As Pakistan inaugurates the Kartarpur corridor for Sikhs from all around the world especially Indian Punjab, there is definite anxiety among the Indian intelligentsia and government. One of the reasons being the Kartarpur corridor as they expect an imminent Sikh uprising upon its success. Knowing the history of the Khalistan movement is cardinal to comprehend if this is a paranoia on India’s part or a valid concern. Khalistan movement was started in 1971 by an Indian expatriate Jagjit Singh Chohan. The Sikhs have always demanded more autonomy from the Indian state as articulated by a Sikh political party in 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution that still causes some stirs. The Congress, who relished unanimous power in Indian politics till the 1980s, have invariably termed these demand secessionist and locked horns with Sikhs regarding the matter. At its apotheosis, this call for autonomy turned into a call for liberation when the Indian state didn’t reciprocate.
Amid the chaos, a Sikh leader surged to prominence who not only was able to vocalize the Sikhs’ grievances but also gave impetus to the entire movement. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale got popular acclaim among the orthodox Sikhs when he publicly censured a faction called Nirankari whom most of the Sikhs considered to be a heretic cult. The Sikh religion mainly believes in a book Guru Granth Sahib to be their scriptural leader while the Nirankaris believe in the existence of a living guru. Jarnail although initially supported by Congress to cause a split among the Sikhs turned against them in pursuit of more sovereignty and eventually splitting India to carve out independent Khalistan. Bhindranwale enjoyed popular support among Sikhs and was famously known for saying “Sikhism is a distinct nation” and that Sikhs can never live in India or with India. He gathered the support of like-minded Sikhs and made a launching pad at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
India couldn’t tolerate a dissenting voice for long and decided to take out Bhindranwale and his comrades in an Operation code-named Blue Star in June 1984. In the said operation, Bhindranwale was killed along with his companions and the Golden Temple was badly damaged sending shock waves across the Sikh communities. The Rubicon had been crossed by India and the Sikhs took this operation as an assault on their religion. Sikhs felt humiliated and cornered, many left Army and civil services while others returned their awards to the Indian government. Since the Indian Prime Minister decreed the operation, she had to pay the greatest price for it; her life. She was killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Jarnail Singh while alive had already prognosticated that if the Golden Temple was overrun by the Indian Government, the foundation of the Khalistan Movement will have been entrenched. And he was right, the Khalistan movement had just begun but he had to die for it to happen.
In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, massive anti-Sikh riots triggered organized pogroms to exterminate Sikhs. The Sikh civilians were ruthlessly murdered on the streets by rioters and it is reported that more than 17000 Sikhs were sent to the pit of death. The horrifying tales of the survivors of the riots run chills down one’s spine as they remark how the rioters dragged around and burnt Sikhs alive. The Sikhs were disinterested in any political activity after Congress canceled an election in which they were a clear winner. They were forcefully driven out of politics through a systematic scheme and their freedom of speech was muzzled with human rights violations. India’s high-handedness resulted in the Khalistan movement dissipating in the mid-1990s.
While India claims to have assimilated the Sikh community after the dust settled, the dreadful memories of the violence still run deep. There is still some controversy about India not accepting Sikhs as a separate religion as in Article 25 (b) of Indian’s constitution and judgment of Indian Supreme Court on 8th Aug 2005 clearly stating that they consider Sikhs and Jains to be part of Hinduism and not a religious minority. There is a substantial majority of Sikh expatriates who believe in the Khalistan movement and condemn the mistreatment from India. They have called for a Khalistan Referendum in 2020 to let the Sikhs decide their destiny. The memories of the Hondh-Chillar massacre and the burning of Pataudi Gurduwara are still not forgotten. Whether this movement translates to any on-ground support in Indian Punjab is anybody’s guess. India’s apprehension about the issue stems from the horrific history of brutality and human rights violation. India is fearful of their own shadow as they do not want the Sikh community to dig up the skeletons in their closets. However, it does feel like India still does not trust their Sikh citizens and questions their patriotism if they think an initiative like Kartarpur will turn the Sikhs against the state.
Kartarpur corridor has been a demand of Sikhs all around the world for many decades as they aspired to be able to visit their holy places inside Pakistan. While this is a goodwill gesture from Pakistan to facilitate Sikhs in performing their religious obligations, the paranoia of India is unfathomable. If anything, India’s mistrust will alienate the Sikh community even further, a big number of which have been nothing but patriotic to India in the last few decades. Kartarpur will not reinvigorate the Khalistan movement, but the fact that India questions the loyalty of a big portion of their population has the potential to antagonize them.