The recent assassination attempt on Lieutenant-General Kuldip Singh Brar in London is a grim reminder that the ghosts of the Punjab insurgency are still with us so many years after the last shots were fired. Indira Gandhi’s decision to send troops into the Golden Temple in June 1984 — troops Gen. Brar commanded — set off events which would claim tens of thousands of lives, including her own. Historians have long debated if Mrs Gandhi’s decision to storm the temple was correct. This much, though, there is a consensus on: the murderous events of the summer of 1984 were an outcome of a vicious political dance, in which Mrs Gandhi’s Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal sought to outmanoeuvre each other by using Sikh militancy. Helped by Pakistan’s intelligence services, the religious fanatics both parties patronised made a determined push to create a separate Sikh state, Khalistan. Punjab has since become one of India’s most peaceful States, a product of not only a bloody counter-insurgency campaign, but the rejection by ordinary Sikhs and Hindus of the cult of death which ruled Punjab from 1983 to 1993. In recent years, though, Khalistan groups have been re-emerging, particularly in the diaspora. The arrests made in Britain in connection with the attempt on Gen. Brar’s life make it clear such organisations have regained resources and organisational capacities.
If the ghosts of the Khalistan movement have reappeared today, it is at least in part because politicians have been busy opening up the crypts into which its memory had been consigned. Inside the Golden Temple, an 18-foot memorial to the Khalistan terrorists is being built next to the Akal Takht, the highest seat of Sikhs’ spiritual authority. Pro-Khalistan posters have reappeared in many towns; even as the government has ignored these, it has cracked down on heterodox religious groupings. Having shown itself unable to address simmering economic frustration among its core landed-peasant constituency, the SAD-led alliance government has embraced religious-chauvinist causes, seeking to secure its political flanks from attack. This is a profoundly misguided strategy. Parkash Singh Badal, himself long a key target of terrorists, knows better than most that the Khalistan movement never represented Sikh opinion. Indeed, the Akalis and the Congress must realise that peace in Punjab can only be sustained by unequivocal support for the secular culture and traditions of the State. And by ensuring that the raw wound left by the Indian legal system’s failure to punish the perpetrators of the November 1984 massacre of Sikhs is healed quickly with the balm of justice.