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Khalistan Struggle: A Non-Movement
12 Nov 2011

By Jagtar Singh

The Shiromani Akali Dal provided legitimacy to the political violence in the first stage that rocked Punjab for more than a decade while it was the Congress that encouraged the radical tendencies. It is the Shiromani Akali Dal that used to articulate the ambitions and aspirations of the Sikhs who ruled this region at one time in history. The Sikh agenda of the Akali Dal over the years created the much needed political space for these radical tendencies to proliferate. All these years, the Akali Dal had repeatedly hammered the issue of the creation of the geo-political environment for the Sikhs in one form or the other and the struggle for Khalistan thrived on the psyche nurtured by this ambition of the Sikhs articulated by this party and the all powerful Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

This book chronicles and analysis the situation in this border state starting from the Sikh-Nirankari clash in 1978.  The author  joined The Indian Express in 1978  and covered this state for almost quarter of a century for that paper. The long stint with this paper provided the opportunity to watch the situation as it developed from a close range.

At one time it used to be said that Punjab had entered the long dark tunnel without the end in sight but then this struggle that was in the first phase for the “restoration of the dignity of the Sikhs” in the words of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, remained a non-movement in the absence of any unified command structure, lack of mass support and effective political front. Initially, Sant Bhindranwale had the tacit support from Akali Dal stalwart and SGPC President Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Once this man with the death wish set his foot on the path of confrontation with the Indian state, the machinations of the Indira Gandhi government closed all options for Sant Bhindranwale except martyrdom for which he was fully prepared from the day one. As the army moved into Punjab, he favoured an honourable negotiated settlement. That was not to be. When Sant Bhindranwale appeared on the scene, Punjab was ruled by the Akali Dal and it was the Janata Party led coalition which had replaced the Congress at the Centre.

The Sikh militant movement in Punjab coincided with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and it was the KGB of  Soviet Union which was the first to publicly accuse its US counterpart the Central Intelligence Agency and the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan of fomenting trouble in the border Punjab to destabilise India. The question arises as to why Indira Gandhi also played the same politics which encouraged the secessionist tendencies and suited the designs of the CIA, the ISI and Sant Bhindranwale. The government did not disturb the supply chain of weapons to Sant Bhindranwale and the Babbar Khalsa, the other main militant organisation, in the Darbar Sahib complex. The demand for Khalistan as a buffer state between “Hindu India” and Muslim Pakistan” could also be part of the international power play in this region.

The Anandpur Sahib resolution, though passed by the Akali Dal working committee way back in 1973, came to be projected by the Congress as a threat to the unity and integrity of the country years later as the party launched its agitation known as the Dharamyudh Morcha   in 1982 after negotiations with Indira Gandhi on its demands ended in a deadlock. The Prime Minister and the Akali Dal leadership never shared the negotiating table once the agitation was launched. The implementation of this resolution of the Akali Dal was adopted as the agenda by Sant Bhindranwale who never formally raised the demand for Khalistan. The political objective defined in the Anandpur Sahib resolution came to be enshrined in the constitution of the Akali Dal in 1974 with slight change in its wording. And the Akali Dal had earlier contested the 1967 Assembly elections on the issue of Sikhstan based on the resolution adopted by the party in 1966 of which the Anandpur Sahib resolution is a modified version. As such, the Anandpur Sahib resolution was not something new, nor the demand for Khalistan which used to be raised by some fringe elements. The Congress contested the December, 1984 election raising the bogey of this resolution as secessionist while the Akali Dal had already gone to the people to seek their mandate on its earlier version in 1967.

The demand for Khalistan was formally raised by the militants only in 1986. Ironically, it was the raising of this demand from the precincts of the Darbar Sahib complex which provided ipso facto legitimacy to Operation Bluestar and this design was put into operation when Punjab was ruled by the Akali Dal government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala who wasted no time in sending security forces into the shrine despite the intelligence reports that the militants had escaped from its precincts immediately after raising the demand.

What appeared to be the only serious effort at conflict resolution through negotiations was the signing of what has come to be known as the Punjab Accord between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and  Longowal. However, this negotiated settlement had deeper design. By the time this accord was signed, the Akali Dal had ceased to be of any relevance. The secret correspondence exchanged between  Rajiv Gandhi and   Longowal reveals for the first time significant aspects of the way the negotiations were conducted culminating in what till then was the first ever accord signed by an Indian Prime Minister with the president of a political party in the country which was also later ratified by the Parliament. This Accord failed to take off as it had ignored the militants who were the main party in this confrontation with the Indian state and not the Akali Dal. This Accord was part of the design to get legitimacy for Operation Bluestar from the Akali Dal itself which was facilitated into power in the state as part of the covert understanding of this agreement and this design succeeded.

The role of Pakistan became more pronounced during the post Bluestar period when young Sikhs, both militants and non-militants, crossed over to the other side in large numbers. Sant Bhindranwale somehow believed that Pakistan would directly intervene in case the Indian army attacked the Darbar Sahib complex. However, Pakistan avoided any such direct involvement and opted for the proxy war by supplying sophisticated arms and ammunition to the militants and providing them sanctuaries.

The Shiromani Akali Dal and some opposition parties had blamed the Congress for encouraging militancy and the party in its manifesto for the 1997 Assembly elections promised to order judicial inquiry but that was never done. Perhaps the finding would not have been convenient even for the Akali Dal. The truth must come out.

Khalistan Struggle: A Non-Movement is the first analysis of the militant struggle in Punjab by a journalist who has been covering the state since 1978 (for about a quarter of a century with The Indian Express) and as such, contains off the record conversations and observations starting from the period when Sant Bhindranwale was still to hit the headlines along with details of political events. The book refers to all major political developments in Punjab till Tohra’s death along with his last comments on Badal, the other Akali stalwart with whom he enjoyed love hate relationship which provide insight into the power struggle in the Akali stream. Tohra, the Akali leader with a clean personal life who dictated the Akali political discourse at crucial movements and lorded over the SGPC for more than a quarter of a century died with a feeling of having been betrayed by Badal during his last days, the feeling he shared at his last meeting with this author a few days before his death. Tohra was the one senior Akali leader who never removed the photograph of Sant Bhindranwale from his drawing room.