“We believe India faces a long-term terrorist threat from Sikh extremists that the government probably cannot eradicate…We believe Pakistan would significantly increase its support to Sikh extremists only if hostilities were breaking out with India over other issues, such as Kashmir”
– Excerpt from 1984 declassified CIA report “India and the Sikh Challenge”:
The Sikh separatist movement is again in the spotlight as US-based organization Sikhs for Justice promotes “Referendum 2020”, which asks Sikhs to vote on the formation of an independent country. Sikh unrest in Punjab has resulted in a crackdown on groups suspected of reviving militancy, using a new BJP anti-terror bill. Contemporaneously, Kashmiri activists are rioting against the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Under PM Modi, political power in India resides with Hindi-speaking Hindus in the center north; Kashmiri and Sikh activists have united in recent weeks to speak out against the status quo amidst a backdrop of rising tensions.
When British India cleaved in 1947, Muslims got Pakistan, Hindus got India, and Sikhs, despite pleas for a homeland, wound up empty-handed. Sikh identity had been broadly rooted in northern India, but the Punjab as the spiritual heartland and rallying point took on special significance once it became clear that Sikhs would not have a nation to themselves. During Partition almost all Pakistani Sikhs migrated to Indian Punjab, choosing to ally with Hindus over their historical Muslim territorial rivals. Sikhs and Hindus lived in Punjab in relative harmony until the 1970s, when calls for a Sikh homeland “Khalistan” (derived from Arabic “khalisa”, to be free from) resurfaced. Relations quickly soured: in response to a cancelled election, a charismatic (and heavily armed) Sikh leader installed himself in a sacred complex, setting off a chain of events that ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the near-destruction of the most holy shrine in Sikhism. The assassination united public opinion against the Sikhs, and calls for a homeland died down- until recently.
The resurgence of interest in Khalistan has been led by the Sikh diaspora in Canada, the US, and the UK. Young Sikh members of the diaspora are linked to the movement via a robust online presence, which highlights human rights abuses and state repression. Canadian Sikhs provide significant financial support to Khalistan, leading to Prime Minister Modi’s widely publicized snub of Prime Minister Trudeau in 2018.
Since PM Modi and his BJP party were re-elected by a landslide in 2019, they have doubled down on “Hindutva”, the ideology defining India as a Hindu nation. The revocation of Article 370 last week was a significant step: though Article 370 has been acknowledged as a mere symbol of autonomy for India’s only Muslim-majority state, the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s regional authority sparked riots in India and condemnation from Pakistan and China.
The territorial claims of the Khalistan movement are not clearly defined: the annexation of Indian Punjab is a constant, but calls for Khalistan have sometimes included Pakistani Punjab and broad swaths of north India, including Jammu and Kashmir. With this in mind, it is not immediately clear how Khalistan-supporters viewed Article 370’s revocation.
Most Khalistan supporters would acknowledge that Khalistan as a wholly independent nation is unlikely to corporealize: for one, even in Punjab, Sikhs are only 60% of the population. Despite its small size, Punjab supplies more wheat and rice than any other Indian state, making its independence a matter of national security for India. The Khalistan movement is less about diplomatic recognition and more about a spiritual homeland and the “right to be different” in today’s India. Sikhs have complained that under PM Modi their religious practices are being subsumed into a broader Hindu identity, part of a long-standing practice of absorption of religious minorities by dominant Hindus. It is clear that Punjabi Sikhs, like Kashmiri Muslims, want to retain a separate non-Hindu religious identity. With this in mind, the revocation of Article 370 is a direct threat to the notion of Khalistan.
The shared aspirations of pro-Khalistan and pro-Kashmir activists were demonstrated on August 3 as Kashmiri separatist outfits extended support to Referendum 2020, hosting a joint press conference in London. PM Modi and the BJP have attempted to brand the Khalistan movement as a ploy by Pakistan to sow division in India, limiting Indian popular support for the movement. There is little evidence that Pakistan currently supports Khalistan, though Pakistan trained Sikh extremists through the 1980s. Sikhism is positioned geographically and ideologically between Hinduism and Islam, resulting in a complex relationship between Sikhs, Kashmir and Pakistan. Both Punjab and Kashmir have familial pre-Partition ties to Pakistan that challenge contemporary framing of India-Pakistan relations. Pakistan’s decision to keep open the Kartarpur Corridor, which links Indian Sikhs to an important religious site in Pakistan, could be interpreted as a sign of goodwill.
The shared struggle for self-determination unites Khalistan and Kashmir, and the BJP and its supporters are united in opposition, girded by insinuations that Pakistan is behind both movements. By intensifying pressure on non-Hindus, PM Modi risks that the global spotlight on Kashmir may spill onto Khalistan, and onto India’s other independence movements, like Nagaland and Manipur. With the revocation of Article 370, PM Modi fuels the fires of the Khalistan movement and increases the likelihood of escalation.