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Why India worries about the push for a Sikh state

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Picture: Abdul Majeed/AFP – Members of Pakistan’s Sikh community take part in a protest in Peshawar on September 20, 2023, following the killing in Canada of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. In the 1980s and 1990s, ‘Punjab saw a steady stream of violent attacks, with thousands of deaths. Fleeing the violence, many migrated to places like the UK, US and Canada, which has the largest population of Sikhs outside India and the most active separatist movement. They left behind their homeland but took with them the memories of their fear and anger’, the writer says.

By Karishma Vaswani

It’s the separatist movement most people have never heard of, but it is at the heart of the very public India-Canada spat ignited by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations that India is behind the assassination of a Sikh activist in British Colombia – charges New Delhi firmly denies. Behind the rhetoric, though, is a desire for Sikh nationhood. And that’s why India is so worried.

Khalistan, as campaigners call this proposed independent homeland, is a crisis of India’s own making. Successive governments have neglected, manipulated and exploited the state of Punjab – traditionally seen as India’s breadbasket – and the Sikhs who inhabit it for their own political and economic gain. That, in turn, has led to a brewing resentment among the community both in and outside India that could revive a mostly dormant domestic independence movement, transforming it into another flash point, like Kashmir or Manipur in the northeast.

But a separate state won’t solve the myriad issues facing Punjab, where most of India’s Sikhs live. Unemployment, a crippling drug crisis and high rates of female infanticide are just some of the problems. India’s governments – past and present – have failed to offer them a sense of identity or inclusion. Improving governance and investing properly in Punjab will help, but religious and ethnic minorities under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly hard-line Hindu nationalist administration also need to be better protected.

Numbering 23 million, Sikhs make up just under 2 percent of India’s population but play an outsize role in the economy and socio-cultural life. Their faith is one of the nation’s youngest. Born as a reform movement in the 1500s aimed at shedding parts of Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism takes liberally from both.

Beliefs like karma and reincarnation come from Hinduism, while the lack of a physical form is represented as the divine from Islam. They deliberately have physical characteristics that make them stand out in a crowd – observant men and women never cut their hair, male Sikhs and sometimes females wear turbans and sport an iron bracelet on their wrists. Men are given the last name Singh, which means lion, and women Kaur, which means princess.

After India’s independence from Britain in 1947, Punjab and its mostly Sikh farmers helped a food-insecure nation take steps toward self- sufficiency. But the community has always felt misunderstood and unrewarded for their contributions, says Pritam Singh, an academic visitor at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies with the University of Oxford. He notes that Sikhs who question the status quo are unfairly labelled as separatists by the mainstream Indian media, “so there’s a constant tension between Punjab and the Indian state”.

This is not new. Some Sikhs say they should have been given their own homeland at the time of India’s independence. But the movement for a separate state – a land of the pure, as the word Khalistan means – reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s when the insurgency spilt over into other parts of India – mainly the capital New Delhi.

Picture: Raminder Pal Singh/EPA-EFE/Taken June 8, 2020 – Workers sanitise a surrounding area of the Golden Temple. During the insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s, the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple, the holiest of all shrines for Sikhs, which led to the assassination, an act of revenge, of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the writer says.

Punjab saw a steady stream of violent attacks, thousands of deaths and two horrific moments in Indian history: The Indian army’s storming of the Golden Temple, the holiest of all shrines for Sikhs, and the subsequent assassination, an act of revenge, of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Both events saw large numbers of Sikhs killed. Official records say around 2,000 people died – other estimates put it much higher.

Many Sikhs feel their grievances have never properly been addressed. Fleeing the violence, many migrated to places like the UK, US and Canada, which has the largest population of Sikhs outside India and the most active separatist movement. They left behind their homeland but took with them the memories of their fear and anger – and passed that down to the younger generation, who are now some of the most vocal supporters of independence today.

In India, the desire for a separate nation is much smaller, but even so, it is of great concern to the authorities, who have outlawed the movement and view it as a terrorist threat. New Delhi points to the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, which killed 329 people, as an example of this. It originated from Canada and was widely believed to have been carried out by Canadian-based Sikhs retaliating against the Indian state.

Even more worrying for India, today’s Punjab has many of the features that spawned the Sikh militancy, writes C Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University’s security studies programme, with one exception: It “is roiled in pervasive opioid addiction”. Punjab’s economy has also not kept up with Indian growth, and young people are struggling to find well-paying jobs.

A lack of role models and viable leaders – both political and spiritual – have contributed to the problems. And that’s led to an undercurrent of anger that manifests itself in mass demonstrations – most recently in the farmers’ protests of 2020 and 2021, which saw the Sikh diaspora mobilising behind the movement, and, as this Foreign Policy piece points out, “spawned a new generation of militant pro-Khalistan leaders”.

What could solve the Punjab problem for India? The first step would be some clear leadership from Modi’s government that seeks to cool tensions and stop attacks on marginalised groups. Sikhs see how the minority Muslim community is targeted and discriminated against and fear they could be next.

State and federal governments should improve conditions for young people – a difficult task, given the poor economic fundamentals of Punjab, where in 2021, 54 percent of the state’s tax revenue was spent on repaying its debt. Investment in education, particularly for young girls and women and developing health care infrastructure to address the growing drug crisis would also be good first steps.

None of this is easy. But failure to address these basic issues will cost present and future governments dearly. The anger among young Sikhs inside and outside the country will keep growing, and so will the resentment between communities. India has seen those days before. It can’t afford to do so again.

Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics.