Punjab A Difficult Road Ahead

A period of unrest and uneasiness in (Indian) Punjab seemed to have all but fizzled out when it got re-ignited through a fresh wave of pro-Khalistan protests

By Arun Bhatnagar
  • The Punjab has provided the core of Independent India’s defence forces for decades
  • The Anandpur Sahib Resolution covered both religious and political issues, asking for the recognition of Sikhism as a separate faith
  • The Sikh community were left high and dry in much of the Partition violence and had to fight its own way through
  • The Rajiv Gandhi-Longowal Accord, reached in July, 1985, attracted opposition from several orthodox Sikh leaders

Mounted police took position outside the Indian High Commission at the Aldwych in London on March 22, 2023 and a police helicopter whirred overhead, as a raucous crowd of Khalistan supporters (barricaded off from the building) shouted anti-government slogans that were countered by the waving of India’s Tricolour by others standing on the roof.

It was a scene of confrontation brewing beneath a blanket of security that had been formed and which dragged well beyond the ‘cut-off’ time set by the UK authorities. The barricades were put up to prevent a re-run of the earlier vandalism at the High Commission when separatist Khalistanis lowered the Indian Flag and attempted to plant theirs.

Patrolled by Metropolitan Police Vans, the barricades in the Aldwych neighbourhood confined the crowd to the opposite side of the road, but the chorus of slogans could be heard almost a mile away. The protestors – most of them covering their faces – held aloft placards saying: ‘Punjab under Siege’ and ‘Stop Sikh genocide’. Many had arrived in a convoy of coaches, after assembling in Gurudwaras in Coventry, Leicester, Luton, Derby, Southall, Slough and the West Midlands.

The rally – triggered by the crackdown on self-proclaimed, polarising preacher Amritpal Singh – was organised by the Sikh Youth Jathebandi and the Federation of Sikh Organizations.

A few days later, the Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi was summoned to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to convey strong concern about the actions of extremist elements near India’s diplomatic offices in Canada.

Khalistan sympathisers allegedly protested outside the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, raised slogans and are said to have assaulted Indian-origin journalists, in the wake of the ‘chase’ launched to apprehend Amritpal Singh.

Protestors, in significant numbers, waved yellow flags in front of the Indian Consulate in Vancouver on 25 March, 2023 to condemn the ‘crackdowns’ in India. 

Said one activist: “It’s all happening under the guise of a manhunt which we know to be false…”. Another Vancouver resident, Harnoor Minhas, added: “Whether or not they see it as treason, individuals shouldn’t face such harsh reprimand in terms of taking away their civil liberties … Maybe in the past, with social media and the connectivity we now have, that wasn’t an option… we won’t let this happen and we won’t allow these injustices to happen in silence …”.

A senior Canadian writer has opined that the dramatic developments -connected with the Sikhs for Justice Referendum – demonstrate that Khalistan activists are trying their utmost to generate public anger, even as there are fewer acts of terrorism than in the 1980s.

Statues of Mahatma Gandhi were vandalised in British Columbia and Hamilton (Ontario) in Canada.

Among the string of protests was one at Times Square in New York when the activists joined a Car Rally that began at Baba Makhan Shah Lubana Sikh Centre in the Richmond Hill neighbourhood. Trucks which joined the Rally (culminating at Times Square) had electronic displays.

It is the feebleness of the official response to the protests by Western Governments that has opened the doors for Khalistanis who are waging a propaganda war. 

India alerted the Kathmandu authorities about fake passports being used to sneak into Nepal.

PAKISTAN CONNECTION

Hypothetically speaking, if Khalistan were to come into being, it would not be a friend to India. The country that has been helping them – for its own strategic reasons–is Pakistan, whom the proponents can ill-afford to antagonise. That is why they are not claiming areas such as Lahore, the seat of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, or the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev, as part of the so-called Khalistan.

They have been given a safe haven by Pakistan, weapons training and rhetorical support. This spells danger for India, and Pakistan’s dependence on China further complicates the situation.

Giani Harpreeet Singh, Jathedar, Akal Takht, said: “The biggest question in the hearts of Sikhs across the world is why Amritpal could not be arrested despite the huge police force. If he has already been arrested, then the government should clarify his status. There is a big question mark on the functioning of the police.”

If Khalistan were to come into being, it would not be a friend to India. The country that has been helping them – for its own strategic reasons – is Pakistan, whom the proponents can ill-afford to antagonise. That is why they are not claiming areas such as Lahore, the seat of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, or the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev, as part of the so-called Khalistan

Not long afterwards, the Giani gave a 24-hour ultimatum to the Punjab government to release the Sikh men arrested during crackdowns initiated against the Waris Punjab De, saying: “If the government does not end the atmosphere of terror by releasing all the youngsters … then a campaign will be initiated in the country and abroad about committing excesses on the Sikhs … The government should also revoke the National Security Act (NSA) …”.

In pre-partition Punjab, the Sikhs were spread across a large province of British India, with concentrations of population in the western part. They had important landed interests in the districts of Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Lyallpur (Faisalabad) and Montgomery (Sahiwal) which are now in Pakistan. Muslims and Hindus were the other major communities. Lahore is the location of many of the religious and historical sites of the Sikhs and the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

 The nearby town of Nankana Sahib has nine Gurudwaras and is the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev. Each of the Gurudwaras are associated with different events in Guru Nanak Dev’s life. This is one of the holiest places of pilgrimage for Sikhs worldwide. So is the Gurudwara Panja Sahib which is situated at Hasan Abdal, about 50 kms from Rawalpindi in Pakistan. The area around Nankana Sahib was a tehsil of the Sheikhupura district in which there is another famous shrine, the Gurudwara of Sacha Sauda.

While Sikhs were especially attached to the western districts of the Punjab (and the canal colonies), their comparative prosperity was a source of annoyance, mainly to the Muslims by way of posing a hindrance to economic supremacy. One need not wonder at the extent of resentment and the desire for revenge shown by the Sikhs when they were suddenly uprooted from the lands they had developed and enriched, and driven out of their homes.

The British Government had declared that the interests of the Sikh community would receive special consideration in determining the mode of Partition and demarcating the boundary line between India and Pakistan. 

Sardar Kapur Singh was a scholar and intellectual who wrote extensively about the Sikh identity, religion and politics and, in 1973, authored the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of the Akali Dal, championing the role and sacrifices of the Sikh community. He joined Akali politics and was elected, in 1962, to the Lok Sabha as a candidate of the Swatantra Party

The district of Sheikhupura was a Muslim majority area but the Sikhs formed a substantial minority comprising 18.85 per cent of the total population. The fears of the non-Muslims in the district were somewhat allayed by the expectation that the Boundary Commission would allot the district to India and they would be permitted to keep their houses and lands. For this reason, no large-scale exodus took place before August 17, 1947 on which date the Award of the Boundary Commission was announced.

A stampede for safety then began. The non-Muslims were at a disadvantage, arrangements for evacuation could not be made by the civil administration and the military and a ruthless campaign of murder, rape, arson and loot was unleashed upon them.

Sheikhupura became a by-word in the months that followed. In West Punjab, the hooligans used it to intimidate the non-Muslims, mainly the Sikhs: ‘If you do not do as you are told’, they said, ‘we shall enact another Sheikhupura here’.

Around this time, Rao Bahadur Vappala Pangunni (VP) Menon (1893-1965) who had been appointed Secretary of the State’s Ministry under Sardar Patel and who had virtually replaced Sir Conrad Corfield, ICS (1893-1980) as the last Viceroy’s Political Adviser in the concluding weeks of British rule, offered a suggestion that Muhammad Ali Jinnah be approached to declare Nankana Sahib, ‘a sort of Vatican’. It was a gesture that might have had a calming effect upon the highly emotional Sikhs and one which it would have cost Jinnah little to concede. The Viceroy was well aware of what Nankana Sahib meant to the Sikhs.

There is no indication to show that Menon’s suggestion was seriously considered; the Sikhs suffered unspeakable horrors in the rioting in West Punjab.

KHALISTAN POLITICS

Sardar Kapur Singh (1909-86) was a scholar and intellectual who wrote extensively about the Sikh identity, religion and politics and, in 1973, authored the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of the Akali Dal, championing the role and sacrifices of the Sikh community.

He had entered the ICS in 1933, was known to Jinnah (and other Muslim League leaders) and was regarded an interlocutor for the Sikhs in the events leading to the Partition of India.

As Deputy Commissioner of Karnal district, Kapur Singh was charged with ‘discrimination against Muslims’. In 1948, Prime Minister Nehru appears to have come across an article of his stating that the Khalsa would rise after the departure of the British and ‘rule everywhere’.

In his view, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s first mistake was to assume ‘the un-Sikh title of Maharaja’ because by doing so ‘he was sabotaging the very basis of the Sikh polity… within a few years of his coronation, he undermined the supreme authority of the Sikh polity, the gurmata, and entrusted the control of the government of his expanding territories to a cabinet of his own choice, in accordance with the ancient Hindu monarchical tradition, but qua his own person, in whom he had gathered all the power of authority of the State in accordance with the un-Sikh, Hindu doctrine …’.

Whenever major decisions had to be reached, the Sarbat Khalsa – the widely attended gatherings of Sikhs which accorded collective sanction to all major initiatives – had been taking them by passing a gurmata, or Resolution, on the course of action to be taken. This was done in 1760 and in 1765, when the Khalsa, assembled at the Darbar Sahib, had decided to annex Lahore, the centre of Afghan presence in India.

The point that Kapur Singh made was that by vesting all authority in the monarchy. Ranjit Singh weakened the republican tradition established by Guru Gobind Singh: ‘It is the self-respect, the awareness of his own ultimate significance in the creation of God, which imparts to a Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh that Olympian air and independence which fits ill with any totalitarian or autocratic monarchical system of organisation of power.’

In Ranjit Singh’s lifetime, his charismatic presence and personal skills, both in warfare and matters of state, kept the Khalsa totally loyal to him but the erosion of republican traditions had an alienating effect, which became evident after his death. 

Since the commonwealth of the Khalsa was a creation of the Khalsa arms, and could not be maintained except through the cooperation and devotion of the Khalsa, Kapur Singh felt that the policy of bringing in untried persons in senior civil posts in the government proved fatal: ‘The Maharaja raised the hill dogras to positions of great authority in the civil apparatus of his government; Tej Singh, a brahmin of the Gangetic-Doab, and Lal Singh, another brahmin from Gandhara Valley, were granted such influence as elevated them to the command of the Sikh army, and he thus paved the way for the eventual downfall of the Sikh Empire …’.

The injunction in the Sikh scriptures is unambiguous, which Guru Gobind Singh reiterated: ‘Let no man be proud of his caste’.

He constituted the Khalsa as a fellowship of inspired people, not a hierarchical one with some more privileged than the rest but a casteless community knit by shared ideals and beliefs.

The Nihangs are a distinctive order among the Sikhs and are identified with their loose, blue apparel and plumed turbans. They see themselves as Guru ki Fauj and follow certain autonomous practices.

The military prowess of the Khalsa Army was amply proved in January, 1849 in the Battle of Chillianwala (Mandi Bahauddin, Pakistan) during the Second Anglo- Sikh War.

The British Government had declared that the interests of the Sikh community would receive special consideration in determining the mode of Partition and demarcating the boundary line between India and Pakistan

A testimony left by a British observer said: ‘The Sikhs fought like devils, fierce and untamed … Such a mass of men I never set my eyes on …’.

An editorial by a later historian stated: “The Battle of Chillianwala… stands out as a battle in which the British failed to defeat their opponents, despite having the advantages of weight of numbers, ideal weather, terrain and superior logistics……”.

It should be mentioned that Kapur Singh was suspended from the ICS in April, 1949 (at the instance of Sir Chandulal Trivedi, ICS, Governor, East Punjab) and was never reinstated. His service career officially ended in 1956; he believed that the Governor had personally targeted him after he protested an Official Circular that was allegedly derogatory to the Sikhs.

He joined Akali politics and was elected, in 1962, to the Lok Sabha as a candidate of the Swatantra Party founded a few years earlier by C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji, 1878-1972), the last Governor-General of Independent India and also the only Indian citizen to hold the office. His Speech in September, 1966 in Parliament was perceived (alongside the Anandpur Sahib Resolution) as a magna carta of Sikh aspirations.

G D Khosla (ICS, Punjab, 1925) – who rose to be Chief Justice of the State High Court – has been less than kind to Kapur Singh, describing him as one of the ‘black sheep’ of the ‘great’ Indian Civil Service.

SIKH ASPIRATION

The Anandpur Sahib Resolution covered both religious and political issues, asking for the recognition of Sikhism as a separate faith and demanding that power be generally devoluted from the Centre to the Provinces.

Its objective was to make the Indian State one in which authority and jurisdiction over Foreign Relations, Defence, Currency and Communications alone rested with the Central Government, nothing else.

The Shiromani Akali Dal led by the Rawalpindi-born, Master Tara Singh (1885-1967) – a major force in Sikh politics – had vehemently opposed the Lahore Resolution (1940) of the Muslim League, saying that the Dal would fight ‘tooth and nail’ against the concept of Pakistan

The Congress, then led by Smt Indira Gandhi, saw the Resolution as a secessionist document which gained prominence with the launch, in 1982, of a Dharma Yudh Morcha for its implementation.

However, the Shiromani Akali Dal, under its President, Harchand Singh Longowal, later declared: “Let us make it clear once and for all that the Sikhs have no designs to get away from India in any manner. What they simply want is that they should be allowed to live within India as Sikhs, free from all direct and indirect interference and tampering with their religious way of life. Undoubtedly, the Sikhs have the same nationality as other Indians.”

The Rajiv Gandhi-Longowal Accord, reached in July, 1985, attracted opposition from several orthodox Sikh leaders. Some of the promises were not fulfilled due to disagreements; Harchand Singh Longowal was assassinated by militants in August, 1985.

Two senior Sikh Ministers at the Centre had their origins in the Akali Dal. 

Sardar Baldev Singh (1902-61), a Jat Sikh, became India’s first Defence Minister in August, 1947. A son of Sir Indra Singh, a prominent industrialist, he won an election to the Punjab Assembly in 1937 (under the Government of India Act, 1935) as a candidate of the Panthic Party and became closely linked to Master Tara Singh of the Shiromani Akali Dali.

The long-serving Sardar Swaran Singh (1907-1994) – also a Jat Sikh – joined the Akali Dal around 1930 and contributed to effecting a compromise between the Congress and the Dal in the 1940s.

Giani Gurmukh Singh Musafir (1899-1976), Punjab Chief Minister in the mid-sixties, was the sixteenth Jathedar of the Akal Takht (1930-31). Born in Campbellpore (Attock district in Pakistan), he was a Khatri of the Chadha clan and served as Secretary of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), as well as General Secretary of the Akali Dal, before joining the Congress Party.

A son-in-law of the late Sardar Swaran Singh (who was a member of the Indian Police Service) recorded his version of ‘The Khalistan Conspiracy’ in book- form in 2020 that contains specific suggestions for the closure of a ‘sense of hurt’ and the Sikh grievances.

He also asks: Who were the powerful persons who planned and directed what happened during the fateful nights and days in Delhi after the Prime Minister’s assassination? How many people actually died in Delhi and elsewhere? What was the role of the Delhi Police in overlooking or encouraging the killers and later in covering up the culpability of those involved? Who were the persons behind the cover-ups?

In 2019, the statue of a ‘symbolic’ Sikh soldier was unveiled in West Yorkshire (UK) to commemorate the Sikh martyrs in the two World Wars.

The Punjab has provided the core of Independent India’s defence forces for decades. A common refrain of the votaries of a Sikh Homeland is that the mistake of 1947 cannot be repeated.

WHAT EXACTLY WAS THAT MISTAKE?

It would appear that this pertains to the acceptance of Partition as the only way out, in early 1947, without realistically addressing the Sikh interests and concerns. The Shiromani Akali Dal led by the Rawalpindi-born, Master Tara Singh (1885-1967) – a major force in Sikh politics – had vehemently opposed the Lahore Resolution (1940) of the Muslim League, saying that the Dal would fight ‘tooth and nail’ against the concept of Pakistan.

In the event, the Sikh community were left high and dry in much of the Partition violence and had to fight its own way through. More troubles were to follow through the repercussions of Operation Blue Star in June, 1984 and the anti-Sikh riots of October-November, 1984.

Master Tara Singh’s demands might be said to have yielded a result in 1966 when a Punjabi-speaking State (Punjabi Suba) was formed following a linguistic division.

He passed away in Chandigarh in November,1967.

Amritpal Singh, who has been at large, released a Video on March 29, 2023 when Giani Harpreet Singh was out of Amritsar and reportedly at Takht Sri Damdama Sahib, in Talwandi Sabo, near Bhatinda.

The video (which did not refer to Khalistan), inter alia, said: ‘If we have to save the youth and Punjab, then we should be part of the Sarbat Khalsa. For a very long time, the community has got entangled with holding small morchas on many issues. We know the path we have to treed, we will have to face all this ….. To understand our condition it must be understood that the issue is not of my arrest but about the attack on the entire Sikh community…….’.

In a second video, he said he was not afraid of arrest and denied media reports that he had not kept any conditions, adding that he would not surrender.

If any reconciliation is to commence, then this would have to be an extraordinary display of joint and imaginative action, completely devoid of vote-bank considerations, in which political parties, various sections of the people and those from the world of sports, athletics and academia work together to create and construct a different narrative (not a counter-narrative) for the resurgence of the Punjabis

The Takht Sri Damdama Sahib was recognized as the fifth (temporal) Takht of Sikhism by the SGPC in November, 1966.

If any reconciliation is to commence, then this would have to be an extraordinary display of joint and imaginative action, completely devoid of vote-bank considerations, in which political parties, various sections of the people and those from the world of sports, athletics and academia work together to create and construct a different narrative (not a counter-narrative) for the resurgence of the Punjabis.

At the apex of our nationalism stands the heroic figure of Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), born in an Agrawal Jain family, a former Congress President, who was assaulted by James A Scott, Senior Superintendent of Police, Lahore in a lathi-charge and succumbed to injuries some days later.

Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1907-1931), his associates and Chandra Shekhar Azad (1906-31) are truly shining examples of courage and patriotism.

There were many others – including in the Ghadar Party, established in the United States – like the brilliant Lala Har Dayal (1884-1939) and the young revolutionary, Kartar Singh Sarabha (1896-1915) – who have been abiding sources of inspiration for the youth of Punjab, Hindu and Sikh alike.

Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna (1870-1968), was the first President of the Ghadar Party. Its founding is dated to a meeting in Astoria, Oregon in July, 1913, with the Ghadar headquarters and the Hindustan Ghadar newspaper based in San Francisco, California.

Two towering personalities of the period of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre –Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew (1888-1963), a Kashmiri Muslim and a barrister and Dr Satyapal (1885-1954), a physician – are largely forgotten today. They were opposed to the Partition of India; their living descendants (and of Har Dayal and Bhagat Singh, among others) could yet choose to be associated with a Movement to resurrect Punjabi pride and honour.

Herein may lie new rays of hope for the future.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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