Pavan Varma | Khalistan 2.0 & the fallacy of Hindutva supremacy

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

Today, the separatist movement for Khalistan has once again reared its ugly face. Why has this happened?

'Waris Punjab De' chief Amritpal Singh (C) speaks to the media, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on March 3, 2023. (Photo: PTI)

The rise of Khalistani extremism in Punjab is a very serious matter. Punjab is a crucial border state. It borders Pakistan which, we know, has a long-term plan to destabilise the state. The nation can never forget the rise of Bhindranwale in the 1980s, leading to the Indian Army’s attack on the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi. Now we have the meteoric rise of Amritpal Singh, who models himself openly on Bhindranwale. 

It is a victory of Indian democracy that post-Bhindranwale, Punjab gradually returned to normalcy. Today, the separatist movement for Khalistan has once again reared its ugly face. Why has this happened?  Are we repeating the mistakes of the past, and worse, adding new ones?

Firstly, we see a repeat of repugnant political complicity and opportunism. When Bhindranwale was on the rise, he had powerful supporters in the ruling Congress Party and the Akali Dal. Instead of nipping his call for Khalistan in the bud, he was mollycoddled for myopic political reasons, and his timely arrest, before he could emerge as a Frankenstein monster, was sabotaged by political intervention. Today, we see the same game playing out. There is strong speculation that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had taken support of Khalistani sympathisers — both in India and abroad — in winning the elections in Punjab. It is also unfortunate that the state government is reluctant to firmly intervene — as its capitulation on Amritpal’s attack on the Ajnala police station shows. To see a public spectacle where Amritpal led a huge throng of pro-Khalistani supporters wielding guns and swords to attack a police station in which several policemen were injured, and the state government meekly releasing the prisoner whose freedom they demanded, will only further embolden militancy. Quite inexplicably, the central government, too, has not yet taken any action, even when agencies under it, like the National Investigating Agency (NIA), have overriding pan-Indian powers to act. 

Secondly, there is administrative incompetence and drift, which both the previous Akali and Congress governments did little to tackle. Punjab is close to financially bankruptcy, with almost half its tax revenues going to repay debt.  The farmers’ agitation was allowed to fester by the central government for over a year, with many deaths in the winter cold, leading to widespread anger in the agricultural class. Simultaneously, the drugs problem has spiralled out of control. In Punjab, more than 45 per cent of those between the ages of 20-24 are jobless, and young Sikhs without a job are easy cannon-fodder for extremist politics.

Thirdly, Pakistan’s encouragement to pro-Khalistani movements has been consistent. Many Sikh extremist outfits outside India are funded by it, and money, arms and drugs are supplied to Punjab from across the border. Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have an enduring interest in encouraging separatism in Punjab. This was the case in the 1980s as well. What have we done since then to stem this threat? Did not our intelligence agencies monitor the recent rise of pro-Khalistan forces in the state? After all, 30-year old Amritpal, who was till recently a clean-shaven Sikh living in Dubai, could not overnight have catapulted into a Bhindranwale clone, heading the organisation Waris Punjab De, until powerful forces had prepared for this transformation. Was the government, both at the state and the Centre, completely in the dark, and if not, why was preventive action not taken earlier?

Finally, and fourthly, we have seen too much in recent times of the mixing of religion with politics. It is true that there are some legitimate Hindu grievances, which need to be resolved within the ambit of law and democratic politics. But accepting this, and legitimising Hindu majoritarian politics, symbolised by the demand of Hindu Rashtra, is quite another thing.

The manifest danger is that if this kind of religious politics is allowed to escalate, it is but natural that other religious communities will react adversely. Amritpal asked publicly in an interview why no action is taken against those who ask for a Hindu Rashtra. India is a civilisational unity based on diversity, including many religions and ethnicities. Trying to forcibly homogenise it is playing with fire. Punjab is a Sikh majority state. Jammu & Kashmir is a Muslim majority state. Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are Christian majority states. Do we have to ignite religious nationalism in them by competitive religious supremacism? 

Equally, there are strong regional identities that feel threatened when an attempt is made to coopt them under a specific form of Hindu identity devised largely in the North. For instance, Tamil Nadu, where Tamil, one of our most refined and ancient languages, is spoken, resents any attempts to impose Hindi. The fact is that the acceptance of Hindi as one of the primary link languages of the country was gradually proceeding apace in any case. But in forcing the issue, as some zealots insist on doing, we create anti-bodies in the federal system, and create a backlash where none is necessary. The attempt to imagine India as a monolith in religious terms is fraught with danger. 

Sikhism and Hinduism are sister religions. The Guru Granth Sahib has innumerable hymns in praise of Hindu deities, and it was the practice for many Hindu families to give one child to the Sikh faith. In fact, the Sikhs were protectors of Hindus. Even the Constitution, in Article 25 (2) Explanation 2, says that “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain and Buddhist religion”. Hinduism is an inclusive, eclectic, dialogic faith, marked by great profundity of thought. Do we want to destroy its essential character, which has made it a Sanatan Dharma, by misguided religious evangelism, bigotry, hatred and violence, thereby unleashing consequences which threaten our national unity?

Strengthening the unity of India requires great sensitivity. It also requires firm and decisive action when the country’s sovereignty is threatened, by the likes of Amritpal. The time to act in Punjab is now, or else it may be too late.

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