Diaspora group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) argues Punjab is “currently occupied by India” and vows to organize a non-binding vote —both in Punjab and 20 countries abroad where Sikh diasporas exist— on the issue of establishing an independent country, which they call Khalistan. The group believes that “an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote” would “start the process through which we will eventually conduct an official legally binding referendum in Punjab thereby peacefully establishing Khalistan.”
SFJ says it aims “to get 5 million votes in support of independence for Punjab” in the unofficial vote, the result then “presented to the United Nations with a request for them to intervene and negotiate an agreement between the Punjabi peoples and India for holding an independence referendum in Punjab,” a legally binding one this time.
The group has not disclosed how will it be able to organize the vote in Punjab in the face of Indian opposition to it.
Analysts say support for independence is more popular among diaspora Sikhs than in Punjab itself.
In a 2017 survey among Sikhs in the UK, 40% of respondents said they had “positive” or “very positive” attitudes towards Punjab independence, while 30% said they were “neutral” and the remaining 30% harboured “negative” or “very negative” views on secession.
In Punjab, the government has been traditionally dominated by either the nation-wide Indian National Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal —a conservative, Sikh-majority, pro-autonomy Punjabi party currently not striving for independence, despite the fact that in past times some of its leaders and factions had been secession proponents.
1947 partition to 1984 tragedy
The Khalistan independence movement decries Punjab partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. Still, SFJ is merely calling for independence from India, not Pakistan. Sikhs make up 58% of the population of the Indian state of Punjab, while they are a very tiny minority in Pakistan’s Punjab, after most of them left the area at the time of partition while thousands were killed in inter-communal violence. Faced with the choice between India and Pakistan, most Sikhs went for the former.
But relations between Punjab Sikhs and the Indian government have been complicated over time. Perceived marginalization among Sikh youths in Punjab led to the emergence of a pro-independence movement in the 1970s, including an armed wing led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Operation Blue Star, in which the Indian military assaulted and partially destroyed the Golden Temple —the holiest shrine of Sikhism— and killed him in 1984, sparked outrage among Sikhs, and was the trigger for the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, which at the same time sparked a wave of anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi and other Indian cities.
After those events, the Khalistan pro-independence movement dwindled. But amid the current rise to prominence of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in India, a new wave of support for secession has emerged. The leader of the main opposition party in Punjab, AAP, has conceded that the upsurge of independence demands can be explained because of a “consistent policy of bias, discrimination, and persecution towards the Sikhs by successive governments in India”, although the party itself does not support referendum calls.
Indian leaders blame SFJ over alleged links to Pakistan
Both the Indian and Punjab governments oppose referendum calls, claiming that SFJ is being helped by Pakistan to undermine the unity of its longtime regional foe. India Army Chief General Bipin Rawat referred to “external linkages” to “revive insurgency” in Punjab, as Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh linked SFJ with Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI.
The row has reached Canada, the US and the UK, where large Sikh communities live.
In the United States, an Indian journalist asked, December 2018, the American government’s stance on SFJ. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino said: “We have freedom of speech in the United States, we have freedom of association, and these are bedrock principles of American society.”
The issue has also become a sore point in India-Canada relations. Amarinder Singh said in early 2018 that some Sikh members of the Canadian government were Khalistan separatists, or had links with them. Later in an official visit to India, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denied that any of the four Sikh members of his cabinet was a separatist, but at the same time insisted that pro-independence views among members of the Sikh Canadian community were legitimate. Some 470,000 Sikhs live in the North American country.
To get a deeper insight on the issue, we have asked Ashok Swain on the prospects that the referendum could be held. Swain is an Indian-born professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University (Sweden). He is a critical voice of Hindutva.
Nationalia: A diaspora group, Sikhs for Justice, say they are seeking to organize a non-official referendum on Punjab independence. What are the prospects that such a move could have an impact on the decision-making of Indian authorities?
Ashok Swain: Not much —there is significant support for independence of Punjab among the diaspora community, but not inside Punjab. The Punjab situation is not the same as it used to be in the 1980s. There is a growing apprehension over Hindu fundamentalism and the idea of Hindu state propagated by the present Indian regime, but the situation has not reached to that level for Sikhs in Punjab to ask for independence, yet. Punjab has also got a new government, headed by the Congress Party, and that gives them some autonomy from the BJP (Hindu fundamentalist party)-led central government.
N: Even if independence calls, as you have said, are not mainstream in Punjab itself, to what extent is it true —as some in the diaspora claim— that the Indian authorities are suppressing the pro-independence movement in Punjab, this being a reason for its lower visibility?
A. S.: Sikhs in Punjab are not yet considering to fight for independence. They have gone through a period of violence recently and do not really want to go back there. However, if the Hindu fundamentalist forces continue their pressure for “Hindu India”, Punjab has all the potential to go back to 1980s period.
N: In this regard, some say that renewed calls for secession among Sikhs are a result not only of past persecutions against Sikhs —particularly in the 1984 events— but also of the current upsurge of Hindu nationalist rhetoric and policies by the Indian government. Would you agree to such a statement?
A. S.: Yes, it is correct. 1984 was a big issue among Sikhs till the 1990s. That got diluted in the last decade, particularly after Dr Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, became the prime minister of India. The Hindu nationalist rhetoric, which is asking for one religion and one language nation, has created serious apprehension among the minorities in India. Sikhs are becoming apprehensive that it is not only Muslims and Christians, they will also be targeted by Hindu nationalist forces.
N: Let us ask you one final question on geopolitical issues. BJP party has claimed that the pro-independence movement in Punjab and abroad is being funded, or at least supported, by Pakistan, an allegation that the party also extends to the issue of Kashmir. To what extent do you believe this could be a part of the whole picture? And more broadly speaking: what capacity could have an independent Punjabi state to survive and sustain itself, given the fact that it would be sandwiched between Pakistan and India? Wouldn’t it be still quite dependent on one or both of those powerful neighbors?
A. S.: Pakistan’s role in Punjab issue is much more limited than compared to its role in Kashmir. Punjab independence project has been primarily a diaspora initiative. There has been some support from Pakistan to Punjab separatists, but it has not been that important. Even though, it is also true that in recent months Pakistan has been trying to woo Sikhs in India by allowing them to visit a Sikh holy site inside Pakistan by creating a special corridor.
Whether Punjab as an independent state will survive or not —if Nepal and Bhutan can survive as independent states, why not Punjab?