Is the Khalistan movement reviving?

Updated - March 31, 2023 10:40 am IST

Published - March 31, 2023 12:45 am IST

Khalistan supporters outside the Indian High Commission in London.

Khalistan supporters outside the Indian High Commission in London.

After the Punjab police launched a coordinated crackdown against the Dubai-returned radical preacher, Amritpal Singh, and his associates on March 18, there is rising concern about a revival of the Khalistan movement in Punjab. In a conversation moderated by Vijaita Singh, Shashi Kant and Manish Tewari discuss the developments. Edited excerpts:

Do you see a revival of the Khalistan movement in Punjab?

Shashi Kant: In one line, no way. Yes, there are certain elements who are trying to and have been trying to indulge in various activities, and surface time and again; but the people of Punjab, whatever the community, whatever their affiliations might be, everybody had suffered during the 1980s. And none of them are ready to go back to that time. Having said this, I just want to add that a section of the diaspora sitting abroad... as well as the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence) have been continuing their nefarious activities to create trouble in Punjab.

The View from India | Indian diplomacy’s Khalistan problem

Manish Tewari: In Punjab, there are no binaries, no black and white, it is 100 shades of grey. But the shade that you are talking about is at the moment non-existent. People who have gone through that period between 1980 and 1995 know the price that gets paid in blood when the State goes through disturbance. I do not think any Punjabi wants any instability or any kind of upheaval in the State. Suffice to say, there are anti-India elements who have been active from the late 1970s onwards to destabilise Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, and by extension, India. And yes, our not-so-friendly neighbour leaves just no stone unturned in order to exploit our internal contradictions if we allow them to manifest themselves.

Over the past couple of years, many drones have been sighted along the Punjab border. They have been used to drop drugs, arms and ammunition. But do you think there is more to it? Is there more ground support to such elements in Punjab, or rather India?

Shashi Kant: As a former intelligence man and a former policeman, I see this as a well-laid-out and chalked plan of the ISI and a section of the diaspora abroad. Farmers staged an agitation in Delhi, some pro-Khalistan posters come up, then whatever happened on January 26 (2021) at the Red Fort... In February (2022), Deep Sidhu, who was spearheading all these things, dies in a car accident. Then, there was a lull. All of a sudden, a person who nobody had heard about is paradropped into Punjab. His first attempt is to capture this particular organisation, Waris Punjab De, which was floated by Deep Sidhu, who was an actor and a leader with a good support base. Then, he moves around talking about Amrit Sanchar (propagating Sikh faith), then he talks about de-addiction. Then all of a sudden, he starts talking about Khalistan. And then he goes to the Ajnala police station along with the holy Guru Granth Sahib. Then when the police cracks down, he runs away and the police is not able to nab him. What does it mean? It means there is somebody sitting abroad who activated those sleeper cells, giving him shelter, money and whatever was required.

Also read | Pro-Khalistan Twitter accounts blocked in India, Canadian lawmaker Jagmeet Singh’s included

There is also a mystery around Amritpal Singh. The Punjab government has also been hinting at this. What do you think could be behind this? Is he a foreign agency’s creation or did he just get some kind of publicity and thought to cash in on it?

Manish Tewari: If you were to rewind to 1947, since the partition of India took place, there has been a latent impulse in Punjab, that while the Hindus got Hindustan and the Muslims got Pakistan, perhaps some people got shortchanged in the process. Punjab suffered the worst of the Partition. In fact, only West Bengal comes next in the pecking order of suffering. This is just a fringe, the majority of people who live in Punjab believe in Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat, the composite culture of Hindus and Sikhs. At times when things become turbulent, people who want to exploit our contradictions are able to tap into that fringe. So, I don’t think it is really about a certain person.

How do you assess the State government’s way of dealing with the situation? Did the government wait too long in taking action against Amritpal? Did they botch it up?

Shashi Kant: Yes, it was botched-up planning and execution by the Punjab government and the Punjab police. To start with, I’m surprised that when he (Amritpal) came here and started talking about Khalistan, nobody took any notice. He even threatened the Union Home Minister and the Punjab Chief Minister. And then all of a sudden, the Punjab police decided to get hold of him. And he’s on the run. But constantly, somebody is feeding him with information.

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One of the speeches of Amritpal tracked by security agencies days before he ran away was when he gave a communal speech about Christians and Hindus in Punjab.

Manish Tewari: Attempts have been made even in the past to disturb communal amity in Punjab, and they have been singularly unsuccessful. Between 1980 and 1995, when we went through a violent phase of terrorism, even at that point in time, there was never a public confrontation between Hindus and Sikhs, despite every attempt made to provoke such a confrontation.

There is also a disturbing trend of vandalism and attacks at Indian missions abroad over the Khalistan issue. What measures can the government take to stop such occurrences because people of Indian origin have had clashes with each other outside missions?

Manish Tewari: What happened in the U.K., Washington, DC or Canada is extremely unfortunate. There are some sections of the diaspora which have a very different, and incorrect, perspective on Punjab. So, therefore, while in the countries where they reside, they will not even break a traffic rule, when it comes to Punjab, there is that fringe which is in a continuously provocative mode. So, I think the government of India has to work with these countries to ensure that our embassies and diplomatic personnel are protected. You know, if there is a difficulty in a particular country, then we must consider deploying our own security forces and work with those countries in order to obtain the requisite permissions. And I do think that it requires both governance outreach to these countries and political outreach, which was made during the darkest days of terrorism, when all political parties, irrespective of their differences on other issues, came together in order to ensure that the essence of Punjab is protected, preserved and promoted.

Also read | Cannot stop Khalistan movement: Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh

What is the way forward in Punjab to keep the Khalistan or secessionist inclination at bay?

Manish Tewari: I say political mobilisation. All political parties, irrespective of whatever differences they may have on other issues, on this particular issue must ensure that an overwhelming part of the population, which is already in the democratic mainstream, continues to remain in that mainstream.

Was it a case of police overreach? Many aides of Amritpal Singh who were detained by Punjab police were later released. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) came out in their support and issued helpline numbers also.

Shashi Kant: The police certainly overacted. The police have all kinds of intelligence set-ups, they should have ensured that they had some information, they should have picked up only the specific person. This kind of en masse picking up of persons is certainly something I don’t approve of. A section of politicians as well as social media have again come up on this thing that, yes, Punjab is again going back to those kinds of dictatorial days. There is no dictatorship.

Also read | Bhagwant Mann says Pakistan, other nations funding Khalistan supporters

Do you think there is a lack of political direction on how to tackle this matter since a new government is in place?

Manish Tewari: It is an evolving situation. And I do not want to score political brownie points at this point of time. Primarily because when it comes to national security, I do tend to take a position which is extremely non-partisan. But suffice to say, if at all they wanted to go down this particular street, they had enough time, warnings and signals to be able to do it earlier.

Listen to the podcast here

Shashi Kant is former Director-General of Punjab Police; Manish Tewari is Congress Member of Parliament from Anandpur Sahib Lok Sabha constituency in Punjab and former I&B Minister

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