Dr.Rehan Mushtaq holds a PhD in Peace & Conflict Studies. Likes to read and write on global events.
In 1999, Christopher Andrew, a history professor at Cambridge University, wrote a set of two books in consultation with Vasili Mitrokhin, based on wide-ranging top-secret material which Mitrokhin managed to smuggled out from the KGB foreign intelligence archive. The books became NYT bestseller. But what drew me to these books wasn’t this award, but to the details mentioned in Chapter 18 of Book II, The Special Relationship with India, Part 2: The Decline and Fall of Congress. It has quite a claim about Sikh Khalistan Movement. It discloses:
“One of the main aims of KGB active measures in the early 1980s was to manufacture evidence that the CIA and Pakistani intelligence were behind the growth of Sikh separatism in the Punjab. In the autumn of 1981 Service A launched operation KONTAKT based on a forged document purporting to contain details of the weapons and money provided by Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to the militants seeking to bring about the creation of an independent Sikh state of Khalistan. In November the forgery was passed to a senior Indian diplomat in Islamabad. Shortly afterwards the Islamabad residency reported to the Centre that, according to (possibly optimistic) agents’ reports, the level of anxiety in the Indian embassy about Pakistani support for Sikh separatists indicated that KONTAKT was having the alarmist effect that Service A had hoped for.”
“Shortly after succeeding Brezhnev as Soviet leader in November 1982 Yuri Andropov approved a proposal by Kryuchkov to fabricate a further Pakistani intelligence document detailing ISI plans to foment religious disturbances in Punjab and promote the creation of Khalistan as an independent Sikh state. The Centre believed that the Indian ambassador in Pakistan, to whom this forgery was sent, would consider it so important that he was bound to forward it to Mrs Gandhi. The KGB appeared by now supremely confident that it could continue to deceive her indefinitely with fabricated reports of CIA and Pakistani conspiracies against her.”
If this is true, even to some extent, it would be interesting to revisit Indian political history of that period and follow the footprints of the great Sikh struggle for their rightful claim to have a separate state in East Punjab.
It will not be wrong to say that India has repeatedly and consistently told lies about Khalistan Movement to make the people of India believe that a segment of the Sikh expatriates in Canada, the US and the UK harboured pro-Khalistan sentiments because of Pakistan intelligence agency ISI sponsorship and support. Nothing could be more incorrect than that.
The Khalistan Movement is a complex social undertaking. The Sikhs wanted a piece of land in India, which they could govern. They had a debate over its nature, whether the claimed piece of land should be an independent state separate of India or within India, with maximum autonomy. And this vision had genesis even before the 1947 partition. Tara Singh (picture) was a Sikh religious politician who, in the first half of 20th Century, sought for Sikh-majority state in East Punjab even before Independence. Akali Dal under his leadership in 1946 declared Punjab as the natural homeland of Sikhs. Between 1930 to 1966 Tara Singh was jailed 14 times for civil disobedience. His famous hunger strike in 1961 at Golden Temple borne partial results where Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru (picture) agreed to his demand for such a state, but not on religious basis.
Why did the Sikhs demand a separate state? According to Mark Tully & Satish Jacob, BBC Correspondents, in their book Amritsar, Mrs Gandhi Last Battle, the Sikhs feared Hinduism would absorb their identity. Therefore, around independence, they started demanding an official recognition of Sikhs as separate community. By 1951, militant Hinduism had taken political shape with the establishment of the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, a right-wing Hindu party which stressed the Vedic origins of Indian civilisation. This had alarmed Sikhs in India. Many Akali leaders who were following the politics of Arya Samaj raised voice against the dangers of Hindu communalism. In 1952 a leading Akali, Hukam Singh, even questioned the credentials of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as a secularist. Tully & Jacob write that Tara Singh told Nehru Government, ‘If you are true nationalists then, for the sake of the nation, you must let the Sikhs live honourably. You will err in attempting to extinguish, in the name of nationalism’. It is now known, and is an embarrassment to the Indian entertainment industry that in late 1970s, the famous Indian Sikh singer Jagjit Singh had to cut down his hairs to get his first album released. At glance over the political archives of 1950s, makes it quite evident that the Sikhs wanted Congress to secure them from Hindu militancy, but were supressed in their all their attempts to forge a separate identity.
After Tara Singh, Sam Fateh Singh (picture) took over the reins of Akali Dal. He was a Jat, a peasant caste which dominated East Punjab. His succession set the gradual domination of the Akali leadership by Jats. Framers protests which rocked BJP government as early as 2020-21 were mainly led by the Jats from Indian Punjab and Haryana.
But let’s not jump to the present. So, Nehru remained adamantly indifferent to a Sikh province till the very end of his life, but her daughter Indira Gandhi (picture) in 1966 agreed with the idea of a Punjabi-speaking state. Fateh Singh in a negotiation also recalibrating his claim that the Sikhs’ demand was for a linguistic not a Sikh state. So the Sikhs got a Punjabi state only in a political give-and-take, where Mrs Gandhi accommodated Akalis because she needed them as potential allies in the fight she was having with the Congress party bosses her father had left behind. One finds no interference from any external state of its intelligence agency.
The Sikhs got a Punjabi-speaking state, but to their frustration they were still unable to dominate as natural party of power in Punjab. The Sikh vote was split. The only way they could form a government was in alliance with the Hindu Jan Sangh party, a political wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This they tried after the elections in 1967 and 1969 but the coalition governments proved hopelessly unstable. So the Akalis had their homeland but could not govern it. Congress was playing games with the Sikhs.
It is important here to mention a bit about Sikh community settled in the West. The Sikh migrants from Punjab constituted the largest single group of Indian origin in UK, UK, and Canada. Most of these migrants came from poor rural families and many of them in the UK earned their living by taking menial jobs. Nevertheless, despite living in Western countries, they remained attached to their religion and culture, leading their lives as true Sikhs.
In early 1960s, the Sikhs started facing difficulties as their employers began objecting to their long beards, demanding they should stop wearing turbans. In the UK, many of the affected Sikhs approached the Indian High Commission in London and sought its intervention, but the High Commission declined to intervene. This behaviour slowly reinforced a feeling among some of the Sikh residents in West that only by creating an independent State for the Sikhs would they be able to have their religious rights protected. It was in those days that we see organizations like Sikh Home Rule and United Sikh Appeal came up in the UK and US respectively.
By the end of 1960s, there was enough political space especially in UK for Sikhs to go public in favour of their demands for a separate state. Fearing witch-hunt from the Congress Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan, (picture) who had served for a few months between 1967 and 1969 as the Deputy Speaker of the Punjab Assembly and then as the Finance Minister of Punjab, came to London, and joined the Sikh Home Rule Movement. He took over its leadership and re-named it as the Khalistan Movement.
B. Raman, who headed RAW for 26 years, claimed in book, The Kaoboys of R&AW that Chauhan also visited US and met the local media and others in order to brief them on the Khalistan Movement. Even the Indians blame Dr. Henry Kissinger staff for facilitating him during his visit. In October, 1971, when Chauhan advertised through the “New York Times”, the start of a campaign for an independent Sikh State, the Indian accredited it to Pakistan, which isn’t true. In fact, the advertisement was paid by affluent members of United Sikh Appeal.
Dr. Chauhan was troubled by the Congress in India. Testimony to this fact is, when Indira Gandhi lost 1977 elections and was changed by Morarji Desai, Dr. Chauhan returned to India and stopped campaigning for the creation of the so-called Khalistan. According to Mr. Raman till 1977, Khalistan Movement wasn’t a serious threat to the Indian unity.
After her father’s death Indira Gandhi was politically challenged within Congress. Things were so bad for her that by 1969, to out manoeuvre her opponents politically with in Congress, she had to split the Party. It was only after 1971 War that she saw acceptance of her among the Party old guard. But by 1975, things got really tougher for her when Allahabad High Court gave a verdict against her, invalidating Gandhi’s win and barred her from holding elected office for six years. The decision caused a political crisis in India that led to the imposition of a state of emergency from 1975 to 1977.
1977 Election was a bigger disaster. She lost over 198 seats to what she had in last parliament. In Punjab, the Akali Dal formed a coalition government with the Janata Party, which formed government in Centre. In the Punjab the main strength of the Janata Party came from the former Jan Sangh.
However, the Congress Party decided to not take this defeat lying down but to go after Punjab coalition. Mrs Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay took the lead. It is now a well-known story that Sanjay (picture) was advised by the experienced Sikh politician Zail Singh, (picture) who had been Chief Minister of the state from 1972 until the Congress Party’s electoral defeat in 1977. Zail Singh recommended Sanjay to try to disrupt the Akali Dal, not the Jan Sangh. Himself a preacher, he employed against Akali Dal its own weapon, the religion. Here again one could see pure political manoeuvring by then Indian government behind the portico of the Khalistan Movement.
Zail Singh guided Sanjay to look for a new religious leader to manipulate and discredit the traditional Akali Dal leadership. The choice eventually fell on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (picture). He was widely respected and had firm ideas about protecting the Sikh religious interests. He could pitch against the Akali Dal leaders who were bound to make compromises on Sikh religious traditions to stay in power.
However, to play up Bhindrawale, Congress needed a cause. They found it in the Nirankaris, an alleged heretical sect of Sikhs which had an influential Punjabi trading community. In 1978, the Akali Dal government played into the hands of Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh. They announced that the Nirankaris would be allowed to hold a convention during the Vaisakhi festival in the holy city of Amritsar. Bhindranwale, as expected, came out in protest, shouting slogans against the Nirankaris. The exchange got rough and resulted in firing, in which 12 Sikhs lost their lives. Sanjay Gandhi and the Congress Party used the martyrdom of the 12 Sikhs to whip up the Nirankari agitation.
But the Congress political tricks didn’t stop there. To promote Bhindranwale and confront Akalis, Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh also needed a political platform. So a new party was formed on 13th April 1978, just a week before the attack on the Nirankari convention. The party was called the Dal Khalsa, the party of the pure, the name of the Sikh army in the days before the empire of Ranjit Singh. The Indian Government White Paper on the army action in the Golden Temple admitted that ‘The Dal Khalsa was originally established with the avowed object of demanding an independent sovereign Sikh State.’ The first meeting of Dal Khalsa discussed prospects and demand of Khalistan Movement.
Ultimately, at the Centre, the political alliance under immense Congress pressure cracked and sought re-elections. During 1980 elections, Congress again won in majority and Indira Gandhi became the PM. It is noteworthy here that when the Congress returned to power in 1980, Chauhan went back to London and re-started his Khalistan Movement. B. Raman in his book admits that by end of the 1970s, the ISI had lost interest in Chauhan, clearly showing that Pakistan wasn’t a driving force behind Khalistan Movement, the struggle was an outgrowth of India’s internal politics. He further claimed, Chauhan in Ottawa, met a Chinese diplomat there and apparently sought Chinese backing for his movement, but the Chinese declined. However, the US interest remained intact in him. As per Raman narration, Chauhan frequently visited Washington DC, met US officials and members of the Congress and testified before Congressional committees on matters such as India’s relations with the USSR, the alleged presence of Soviet military officers in India etc.
However, towards the end of 1980, Indira Gandhi asked RAW head Naushervan Framji Suntook to create a separate Division to collect intelligence about the activities of the Sikh extremist elements abroad. During the same period, on her return to PM Office, Indira Gandhi appointed R.N. Kao his senior advisor. And according to G.B.S. Sindhu, ex RAW head, who writes in his book The Khalistan Conspiracy that R.N. Kao on his return also started using the RAW’s resources to further the cause of certain aspects of Khalistan Operation. He also raised some very pertinent questions in his book: Why was R.N. Kao recalled from retirement, and how did the RAW, for which Sikh extremism and Khalistan were non-issues till the end of 1979, suddenly got involved in related activities from the end of 1980?
For Congress, after winning elections, Bhindranwale had become a liability. Therefore, quietened him, between 1980-81, he was implicated in two murders: first in April 1980, Guru of Nirankari Sect, Baba Gurbachan Singh, was shot dead in his house in New Delhi; while the second in September 1981 of a journalist, Lala Jagat Narain, who though was bitterly critical of Bhindranwale, but also often supported the idea of Khalistan.
Police as planned went after Bhindranwale and arrested him on suspicion of ordering the two murders. His arrest triggered fresh wave of violence. On 29th September, nine days after Bhindranwale was arrested, Sikhs hijacked an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore. Hijackers one of the demands from the Indian Government was to release Bhindrawale. The Pakistani authorities tactfully handled the situation and forced the hijackers to surrender. The plane with the passengers returned to India. Four more hijackings followed that, the last being in August 1984. The hijackings reinforced Indian public opinion that Khalistan was an externally driven movement supported by Pakistan. It will be pertinent to recall, that just before 1971 War, RAW had also executed a false-flag hijacking of an Indian Airline Fokker. It too was flown to Lahore where passengers and the crew were released, but the plane was burnt down. The Indians used the incident to ban Pakistan flights over Indian territory.
On the other side, the Indian government a month after arresting Bhindranwale released him, cleared of all charges. But rather than getting marginalised, Bhindranwale became an instant hero, who had challenged and defeated the Indian government. In his own words, ‘The government has done more for me in one week than I could have achieved in years.’ Why did the Congress release Bhindranwale? In fact, his release was also the outcome of higher politics. Zail Singh wanted Bhindranwale freed because he still believed he could use him to bring about the downfall of his rival, the Punjab Chief Minister. While, Mrs Gandhi apparently wanted him released so that she could maintain her hold over Delhi’s Sikhs.
After the release, Bhindranwale and his supporters took shelter inside the Golden Temple at Amritsar and resumed activities from there, which gave a fillip to communal violence. When Bhindranwale step upped his actions, the Akali Dal leaders felt the need to match his zealotry with their own. In April 1983, Deputy Inspector-General A.S. Atwal, who was in charge of the police in Amritsar, was killed. After the murder of six Hindu bus passengers in October 1983, the President’s Rule was imposed in Punjab state. Resultantly, communal tension between Sikhs and Hindus spiked as Hindu mobs in Haryana murdered 8 Sikhs and set fire to a gurdwara on 19 February 1984. Law and order in Punjab had deteriorated beyond police control. Indira Gandhi panicked, and behind closed doors decided to use full might of government.
The Congress obsession to pin down Sikhs in Punjab led to an Army’s attack with tanks into the Golden Temple from June 3-6, 1984, code-named Operation Blue Star. The attack experienced more resistance than it anticipated from Bhindranwale and his followers inside the temple. He and his comrades fought bravely till end. In the prolonged exchange of fire, Bhindranwale was killed and unfortunately the Akal Takht was completely destroyed.
Lt. Gen. Sunderji (picture), who co-ordinated the Operation, blamed the intelligence agencies for the untidy operation. He claimed that the Sikhs were much larger in number inside the temple than he had been told by the intelligence agencies and much better armed.
One of the most damaging incidents was the setting up of Golden Temple library on fire by the Indian Army. Tully & Jacob in their book while discussing this unbecoming event write, “one of the most controversial occurrences of the whole operation was the burning of Global Temple library with its invaluable manuscripts, including copies of the Guru Granth Sahib handwritten by some of the Gurus…. Many Sikhs believe that the [Indian] Army deliberately set the library on fire.”
Contrary to general perception that the Sikhs in Army supported the Government decision, a lot of them mutinied. As per Sindhu, 600 soldiers of the 9th Battalion rebelled in Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan. Some even crossed over to Pakistan. Similarly, a large-scale mutiny took place in Sikh Regimental Centre at Ramgarh, killing the commandant of the centre, Brigadier H.C. Puri. Reportedly, there were 5 more mutinies in different parts of India, wherein 55 soldiers were killed and over 2000 rounded up.
But on the flipside, Lt. Gen. Sundarji did win a pyrrhic victory for Indira Gandhi, and in March 1986 became the Army Chief.
Death of Bhindranwale and destruction of Golden Temple had infuriated the Sikhs. Stage was set for the nationwide persecution of Sikhs. India had changed by then, and it could never be the same for Sikhs ever.
Sensing the threat, Sindhu writes that he informed the head of RAW Gray Saxena that in his assessment there was a high probability of Mrs Gandhi being assassinated in the next six months. He recalls in his book that after hearing his assessment, Saxena’s blunt and cold-blooded reply was, “there would be [then] large-scale killings of Sikhs in Delhi.”
As warned, Sikhs were able to seek the revenge in less than the assessed six months. On 31 October 1984, two Sikh guards killed Mrs Indira Gandhi. She had on her body 20 bullet wounds. The announcement of the death of Indira Gandhi was followed by widespread anti- Sikh riots. Sikhs massacre that followed was a planned genocide in a series of organised pogroms. According to rough estimates about 4000 Sikhs were killed only in Indian capital, Delhi. Some estimates cite countrywide number of deaths as high as 25000. According to 2011 WikiLeaks, the US was convinced of Indian National Congress complicity in the riots and called it an “opportunism” and “hatred” by the Congress government, of the Sikhs. Mridu Khullar in his 2009 article in Time writes, “Delhi police looked on as rioters murdered and raped, having access to voter records that allowed them to mark Sikh homes with large Xs.”
So, this is the brief history of Sikhs’ persecution in India. It started with Punjab, spread up to the entire India, and now we are witnessing it being carried out even abroad. Murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar is sign of continuation of Sikh persecution by Indian government through state agencies.