After a month-long chase and a nationalist media frenzy, Amritpal Singh, a 29-year-old pro-Khalistan preacher and leader of Waris Punjab De, surrendered to police forces on April 23 in the northwestern Indian border state of Punjab. During the search for Singh, 353 Sikh youth were arrested, out of which only 10 had cases filed against them. The internet was blocked across Punjab while a state-wide cordon and search exercise was conducted – 1,900 Central Reserve Police Force security personnel and an anti-riot Rapid Action Force were dispatched. This was in addition to the fact that Border Security Forces are deployed within 50 kilometers of the international border, resulting in almost half of Punjab being under heightened state surveillance. Even Nepal was asked to put Singh on its surveillance list.
Meanwhile, commercial media outlets were flooded with allegations of Singh’s links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling party, was lauded for his ultimate arrest.
Singh revived calls from the 1980s for Khalistan, a sovereign Sikh state in the northwestern regions of India. From the Indian state’s perspective, that made him a dire national security threat. While the Khalistan movement does not have mainstream support in Punjab, a sect of Punjabi youth looked to Singh as a source of hope and leadership amidst decades of discontent in the state surrounding unemployment, environmental degradation, corporate farm laws, drug use, and a lack of basic welfare delivery. Both in the 1980s and today, New Delhi has taken a security-first approach in Punjab, often using force to address the state’s long-standing economic and environmental issues.
Over a month after Singh’s arrest, the news cycle has swiftly moved on, but the root causes of tensions in Punjab remain largely ignored by New Delhi. Instead of securitizing the Punjab issue and creating national alarm, New Delhi should view the Amritpal Singh episode as a wake-up call to address the long-standing economic and environmental issues in the state.
Environment and Economy: The Roots of Discontent
Punjab’s challenges stem from a combination of economic hardship, ecological degradation, unemployment, drug use, and political failure. In particular, several scholars have traced Punjab’s myriad social and economic issues to the failures of the Green Revolution. While this corporate experiment launched in 1968 did lead to short-term positive results for India’s food basket, the long-term environmental and economic failures have resulted in several social and political conflicts in the state. Each protest, demonstration, and march has been met with a securitized state response.
A key cause of agitation in Punjab has been its water crisis. Even before the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, thousands of peasant farmers organized a peaceful agitation against the high prices of irrigated water imposed by the state. When the Congress’ attempts to appease protestors through concessions failed, instead of working toward a negotiated solution, armed police forces were sent into the agitations to lathi charge (baton charge), tear gas, and arrest peaceful protesters.
The Green Revolution, coupled with climate change, has worsened Punjab’s water crisis and such ongoing civil agitations. Because “high-yield” seed varieties require three times more water than traditional seeds, Punjab’s groundwater table is decreasing by nearly 0.49 meters per year. Anxieties over water scarcity have manifested in both small and large-scale social and political tensions – from local farmers’ union protests over the concretization of canals to the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal dispute between the states of Punjab and Haryana.
The technology of the Green Revolution required large amounts of input and led to lower incomes for small farmers. Peasants continue to suffer as the cost of inputs outweighs the profits from outputs. Again, between 1983 and 1984, during the height of militancy in Punjab, farmers led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union conducted a 14-month-long peaceful agitation demanding the central government to keep input prices low as income growth began to slow as an outcome of the Green Revolution. When the state did not move on this demand, the agitation ended with a call by the Shiromani Akali Dal (the regional party in power at the time) and the leading farmers’ union to stop grain movement outside Punjab.
Two weeks later, paramilitary forces attacked the holy Sikh site, the Darbar Sahib Complex, in Operation Blue Star, resulting in years of anti-Sikh communal and state violence. While the military operation was meant to capture radical Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, several Punjabi farmers’ unions believe that it was the economic threat posed by the farmers’ movement rather than the sporadic Khalistan threats that ultimately prompted Indira Gandhi’s government to take such drastic military measures.
The last two decades have witnessed a suicide epidemic among farmers in Punjab, 88 percent of which were driven by debt due to loans for seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Adding to Punjab’s rich history of peasant revolts, 500,000 Sikh farmers marched to New Delhi between 2020 and 2021 to protest the BJP government’s attempt to pass three controversial farm laws, which would have led to the further corporatization of agriculture in the state.
Before the BJP ultimately repealed the laws, state and media propaganda again attempted to brand these non-violent protests – characterized by music, poetry, and the Sikh tradition of langar (free distribution of food) – as a national security threat to delegitimize the farmers’ demands. Right-wing news media hawked on about the farmers’ attempt to send India back to the dark ages of militancy in the 1980s by “stoking Sikh separatist sentiments,” while BJP leaders called the farmers “terrorists,” “Naxals,” and “Khalistanis.” Meanwhile, the movement’s leaders were arrested and the internet was repeatedly shut down, two common moves often utilized by non-democratic governments.
The Branding of National Security
Both historically and today, the Indian government has deployed a common tactic in responding to unrest in Punjab – it has framed issues that are fundamentally political economy problems through the lens of national security. By using discursive means to transform ordinary political issues into security issues, the state convinces the public of an existential threat, which then justifies the government’s extraordinary responses, such as declaring states of emergency or deploying paramilitary forces.
It is the state’s paranoia that views non-violent civic agitations as threats to national security and sovereignty. In 2023, by emphasizing the fringe demand for “Khalistan” – the most extreme and marginal articulation of social, political, and economic discontent in Punjab – corporate media and the BJP securitized the issue and manufactured national alarm to ultimately curb dissent.
Notably, with the backdrop of India’s many real external security threats from China and Pakistan, branding citizen discontent as “national security issues” justifies the state’s militarized responses to political, economic, and environmental agitation. When a development issue is securitized, the targets of the state response are often vulnerable populations, and in India, this securitization has historically occurred along ethnic and religious lines.
It is well documented that environmental and economic issues can exacerbate preexisting social and political tensions, and in some cases, even lead to violent conflict. Several researchers have expounded on the “environmental security” paradigm, which holds that environmental issues will ultimately lead to security crises. This dynamic is evident in Punjab, where decades of bad agrarian policy have led to environmental crises in the state, and coupled with government neglect, have now resulted in anger, discontent, and a few toothless demands for secession.
However, the dangers of emphasizing the nexus between environmental, economic, and security issues is that the public fear that arises from perceived security threats enables governments to address the “security” axis without addressing the environmental and economic ones. On the danger of securitizing the climate challenge, for instance, Betsy Hartmann wrote, “playing with fear is like playing with fire.”
The Congress in 1958 and 1984 and the BJP in 2021 and today have pulled from the same playbook. By securitizing political economy issues, successive central governments have diverted blame away from failed economic policy – and toward Muslims, Maoists, Sikhs, and “Khalistanis.” The end result is that there has been no meaningful economic and environmental reform to address the problems at their source.
What is needed is a narrative shift away from security solutions and toward political economy solutions in Punjab. New Delhi should pivot from needless manhunts and militarization to agricultural, land, and canal reform, natural farming techniques, minimum support price (MSP) for farmers, and small and medium-scale industry development to boost employment in the state. Privileging a political economy approach to policymaking in Punjab over a security-first approach will prevent fault lines in the state from being exploited by addressing the root causes of discontent.
As Amandeep Sandhu, journalist and author of “Panjab: Journey through the Fault Lines,” told me in an interview, “Khalistan is nothing but a metaphor for a dejected people wanting human rights. We need to reconfigure how we speak about Khalistan to talk about justice for Punjab.”