in a combing operation
near the India-Pakistan
border, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
June is an uneventful month in Punjab. With the Rabi crop season over and extreme heat in the plains, there is not much to do. Once in a while, when political distempers emerge, there is commotion on the dates marking Operation Bluestar in 1984. Otherwise, people in the state wait for the rains.
This year, however, a murder on June 18 in faraway Canada, led to a nosedive in diplomatic relations between India and Canada. While not directly involved, Punjab looms large in this story. The murdered person, described by Canadian authorities as an “innocent plumber”, was hardly a plumber and was certainly not innocent. Hardeep Singh Nijjar (45), of Surrey, Canada, was a proscribed terrorist under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. He was instrumental in attempts to revive the Khalistani secessionism by creating a terrorist group, the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF). His visit to Pakistan from Canada after acquiring citizenship of the latter country testified to the danger perceived by the Government of India.
The concern about the situation in Punjab is not misplaced, both from historical and contemporary perspectives. The causes for the phase of terrorism seen in the 1980s are very different from the turmoil being injected from Canada today. But the net effect would be identical were it not for the Centre being extraordinarily vigilant and vocal about the dangerous possibilities inherent in Punjab.
Historically, secessionism in Punjab began in 1979 when disputes between the official Sikh religious establishment and a heterodox sect turned violent. Sikh separatism has a much longer history, dating to the period before Independence. This combination proved fatal for Punjab’s peace and economic well-being from which it has never really recovered. This history has a bearing on the current unsettled conditions in the state.
Back in the 1980s, Pakistan was the mainstay of terrorists and secessionist forces. These groups found material, training and support in India’s Western neighbour. At that time, Canada did not feature in the events. It did, however, serve as a base for the Sikh diaspora where Khalistani elements had begun to find refuge. The only notable example of terrorism from Canadian soil was the bombing of Air India flight 182 in 1985. Over time, this equation has seen a neat reversal. Today, the level of active support from Pakistan for terrorism in Punjab is much lower compared to its peak in the 1980s. The handful of key terrorists who escaped there from Punjab after the clean-up in the mid-1990s lead sheltered lives. In some cases, such as that of Paramjit Singh Panjwar—the founder of the terrorist group Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), the end is grisly: the man was killed by unknown gunmen in Lahore earlier this year.
Today, Canada is the hub and epicentre of Sikh secessionism. The “new Pakistan” did not emerge out of the blue. Once Sikh separatism was defanged in Punjab and Pakistan was rendered incapable of providing support as before, it became logical to look elsewhere. Canada fit in neatly as the Sikh diaspora there was welcoming to everyone who migrated from Punjab, Hindu and Sikh. But over time, the politics of control over gurdwaras in Canada—that once served as nodes of activity for the Punjabi community—took an ugly, communal turn. From that point, this politics mutated into Sikh separatism of the kind seen in the 1980s. But there is a challenge that is faced by the separatists: distance. Unlike Pakistan where there were multiple points to ingress into Punjab from Gurdaspur all the way to Ferozepur, moving from Canada to India is very difficult: one is certain to be caught at airports.
Enter the gangsters. In the past one decade, Punjab has seen a flourishing of an underworld that is now used to carry out terrorist strikes within its territory. The gangsters sit pretty in Canada while their low-level henchmen carry out their commands in Punjab. It is the “Mumbai underworld model” replicated on a much larger scale.
If this were not enough, the Sikh diaspora now has sufficient numbers to matter politically in Canada. The result is a toxic brew where Canadian authorities look aside even as separatists and gangsters try hard to prise open the doors of Punjab for their nefarious activities. The only difference between the Pakistan of old and the “new Pakistan” is distance. But that would not be a barrier at all were it not for the vigilance of the Centre in Punjab.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the withdrawal of the three farm reform laws on November 19, 2021, the so-called farmers’ leadership in Punjab was cock-a-hoop at its “victory”. An allegedly non-responsive Centre had been brought to its knees. It is another matter that Modi went emotional in his speech while announcing the withdrawal. In his speech, he said that his intentions were pure, “Yet, a truth like the light of a lamp could not be explained to some brother farmers.”
With that speech and the end of the contentious laws, it was expected that farmers would wind up their agitation. On paper, this is what the situation in Punjab looked like. The “siege of Delhi” that lasted more than a year from September 2020 to November 2021, was ended and farmers returned to their homes. But that withdrawal was just on the surface. Emboldened by the “success” of their agitation, the farmers from Punjab continued to be on the warpath. Eight months later, in July 2022, when the Centre announced a multi-member committee to look into issues like making the system of Minimum Support Prices (MSP) and crop diversification, the apex organisation of agitating farmers, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), rejected the committee within a day of its constitution. In March 2022, the Bhagwant Mann ministry was sworn in and it was hoped that with the withdrawal of farm laws and the formation of a government of their choice, these farmers would calm down.
That has not happened. In the one-and-a-half years since the Mann ministry took charge, not a week has passed without some highway being blocked or some railway track being occupied as a mark of protest. The list of such ‘protests’ is huge: they range from a protest against the establishment of a textile park in Ludhiana district (July, 2022); against a distillery in Zira in Ferozepur district (January, 2023) and the virtually endless list of highway blockades.
On paper, these protests are on farmers’ issues but in reality, they have assumed the form of bargaining for better prices and, in general, jostling for political influence. The result is an unsettled state of affairs in Punjab.
Simultaneously, Punjab has witnessed a huge number of drone incursions from Pakistan in the past three to four years. This year alone, 55 drones have been shot down in the border districts of the state. From narcotics to weapons, Pakistan has tried hard to dispatch whatever can be sent to Punjab to create unrest. It is against this background of continuing political unrest and incursions of materials from Pakistan that the Centre has remained alert to any untoward events in the state.
Historically, secessionism in Punjab began in 1979 when disputes between the official Sikh religious establishment and a heterodox sect turned violent. Sikh separatism has a much longer history, dating to the period before Independence. This combination proved fatal for Punjab’s peace and economic well-being from which it has never really recovered
Share this on
Over the last one year, the narrative of protest has also witnessed a change. Farmers’ issues are increasingly peripheral and the narrative now includes a heavy dose of ‘Sikh issues’. These include the demand for the release of “bandi singhs” or what a large number of people in Punjab describe as political prisoners. Most of these alleged political prisoners are persons convicted for serious crimes, including the assassination of Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1992. In a larger list, at least 21 convicts are involved in terrorist offences that the Centre and any responsible state government will release them. Interestingly, of the 21, Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, Gurdeep Singh Khera, Lakhwinder Singh Lakha, Gurmeet Singh alias Meeta Engineer and Shamsher Singh have been regularly availing parole for a decade now. The remaining ones are ineligible for parole given the nature of crimes for which they have been convicted.
Yet, it is a travesty of Punjab’s politics that this ‘issue’ has been used to politically mobilise opinion in the state. The result is a steady shift in opinion towards an extreme direction. Punjab has seen such build-ups before, with disastrous consequences.
So far, Khalistani activities have remained the preserve of the Sikh diaspora, especially in Canada. The murder of Nijjar is part and parcel of those activities, irrespective of what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has alleged. In Punjab, there is political unrest but, so far, the activities of the diaspora and events in the state have different dynamics. The worry for the Centre is that the two should not converge.
India’s strong reaction to Canadian allegations is understandable from this perspective. Punjab’s complex and violent history of secessionism, the dubious ins and outs of Sikh politics, the inability of the state’s political leadership—across its dominant parties—to undertake meaningful economic changes and the state’s continuing political volatility means that strong vigilance and steps to prevent the emergence of separatist politics are essential. In this, the Centre bears the heaviest burden as the state continues to be oblivious to the danger that surrounds it.