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The Rise and Fall of the Khalistan Movement A Chronology of Events


By Paramjeet kaurPublished 2 months ago 12 min read


It is often diificult to locate a precise start-date as to the rise of a particular secessionist movement. This is especially so when many of its adherents contend that their demands for seprate national are rooted in, and hence legitimised by, entrenced historical realities.Nevertheless many scholars, albeit somewhat synthetically, attempting to place a fixed timeframe around the Khalistan movement tend to commence their chronology of events from 1981 and end them in 1993. This is largely because it was during this time period that Punjab endured a heightened level of Sikh militancy—with an estimated death-toll of over 25,000 resulting from the associated violence (Puri et al. 1999: 10; Kataria 2019: 57).

Though, strictly speaking, Khalistani fuelled militancy did not erupt until 1981, a significant event did occur only three years earlier which was of considerable explanatory importance for subsequent proceedings. On Baisakhi (13 April) 1978, a group of orthodox Sikhs1 compromising largely of affiliates from the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, as well as supporters of lead protagonist Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, 2 staged a protest outside the headquarters of the ‘heretic’ Sant Nirankari sect.3 This protest deteriorated into an open confrontation between the two opposing groups, resulting in the death of thirteen orthodox Sikhs and two Sant Nirankaris (Birinder Pal Singh 2016: 191). As expected there were, and remain, conflicting versions of this event, with orthodox Sikhs tending to believe that the protest had been peaceful, whereas the Sant Nirankari account alleges that they were attacked with weapons and thus acted purely in self-defence. Although this episode of religious-based violence was essentially an intra-Sikh one, the fallout actually served to widen the schism between the Hindus and Sikhs.

This controversial decision perhaps added credence to the growing murmurs among certain disillusioned Sikh ranks that the Indian state held an institutional anti-Sikh bias. Moreover as a result of the Baisakhi killings, a widow of one of the deceased protestors, Bibi Amarjit Kaur founded the Babbar Khalsa outfit: a militant group which, despite its original anti-Sant Nirankari edge, consequently performed a considerable role in the anti-Hindu/anti-India violence associated with the Khalistan movement (Prakash 2008: 536).

Growing Sikh-Hindi tensions

While tensions remained high between orthodox Sikhs and Sant Nirankaris over the next couple of years,4 by 1981 there were signs of growing tension between the Hindus and Sikhs. This was owed to a number of reasons. First, relates to the seeming endorsement of the Khalistan concept by certain Sikh socio-political leaders during the Chief Khalsa Diwan’s hosting of the Sikh Educational Conference on 15 March 1981. The conference was attended by many high profile Sikh leaders from the SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) and Shiromani Akali Dal. While no formal resolution was passed in favour of Khalistan,

US-based Ganga Singh Dhillon put forward the idea that Sikhs were a separate nation and that they should seek their own statehood, this was met with slogans of ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ by members of the audience (Dang 1988: 4). Although the Chief Khalsa Diwan subsequently distanced itself from Dhillon’s comments, suspicions remained among the New Delhi intelligentsia as to the ‘true’ aims of such Sikhs (Kapur 1986: 324). Second, relates to the assassination by Sikh militants of veteran newspaper editor Lala Jagat Narain later that year on 9 September, who was an outspoken critic of the Khalistan Movement. Third, concerns the Khalistan militant group Dal Khalsa’s hijacking of an Indian Airlines Boeing-737 plane on 29 September.

The fourth, and arguably most significant reason, relates to the Congress (I)’s inability/unwillingness to implement the main terms of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s infamous Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Though this document was first formulated on 1973, it tended to become more of a prominent issue in Punjab politics once the Akali Dal were out of power in the Punjab Legislative Assembly, namely 1973-1977 and, particular so, from 1980-1985 when, as Khushwant Singh cynically puts it, they ‘hauled [it] out of the archives and proclaimed it as a charter of Sikh demands’ (1984: 8-9).

The main demands of the resolution included; i) an adjustment of powers between the centre and state, whereby the former’s jurisdiction would be restricted to foreign policy, defence, communications, currency etc.; ii) for all states of federal India to be equally weighted; and iii) for the Union Territory of Chandigarh, and the Punjabi-speaking areas ‘deliberately left out’ of the post-1966 suba, to be transferred to Punjab. The demand relating to reduce, or simply halt, the diversion of water from Punjab’s rivers (Ravi-Beas) to ‘non-riparian’ states was a relatively late entry onto the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Even though the main terms of the resolution were essentially secular, it was evident that the majority of Hindu Punjabis remained either suspicious of Akali demands (much to the infuriation of ordinary Sikhs).

Elevation of Sant Bhindranwale and brutal retaliation

By the end of 1983, Sant Bhindranwale took up residence at the sacred Akal Takht, situated within the Golden Temple complex, which arguably spoke volumes about his popularity among the Sikhs at the time. This also seemed to suggest that attempts by commentators to neatly separate the agitators between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ were at best extremely crude, since it was clear that Sant Bhindranwale could not have inhabited the Akal Takht ‘without the tactic consent of the SGPC’ and its then chief, Gurcharan Singh Tohra (Major 1987: 43; Grewal 2005: 316).objection to the centre’s decision to lift President’s Rule in Punjab 1985, KPS Gill, who served as Director-General of Punjab Police during the height of the militancy, writes,

Over the first few months of 1984, with militant violence continuing unabated across Punjab, many within high government and media circles publically endorsed the view that Sant Bhindranwale was not only the lead-militant of the agitation but that he had been directing (or at least inspiring) acts of terrorism across the state (Kaur 1984: 17; Grewal 2005: 326). The insinuation of course being that a firm response from the centre was needed to protect the lives and property of the Hindu Punjabis. On 2 June 1984, in light of another Akali planned roko (this time to block wheat stocks from leaving the state), the centre resorted to quite drastic measures, by sealing off Punjab from the rest of India through the construction of an armed perimeter along its border and ordering a virtual media blackout within the state (Malik 1985: 44).

During the next few days the Indian Armed Forces raided over forty gurdwaras across Punjab suspected of harbouring terrorists and/or being used to store weapons for their use. Of the many gurdwaras raided, included the sanctum-sanctorum of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple, in what was codenamed Operation Blue Star on 3-6 June 1984. The assault on the Golden Temple ended with the surrender of the senior Akali leaders, the death of, according to ‘official’ sources, 493 civilians/militants (including prominent armed rebels such as Sant Bhindranwale, General Shabeg Singh and Bhai Amrik Singh), and the death of 83 members of the Indian Armed Forces (White Paper 1984: 169).

It is fair to say that this action drew widespread revulsion from the Sikh community, many of whom simply ceased to consider themselves Indian any longer. The fact that four out of the six generals in charge of Operation Blue Star were Sikhs ‘did little to assuage [their] deep sense of humiliation and anger’ (Hardgrave 1985: 133). Immediately after Blue Star, the Indian Armed Forces conducted, through Operation Woodrose, what was essentially a tidying up exercise to catch absconding militants thought to be hiding out across rural Punjab. Many impartial scholars agree that numerous innocent Sikh youngsters were brutally terrorised during this operation, prompting many to flee across the border into Pakistan for safehaven only to return back to India as trained, ideological indoctrinated, Khalistani militants (Gupta et al. 1988: 1678; Deol 2000: 108; Prakash 2008: 537).

Attempts at normalizing the Punjab crisis

A short-while into his tenure it appeared as though achieving a lasting political solution to the Punjab problem was high on his agenda. On 11 March 1984, Rajiv Gandhi ordered the release of the Akali leaders who had been imprisoned since Operation Blue Star, including Sant Longowal (Malik 1985: 58). As a result, Rajiv Gandhi and Sant Longowal were able to thrash out a settlement that dealt with all the major provisions of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. However the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, as it became known, failed to be implemented as agreed largely because it failed to receive the backing of the other Akali factions— with Parkash Singh Badal, one of the foremost Akali politicians in Punjab during the agitation, branding it a ‘sell-out’ (Pritam Singh 2008: 47). In fact, some have since indicated that it failed to materialise because Congress (I) felt it could suffer electorally elsewhere in India (particularly in the ‘Hindi-heartland’) on the grounds of the Accord being interpreted as minority appeasement (Gurharpal Singh 1993: 94; Gupta et al. 1988: 1678).

On 17 August 1985, Rajiv Gandhi announced that state elections would take place in Punjab (thus spelling the end for President’s Rule in the state). Despite calls by militants for a boycott, and the tragic assassination of Sant Longowal, the elections took place successfully with a rather impressive turnout of 67.58 per cent of the eligible electorate and resulted in an outright victory for Shiromani Akali Dal (Longowal) headed by the newly appointed Surjit Singh Barnala (Kapur 1986: 245; Wallace 1986: 372). Despite winning the majority of seats in the Punjab Legislative Assembly for the first time in their history (73 out of 117), it should be noted that the

Akalis only polled marginally more than the Congress, 38.6 per cent of the vote percentage for the former in comparison to 37.9 per cent for the latter (Malik 1986: 359; Wallace 1986: 374). Regardless of this, the optimism that many Punjabis had for the incoming Barnala administration quickly faded after it became apparent it could not contain the spread of militancy, with the failure of the Congress (I) centre to transfer Chandigarh to Punjab and deliver upon the provisions of the Accord in general, arguably undermining their capacity to do so (Telford 1992: 985; Gurharpal Singh 1993: 93-94). On 26 January 1986, the date that was supposed to have coincided with the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, a huge congregation of defiant Sikhs assembled at the Golden Temple which, apart from installing a new pro-militant jathedar, announced the formation of a Five-Member Panthic Committee to oversee the creation of Khalistan (Pritam Singh 2008: 50).

KPS Gill era

In May 1987, the new DGP of Punjab KPS Gill, who had taken over the reins from Julio Ribeiro, conducted yet another raid on the Golden Temple: Operation Black Thunder II. This operation, done ‘under the fullest glare of the media’, was a resounding success for Gill resulting in the militants’ ‘meek surrender’ which did much to damage their prestige and boosted the morale of the Punjab Police who had, unlike in Black Thunder I, played a frontline role in the raid (Prakash 2008: 540; Gupta et al. 1988: 1678). Nevertheless, despite this notable success, the position of Barnala remained untenable. On 11 June 1987, following his twenty-month long tenure in which over a thousand people had been killed in Punjab as a result of the insurgency, President’s Rule was reimposed. Over the next few years militancy continued to rise relentlessly, a situation worsened by the release of Sikh prisoners suspected of, or charged with, terrorist involvement, the so-called ‘Jodhpur detenus’, on 4 March 1988 and the continued arrival of many well-equipped terrorists flooding back from Pakistan (Prakash 2008: 540).

Demise of militancy

In the end, it was a probably combination of the visible moral bankruptcy of many secessionist militants, intra-militant rivalry, right-minded Punjabis turning their backs on the violence6 and the brutal ‘state-terrorism’ of Gill’s Punjab Police, which ultimately contributed towards the demise of the Khalistan movement (Telford 1992: 986; Rudra 2005: 131; Narayanan 1996: 44).Following the near consecutive rises in the annual militancy related death-tolls from 1985 to 1991 (the exception being between 1988 to 1989 when the number dropped from 2,432 to 2,072), there was a drop from 1991 to 1992 when the number fell from 5,265 to 3,883, and then a huge drop in 1993.

The Rise and Fall of the Khalistan Movement: A Chronology of Events. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 7(6) 548-556. the figure fell to 871 (SATP 2020). On 25 February 1992 President’s Rule was lifted for the last time and the Punjab Legislative Assembly elections, boycotted by practically all Shiromani Akali Dal factions and with a turnout of just only 24.3 per cent of the electorate, resulted in an unsurprisingly huge victory for the Congress who won 87 out of the 117 seats available (Gurharpal Singh 1992: 994). Since 1993 there have only been sporadic cases of ‘Khalistani militancy’—including most notably the assassination of Chief Minister Beant Singh in August 1995.


To summarise, this article has demonstrated, quite succinctly, the main events that occurred during the Khalitstani militancy between the years of 1981 and 1993. Admittedly, the roots of this conflict arguably lie far deeper than what this article was able to cover, and arguably can be traced back to the Partition of India (and Punjab). This is because Partition not only created the template for carving out a religious-based state in the Subcontinent, but it also significantly undermined of the composite secular ethos that India’s founding fathers had committed themselves to.

However, in the context of this article, it is clear how, from the intra-Sikh tensions of the late 1970s, Sikh-Hindu tensions in the Punjab became the main basis for much of the problems that were witnessed. As such political demands emanating from the Akalis, though apparently secular, were interpreted suspiciously by both the Hindu minority in Punjab and the government in New Delhi. In this regard, unlike for many Sikhs, the centre was very much viewed as the main guardian for the interests of the Hindu minority in Punjab. However, the manner in which the centre assumed this responsibility, it can be seen, unnecessarily inflamed tensions in Punjab, with Operation Blue Star arguably being the most disastrous policy choice of all.

That said, it would be incorrect to blame the centre entirely for this militant movement or the bloodshed associated with it. Rather, it is clear that the government, both at the state and centre, as well as both the Akali and Congress parties (together with their various factions), committed huge policy blunders and contributed towards a crisis that was very much avoidable. Furthermore, one cannot absolve responsibility from the conduct of certain state security forces, the Sikh militants, nor the communally-charged masses, be they Sikh or Hindu.


About the Creator

Paramjeet kaur

Hey people! I am my own person and I love blogging because I just love to share the small Stories

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