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Narendra Modi’s Punjab Problem

Violent Sikh separatism has been nearly nonexistent for decades, but that won’t stop India’s leader from manufacturing a security situation for an electoral boost.


In March, three months before the assassination of the Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada, the Indian government turned the Sikh-majority Punjab into a police state. Its internet was cut and messaging services restricted, gatherings of more than four people banned in some places, and a state-wide cordon and manhunt launched — all just to find one man, a 30-year-old fellow Sikh agitator called Amritpal Singh. 


Over the previous year, Singh had been advocating for a separate homeland for Sikhs in northern India. He toured villages and towns in Punjab, a longstanding focal point of Sikh separatist ambitions, garnering a small following. He also drew the attention of security forces. Several weeks before the manhunt began, he and a group of armed supporters raided a police station in Ajnala, close to the Pakistan border, forcing the release of a close aide who was being held there. Singh then went on the run, moving from village to village, crisscrossing state lines, changing vehicles and guises. The police operation that ensued, with house-to-house raids and roadblocks set up across the nearly 20,000-square-mile state, resulted in the arrest of more than 300 people — including, on April 23, Singh himself. 


It marked the intensification of a crackdown on Sikh separatists by Narendra Modi’s government — one that soon went international. Nijjar was killed outside a temple in British Columbia by an unknown assassin, an operation Canada pinned on India. Around the same time, according to an American investigation, an Indian official was directing a plot against another Sikh separatist in New York. Allegations of similar plots in the U.K. have since surfaced, and revelations of other India-backed assassination campaigns elsewhere in the world have emerged.


As the Singh manhunt widened in March, journalists and commentators began asking questions. Was Sikh separatism a valid concern, one deserving of such a far-reaching response? Or was the mass deployment of security forces to Punjab and the Indian government’s intensifying rhetoric around “Khalistan” — the long-imagined Sikh homeland beyond the control of New Delhi — serving other ends? 


Despite once causing great tumult in Punjab and rocking the foundations of post-independence India, the Sikh separatist cause had lain dormant for three decades: Militant activity was so infrequent as to barely make headlines. As far as security threats were concerned, the government had spent the past decade far more interested in insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and the Maoist-Naxalite rebellion in the east. 


The crackdown in Punjab — and the targeting of Sikhs on foreign soil that followed — seemed puzzling. Was Singh really raising an army? Did Nijjar really have the support in India to reinvigorate a long-dead insurgency? Or rather, was Modi, with an eye on the 2024 elections, raising the specter of a national security threat in order to sell the idea that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for whom national security has always been top of the agenda, must be reelected lest India break apart? Might he be diverting attention from the many real crises in Punjab, if not India more generally, that the BJP has been unable to resolve?


As the police dragnet widened in March, pro-Khalistan protestors organized actions in London, San Francisco, Brisbane and beyond. Khalistan banners were raised outside Indian embassies; in Punjab, police were forced to divert traffic as hundreds of Singh’s supporters, openly defying government orders, blocked roads. For anyone following the news at the time, it seemed as if their cause had substantial local and global backing — so much so, perhaps, that the government’s warnings of increasing separatist activity in Punjab might be worth listening to.


“Might Modi be diverting attention from the many real crises in Punjab, if not India more generally, that the BJP has been unable to resolve?”

From the air, Punjab appears like a patchwork quilt, its surface portioned into countless square farm fields. To its immediate west is Pakistan; beyond its eastern border, the foothills of the Himalayas begin. 


Five centuries ago, as the Mughal Empire was expanding into Hindu lands, Guru Nanak Dev Ji found enlightenment at the Kali Bein rivulet, around 50 miles west of Ludhiana, and there Sikhism was born. Well-versed in the Vedas and fluent in Sanskrit and Persian, Bābā Nānak saw the new religion as a harmonizing influence on, if not a compromise between, the different faiths of northern India. He preached inclusivity and steadfastly opposed the caste hierarchies of Hinduism; at the langar — community meals — he encouraged all peoples, irrespective of caste divisions, to eat together, in the process birthing a core principle and practice of the new faith.


Some two hundred years later, in the dying months of the 18th century, Ranjit Singh, the “Lion of Punjab” and the first maharaja of the Sikh Empire, had captured Mughal Lahore and won Sikhs their own “nation.” But it was short-lived: His death in 1839 precipitated the decline of the empire, and via two Anglo-Sikh Wars in the mid-19th century, the British annexed the territory and brought Sikhs under their rule. 


Over time, Sikhism grew to become the world’s fifth-largest religion, with around 26 million followers. Yet Sikhs, the majority of whom live in the towns, villages and farming communities of Punjab, remained a firm minority in India, and came to experience the social and political costs of that status. Out of a series of events in the first half of the 20th century — British duplicitousness, Partition, religious chauvinism, New Delhi’s authoritarianism, economic insecurity — grew support for the idea of an independent Sikh homeland in modern-day India.


The movement had begun in earnest in the years leading up to Partition in 1947. The division of the British colony into India and Pakistan split Punjab in two and sparked communal bloodletting between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs of an intensity not seen anywhere else in India that year. The western region of Punjab, home to mostly Muslims, would become part of the new nation of Pakistan, while its eastern region, where the majority of Sikhs were concentrated alongside Hindus, would remain in India. “Foot caravans of destitute refugees fleeing the violence stretched for 50 miles and more,” Nisid Hajari wrote in “Midnight’s Furies, his account of the violence of Partition. Trains carrying refugees moved in both directions across the new India-Pakistan border. “All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors.”


“When the midnight hour came, calls for a separate homeland grew in volume.”

As with all communities impacted by Partition, these were years of heightened insecurity for Sikhs. They had been failed already by the British colonial power: First, with the broken promise of fair representation in the Punjab legislative council in the 1910s, when a pledged 33% of seats for Sikhs never materialized, and later with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, in which hundreds of Sikhs and others in the city of Amritsar, protesting Britain’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, were gunned down. 


Sikh leaders had generally opposed Partition on the grounds that the community would become a subjugated minority. Unable to influence the course of events in the mid-1940s, they then began pushing for a state of their own. There were hints from the incoming national leadership that this might be granted. “The brave Sikhs of Punjab are entitled to special consideration,” Jawaharlal Nehru said in Calcutta a year before Partition. “I see nothing wrong in an area and a set up in the North wherein the Sikhs can experience the glow of freedom.” 


Yet the designs for Partition wouldn’t allow for that. Sikhs were a minority at every level, from the town to the state, and administrative energies were instead being directed toward the separation of the far larger Hindu and Muslim communities. When, therefore, the midnight hour came, with Sikhs knowing they would become a minority in a Hindu-majority state under the rule of the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress in faraway New Delhi, calls for a separate homeland grew in volume. Leaders implored Sikhs to think of themselves as not merely a community but a nation with cultural systems distinct enough from others to justify a state of their own. That belief underpinned the budding separatist movement. Khalistan may not have yet been named, but its core ideology was taking shape. 


Congress, the first ruling party of independent India, repeatedly refused separatists’ calls. Nehru, asked in 1954 what had become of his pledge to Sikhs, simply replied: “The circumstances have now changed.” But by the 1960s, a movement called the Punjabi Suba that advocated splitting the new Punjab along linguistic lines was growing in influence. In some ways a precursor to the Khalistan movement, albeit non-violent, by 1966 the Punjabi Suba had pressured Congress to partition Punjab a second time: Hindi speakers would predominate in Haryana, in the south, and Punjabi speakers, most of them Sikhs, would be a majority in the north, in what is the present-day Punjab. Smaller parts of the territory went to neighboring Himachal Pradesh.  


Many Sikhs, though, felt this concession wasn’t enough. Their new state was still firmly in the orbit of New Delhi. Both Punjab and Haryana were forced to share a capital, Chandigarh, built in the 1940s under Nehru’s orders following the loss of the old state capital, Lahore, to Pakistan. But Chandigarh was a union territory, not a state; directly controlled by New Delhi, Chandigarh ended the dream of an autonomous Punjab.


In the new Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal — then India’s only Sikh-centric party and the country’s second oldest after Congress — battled Congress in elections at the state assembly level. It was the Akali Dal that had led the Punjabi Suba movement. Congress — the party of Mohandas Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Nehru; the party that was, for many, the political embodiment of independent India — may have dominated national politics, but the Sikh party had become a formidable force in Punjab. 


“The Akali Dal began to thread together narratives of political and economic disenfranchisement and religious oppression in a way that suggested New Delhi was intent on weakening all aspects of Sikh life.”

By the 1970s, economic problems were eating away at Punjabi society, heralding an era of even sharper hostility toward the central government. 


Punjab had been receiving vast amounts of farming subsidies and technologies as part of the so-called Green Revolution, an effort to transform food production and thereby end India’s long-running hunger crisis. Its semi-arid climate meant the region was already a major contributor to national wheat stores, but the Green Revolution powered even greater agricultural output, earning Punjab the moniker of “India’s breadbasket.” 


But although overall prosperity grew, the revolution’s gains were “distributed unequally,” wrote the scholar Rajshree Jetly, causing the “pauperization of marginal and poor peasants, who could neither reap the benefits of the land nor find employment in the industrial sector.” Added to that, the intensification of cropping meant that farmers needed to buy more seeds and equipment, spend more on water for irrigation, and hire more labor to work the land and process its output. New Delhi, meanwhile, was unable to sustain its subsidies. Even though Punjab grew richer as a whole on the back of the Green Revolution, small farmers fell into severe debt, unemployment worsened and drug and alcohol abuse spread.


The Akali Dal was able to consolidate support among aggrieved Punjabis by continuing to emphasize their mistreatment at the hands of Congress. It wasn’t an election-winning formula — the party was being weakened by infighting, and Congress, which fielded Sikh candidates in Punjab, was still able to gather enough votes to win a slew of state elections in the early 1970s. But the Akali Dal began to thread together narratives of political and economic disenfranchisement and religious oppression in a way that suggested New Delhi was intent on weakening all aspects of Sikh life. It also began crafting a more coherent, and more rigid, vision for a Punjab that wouldn’t be so beholden to the central government. 


Congress saw the Akali Dal as a growing threat not only to the secular precepts it was ostensibly cultivating, but to its political supremacy. By then under the rule of Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, it made repeated efforts to undermine the Sikh party, culminating in a decision in the late 1970s by Gandhi’s inner circle that set the wheels in motion toward disaster.


Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a young farmer and Sikh preacher who, by his early thirties, had been made leader of the Damdami Taksal — an influential traveling Sikh seminary. Through the late 1970s, he preached abstinence from drugs and alcohol and called for a revival of the traditional Punjabi way of life, one that was being lost to the Green Revolution. Gurharpal Singh, a scholar of Sikhism and Punjabi culture, has written that the rapid modernization of Punjab society in the 1960s and 1970s “ushered in a mass society by dislocating, atomizing and shattering traditional village Punjab.” Bhindranwale was a convincing orator, and those appeals struck a note among young and disaffected, educated but unemployed Sikhs who had felt this shattering in a multitude of ways.


By 1978, Congress had lost power in New Delhi and the Akali Dal controlled the Punjab assembly. Gandhi hoped Bhindranwale’s appeal to orthodox Sikhs and the young could split the Akali Dal vote and strengthen Congress’s position in time for the next elections. Following clashes between Sikh groups in Amritsar, during which more than a dozen people died, Bhindranwale questioned how Sikhs could be killed while a Sikh party held the Punjab assembly. Congress began quietly supporting him.

But Bhindranwale’s militancy gradually became more apparent. In his eyes, Hindus were holding Sikhs down as “slaves in independent India,” and he repeatedly and publicly scorned the religious majority. For a while, this worked for Congress: Hindu voters fearful of a Sikh separatist movement would be more inclined to support a party dominated by Hindus. Yet it was clear Bhindranwale could not be controlled, nor could his growing influence be contained. He fused appeals for Sikh revivalism with calls for greater water rights for Punjabis — a long-running grievance — thereby winning the support of the powerful Jat Sikh rural landholding community, as well as of the Akali Dal’s youth wing. He formed a party — allegedly with Congress’s help — and his candidates were successful in general elections. High-ranking ministers became deferential in his presence. 


Against Gandhi’s designs, Bhindranwale’s popularity eventually forced the Akali Dal into an alliance with him. Their joint Dharam Yudh Morcha campaign, launched in August 1982, once again demanded greater autonomy for Punjab. Hundreds of thousands of protestors mobilized. In a foretaste of a strategy the BJP would later employ to slander opposition forces, Gandhi — now back in power — falsely branded the campaign as secessionist, and police and paramilitaries were sent to break it up. Reports of state brutality followed, including torture in custody and extrajudicial killings on the streets. Between 100,000 and 150,000 protestors were arrested. Bhindranwale accused the government of “wreak[ing] atrocities on the Sikh nation,” and more Sikhs turned to his increasingly militant stance. 

Early on in the Dharam Yudh Morcha, Bhindranwale had taken up residence in the compound of the Golden Temple in Amritsar — the holiest of Sikh gurdwaras, located in the heart of the city just streets away from the memorial to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Other armed groups also holed up there. Militant activity, some of it directed by the preacher, was rising across the state; bodies of civilians and government officials were showing up in greater numbers. Security forces were becoming less restrained in response. Gandhi finally ordered the army to enter the Golden Temple and remove Bhindranwale and the militants. Operation Blue Star began on June 1, 1984. Nine days later, the temple compound was strewn with bodies and empty shells. Hundreds of people — militants, soldiers, civilians and Bhindranwale — were dead. 


Gandhi wrote a letter the following week to Margaret Thatcher: “We have a troubled situation in Punjab,” she began. “Of all malefactors, those who wear the religious garb are the most dangerous.” Four months later, on October 31, she was assassinated in the garden of her New Delhi residence by two bodyguards, both of whom were Sikh. 


In the days afterward, retaliatory attacks on Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere mutated into a series of pogroms. Within three days of the assassination, more than 3,000 Sikhs had been killed. The final death toll, according to some estimates, reached 17,000. 


A violent Khalistan insurgency, driven to greater extremes by the bloodbath at the holy temple, took hold in Punjab. Its foot soldiers were often young, undereducated Sikh from towns and villages and from various social and caste strata. But they all shared, the historian Robin Jeffrey wrote, “a vision of Sikh history that fits poorly with their own demoralized present.” 


Over the decade after 1984, the conflict between insurgents and the Indian government convulsed Punjab. Civic order broke down, the state was militarized, some 30,000 people were killed. Canadian Sikh separatists blew up an Air India flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1985, killing 329 people. An already deteriorating security situation had turned into something much darker, presenting the gravest threat to the political legitimacy of the Indian state since independence.


“Over the decade after 1984, the conflict between insurgents and the Indian government convulsed Punjab. Civic order broke down, the state was militarized, some 30,000 people were killed.”

The goals of the Khalistan movement were never realized. But that wasn’t due only to an effective counterinsurgency operation. Many Sikhs were alienated by the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, and especially by the separatists’ killings of Sikhs who opposed them. 


Questions also arose of the ideological commitment of recruits. Many were young and, by the 1980s, frustrated with their lot; weapons were easily available. The armed movement may have given them purpose, and yet — according to researchers who later visited several of the Punjabi villages the insurgents recruited from — it did not always translate into a desire for a separate homeland. 


Moreover, a key ideological foundation for Khalistan — that the Sikhs were a nation unto themselves — rubbed up against the fact that they shared much in common with Hindus, including language and various religious practices. (That may help to explain why the movement lost steam in India yet remained alive in the minds of Sikhs who joined the diaspora, like Hardeep Singh Nijjar, for whom interaction with Hindus wasn’t part of daily life.) Either way, as the military upped its violence and the body count rose, the incentive to remain a fighter, and be martyred for a cause many were not convinced of, diminished. By the end of the 1990s, militant activity in Punjab barely registered.


Amritpal Singh’s arrival on the scene some 25 years later therefore seemed out of the blue. But he had already won some affection from a community whose plight a half-century before had helped power the separatist movement: Punjabi farmers. The grievances stemming from the Green Revolution had not been adequately addressed by any government since, and the epidemic of suicides of indebted farmers had become a stain on the nation. A set of laws passed in 2020 to further corporatize the agricultural sector and remove the price floor on crops only inflamed them further. Farmers saw in the laws “an alliance between corporate capital and the authoritarian state working through the language of Hindutva,” one analyst noted, referring to the Hindu nationalist ideology embraced by Modi and the BJP. Punjab served as the wellspring of what became a yearlong nationwide farmers’ protest — still the biggest mobilization yet faced by Modi. 


Many of the farmers were Sikh, and leaders of the movement pointed to the inclusive tenets of Sikhism to bridge the old caste, class and urban-rural divisions that had become salient during the 1970s. To appeal to millions-strong Punjabi Dalits, for so long politically sidelined and maligned, they celebrated the anniversaries of B. R. Ambedkar and other icons. They marched on New Delhi, set up sprawling protest camps and invited all, irrespective of caste, to join in the langar. At these camps outside the capital, an inclusive micro-society was born. For its fundamental embrace of unity, it stood in sharp contrast to, if not undermined, the purposefully divisive politicking of Modi and the BJP.


The government responded as expected. BJP officials began branding the farmers “Khalistanis” and even “jihadis” who were being supported by dark elements in the Sikh world. Once they began articulating their grievances in the language of human rights, the BJP claimed they had been infiltrated by “Maoists.” The party’s old playbook was out. Modi was later forced to repeal the laws, but not before deriding the farmers as “anti-national.”


Singh, living in Dubai when the protests began, had supported the movement on social media and amplified the view, commonly held in Punjab, that the farming laws were just the tip of a wider attack on the rights of Punjabis. After returning to India in September 2022, he set about preaching throughout the Punjabi countryside, lamenting the loss of traditional ways of life and calling for a revival of the separatist cause. He grew his beard long and wore the kind of “religious garb” Indira Gandhi had once labeled a signal of violent intent. Bit by bit, his profile as a Bhindranwale of the modern age was being established.


“For its fundamental embrace of unity, the farmers’ protest stood in sharp contrast to, if not undermined, the purposefully divisive politicking of Modi and the BJP.”

Were it not for certain awkward truths, the state-wide pursuit of Singh six months later might have seemed rational. The prospect of a renewed Khalistani insurgency would unnerve most Indians, given how all-consuming the crisis of the 1980s and 90s was. It’s not clear what exactly Singh had been doing in the period between returning to India and storming the police station where his aide was being held, although several media outlets alleged that he was radicalizing drug-addicted young Sikhs and stockpiling weapons. With elections due next spring, a government that made such a point of safeguarding “national security” needed to act swiftly. 


Yet not only did the data not support the BJP’s suggestions of a reinvigorated separatist movement — total incidents related to separatist activity in Punjab over the last two decades barely passed 30 — but there was something highly performative about the massive security operation. Singh’s return coincided with the farmers’ protests — the greatest challenge so far to the authority of the BJP, once seemingly so secure in power. Those protests demonstrated that 30 years after the end of the insurgency, new centers of power were emerging in Punjab, from the villages and farm fields where political power was traditionally thought to be weak, and within communities, like the peasants or Dalits, long dismissed by New Delhi as backward and unsophisticated. 


The BJP wasn’t going to win a propaganda war. Few ultimately bought its claims of violent separatist intentions among farmers, and it failed to do what it had done so successfully against Muslims: use a national security pretext to whip up popular anger toward a minority community. 


Even more glaring, its grudging withdrawal of the farm laws showed a rare vulnerability to popular pressure. All of a sudden, it wasn’t the same BJP that had won successive elections by a landslide or could change the political landscape of India at will, as it had with the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy the year before. A large constituency, whose core came from a state where the BJP always lacked support (it has only ever ruled in Punjab as part of a coalition, and currently occupies just two of 117 seats in the state assembly), was now asserting its rights and bargaining power. Modi’s party couldn’t withstand the pressure, so it bowed to farmers’ demands. 


“Not only did the data not support the BJP’s suggestions of a reinvigorated separatist movement, but there was something highly performative about the massive security operation.”

It was against that backdrop that the statewide manhunt for Singh was ordered. What was clearly roiling Punjab was not a reawakened separatist insurgency, but the latest iteration of a longstanding political economy crisis, one that, nearly a decade into Modi’s rule, echoed across much of India. That presented a grave crisis of legitimacy for the BJP, which was already facing unrest elsewhere as a result of a weak economy and low employment. 


With neither the vision nor the will to treat Punjab’s ills, and clearly alarmed by the size of the opposition that materialized with the farmers’ movement, the government’s response was to first talk up the reemergence of a Khalistan project and then, when Singh went on the run, create the visual dimensions of a security threat — soldiers on the streets, house-to-house searches, roadblocks — to reinforce the perception that a crisis was unfolding. Congress had tried something similar decades before, but in doing so had fueled the mutation of a nonviolent movement rooted in social and economic disenfranchisement into a violent one. 


“By securitizing political economy issues,” wrote Mahika Khosla, “successive central governments have diverted blame away from failed economic policy — and toward Muslims, Maoists, Sikhs and ‘Khalistanis.’” All the while, they have failed to address “the root causes of discontent.”


The killing of Hardeep Nijjar, as well as the subsequent foiled assassination plots elsewhere in the world, might seem like a risky escalation by the BJP. But that would be to misread the mindset of its support base, if not that of Indian politics more generally. Not only did social media users quickly rally in support of Modi — either denying Canada’s allegations or celebrating the show of strength signaled by the killing — but even Congress took a security-first line. “Our fight against terrorism has to be uncompromising,” Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said, “especially when terrorism threatens India’s sovereignty, unity and integrity.” 


It wouldn’t be the first time an attack on foreign soil boosted Modi’s political capital. In February 2019, several months before the last nationwide elections, Islamic militants carried out a deadly assault on a convoy of Indian soldiers in Kashmir. Forty-six were killed. Modi then sent Indian fighter jets to bomb a camp inside Pakistan that he alleged was hiding the militants. Soon after, intelligence showed that nothing of consequence had been hit — a detail that Congress, hoping for a pre-election boost, played up in parliament and media. 


“What was clearly roiling Punjab was not a reawakened separatist insurgency, but the latest iteration of a longstanding political economy crisis, one that echoed across much of India.”

But still, Indians took to the streets in celebration. Despite the country reporting its worst national employment figures in nearly half a century, and despite the BJP having struggled in recent state elections, the wind seemed to suddenly shift. A BJP minister claimed the strikes had “enthused youths,” and pessimism at the government’s poor economic performance turned to jubilation at its military might. Pakistan’s alleged sheltering of anti-India groups had “provided [Modi] with a golden narrative,” one commentator said. Congress had misread the mood, and the BJP went on to win a landslide. 


With elections looming in the spring of 2024, the government will likely continue to play on the fears of militant activity in Punjab, or whatever other threats it can find. Fear-mongering may not be its only tool: Pro-poor welfare schemes, temple construction and other acts that resonate with lower-income Hindu voters were central to its victories in regional elections in early December. But shows of force are game-changers in Indian politics. The fact that there is little evidence of an appetite among Sikhs inside India for another era of violent upheaval makes little difference to how those threat narratives land with the wider electorate. 


For a range of historical and present-day reasons — the legacy of colonialism, the India-Pakistan rivalry, competition with China and, most obviously today, the threat to Hindu supremacy posed by India’s diversity — a majority of Indians want a leader who will unleash the full force of the state to quash any threat, and who will ensure “unity” via aggressive centralizing measures, even when pressing day-to-day problems remain unaddressed. 


Modi is keenly aware of all this, and in moments of weakness he finds sources of strength, often in the unlikeliest of places. Last time around they were hiding in camps across the border in Pakistan; this time, they drift like specters through the villages and farm fields of Punjab.



 

NOEMA, 2023


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