at as suspects, as anti-nationals.

They are made to explain themselves, endless debates are spawned and matters get muddied. Such actions by the Indian state gives endless fuel to Sikhs in diaspora – whom India cannot touch – to up their pitch to bash India.

The question is: while the opposition Congress that rules many states is opposing the amendment to the UAPA, and its draconian use, though the party itself is guilty of extensive misuse of the Act, why is the Congress government in Punjab using UAPA to target citizens?

There is no one better than current Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh to understand the fact that Khalistan is an old stick India uses against the Sikh community. After all, he had resigned from the Congress when Operation Blue Star took place, joined the Akalis, even signed the Amritsar Declaration and read it at the Akal Takht in 1994.

The Declaration pledged:

‘Commitment to pursue a democratic struggle for the creation of a separate region for the Sikhs, where they can enjoy freedom… The aspirations of the Sikh nation and the Punjabis can be realised only with the creation of such a region.’

In effect, the Amritsar Declaration was one step ahead of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (a document seeking equitable Centre State relations, charted before the militancy years and much maligned by Indira Gandhi). Except that the Amritsar Declaration did not use the word Khalistan.

Khalistan, the term, is not a mere label to stick on the forehead of anyone the Indian state deems to be anti-national. Khalistan is an idea with a genealogy of its own which is almost a century old. The idea has seen four distinct historical meanings:

1st, the stance of the Sikhs during the declaration of Poorna Swaraj in 1929 until talks of Azad Punjab for the Sikh community just before Indian Independence.

2nd, the struggle for a region that speaks the Punjabi language until the trifurcation of Punjab in 1966 where the river water issues remained tangled.

3rd, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution which took an unfortunate turn because of myopic politics and turned into a secessionist movement until mid-1990s.

4th, the promise of the Akalis when they tied up with BJP in late 1990s to fight Punjab elections committing to the people of Punjab that the party will purse the cases of gross human rights violations in the state during militancy and seek justice for all crimes.

The Akalis have continued to betray their promise until the present. Yet, the people remember because for them the human rights violations –disappearances and extra-judicial killings – by the state was a lived experience. If the current generation – whose youth the police picks up whenever it chooses to bash the Sikhs – seeks Khalistan, it basically seeks justice against historical wrongs.

It is, in fact, in the interest of Indian nation to address the questions of justice and take the Sikh community with it. It is in the interest of a large federal nation to acknowledge the struggle of its minorities and bring peace within its borders. But that is not the goal of BJP which has quite democratically – because it panders to majoritarian religious biases – turned a secular India into a Hindu Rashtra. Exactly, what the idea of Khalistan was for Punjab in its third phase that did not succeed – a theocratic nation, based on a religious identity, adhering to tenets of the Sikh religion.

Since BJP is busy creating its Hindu Rashtra, it chooses to not address the grievances of the Sikh community. The same community that even during the current Coronavirus pandemic performed far above its weight to fill the godowns of the nation so no Indian sleeps hungry. The same community whose members lay down their lives on the nation’s borders to safeguard it from enemies, even as recently as in Galwan Valley.

The issue is not the idea of Khalistan. The issue is limiting the idea of Khalistan to the perception the majority in the country harbour as secessionist and use it to beat the Sikhs. The issue is the laws the Centre passes to curtail its minorities and not build an equal, just and federal India.

Also Read: Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is a test of India’s policy towards its neighbours

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Punjab Today

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