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Khalistan or Resistance? Crisis in Punjab

Image Credit / The Indian Express

The balance of politics in contemporary India is a stack of dominoes. One piece is always connected to the next in a series of chain reactions. Once one comes crashing down, the rest follow suit. Politics is the cumulative effect of social shifts throughout history. The game of dominoes, played as a favourite by the Indian state, repeatedly targets those resisting its tyranny. First, an unjust policy is enacted, then the common people resist, chaotic civil unrest upsets the peace of the country, and finally, fundamental rights are compromised. A single flick of the finger fuels a fire of protest and tension is set ablaze. A devastating rhythm is sounded as the domino pieces all fall to the floor again and again. History repeats itself. What goes around comes around. The cycle of ruthless authoritarianism persists – a never-ending game of dominoes.

In 2023, Punjab, historically an ignition point of socialist organising, became a victim of the government’s carefully planned domino project for the second time. Lovepreet Singh, twenty-nine years old, was arrested by the Amritsar police on 18 February in connection with the alleged kidnapping of Varinder Singh. Varinder, a resident of Chamkaur Sahib, accused popular radical leader Amritpal Singh and his supporters of kidnapping him near Damdami Taksal in Ajnala, taking him to Jandiala, and assaulting him. Lovepreet, alias Toofan, was Amritpal’s closest confidante, jumping into activism during the farm agitations. Following his arrest, a violent clash was triggered between supporters of Amritpal Singh and the police at Ajnala police station. Lovepreet was eventually discharged at the behest of the police, but not without raising a new slogan – “Raj Karega Khalsa” and “Amritpal Singh Jindabad”.

“It is clear that Sikhs are slaves and we have to face humiliation. I had no role in the case registered against me. I am thankful to all for my release. I am thankful to God.”

  • Lovepreet Singh

Whether it was his intention or not, a new movement subsequently sparked in Punjab. On 23 February, Amritpal Singh and his supporter staged a demonstration in support of Lovepreet’s release. Protesters were wounded. The memorable incident increased Amritpal Singh’s prominence among the Sikh youth. Simultaneously, the controversy arose at a time when sit-in protests for Sikh prisoners incarcerated for over 20 years had reached an all-time high. Public aggravation was in the air.

Image Credit / Sky News

A month passed. Then, during the last ten days of March, hullabaloo struck in Punjab. State police and paramilitary toured the state searching for Amritpal Singh. The state proclaimed him a “national security threat”. Ultimately, he triggered the crackdown which would spread civil unrest throughout the region to the present. Authorities blocked internet access, placed restrictions on movement, halted protests, suspended Twitter accounts, and arrested over a hundred people over the course of four days. House break-ins in the middle of the night, disappearing journalists, and a storm of distrust loomed over the usually joyous climate of Punjab. All throughout the ruckus, Amritpal Singh remained missing. To where he had run off, no one knew. However, his memory lay firm in the Sikh people’s minds. Those who followed him would rise to extinguish the flames.

Soon enough, protests erupted in several parts of Punjab demanding state-sanctioned violence to end. Activists’ social media accounts were suspended. Anyone trying to report truthfully on the situation was silenced. Demanding a report on the whereabouts of Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh and his supporters who were arrested by Punjab Police, Sikh protesters, under the banner of Qaumi Insaaf Morcha, refused to budge from a crucial intersection. Traffic was bought to a halt. The matter was reported across headlines, with even the Sikh diaspora speaking up. In Canada, home to the second-largest Sikh population, Member of Parliament Jagmeet Singh condemned the ongoing measures, calling them draconian. With members of foreign governments monitoring the crackdown, the crisis in Punjab has flared. “What’s happening now is part of a larger process by the state to isolate and target Sikhs,” Parmjeet Singh Gazi, a lawyer in Punjab who runs the local news network Sikh Siyasat, told VICE World News. “This atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in the last few days is not surprising to us at all. The [attempt to arrest Singh] is part of a larger psychological warfare that goes back decades.”

The hunt for the fugitive pro-Khalistan sympathiser Amritpal Singh came to an end the past Sunday morning. Punjab police arrested the 30-year-old chief of Waris Punjab De outside a gurudwara in the village of Rode. He was taken into custody under the National Security Act (NSA) and flown from an airport to Dibrugarh Central Jail in Assam. Nine of his other associates are in cages in the same place. Collectively, they face the consequences of the NSA. While the AAP government of Punjab believes Amritpal was arrested, his parents hold steady to a different narrative – they believe Amritpal surrendered after carrying out his daily nitnem (prayer) in the gurudwara. Regardless, they are fully prepared for the legal onslaught ahead.

Indeed, current injustices are but a part of a corrosive historical continuity for the citizens of Punjab. Sikhs in India make up less than 2 per cent of the population or 20 million people. Despite their low numbers, their traditions are iconic enough to have spread throughout the globe. Punjab is known as the breadbasket of India, renowned for being an agricultural hub of farms. It is the only Sikh-majority state in India and has a resultant dark past of enforced disappearances. Political persecution in Punjab can be traced back to post-independence and spans to the current day. Many families continue languishing in prison for decades under wretched conditions. Political uncertainty, lack of opportunity, and state suppression have rendered Punjab miserable. Every few years, dread fills the air; farm protests challenging agricultural laws led to mass arrests a mere few years ago, and now the police are lined up to keep arresting protesters for the foreseeable future.

The start of this tale of unfortunate events was immediately after the downfall of the British Empire. “Khalistan”, the concept of a Sikh homeland, emerged during the Lahore Resolution where the Muslim League suggested declaring Punjab a Muslim state. The Shiromani Akali Dal, fiercely in support of the autonomy of Punjabis, opposed the suggestion – they viewed it as a tactic to usurp the Sikh population.

In response, the Akali Dal argued for a community separate from Hindus and Muslims. Years later, around the start of the 1970s, it is theorised that Khalistan gained steam among the Sikh diaspora in North America and Europe. For example, West London launched the Khalistan Council in 1970. At first, the loudest advocates for Khalistan – people like Davinder Singh Parmar and Jagjit Singh Chohan – were dismissed as a fanatical fringe. Soon, though, the leaders were able to travel around and spread their word, radicalising people into favouring Khalistan. Though the diaspora kept the idea alive, Khalistan would not be popularised until the notorious Operation Blue Star.

Image Credit / Gulf News

Back in the 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was thriving in India as a bit of a tyrant. At the same time, the idea of Khalistan was gaining heat in Punjab. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a leader among the Sikh youth who instructed his followers to abide by Sikh rituals and beliefs. He was a Khalistan supporter, and with assistance, he took over the Akal Takht complex of the Golden Temple. Emboldened, he began speaking of a separate Sikh state, after having earlier called Sikhs slaves in India. There are reports that he also turned to Pakistan for help. This rang alarm bells in Delhi. The central government reached out to its arch-foe the Akali Dal on its long-pending charter of demands—making Chandigarh the capital of Punjab, declaring Amritsar a holy city, a greater share of the waters of the rivers Beas and Sutlej and greater autonomy for the state—first put together in 1973. The talks did not go anywhere.

Operation Blue Star was Indira Gandhi's solution to the haywire going law and order situation in Punjab. She ordered the military operation to remove Sikh militants who were accumulating weapons in the Harmandir Sahib Complex (Golden Temple). The 1984 Operation Blue Star was the biggest internal security mission ever undertaken by the Indian Army, executed between June 1 and June 8 in Amritsar. India Today reports the number of civilian deaths at 492, though other estimates ran much higher. The operation fundamentally violated the sanctity of a religious place. Three decades on, a visit to the temple reveals the existence of physical and psychological scars that seared the psyche of the Sikh minority in India. Deep holes created by high-velocity bullets and shells slamming into marble and brick still pockmark some walls and stairwells of the temple complex that sees thousands of visitors walking through its portals every day. Sikhs had enough. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was promptly assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in cold blood on October 31, 1984, for allowing Operation Blue Star. Revenge was a bitter fate for the Prime Minister.

The following day, anti-Sikh riots erupted all over India. In New Delhi, at least 3,000 Sikhs perished, while ruling Congress party members were accused of encouraging violence. In total, 8,000-20,000 Sikhs were massacred across 40 different cities. A pogrom like no other, a bloody trail of devastation was left in the wake of the riots. Rioters carried knives, clubs, and iron rods and trudged into Sikh localities, indiscriminately razing their property to the ground. All the theatrics of mass murder were present; from lynching to being burned alive not a single strategy was spared. Young men were assisting them, packing kerosene oils to commit arson on Sikh property.

Such widespread destruction could not be accomplished without the sleazy cooperation of state forces like the Delhi Police. They aided the rioters by opening up jails throughout Delhi, providing the most dangerous of criminals full provisions to unleash their wrath upon the Sikhs. A number of Congress Party names were accessories to the crime. Congress MPs allegedly handed out rupees notes to assailants promising them a reward for defeating the “snakes”. Slogans like “Indira Gandhi is our mother and these people have killed her,” were hollered from the rooftops. Congress Party leader Shyam Tyagi’s home even served as a meeting spot for an undetermined number of people. The Congress officials handed voter lists, school registration lists, and ration lists to the perpetrators. The attack on Sikhs and their property was a highly organised and sophisticated affair. A senior official at the Ministry of Home Affairs told journalist Ivan Fera that an arson investigation of several businesses burned in the riots had found an unnamed combustible chemical "whose provision required large-scale coordination". Sikhs were easy victims. They were highly visible, their men in turbans and women in traditional dress. With additional assistance from Congress party members, illiterate people were able to track down Sikh homes. The state was entirely complicit despite never apologising for their actions.

Image Credit / NewsClick

The following aftermath of the anti-Sikh tragedy was far-reaching. Harrowing testimonies painting the horrors of the scene of the crime splattered across the newspapers. In desperation and fear, Sikhs vanished from the streets and, in traumatic acts of self-preservation, shed their turbans, cut their hair, and shaved their beards. The toll around the country remains uncounted and tens of thousands had been crammed into hastily put-together refugee camps.

The call for an independent state of Khalistan grew vibrant among the Sikh youth as violence raged on. Militant groups like Khalistan Liberation Force, Khalistan Commando Force, and Babbar Khalsa gained prominence and radicalised the youth. The Indian government responded with a heavy-handed approach, launching Operation Black Thunder in 1988 to flush out militants from the Golden Temple complex. The government also arrested and detained thousands of Sikhs suspected of involvement in the Khalistan Movement.

The Khalistan Movement gradually lost momentum in the 1990s due to several factors, including infighting among militant groups, declining public support, and increased security measures by the Indian government including the NSA under which Sikhs dissidents languish in prison today. Today, the Khalistan Movement is largely considered to be a spent force, with only a few fringe groups still advocating for an independent Sikh state – including those followers of Amritpal Singh. However, the movement continues to be a sensitive issue for many Sikhs, particularly those who feel that their religious and cultural identity is under threat in India. Regardless of intermittent rises and falls in popularity, the Indian state is firmly threatened by the concept of Khalistan, and regularly utilise it as a tactic to oppress innocent Sikhs. Any Sikh who dares oppose the fascist policies of India is labelled as a Khalistani and trapped inside jail. By happenstance, Amritpal Singh has found himself sorted under this category.

Whether or not Khalistan is a cause of support remains a matter of contentious debate among the left. Some claim Pakistan’s ISI attempted to foment violence by supporting extremist groups. A Canadian think tank called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute has released a report titled “Khalistan: A project of Pakistan,” which claims that the secessionist Khalistan movement is a geopolitical project nurtured by Pakistan, posing a threat to the national security of both Indians and Canadians.

According to an Indian Army veteran, Khalistanis demanding a separate homeland in India are receiving support from Pakistani Muslims living in Canada and Britain. The Indian home ministry has identified nine individuals operating from foreign soil, including Pakistan, who are involved in acts of terrorism and designated as terrorists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Others posit the issue of Khalistan originating in the British and Canadian diaspora, ruining the lives of Sikhs living in India. The US-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) is another pro-Khalistan group involved in supporting secessionist activities through terrorist activities. In Canada, authorities were caught off-guard by the rapid spread of extremism and the growing support for the movement following Operation Blue Star. Due to certain bits of evidence, some factions are critical of Khalistan supporters.

Image Credit / ANI News

The Khalistan movement and its demands for a separate Sikh state, if succeeding, would have long-lasting social consequences through all strata of Punjabi society and the larger region of India. Sikhs’ feelings of marginalisation are understandable inasmuch as the post-colonial Indian state is an “ethnocracy” that has privileged dominant Hindus both through their disproportionate recruitment into civil, military, and government elites and by using Hindu cultural attributes and values to define the national ideology, history, language, religion, and moral values. In fact, the postcolonial state has dismantled rules and safeguards for fair representation of minorities that were established under British rule in favor of universal franchise and constitutional centralism (both of which disadvantage minorities and regional nationalisms). These trends could mean greater homogenisation rather than maintenance of a pluralist vision of the nation-state, further alienating Sikhs and other minorities.

In such a case, Khalistan would help Sikhs maintain cultural identity and autonomy over their lands. It would help them assert ownership over their own government rather than being neglected by the national government. The idea of a Khalistan would only be beneficial if all sections of Punjabi society are included; otherwise, it would devolve into another failed state overrun by religious communalism. Reasonable critiques of Khalistan have been mentioned. In the past, Khalistan sympathisers revered revolutionary Bhagat Singh as a martyr and a Sikh. In contemporary times, a new section of Khalistanis has emerged to delegitimise Bhagat Singh by arguing that he did not contribute to the cause of the Sikhs and alleging that the Indian state deliberately established him as a hero in order to push the martyrdom of other Sikh freedom fighters into the shadows. Like the Hindu right, these sections also highlight Bhagat Singh’s Arya Samaj background and allege that he operated under its influence. Pointing out the contradiction in supposed revolutionary figures is crucial as it highlights potential reactionary tendencies which could formulate under an independent Khalistan.

Insofar, Punjabi leaders have not been able to properly organise themselves; though they successfully repealed the oppressive farm laws through protests the movements did not lead to much more besides some change in the laws. It is clear Khalistanis are a force of resistance against the Indian state, but their motivations are questionable. Casteism persists as a force in the Sikh community creating unequal hierarchies. Until they can recover from a state of constant emotional turmoil, the Khalistan movement will remain weak. At best, for right now, Punjab can demand more political autonomy within India. However, it seems futile in the grand scheme of things. It is easier to critique and delegitimise each other’s revered figures than to dwell upon the roots of the crisis in Punjab and find ways to overcome it.

The premise of any argument against Khalistan is flawed; it is a pointless debate. India is not pondering the political ramifications of the Khalistan movement. They have one and only one goal in mind: to oppress the Sikh people and shut down any resistance to their dreams of authoritarian control. Sikhs are another piece of the puzzle which needs to be discarded immediately, along with other disenfranchised minority groups in India. To silence the voices of vocal dissenters like Amritpal Singh, they lock them in cages for indeterminate periods of time to silence them forever.

It made for a fantastic weapon during the farm protests of Punjab occurring only a while back, in 2021. The central government, during the hearing on pleas challenging the constitutional validity of farm laws in the Supreme Court, claimed that ‘Khalistanis’ have infiltrated the ongoing farmers’ protest on Delhi borders. The claim made by Attorney General K K Venugopal came in response when the Bench headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde enquired about the charges by one of the parties that a banned outfit, ‘Sikhs for Justice’, was aiding the protests. “These kinds of protests can be dangerous,” he remarked. Fear of the law is a method of social control, yet some courageous souls persist nevertheless. The red strands of history are connected together as the same TV show runs on the television screen once more. Until Sikh liberation, they will continue to be met with accusations of Khalistani terrorism.

With or without the threat of arrests, the state of Punjab stumbles forward miserably. The economy is in shambles. Policies have eroded over the years, and the state of the political quandary is murky. Piecemeal solutions are like bandages over deep wounds, they do not help the situation at all. Professor Nirvikar Singh, an economics professor at the University of California in the US, has said for 4-5 years that Punjab is heading for disaster. There is groundwater decline, water pollution, and air pollution due to stubble burning. The agrarian sector is in a deplorable state, with an ever-increasing debt burden on farmers and agricultural labourers, resulting in alarmingly high rates of suicides over the last two decades. The Punjabi diaspora remains underutilised, since most remittances go to come up with farmhouses in Punjab as many believe there is deep corruption within the state, making investments risky. Punjab has gone through multiple elections over the decades, yet all political parties pursue the same agendas, rinsing and repeating. Policy measures must be taken immediately to improve the living conditions of Punjab and provide them autonomy so they can support themselves. Economic destitution in Punjab cannot be lazily waved away by the government if they wish to calm political agitation in the area.

Though a month has passed, terror looms over Punjab. Inhabitants of the state are unsure of their future, traumatised by the sorry fates of their elders still trapped in jail from the 1980s. The diaspora abroad discusses what could be the next moves taken by the Indian state on the anti-Sikh chessboard. Punjab, the land of fields, farms, and a people who have made their mark on the world – an assault on civil rights should be a matter of argument around the globe. Only through raw resistance of the working-class masses can a deeply fascist state like India be revolutionised towards new beginnings. The heartbreaking mistakes of the 1980s cannot be repeated once more in Punjab. Trudge toward a new path and free the political prisoners. Free them all.

Image Credit / Tribune India


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