Fears of Khalistan separatist revival in India downplayed

Experts believe a resurgence of the movement for a separate nation for Punjabis is far-fetched

Raman Singh, left, holds a photo of Bhai Amritpal Singh at a protest against the Indian government outside the Indian consulate in San Francisco.  AFP
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The massive manhunt for a self-styled Sikh preacher accused of stirring anti-Indian sentiment in northern Punjab state has sparked a debate over demands for a separate Sikh nation, but academics, religious leaders and former police officers believe the revival of a widespread movement is unlikely.

Punjab state police conducted a widespread operation targeting youth Sikh activist Bhai Amritpal Singh, 30, leading to large counter-protests. Police said Mr Singh was a “fugitive” after he managed to evade a police chase last week.

Mr Singh is the leader of Waris Punjab De, loosely translated as Heirs of Punjab, a radical organisation that supports the Sikh separatist movement and the creation of a homeland called Khalistan.

The police crackdown, that entered its fourth day on Tuesday, has triggered protests in cities around the world, such as London, Canberra, San Francisco and British Columbia, where a section of Punjabi diaspora support the idea of Khalistan.

A group of pro-Khalistan demonstrators broke down makeshift security barriers raised by police and installed two Khalistan flags inside India's consulate premises in San Francisco on Monday, prompting New Delhi to issue a diplomatic protest with its US counterparts.

Social media images showed a group of protesters brandishing Khalistan flags mounted on wooden poles and using them to smash glass doors and windows of the consulate building.

“The US government was reminded of its basic obligation to protect and secure diplomatic representation. It was asked to take appropriate measures to prevent recurrence of such incidents,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

Similar incidents of vandalism were also reported from the Indian High Commission in London, where Khalistan sympathisers climbed the mission’s balcony and pulled down the Indian national flag.

Supporters also protested outside the Australian parliament in Canberra against the security crackdown on Mr Singh and his associates in Punjab.

A group of Sikhs forced the cancellation of a dinner reception organised to welcome Indian High Commissioner to Canada Sanjay Kumar Verma at the weekend, in Surrey in British Columbia. Some of them reportedly wielded swords and heckled an Indian-origin journalist.

India has blocked the Twitter accounts of Sikh separatist supporters living abroad, particularly in Canada, for supporting Mr Singh and protesting against the government crackdown.

The Twitter accounts of Canada’s New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, activist Gurdeep Singh Sahota, and others, have been blocked in India.

Jagmeet Singh, known for his anti-Indian government comments, raised concerns over the crackdown to arrest Mr Singh, which led to an internet shutdown in the state, and called the measures “draconian” and “unsettling”.

But hashtags such as #supportamritpalsingh and #freeamritpalsingh trending on social media and demonstrations in foreign countries have triggered fears of a revival of the Khalistan movement.

“This attack is not on Amritpal but on Punjab!! I fully support Bhai Amritpal Singh,” said Twitter user Gurminder Singh Dhaliwal.

Many have echoed Mr Dhaliwal’s sentiments.

The Khalistan movement began in the 1980s and led to a decades-long insurgency in the state. It has remained active through sleeper cells, and the massive hunt for Mr Singh has reignited separatist sentiment among some young Indian Sikhs, at least on social media.

Many Sikhs have been demanding the release of Mr Singh, who worked at a family-run transport company before rising to prominence in September last year, when he became the chief of the radical organisation.

He also drew attention after embracing the look of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant Sikh commander who led an armed movement for Khalistan in the 1980s.

Sporting traditional robes and a turban similar to the commander, he has been called “Bhindranwale 2.0".

He has openly spoken of “genocide” of Sikhs in India in the 1980s and declared that Punjab is facing slavery under India’s “colonial rule”.

In one interview, he said that “the idea of Khalistan is not for a separate state … The point is that we were forcefully taken into the Indian nation by the British. There was no India before 1947.”

He has also claimed sacrilege of religious texts and forced conversion of Sikhs.

But academics, Sikh religious leaders and former police officers believe that a revival of a widespread movement in Punjab is unlikely.

Popular Sikh preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale said Mr Singh had exploited the religious sentiments of people in the state.

Punjab is a deeply religious state with nearly 58 per cent of its 27 million population belonging to the Sikh community.

Last month, hundreds of Mr Singh’s supporters stormed a police station demanding the release of an arrested aide. They held guns and swords but also Guru Granth Sahib — the central holy religious scripture of Sikhism — as a shield.

“Every five to 10 years such people come and they get support from those people sitting abroad. Punjabis are emotional and deeply religious people and the likes of Amritpal use their emotion to get name, fame and money, but 90 per cent of Sikhs don’t support such people or movements,” Mr Dhadrianwale told The National.

India's bread basket

Mr Singh has raised the issues of unemployment, drug addiction and farmer laws.

Punjab, known as the bread basket of India — it produces roughly 12 per cent of the total cereals produced in India — was once the richest state in the country. It ranked first in GDP per capita among Indian states in 1981. But after insurgency gripped the state, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people, Punjab missed out on industrial growth and it now ranks in 13th place among Indian states in terms of GDP.

Farmers are struggling and many people have moved abroad, looking for greener pastures. Persistent unemployment and farming woes have hit Punjab's economic growth.

The state, which borders Pakistan, is plagued by drug abuse, which is frustrating for its residents.

Prof Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist at Panjab University, said that public issues have played a role in Mr Singh’s popularity as he has deftly exploited the anxieties of the people.

“Punjab has been going down. No investments coming, farmers are in distress and people have lost hope. There is a sense of hopelessness and in these troubled times, religion comes to the rescue,” Mr Kumar told The National.

“One has to understand the Sikh psyche. Some people may have the passion [for a separate nation] and follow such a leader who talks about injustice, but Punjabis are pragmatic enough, they know how Punjab suffered and don’t want to go back to the 1980s,” he said.

Shashi Kant, Punjab's former director general of police, also blamed the local government for the rise of Mr Singh.

Since taking charge of the organisation in September, Mr Singh has been accused of spreading disharmony, attempted murder, attacks on police and obstructing the work of public servants, but the government did not take any measures because of a G20 event in the state, he said.

“It is a failure of political leadership and certainly police forces who look up to them for orders … The action was too late, too little.”

Updated: March 21, 2023, 2:30 PM