Rise of Sikh Nationalism in India

The struggle for a separate homeland for the Sikhs’ started in 19th century, the British government was supported by the Sikhs’ during the war of 1857 and post-war they were given special perks and privileges by the British government. An association with the name “Singh Sabaha Association” was formed in Amritsar which started growing as a religious organization showing commitment to keep the identity of the Sikhs saved. British exploited the feelings of Sikhs against the Muslims and considered them more necessary against the Muslims in British India to keep a grip over the state affairs. They were awarded with lands in different parts of the subcontinent and also titles. During Oct 1890 the Viceroy Lord Lansdowne said at Patiala “we appreciate the admirable qualities of Sikh nation, … while in days gone by we recognized in them a gallant and formidable foe, we are able to give them a foremost place amongst the true and loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen Empress.” They stood with the government during every hard and soft and enjoyed all the privileges, they had a good say in local and state level of political corridors. Sikhs began to think about Punjab as their own land and demanded a weightage in Punjab same what was given to Muslims under the pact in Lucknow which is known as Lucknow pact in the history. During the roundtable conference of 1931 they gave a proposal for the readjustment of Punjab. The founder of Chief Khalsa Diwan Sunder Singh demanded the Punjab of Mahraja Ranjit Singh should be returned to the Sikhs and it was in response to the Pakistan resolution in March 1940. The Azad Punjab theory which was outlined by the Akali Dal consisted Lahore, Ambala, Jalandhar, Lyallpur and also some parts of Multan. A resolution was passed in 1946 in which a separate homeland for the Sikhs was demanded by the Akali Dal on the basis of shrines, language, traditions and property. Cripps Proposal was strongly rejected by the Sikhs and Master Tara Singh said “We have lost all hope of receiving any consideration. We shall, however, resist by all possible means for the separation of the Punjab from an all India Union.”

There was a small opposition of communist Sikhs which was not going with the common Sikh narrative against the formation of separate land for Muslims and that was the voice of Sardar Baldev Singh who was also part of the government in the British Indian Punjab. Soon after the passing of Lahore resolution which was resisted and rejected by the Sikhs, the Hindu-Sikh cooperation dramatically increased against the Muslims however the idea of proposal of the Azad Punjab was also rejected by Congress as the proposal aimed to change the already marked boundaries of Punjab in British India. Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan and a major chunk of Sikh population resides in Indian Punjab since 1947. Since India came into being, Hindus were already dominating the political front from the platform of Congress, they always tried to marginalize the minorities which created a sense of deprivation among them, and as a result of that, the armed struggle was started which intensified after Operation Blue Star.

Sikhism and Sikh Identity

The roots of Sikhism can be traced back to 1469 when Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikh religion started preaching his message and it was not with the aim to start a new religion. The start of the path by Guru Nanak challenged the existing religious tenants and gave birth to Sikhism. Although occasionally associated with Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism is a separate religion that has its own path and teachings. The Sikh state was first established in 1710 by the Khalsa Army of Banda which lived for a few years however regained power again in 1799 under the famous Maharaja Ranjit Singh who was defeated during the Anglo-Sikh wars in 1849 and this empire was annexed into the British India and Sikhs were considered to be the third community after Hindus and Muslims in the colonial period. British used Sikhs against the other communities by giving them more perks and privileges as compared to other communities that were in British India.

The wearing of the turban particularly by the male members is one of the most prominent identity marker of the Sikh community. This has also become a uniform for the Sikhs where they stand distinguished among a gathering. Khalsa is another identity maker in Sikhism where one has to go through “Sikh Bipatism” ceremony of Amrit and after a person becomes a “Amritdhari” Sikh. The dishevelled hair also have a great significance among the sikh community and its considered to be a symbol of devotion and conviction it also depicts that person is kept as God created. Unshorn hair also linked with the comb to keep the hair clean and orderly, both make a unitary pair. The sword is also another exemplary symbol where courage and bravery of the community members are identifiable, sword or Kirpan is also considered as a symbol of freedom and resistance against the oppressor. A steel bracelet worn by many Sikhs is a symbol of continuity, consciousness and restraint. The breeches are one of five symbols of the Sikhism, it was used by the warriors in the battlefields and its referred as symbol of alertness. According to the national commission for minorities the Sikhs are one of the minority living in India along with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Zoroastrians.

Separate Sikh State Khalistan

After the partition of British India, Akali Dal was the only Sikh political party which wanted to have a government in Punjab so that the Hindus don’t get mixed with them and they can keep their cultural, religious identity alive and also flourishing. The congress however dominated the area as Muslims were in favour of Urdu while Hindus were supporting the Hindi language as the mother tongue of Punjab was Punjabi. When Indian government formed a new state with the name Andhra Pradesh in southern part of India, the Sikhs also intensified their demand for a separate state on the basis of language.

The leaders of the Akali Dal wanted a state or province in which Sikhs had leverage and this would have been possible only if there was separate Sikh state. When first elections were announced under the new constitutions in 1952 the Akali Dal party found this as an opportunity to disseminate their demands and struggle for the Sikh dominated state in India with a manifesto “The true test of democracy, in the opinion of the Shiromani Akali Dal, is that the minorities should feel that they are really free and equal partners in the destiny of their country to bring home this sense of freedom to the Sikhs it is vital that there should be a Punjabi speaking language and culture. The Shiromani Akali Dal is in favour of the formation of provinces on a linguistic and cultural basis throughout India, but it holds it is a question of life and death for the Sikhs for a new Punjab to be created immediately.” The obstacles in creating a Punjabi province or state were disturbing the relations between the Akali Dal political party and the Congress. During 1966 Punjab became a separate state (Province) with a 56% majority which didn’t assure the Akalis having a province where they can enjoy full powers and this was also highly unsatisfactory for the Sikh leadership. Another step which acted as an explosive in the issue of Punjab was the problem behind making the Chandigarh as capital of Punjab and Haryana. This was a major turning point when the movement turned violent in 1980s.

Armed Struggle for Separate Land

A major chunk of Sikh leadership started to adopt the violent means to get a separate land for Sikhs where they can live peacefully and according to them this was the only solution to their grievances and also to the sense of deprivation they were having because of the policies of the central government to marginalize the Sikh community. With the killings of several civilian government officers in Punjab the central government became very careful in handling the Sikh leadership which adopted the violent means in the movement. The success of the Sant Bhindranwale’s in revitalising the Sikh faith among the masses living in rural areas was not seen as good thing by the leadership of India. The people in the central government thought that the revival of Sikh faith would help the Sikh leadership to form a better struggle for the separate nation Khalistan. In order to stop the Sant Bhinderwale from getting more fame and become a problem, he was blamed by the government for every sin that happened in Punjab. The crimes rate in Punjab was exaggerated by the government so that the people don’t oppose the steps being taken against the group that’s was continuously getting fame and could become a threat for typical Sikh leadership in the shape of an alternative that calls for a separate state. Responding to the allegations of crime Bhindrawale said “’If someone’s dog or cat dies, they say Bhindranwala gets it done.’ Also: ‘At whatever place, whatever untoward incident occurs, whether any other place is named in that connection or not, the names of Harmandar Sahib and Nanak Niwas are always included. This is for anything happening anywhere, not only in a couple of cases. Madhya Pradesh is thousands of kilometres from here. Something happened at Bhilai a long time back. Even that case has been linked to this place. After that, at various other places, many incidents occurred. The Government and the Mahashas, communal newspapers, have not hesitated in linking Harmandar Sahib to these. These conspiracies are being hatched and stories concocted with the sole purpose of vilifying the Akali Dal and to make this struggle unsuccessful.”

The government of India blamed Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale for sitting in golden temple along with his companions and supervising the crimes in the society. The Operation by the Indian government was carried out in the first week of June 1984, according to official figure approximately 400 people were killed during the operation however the Sikh organizations refute this claim and say that thousands of young men were killed in that operation and hundreds were arrested by the police and other security forces. The media kept on working with the government even after the death of Jarnail Singh while the killings of young men arrested from Golden Temple continued in the custody. The Operation blue start outraged the Sikh community and those who were not in favour of supporting those forces struggling for the separate homeland changed their views and now they were with the idea of Khalistan. On 31st October 1984 two Sikh guards of Indira Gandhi assassinated her and later on the religiously motivated Hindu mobs carried out a massacre of Sikh community in surroundings of the capital city New Delhi as well as in other cities of the country. The brutal actions of the government have always given a new hope to the Khalistan movement, many groups and organizations operating independently often work together to highlight the cause of a separate land for Sikh community. Cremation is a common way for the disposal of corpses in India, after the attack on Golden Temple in 1984 the corpses of many Sikh victims were disposed of by this method.

Factors behind the Khalistan movement

The bad handling of Sikh community by the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is one of the most prime factor behind the intensified armed struggle for the achievement of a separate land named Khalistan. A big support of Khalistan comes from the Sikh diaspora living in United States of America, Canada and England. The fake promises by the government for a religious freedom and at the same time taking steps against forming an autonomous Sikh state. The use of force against the Sikh community through Operation Blue Star was not only against the human values but also against the charter of United Nations according to which the religious buildings should be protected. The state figures of the causalities in the operation blue star are way less than what was the reality on the ground. The police and other law enforcement agencies imposed a curfew before and after the operation blue star which was a big hurdle in collecting the facts by independent media and other organizations. Operation Blue Star was not one inhuman act of government against the Sikh community but it was a unique action where a Holy shrine was stormed by the law enforcement forces and the time chosen was also very significant when there were special prayers going on due to a religious day.

John Breuilly argues that ethnicity or ethnic background are not much linked with nationalism because it is something that is used for political mobilization to achieve certain political interests. Breuilly argues that nationalism is a political force to attain political sovereignty and a nation must be independent as possible. Breuilly concentrates on two aspects of nationalism, first where the basic source of political movement was not a nation the forces were oppositional. The second aspect is that any opposition can either break away from the state, to reform in a nationalist direction or to unite with another state.

The Sikhs consider Punjab to be a land that only belongs to them and they are the real owners of Punjab as they have a long legacy of Sikh Regime. Indian Sikhs want a separate land so that they can save their religious, cultural, linguistic, economic interests. After the partition of subcontinent, the Sikh community was continuously being engrossed into the Hindu community by using a refuge behind the legislations for new provinces. The struggle of the separate homeland turned bad and followed the path of violence after continuously being deceived by the Hindu dominated government. Sikh Nationalism needs to recognize as a political motivation which is dominating in Indian Punjab, secondly the state actions against the Sikhs since 1947 have been very much inhuman that forced the community to go away from the state and rise for a separate homeland. The continuous deceive actions by the government against the Akali Dal as well as the charismatic Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhinderwale has taken away the Sikhs from the central government. The rise of armed struggle by the Sikh groups after the killing of Jarnail Singh was a turning point in the Khalistan movement, in past two decades the violent struggle has gone down but the nonviolent struggle for a separate homeland and support from the Sikh diaspora has witnessed as significant rise.



Qasim Mehmood is an Islamabad-based research analyst. He completed his MPhil from National Defense University, Islamabad, and focuses on research areas including Ethnic Conflict, International relations of South and Southeast Asia, Regional integration, and Developments in Indo-Pacific.


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