India reopens its Khalistan wounds
On Sunday, April 23, after being on the run for five weeks, Amritpal Singh, a Sikh separatist leader, was arrested in Punjab, in northwestern India. Pointedly, Amritpal was arrested while hiding out in the village of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a separatist leader from the 1980s who was considered a terrorist by the Indian government. Bhindranwale was committed to creating a homeland for the Sikhs known as Khalistan, literally “the land of the Khalsa,” a reference to those who accept Sikhism as their faith and also specifically to the more devout who display their allegiance with outward signs like wearing a beard and covering their uncut hair with a turban. In India, Amritpal was accused of styling himself like Bhindranwale to gain credibility as a leader of Sikhs, particularly among the diaspora in the West.
The month-long manhunt for Amritpal had led to an internet blackout in Punjab and protests outside Indian embassies in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia. On social media in India, decades-old arguments about Sikh secessionists were being revived.
Last week, before Amritpal’s arrest, a video went viral across Indian social media. It featured a young woman, an Indian flag painted on her face, ostensibly being turned away from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, the most important religious site for the world’s 30 million Sikhs.
Off camera, a man asks a temple guard why the girl was denied entry. The guard, carrying a steel tumbler, says something barely audible about the flag on her face. “Is this not India?” asks the man off camera. “This is Punjab,” the guard says.
The tense 40-second exchange unleashed a social media storm. “India is seeking an explanation and action,” tweeted Rajan Tewari, the vice president of the local Delhi chapter of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s governing party. Anshul Saxena, a self-described “news junkie” with a following of 1.1 million people, said the flag on the girl’s face was the reason she had been stopped from entering the temple.
“Well,” he wrote in a Twitter thread, “Khalistan flags & posters of terrorist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale are allowed inside the Golden Temple.” The video was evidence enough, apparently, of lingering pro-Khalistani sentiment in Punjab.
Amritpal had become the face of this allegedly revived Khalistani movement. Since March 18, he had been on the run from the Punjab police. He was wanted for storming a police station with his supporters in February, leaving six officers injured. The chaotic official crackdown on Amritpal left Punjab on edge and caused a backlash from the Sikh diaspora across the world that has had diplomatic repercussions. Earlier this month, Indian officials were reported to have “disengaged” from trade talks with the United Kingdom because India wanted a stronger condemnation of “Khalistan extremism” after a demonstration outside the Indian embassy in London.
Until the February attack on the police station, few in India had heard of Amrtipal Singh. He had emerged from obscurity seemingly fully formed and ready to take on the leadership of Waris Punjab De, a fringe political organization that was founded in September 2021 by the Sikh actor Deep Sidhu to fight for the rights of Punjab’s farmers. Sidhu died in an accident in February 2022, leaving his newly formed party rudderless. Amritpal stepped into the breach, though Sidhu’s family refused to give him their backing.
The idea for Waris Punjab De was born as Indian farmers took to the streets in huge numbers two years ago. For several months in 2020 and 2021, farmers, especially from Punjab, the bread basket of India, protested against three bills passed in the Indian parliament that they said would leave small farmers at risk of being destroyed by large corporations. The length and ferocity of the protests shook the Modi government. In January 2021, India’s attorney general claimed that “Khalistanis have infiltrated” the farmers’ protests.
It was an attempt to link Sikh farmers to a separatist movement whose leaders the Indian government has described as terrorists. When climate change activist Greta Thunberg and the pop star Rihanna tweeted about the farmers’ protests, the Indian media, quoting “sources in the security establishment, claimed they had been paid millions of dollars by Khalistan supporters and India’s foreign minister tweeted darkly about “motivated campaigns targeting India.”
Last month, Coda reported that the Punjab government shut down the internet across the state as it launched its search for Amritpal. The government blocked the accounts of local journalists, a local member of the legislative assembly and alleged supporters of the Khalistan movement and restricted access inside India to accounts belonging to a Canadian politician and the bestselling Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. But Amritpal continues to elude the police even as hundreds of his associates have been arrested.
I traveled through Punjab to report on the effects of the government crackdown. Parminder Singh, a retired professor in Amritsar, where the Golden Temple is located, told me that the “excessive show of strength” from the authorities had backfired. It meant, he said, that Sikhs feel as if they are being bullied and that the “scaremongering” media and the state government were succeeding only in stoking partisan passions.
Many Sikhs I spoke to, regardless of age or gender, had sympathy for Amritpal. They didn’t necessarily buy into his politics — most Sikhs are not interested in a separate state. But they believed that the authorities were overreacting and that the use of anti-terror laws, the indiscriminate arrests and the information blackouts were a throwback to the darkest days of the 1980s.
The movement for Khalistan in Punjab, a region that stretches across the border into Pakistan, petered out in the 1990s after a period of convulsive violence. In 1984, the Indian government, led by Indira Gandhi, sent the army into the Golden Temple to root out Khalistan-supporting separatists. The battle inside the temple lasted for four days. The separatists were led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed during the fighting.
While official numbers are hard to come by and disputed, the Indian government acknowledges that about 500 Sikhs were killed, including civilians. In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. It was, the Indian government said, revenge for what had happened at the Golden Temple in June that year. She was India’s first, and so far only, female prime minister and the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
After Gandhi’s assassination, Sikhs were targeted by roving mobs and murdered, often in broad daylight. Over 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi. Senior leaders of the Congress, the political party in power at the time, colluded with the massacre. In the elections held at the end of December, just two months after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots, her son Rajiv swept to power with an unprecedented and still unmatched parliamentary majority.
Despite the Congress failing to properly atone for or even acknowledge its responsibility for the anti-Sikh riots, it has continued to win elections in Punjab at the state level. The Congress governed Punjab for 10 of the last 20 years, from 2002 to 2007 and then again from 2017 to 2022. In between, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a Sikh-centric party, ruled for a decade in partnership with the BJP. In the 2022 elections, a third political force, the Aam Aadmi Party, founded in 2012, swept to power with an emphatic majority. The Aam Aadmi Party (Hindi for “the Common Man’s Party”) also forms the local government in Delhi, where it has been a thorn in the side for the Narendra Modi-led federal government.
It is the Aam Aadmi Party that has been in power in Punjab as the Khalistan movement has made the headlines over the last month. Ironically, the party’s political opponents have frequently accused it of being funded by Khalistan supporters living abroad. Meanwhile, India’s federal government is run by the BJP, a party that Sikhs believe has been fueling unrest in Punjab since the farmers’ protest two years ago.
A common complaint I heard from Sikh people I spoke to in Punjab was that the Indian government has failed to listen to Sikh concerns on issues ranging from farming to the water crisis to widespread drug use in Punjab. Simranpreet, a young Sikh law student in Amritsar, told me that Amritpal was popular because he “represented the community’s concerns, was preaching about the rights of Punjab.”
In Jalandhar, an old, culturally vibrant Punjabi city, a filmmaker told me that young, charismatic men like Amritpal, Deep Sidhu and the internationally successful rapper Sidhu Moose Wala, who was murdered in May 2022, had become youth icons because they represented the Sikh desire to have their voices heard. “People are emotional about Sikh and Punjabi identity,” she said. “And if they feel someone who represents that identity has been wronged, they will stand by them.”
Amritpal seemed particularly aware of the meaning to Sikhs of Bhindranwale, who was killed by Indian soldiers in the Golden Temple in 1984. He dressed like Bhindranwale, posed with armed men like Bhindranwale and, according to lurid rumors in the Indian press, has had plastic surgery to look more like Bhindranwale. Amritpal supposedly had this plastic surgery while he was in the Caucasus, receiving training from Pakistani intelligence services.
Gurtej Singh, an elderly historian based in Chandigarh, the Le Corbusier-designed capital of Punjab, told me that he and Bhindranwale had been friends. His reputation as a feared terrorist in the rest of India, Singh said, was at odds with his reputation among Sikhs. “Bhindranwale is venerated as a martyr,” Singh told me, “because he died while protecting our holiest shrine.”
By straining so hard to make Amritpal seem like a national security threat, the authorities are showing their hand, he says. Chasing Amritpal, Singh argued, was less about catching Amritpal than it was about suppressing Sikh political protest by associating it with Khalistan.
Respect for Bhindranwale, Singh says, does not indicate that Sikhs support Khalistan or want to secede from India. It means that there is a disconnect between the Sikh minority and the increasingly Hindu nationalist Indian mainstream.
The disconnect is evident in much of the social media response to Amrtipal Singh. For many in the Hindu nationalist right wing, Sikhs needed to disavow Amritpal and Khalistan as a simple matter of patriotism. Sikhs, naturally, bristle when they are told they need to prove their loyalty and commitment to India.
Pride in Punjab and in Sikhism are often subverted by Hindu nationalists on social media to suggest support for Khalistan. After the video of the woman being turned away from the Golden Temple went viral, an official from the committee that manages the temple was forced to defend Sikh patriotism. In a video, he said he was shocked at the allegations about support for Khalistan. “When you need people to go to the border to fight China, who do you send?” he asked. “You send Sikhs. Are they also Khalistanis?” Sikhs, who make up around 2% of India’s population make up close to 10% of its army.
An independent Khalistan is now largely symbolic for Sikhs in India, a rallying cry for Sikh and Punjabi pride rather than a realistic goal. But for the large Sikh diaspora, especially in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, Khalistan remains a powerful idea. Sikh emigration has ebbed and flowed since the 19th century, but it was the Indian government’s violent suppression of the Khalistan movement in the 1970s and 1980s that politicized the diaspora. Writing in the Guardian on the 25th anniversary of the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple, the journalist Sunny Handal, who has Sikh roots, observed that it was “difficult to overstate the impact that 1984 had on Sikhs and their politics, even in Britain.” It was, he wrote, described by some in the community as the “Sikhs’ Kristallnacht.”
In Canada, the Sikh diaspora enjoys considerable political clout. There are an estimated two million Canadians with Indian heritage, 34% of whom identify as Sikhs and 27% as Hindus. The unresolved trauma of the riots of 1984 sometimes spills out onto Canadian streets. Last year, in November, a Sikh separatist group, classified as a terrorist organization in India, organized a referendum in Toronto on the creation of an independent Khalistan. The Modi government described it as “deeply objectionable that politically motivated exercises by extremist elements are allowed to take place in a friendly country.” Just days before the referendum, on October 24, Diwali night, in the Canadian city of Mississauga, about 500 people were filmed brawling in a parking lot. Some were carrying yellow Khalistan flags, others the Indian tricolor.
Inevitably, Amritpal has become a celebrated figure within the Sikh diaspora. The police manhunt led to attacks on Indian consulates in London and San Francisco and to protests in Canada and Australia. On April 18, India’s National Investigation Agency said it would be examining the attack on the Indian embassy in London for evidence of Pakistani involvement.
After some 35 days of investigations, raids and hundreds of arrests, Amritpal was finally found and has been moved to a prison cell in the eastern state of Assam where, under the provisions of India’s stringent National Security Act, he can be held for up to a year without charge. A man with a relatively meager following has been elevated to the status of a revolutionary. And the pressure ordinary Sikhs now feel to publicly embrace their Indian identity — even as Hindu nationalist politicians openly call for India to be remade as a Hindu nation — is reopening old, still festering wounds.
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