Insurgency in the Punjab: Khalistan Movement

Insurgency in Punjab, in the late 1970s, was the consequence of venal politics between the two main political parties in the state, the Akali Dal Party and the Congress Party. They indulged in the vote bank politics and failed to notice that Sikh militants were occupying the void created by them. Both parties played the communal card and projected Sikh extremism as their political ideology. However, in this power struggle, they lost the way and extremists were soon in the driving seat.
Origin of the Insurgency

The seed of the insurgency was sown during Sikh Nationalism that predates the partition of Punjab after India's independence in 1947. But it was not the primary cause of the insurgency. Insurgency in Punjab was the result of a power struggle between two main political parties. The ideology and agendas used in this power struggle provided a way for extremists to acquire political space.

The tussle for power took a religious turn as the Akali Dal decided to play the communal card by exploiting the slogan that "the Sikh religion is in danger". They thought that by fostering the polarization between Hindus and Sikhs they could gain the support of the entire Sikh community. But the result turned out to be different, this polarization helped Sikh extremists more than Akali Dal.

They started providing different arguments, to create a sense of alienation among the Sikh community. The Sikhs resented the loss of privileges they enjoyed during the colonial period, like reservation. They were expecting the same treatment after independence, but that did not happen. They were disappointed and the extremists used this disappointment in their favor. They exploited these issues by arguing that the Indian government's refusal to create a linguistic state, the Punjabi Suba, discriminated against Sikhs. As Akali Dal was using all these types of extremism tactics, Congress Party also tried to manipulate the Sikh community in its battle with the Dal. They ensured that the Akali Dal would not receive the backing of the Sikhs. This competition between two political parties drove both of the parties to proclaim more extremist views on religion. Congress backed Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a small religious leader, and present it as a rival to Akali Dal. This was a great political blunder of congress as later the Bhindranwale became the leader of an extremist group. The individual they supported turned against them.

 The clash between the Bhindranwale followers and Nirankaris marked the beginning of the terrorist violence in Punjab. Bhindranwale's Kirtani Jatha opposed the Nirankaris and led a procession against the Nirankaris' Samagam near Amritsar. The procession clashed with Nirankaris. The police resorted to firing to bring the situation under control, 18 supporters of Bhindranwale's were killed in this clash. Bhindranwale blamed the government for the massacre. He swore vengeance against all and this accident started an insurgency in Punjab.

Objectives and Strategies of the Insurgency

Initially, the objective of the insurgents was to secure a place for themselves in the power structure of Punjab politics but later it changed to an independent Sikh state. In 1971 the central government agreed to form a new Punjabi-speaking state. Sikhs for the first time became the majority community in the new state. But soon they realized that this fact alone did not guarantee the government of Akali Dal in the state. Frustrated once again by its ambition, they decided to support extremist demands to divide the Sikhs and Hindus.
Bhindranwale used terrorism to frighten and intimidate Hindus. He used a two-pronged strategy: keep adding to the long list of demands and enlarge his hit list of targets. He targeted Hindu and Nirankari leaders to take revenge for killing his supporters in April 1978, Bhindranwale projected himself as the champion of the Sikhs and proclaimed that he is fighting for their cause. He remained the leader of the militants until he was killed in Operation Blue Star. Even after his death, he attained the status of a martyr. Babbar Khalsa was the first militant group created as an armed wing of Bhindranwale's Akhand Kirtani Jatha in 1978. Later in 1986 Panthic Committee created the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) 1986 to coordinate the activities of all militant groups, but soon due to the ideological differences between committees, the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) was founded towards the end of 1986 by Arur Singh, who was isolated from the committee due to personality clashes.

Bhindranwale used the gurudwaras as operational centers of militants. He made the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the most sacred Sikh religious place, his operational headquarter. This helped him from performing militant activities without being noticed by security forces as they were reluctant to enter religious places for fear of hurting religious sentiments. To threaten the media Bhindranwale killed Lala Jagat Narain, a respected Hindu journalist, and then his son after one year. His message was clear "Don't write about the militants, or else you would meet the same fate as Jagat Narain and his son". Later he also killed the Sikh religious leaders who refused to toe his line.

Foreign involvement in the insurgency

As always the ISI of Pakistan supplied funds, arms, and explosives to insurgents in Punjab. ISI also provided sanctuary and training to Sikh extremists in Pakistan. As Pakistan got directly involved and its support increased, the insurgent group started echoing the Pakistani Agenda, that is to break up India. The change of demands in the later stage of insurgency could be viewed as the intervention of Pakistan. Pakistan wanted its revenge for its defeat and loss of east Pakistan in the 1971 war, they saw it as an opportunity to pay India in the same coin. The break of India was one of the main agendas of Pakistan since 1947. As Pakistan did in Kashmir (Kashmir dispute), it has supported many ethnic and religious groups that feel isolated from Indian Union. The ISI played a key role in supporting the insurgency in Punjab from its early years. In the beginning phase, extremists purchased arms and ammunition from funds extorted and looted from inside the country, but later Pakistan became their main source of supply.

Turning points in the evolution of an insurgency

  1.  The police firing on Bhindranwale's followers in April 1978 in Amritsar marked the beginning of militancy in Punjab.
  2.  Congress-led government in the center dismissed the Akali Dal Government in Punjab, ignoring the fact that they were in clear majority in the state legislature. This act forced the Sikhs to resort to militancy.
  3.  Another turning point was in 1982 when Haryana police searched all Sikh passengers to ensure that Bhindranwale's supporters did not reach Delhi to disrupt the 1982 Asian games. The crude way the police went about its task infuriated the entire Sikh community.
  4.  Sikh extremists shot dead the head of the Punjab police, A.S Atwal, within the precincts of the Golden Temple. The reluctance of police in the investigation was also a turning point.
  5. Operation Blue Star in 1984 was another major moment in the insurgency's development. The loss of life and damage to the golden temple infuriated the Sikh community and caused resentment among them. Operation Blue Star triggered the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh security guard in 1984, which led to an anti-Sikh riot in Punjab, Delhi, and other parts of India.
  6. The last key turning point was Operation Black Thunder in April  1988, which allowed the Punjab and Delhi governments to turn the tables on Sikh extremism. The search of the Golden Temple after the operation exposed the horrible crime they were performing inside the temple. From this point onwards, the Sikh extremists lost their religious halo, and people saw them as vicious criminals. The Sikh community which was earlier sympathetic to the extremists became disillusioned and turned against them.

The insurgency unravels

After Operation Black Thunder political process in Punjab became more effective, which demoralized the extremists. The security forces began to inflict heavy losses on the terrorists at the same time turning the population in Punjab against the insurgents. Many top insurgent commanders and hardcore extremists were killed or arrested by 1992. Some of them fled to Pakistan, which demoralized them more. In the absence of leadership, insurgents started surrendering, especially after the government announced an attractive rehabilitation package. New recruits were increasingly difficult to find and older ones were demoralized and hopeless. This caused the decline of insurgency in Punjab.
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