On February 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sikhs for their contributions to building the Indian nation. Historically, Sikhs are well known for their bravery in battle and loyal service to India in many wars. In more recent times, Sikhs are well known for their strong sense of community and public duty. Since the 1500s, their langars (community kitchens) have fed the hungry and destitute worldwide irrespective of religion, race or sex. Sikhs also have a tradition of serving their communities in times of difficulty. During the COVID pandemic, Sikhs set up oxygen camps and helped save many lives.
During India’s freedom struggle from English colonization, Sikhs contributed magnificently. As per writer Kartar Singh Duggal, 93 of the 121 patriots hanged by the British were Sikhs and 2,147 of the 2,626 sentenced to life imprisonment were Sikhs. Although Sikhs formed just 1.5% of the population, they made 90% of the sacrifices. Their contribution to Indian independence stands unrivaled.
Sikh History and Psyche: Justice Above All
Between 1800-1850, Maharaja Ranjit Singh created both the first and last Sikh Empire. However, the first Sikh kingdom—a state within a state—was established 200 years earlier with the coronation of the sixth Sikh guru in 1606. That year, Guru Hargobind ascended the throne in the Akal Takht, marking the beginning of Sikh statehood. His father—Guru Arjan—had suffered a cruel death at the hands of the Mughals. He advised his son to “sit fully armed on his throne and maintain an army.” As a result, Guru Hargobind adopted the principle of Miri-Piri, which combines both temporal power and spiritual authority.
Guru Hargobind’s father’s tragic death had a lasting impact on the Sikh psyche. It enshrined the concept of martyrdom in the Sikh tradition. Taking an “implacable stand against injustice and the vagaries of tyrannical rulers” is almost a Sikh duty. The beheading of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, and the cowardly attack on Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s life, the tenth Sikh guru, strengthened this resolve to stand up to tyranny. Sikhs have faced three long periods of active persecution and massacre: the Chhota Ghallughara (1746), Wada Ghallughara (1762), and the genocide of 1984-1994 under the rule of India’s Congress Party.
Sikhs have a dogged stubbornness in their pursuit of justice, which is clearly reflected in their history. Hitting back oppressors is fundamental to the Sikh psyche. This explains the 1710 sacking of Sirhind, the 1940 assassination of Micheal O’Dwyer in London by Udham Singh, the 1984 assassination of India’s then prime minister Indira Gandhi as well the 1986 assassination of retired army chief Arun Vaidya. Sikh extremists killed Gandhi and Vaidya for the 1984 Operation Blue Star in which the Indian Army entered the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh site.
Sikhs participated with great gusto in the farmer agitation of 2020-21 against the Modi government’s farm law reforms. Eventually, Modi had to repeal these laws and offer a contrite apology, which many Sikhs viewed as a gracious act.
These lessons of history are important for any policymaker dealing with Sikhs. Any injustice, real or perceived, invariably leads to blowback. At the same time, an apology often leads to forgiveness and embrace. Sikhs still have bad memories of the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, some radicals have demanded a separate independent state of Khalistan. Yet this demand is not exactly in keeping with the Sikh tradition.
The Khalistan Movement Is Not Supported by Scripture
As stated earlier, Sikh Gurdwaras are open to people of all religions and all castes, male or female. Rich Sikhs do voluntary work in the langars and joota ghars (shoe store). In the langar, people of different religions, castes, sex, and income status, sit on the ground to eat together. Guru Gobind Singh Ji says, “recognize the whole human race as one” and “I’ll tell the truth, listen everyone. Only those who have loved, will realize the Lord.”
Radical Sikhs today hark back to the tenth guru’s desire for an independent state. Yet they forget that Guru Gobind Singh Ji made this demand over 300 years ago when faced with Mughal religious persecution. His state never excluded Hindus. The original Panj Piare (the Five Beloved) who joined the Khalsa were from different castes and different regions of India. Even the great Sikh hero Banda Singh Bahadur was not from Punjab. Clearly, the tenth guru had a pan-India philosophy, which excluded no one. Even Muslims, including a Sufi group, joined his army and fought by his side. Importantly, most Sikhs were originally Hindus and many Sikh families still intermarry with Hindu ones. Some Hindu families had a tradition of the eldest son embracing Sikhism.
Guru Gobind Singh Ji was very clear when he appointed the Shri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) as the 11th and eternal guru of the Sikhs. In fact, his own sayings are in the Dasam Granth. The SGGS does not support the idea of a Sikh theocratic state. Guru Nanak, the first guru and founder of Sikhism, says clearly in Ang (page) 6 in the SGGS, “See the brotherhood of all mankind as the highest order of yogis; conquer your own mind and conquer the world.” This is the key to Sikhism and no Sikh can contradict this core teaching.
Guru Nanak’s concept of state can be inferred from his concept of God’s state: the whole universe. It puts forth the ideal state governed so that people live in prosperity and happiness. He loved the Sufi life of good deeds, truth and good actions. Sikhism is about inclusion and equality. Guru Arjan, the fifth guru, says in Ang 1299, “No one is my enemy, and no one is a stranger. I get along with everyone.”
As stated earlier, Sikhs militarized with their sixth guru who combined the role of guru and king. Yet his first preference was always for peaceful coexistence. Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth guru, states in Ang 1427, “One who does not frighten anyone, and who is not afraid of anyone else… call him spiritually wise.” Guru Gobind Singh Ji says in verse 22 of the Zafarnama (his iconic letter to fanatical and cruel Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb): “When all means for solving a conflict or problem are exhausted, only then placing your hand to the sword is legitimate.” This is in the specific context of tyranny where all legal means (e.g. petitions, protest marches, discussions etc.) to solve a conflict fail.
In India, there is currently no state-sponsored agenda against Sikhs. Therefore, scripture does not allow for violence or military action against the Indian state. The rigid Khalistani idea of a theocratic state runs contrary to the Sikh cosmopolitan idea of a welfare state for all.
Guru Arjan expounded this idea of “Halemi Raj”—also known as Khalsa Raj—that envisions a society full of love and respect for each other. In a nutshell, the guru was advocating a welfare state: “Now, the Merciful Lord has issued His Command. Let no one chase after and attack anyone else. Let all abide in peace, under this Benevolent Rule” (Ang 74). Bhagat Ravidas, a lower caste shoemaker, defines peace in Ang 345, talking of an idealized city of Baygumpura—a town without worry—where there is no suffering or fear, there is peace and safety, and all are equal:
Baygumpura, ‘the city without sorrow’, is the name of the town.
There is no suffering or anxiety there.
There are no troubles or taxes on commodities there.
There is no fear, blemish or downfall there.
Now, I have found this most excellent city.
There is lasting peace and safety there, O Siblings of Destiny.
God’s Kingdom is steady, stable and eternal.
There is no second or third status; all are equal there.
That city is populous and eternally famous.
Those who live there are wealthy and contented.
They stroll about freely, just as they please.
They know the Mansion of the Lord’s Presence, and no one blocks their way.
Says Ravi Daas, the emancipated shoe-maker:
Whoever is a citizen there, is a friend of mine.
From the lines above, it is clear that a rigid rule-based interpretation of the Sikh religion would never lead to Baygumpura. A theocratic Khalistani state would be against the very teachings of the revered Guru Arjan and other venerated Sikh gurus. Such a state is likely to focus more on its outer form, such as unshorn hair, instead of the spirituality and charity championed by the gurus. Khalistanis forget that many Hindus donate generously to the coffers of gurdwaras—Sikh places of worship—and venerate their gurus. Cutting them off would not only be going against a shared history and their gurus’ principles but also short-sighted and economically unwise.
The Memory of 1984 Refuses to Go Away for Sikhs Outside India
In 2023, radical Sikhs still remember Chhota Ghallughara, the grim 1746 massacre of an estimated 7,000 men and 3,000 women and children. According to Majid Sheikh of noted Pakistani newspaper Dawn, the Muslim butchers of Mohallah Qabasan slit throats not only of men but also of women and children inside Lahore’s Delhi Gate when they did not accept conversion to Islam.
Unsurprisingly, these radical Sikhs have not forgotten 1984 either. They believe that the Government of India and the Indian Army defiled the Golden Temple. About 800 people died in Operation Bluestar, which many have called an “avoidable tragedy” that lives on in Sikh minds to this day. This was followed by Operation Woodrose, which led to 8,000 going missing. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, rioters killed 8,000 Sikhs, 3000 in Delhi alone. During counter-insurgency operations, killings continued until 1994 and Sikh organizations talk of “tens of thousands” killed in the 1984-94 ten-year period.
The Misra Commission on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, had the harshest criticism for the police. It found them guilty of “total passivity, callousness and indifference.” The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) told the Delhi High Court that Delhi Police removed incriminating evidence. In March 2019 during the Sajjan Kumar hearing, according to the CBI: “The murders witnessed during the 1984 Sikh genocide fell under the category of crime against humanity…targeted by spearheaded attacks of dominant political actors… and duly facilitated by law enforcement agencies”.
Countless women were raped, children killed, and livelihoods destroyed. About 50,000 Sikhs were left homeless as mobs burned their houses to the ground. Countless Sikhs were forced to cut their hair. Thousands left India. Unsurprisingly, the survivors and their descendants are filled with negativity and a lifelong mistrust of Hindus.
The justice delivered was too little and too late. Senior politicians of Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party and senior policemen escaped punishment. Only 400 of the accused were sentenced by courts. Only one high-profile senior politician was given life imprisonment and just one of the accused was given the death sentence. Many convictions were upheld as late as 2018 by the High Court, 34 years after the riots. The legal system allowed for further delays via appeals to the Supreme Court.
This bizarre and frustrating lack of fast-track mechanisms for delivering justice has fueled the historic Sikh quest for justice and forms the foundation of the Khalistan Movement. Victims of 1984 and their families living in Canada, UK and the US are the staunchest supporters of this movement. It is these Non-resident Indians (NRIs) of the Sikh community who want Khalistan. Yet these secessionists are much removed from on-ground realities and the pulse of the people in Punjab. The state and the nation have moved on from 1984 but these NRIs have not. They are still stuck in a time warp.
In 1984, the massacre of Sikhs occurred because of political, not religious, reasons. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—resolutely opposed the Congress Party’s actions. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was then the towering BJP leader and he stood between a mob and Sikh taxi drivers, saving their lives. Notably, the BJP had a close relationship with the Sikh party Shiromani Akali Dal for decades.
NRI Sikhs fail to recognize this fact. They conflate the Congress Party with the Indian state. In September 2022, Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) held a second Khalistan referendum in Brampton, a town on the outskirts of Toronto in the Canadian state of Ontario. As per unofficial estimates, about 110,000 people participated in the SFJ referendum. Note that Canada is now home to 800,000 Sikhs. Referendums have also been held in the UK, Geneva, Italy and Australia.
Those organizing and participating in these referendums have been fed a secessionist diet. Some have ulterior motives to keep the Khalistani flame alive. It allows them to siphon funds from naïve sponsors. Still other NRI Sikhs return to Punjab with these secessionist ideas to stir the pot.
Of the 26 million Sikhs worldwide, 24 million, i.e. 92%, live in India. In Punjab, Sikhs comprise 57% of the population. The opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has recently won elections in this state, promising change, rapid development and clean governance. The previous government was deeply discredited, creating a desire for something different. This allowed pro-Khalistani elements to get some public support and one leader won in the constituency of Sangrur. Note that the AAP, not Khalistanis, won the vote. This demonstrates that the democratic process is working and that Punjabis and Sikhs have voted for better governance, not secession.
Yet pictures of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the radical Sikh leader who holed up in the Golden Temple and caused Operation Bluestar in 1984, are now freely displayed. Karas—metal bracelets that Sikhs are supposed to wear as per their religion—with AK 47s engraved on them are now back in fashion. Tensions are simmering again and radical Sikh NRIs are attempting to kick off insurgency in Punjab again.
How could we avoid a violent Khalistan Movement this time around?
The Sikh State of North America – the 100 x 100 Solution
NRI Sikhs fail to realize that, except for a tiny minority, most Indian Sikhs do not want Khalistan. In fact, many would prefer to leave Punjab and immigrate to Canada instead. So, NRI Sikhs are barking up the wrong tree in trying to create a Sikh state in Punjab.
Instead, they could channel their efforts to create a new Sikh state in Canada. Already, the country has large numbers of Sikhs (800,000) as do Australia (210,000), the UK (500,000) and the US (520,000). Canada has 10 million square kilometers of land with a population of only 38.25 million. Arguably, the Canadian government already has pro-Khalistan leanings and the country already has some powerful Sikh politicians. NRI Sikhs are a wealthy community. Supported by gurudwara collections, they could buy some land for a new Sikh state. This would be a peaceful and non-violent movement as authorized by scripture.
Singapore offers a good model for the Sikhs. Here, about 5.5 million people now live in 730 square kilometers. For 26 million Sikhs, they would need 3,500 square kilometers, a 60 kilometers x 60 kilometers area. The National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi covers an area of around 1,500 square kilometers. So, Sikhs would only need 2.4 times the NCT area. If we allow for population growth and non-Sikh migration, we are looking at a 100 kilometers x 100 kilometers area, a relatively small 10,000 square kilometers, only .001 (0.1%) of Canada’s area.
Khalistan is a pipe dream unless India fragments. Prospects of that are low. Furthermore, India’s fragmentation is undesirable because it could lead to tragic bloodshed. We only have to cast our eye back to the partition of the country in 1947 to realize the horror of any further partitions in the 2020s.
India is a complex EU-type entity formed by the merger of 565 princely states. Till 1947, they covered 40% of the area of pre-independence India. With such diversity, secessionist tendencies have existed in numerous states including Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland, and Mizoram. India has also faced a homegrown communist insurgency in the form of the Naxalite Movement. With increasing urbanization and internal migration, pan-Indian nationalism has strengthened and the country is in no mood for fragmentation. Any talk of secession will only lead to violence, bloodshed and suffering.
Remember that Khalistan is associated with a decade of pain in India. So, a new Sikh State of North America (SSNA), which is part of the federal model in Canada makes more sense. Quebec already provides a template for SSNA. This state would have the same currency, passport, foreign relations and security arrangements as Canada. They would function under stable and professional economic and foreign policy institutions in a bountiful state blessed with natural resources.
Of course, Sikh NRIs would have to win the Canadian people and the government to their cause. The days when states sold off territory seem to belong to the era of the Louisiana and Alaska purchases. However, SSNA could transpire given Canadian sympathies for the Sikh cause.
The SSNA could gradually have more control over immigration and taxation. An Overseas Citizenship of SSNA passport could one day be given to Sikhs around the world. The route to immigration via reasonable investments as already offered by many countries could be a good model for the SSNA.
In keeping with Sikh scripture and Canada’s multiculturalism, the SSNA could not be theocratic. Given the large number of Sikhs in the US, it could share a border with Canada’s southern neighbor to facilitate trade, commerce and investment. The formation of SSNA will take the steam out of the Khalistan Movement. It will lead to less anger in Sikh NRIs and more peace in Punjab. In the long run, a prosperous SSNA could emerge as the biggest investor in Punjab, creating a win-win for all concerned.
[Bella Bible edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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