Ever since Amritpal Singh appeared as a self-appointed new saviour of Sikhism and then escaped a massive police dragnet to disappear again, there has been much talk about Khalistan. What shocked me most was to hear important political pundits and ‘Punjab experts’ talk about a ‘revival of the Khalistan problem’. There is no revival imminent because the truth is there has never been any real support for Khalistan inside Punjab.
Anyone who has travelled in rural Punjab will tell you that there is almost not a village in which you do not find retired soldiers and Sikh families who have not sent a son, brother or father to defend India’s borders. Fighting for your country and secessionism never go together. So, it offended me at a very personal level to hear TV commentary in which the words ‘Khalistani thugs’ have punctuated every other sentence.
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There have been occasions in recent years when the Sikh community has felt alienated and angry. But not at the worst of those times was there significant support for Khalistan inside Punjab. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, there was a State-organised pogrom in which thousands of innocent Sikhs were killed. In Punjab, the response was anger but not secession. When Bhindranwale was killed in Operation Blue Star, thousands of Sikh villagers tried to march to Amritsar, but it was because a gurdwara with special significance became a battlefield, not to demand Khalistanhttps://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/khalistan-supporters-try-to-incite-violence-at-indian-embassy-in-washington-secret-service-police-foil-their-bid/3022280/. It is true that pictures of Bhindranwale are sold in the Golden Temple and there is a shrine in his memory, but that is because he is seen as a martyr, not because there is huge support for Khalistan.
It is against this backdrop that we need to examine who Amritpal Singh is and why he has suddenly become a household name. It is my considered opinion that the media has made him bigger than he is without asking loudly enough if, as with Bhindranwale, he is not the creation of powerful political forces. A question that also needs to be asked is if he has emerged as a leader of the ‘panth’ because every mainstream political party in Punjab is currently discredited. And because the Chief Minister of Punjab is seen to be controlled from Delhi by Arvind Kejriwal.
When state governments are run by remote control, there is always uncertainty, and people start searching for new leaders and new solutions. But the rise of Amritpal Singh remains murky and mystifying. My own view is that he is a product, like his predecessor Deep Sidhu, of the farmers’ rebellion, against what they believed were the Modi government’s ‘black laws’.
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Had a sincere dialogue been initiated with the protesting farmers, it is possible that their protest would not have lasted for a year. While they sat on Delhi’s border through winter and summer, senior ministers of the Government of India publicly called them Khalistanis. That did not turn out well. And it will not turn out well if the same approach is used to deal with Amritpal Singh. If he is a Pakistani stooge, as much of the media and most politicians say he is, then this needs to be proved publicly and transparently.
There are other things that need to be explained. How is it that Deep Sidhu, his predecessor, once worked as Sunny Deol’s election agent? After he managed to get onto the ramparts of the Red Fort and replace the Indian flag with the Khalsa flag, how did he find it so easy to get bail? Was his death just an accident? These are questions that need answers. Instead of looking for answers, it is unfortunate that the media has concentrated its attention on the supposed ‘revival’ of Khalistan.
It is clear from the ugly protests that we have seen outside Indian embassies and consulates in the United Kingdom and North America that there are Sikhs there who think of themselves as Khalistanis. I was personally given a Khalistan passport in London’s Paddington station by Jagjit Singh Chohan, one of the early proponents of Khalistan. This was 40 years ago, and Chohan spent most of his life outside India, as do most Khalistanis today.
It is true that Pakistan’s military leaders like supporting those asking for Khalistan, but it is also true that nobody believes it will ever happen. After Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army’s search for Bhindranwale’s supporters in rural Punjab drove many young men to flee to Pakistan. It is true that they were trained as terrorists and sent back across the border. It is also true that when they returned, they found little support or shelter in Punjab’s villages. When Amritpal Singh is caught, which he will be, there must be a trial that is so transparent that we discover exactly where his political and financial support comes from.
It will be an interesting exercise. It could prove conclusively that Khalistan is no more than a foolish myth that has done more harm to the Sikh community than anyone else. As someone who has followed the Khalistan story for a very long time, let me reiterate that not at the worst times in Punjab when terrorism was at its height and gurdwaras became safe havens for killers, was there ever real support for Khalistan. There is less support now than ever. So can we please stop talking of a ‘Khalistan revival’.