Alarm bells: On symbols of Sikh separatism

Sikh separatism is now feeble, but vigilance is essential

Updated - May 10, 2022 11:47 am IST

Published - May 10, 2022 12:12 am IST

Symbols of Sikh separatism that appeared at the Himachal Pradesh Assembly complex in Dharamshala on Sunday suggest that forces promoting it are active and capable of mischief. Purported flags of imaginary Khalistan were put up on the gate of the complex, and slogans scrawled on the walls. The State police chief has set up a special investigation team and ordered heightened vigil at the borders. On the same day, the police in Punjab said they had averted a terror attack after arresting two men, said to be Khalistani sympathisers, with explosives in Tarn Taran district. A U.S.-based Khalistani separatist has been charged in Himachal Pradesh under the UAPA and the Indian Penal Code. Opposition parties in the State, the Congress and AAP, have used the incident to make a case against the ruling BJP, months ahead of the Assembly election. Comparable rhetoric had shadowed the recent election in Punjab, where political opponents accused one another of being sympathetic to separatists. That was avoidable loose talk on a sensitive topic. Sikh separatism, and the accompanying terrorism supported by Pakistan, was snuffed out by the Indian state decades ago, but at a huge human and political cost. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the sectarian violence against the Sikh community that followed in different places deepened the fault lines. Those wounds continue to fester, and care must be taken by the state, political actors and community leaders to ensure that history does not repeat itself as yet another tragedy.

A separatist plan to hold a referendum on Khalistan in Himachal Pradesh is laughable, but vigilance is essential. The groups that call for Khalistan are based abroad, and command little respect in the Sikh mainstream at the moment. They campaign among the Sikh diaspora, alleging mistreatment of the community by the Indian state. They have a favourable environment though. Domestic divisions in India, exacerbated by the politics and policy of the ruling BJP, are echoing among the diaspora in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. Religious minorities and Dalits have been disconnected from the diaspora mobilisation of the Indian government. Hindutva affiliates helm Indian diaspora politics. This provides an opening for India’s enemies to inflame passions. Fortunately for India, there are not many takers for such propaganda among the Sikh community. But thoughtless comments and campaigns against the community, particularly when they are led by powerful political actors, can trigger serious reactions. In its desperation to delegitimise the farm agitation, the BJP tacitly supported campaigns that portrayed Sikh protestors as anti-nationals inspired by foreign countries. Though isolated and feeble, Sikh separatism continues to flicker. It must serve as a constant reminder for social cohesion and impartial state policy.

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