Protests erupted in various parts of Punjab after police launched a crackdown on Amritpal Singh, the pro-Khalistan radical preacher. While the Khalistan sympathiser remains at large, the investigating agencies have launched a probe into the financial transactions made by a welfare society registered in 2021 with a name that sounds like Waris Punjab De, the outfit headed by the fugitive preacher, but carries a different spelling. Daljeet Singh Kalsi, who handles finance for Amritpal Singh, has been arrested in Haryana’s Gurgaon by the Punjab Police.
The Khalistan movement can be traced long back to April 1981 when the US-based Khalistan ideologue Ganga Singh Dhillon demanded an independent Sikh state during a seminar in Chandigarh. During the same time, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale fortified himself along with his followers inside Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1983, an event that led to Operation Blue Star by the Indian Army in June 1984 and the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Following this, numerous violent clashes had erupted in parts of Punjab.
By the mid-90s, the security forces had wiped out the insurgency in Punjab and the terror modules shifted base out of India. Khalistan found strong echoes in the prosperous Sikh community in Canada, the US, and the UK. It, officials allege, includes organisations like the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), Canada-based Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF), Khalistan Commando Force, and International Sikh Youth Federation, who carried out bombings, assassinations, and other violent attacks in India and the apart from the conventional Khalistan network. India has often requested the extradition of Khalistan activists but to no avail.
The SFJ launched in 2007 by Pannu, an immigrant cab driver-turned-attorney, to seek justice for victims of the 1984 riots has become Khalistan’s vociferous proponent. In 2019, the Indian government banned the SFJ.
The farmers’ agitation against the Farm laws became the central rallying point for sections of the Sikh diaspora. Security agencies have stated that the ISI and some North American groups might have misused the anger of farmers to revive the Khalistan sentiment, using social media and web channels for their propaganda. Anita Lal and Dhaliwal, co-founders of PJF, are thought to be the masterminds behind the controversial social media ‘toolkit’ on the farmers’ protests.
Pannu along with others in California has been suspected of trying to ‘radicalise’ the youth at the peak of the farmers’ protests and had incited the mobs to lay siege to the Red Fort during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26. Punjabi actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu and Lakha Sidhana, an accused in the Red Fort violence, were believed to have been behind this.
Both in the UK and Canada, the Khalistan movement has found the backing of some vocal Sikh diaspora. Labour Party MP Preet Kaur Gill had justified the demand for Khalistan, tweeting: “The principle of self-determination is prominently embodied in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Canadian MP and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal had also urged the Justin Trudeau Government to issue statements against the alleged human rights abuses related to the farmers’ protests. The Indian establishment has identified some Canadian ministers as sympathetic to the Khalistan cause.
Several celebrities have glorified Khalistani leaders through their songs. Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal released a song revering Bhindranwale calling him a ‘saint’ and Gippy Grewal shared a poster suggesting “Never forget 1984” featuring the Khalistani flag and Bhindranwale. Singer Sidhu Moosewala supported Khalistani separatist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in his song ‘Punjab – My Motherland’. The song also included some clips of a speech given by a Khalistan supporter, Bumper Singh Balbir, in 1980. Cricketer Harbhajan Singh glorified Bhindranwale as a martyr. Harpreet Brar, another cricketer posted a quote of Bhindranwale on Twitter which said, “I don’t fear for a physical death, but when my conscience dies, that is my real death.” Singer Jazzy B also released a song “Putt Sardara De” which glorified Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Canada based-Punjabi singer Shubh shared distorted India’s map with Punjab coloured separately, Jammu and Kashmir, North-East region was also removed from the map. ‘Daku’ song by Inderpal Moga and Chani Nattan showcases Khalistani leader Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, in which can be heard saying, “I’m a Daku, and I accept this I’m a Daku”.
The demand for Khalistan is controversial and divisive and has been rejected by the Indian government and many Sikhs. The idea of carving out a separate state based on religion goes against India’s secular and pluralistic ethos and could lead to further fragmentation and violence.