Starting in the early 1980s, radical separatists spearheaded a bloody campaign to carve out an independent, theocratic Sikh state known as Khalistan (Land of the Pure) in Punjab and other parts of Northern India.
The roots of Khalistan lie in the British colonial policies of the late 1800s and early 1900s that sought to divide Sikhs and Hindus. Sikhs were recruited into the British army in large numbers to use against Hindu rulers that rebelled against the British Raj. Subsequently, after Indian independence in 1947, tensions between the state of Punjab and the central Indian government surfaced, leading to grievances amongst many Sikhs against the Indian government.
Punjab, for instance, was trifurcated into the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh in 1966, along linguistic lines (Punjab as a Punjabi speaking state, and Haryana and Himachal Pradesh as Hindi speaking states), which created resentment amongst many Sikhs that the historic contours of Punjab were being further divided after it has already been divided between India and Pakistan in 1947. Interestingly, it was the later division of Punjab that allowed Sikhs to enjoy a religious majority in the state, given the predominantly Hindu populations in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
Many Sikhs in Punjab also resented sharing the joint capital of Chandigarh with Haryana, and viewed water sharing agreements with Haryana as unfair and favoring farmers there to the detriment of those in Punjab. Sikh religious leaders were additionally apprehensive of the community losing its identity and culture, and wanted greater state powers for Punjab.
Although these types of issues often mark normal state-federal government relations in newly independent countries such as India, they were perceived by many Sikhs as religiously motivated policies of discrimination against them and were exploited by radical leaders, who built a narrative that Sikh interests would only be safe in an independent Sikh country of Khalistan. This was further compounded by an “incendiary mix of unprincipled politics and the manipulation of religious identities and institutions” that brought radical Sikh forces to the forefront of politics in the state of Punjab.
Violent clashes between radicalized Sikh groups led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Nirankari sect (considered heretical by the former) in April 1978 is considered the beginning of the Khalistan movement. And in 1980, Bhindranwale and his supporters started targeting Hindus and murdered Lala Jagat Narain, the publisher of Punjab Kesri, a vernacular newspaper, and a vocal critic of Bhindranwale. This was soon followed by large scale violence against civilians across the state.
The Khalistan movement peaked in the 1980-90s and the violent campaign included bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and selective killing and massacres of civilians. The movement resulted in nearly 22,000 deaths of Sikhs and Hindus alike, including approximately 12,000 civilians. The violence took on an international dimension in 1985 when Khalistani separatists based in Canada exploded a bomb on an Air India flight enroute from Toronto to New Delhi, killing all 329 people on board, including 82 children under the age of 13. That incident remains the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history.
According to Human Rights Watch, “Militants were responsible for numerous human rights abuses during the violent separatist struggle for an independent Khalistan, including the killings of Hindu and Sikh civilians, assassinations of political leaders, and the indiscriminate use of bombs leading to a large number of civilian deaths in Punjab and other parts of India. Under the cover of militancy, criminals began to coerce businessmen and landowners, demanding protection money.”
As Canadian Political Science Professor, Hamish Telford, has also noted, “Over time, the Khalistan movement descended into thuggery. The militants increasingly engaged in robbery, extortion, rape, indiscriminate killings and ever-escalating terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. By 1991, Sikh militants were generally viewed as unprincipled criminal gangs.”
In response to the movement, and in an attempt to end militancy in the state, Indian security forces and local Punjab police responded with force, at times committing human rights abuses. Moreover, the Congress Party led central government contributed to problems in the state by undermining democratic institutions and interfering with elections, and failing to adequately address local/state issues and relations between the state and the central government. It is important to note, however, that the majority of the police, security forces, and politicians in Punjab were and are Sikh. In fact, the police captain credited for ending the Khalistan insurgency, KPS Gill, was himself a Sikh. Moreover, Sikh politicians, such as former Chief Minister Beant Singh, were themselves assassinated by militants.