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What US Officials and Activists Should Know About the Khalistan Movement

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What US Officials and Activists Should Know About the Khalistan Movement

Contrary to what activists claim in Western capitals, Sikhs in India are not facing genocide or persecution, nor are they deprived of political agency.

What US Officials and Activists Should Know About the Khalistan Movement

Members of the Khalistan movement, a separatist movement seeking to create a homeland for Sikhs called Khalistan, hold a protest rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada on June 10, 2023.

Credit: Depositphotos

U.S. authorities are reported to have indicted an individual, Nikhil Gupta, for plotting the assassination of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a prominent Sikh leader of the Khalistan movement. According to the indictment, Gupta was directed by an Indian government officer to pay $100,000 to a purported hitman to commit the murder.

This comes close on the heels of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claiming evidence of “credible allegations” of an Indian plot behind the slaying of a Canadian Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in July this year.

The Khalistan movement aims to establish a separate Sikh nation-state called Khalistan, mostly from the Indian state of Punjab, where most Sikhs live. Pannun, who holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship and is based in New York, is a founder of Sikhs for Justice, a U.S.-based group that advocates for the secession of Punjab from India. Panun’s followers consider him to be an activist. India, on the other hand, has designated him as a terrorist. In the past few months alone, Pannun has threatened violence against Air India and ordered Hindus to leave Canada.

There is clearly a misalignment in how the Indian and U.S. governments and people view the activism surrounding the Khalistan issue.

Indians are often baffled at how the U.S. and other Western governments seem to allow incitement to violence and separatism. Regardless of whether the Indian state actually did attempt to go after Nijjar and Pannun, most Indians feel that it would be justified in theory to target anti-India terrorists. This viewpoint is held by officials from members of both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition, the Indian National Congress.

On the other hand, the U.S. has difficulty appreciating how serious of an issue India considers the Khalistan movement. Indians see the Khalistan movement similarly to how Americans viewed the Global War on Terrorism: as a battle against terrorists seeking the violent imposition of a theocracy. Against such enemies, there can be no negotiation, and because of their threats to the homeland, striking against them in other countries would be acceptable.

Beyond the geopolitical implications and the competing theories of extralegal counterterrorism and state sovereignty, American officials, activists, and even many Sikh Americans may not appreciate the ground dynamics – religious, social, political – in Punjab and India, and what this says about the nature and future of the Khalistan movement. Views of the Khalistan movement in the West are disproportionately shaped by advocacy groups which are, of course, incentivized to portray the situation in Punjab negatively in order to maximize the impact of their lobbying.

At the heart of the Khalistan movement’s narrative is the notion that the Sikhs are a native, oppressed ethnic and religious group fighting for freedom and rights from an occupying power, namely India.

This obfuscates several important facts: that Punjab holds regular free and fair elections, that these elections are won by local Punjabi Sikhs, that Punjabi Sikhs are in positions at all levels of the Punjabi government, make laws, administer the local police force, and that the Punjabi language is official, and used for governance throughout the state.

Like all other states in India’s federal system, elections in Punjab are contested and won at the local level, and the states have a wide range of powers ranging from law and order to sanitation, education, and local taxation. Of course, the states of India could have even more powers, but that would then make them essentially sovereign countries. Within the structure of the Indian constitution, Punjab, like other states, certainly has a fair amount of power and local agency. For most of its history, Punjab has been seen as a prosperous agricultural state with a large export market to the rest of India.

In fact, the boundaries of the current Indian state of Punjab were drawn in 1966 at the behest of a political movement, the Punjabi Suba movement, to create a state in which Punjabi-speaking Sikhs would be the majority. The Punjab province of British India is today split between the Pakistani province of Punjab and the Indian states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana.

According to the British Raj’s 1941 census of Punjab, the population of the province was 53.2 percent Muslim, 29.1 percent Hindu, and 14.9 percent Sikh. While Sikhism was founded in Punjab by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, and most Sikhs are Punjabi, most Punjabis are not Sikh. It was only after the partition of Punjab in 1947 and the subsequent reorganization and partition of Indian Punjab in 1966 that a Sikh-majority administrative entity finally came into being. But even in modern-day Punjab, Sikhs are only about 58 percent of the population, and predominate in the south and west of the state, while Hindus make up 39 percent and predominate in the state’s northeast.

Therefore, the boundaries of Punjab were drawn to facilitate local Sikh power; the issue that is at the crux of the Khalistan movement has already been resolved for decades.

At the same time, there are many in Punjab, such as the Hindu Punjabis, but also Sikhs, who have an interest in remaining part of India. Most importantly, though, most Sikhs in Punjab, who participate in the local governance and society of their communities, have no desire for an independent Khalistan, with up to 95 percent of Sikhs stating in a recent survey that they were proud to be Indian. There are many reasons for this: Punjabi pop culture is popular throughout India, for example, demonstrating how well Punjab is integrated culturally into India. Punjabis can study, work, and live all over India. Punjabis also serve in the army in large numbers. It is unlikely that an independent Khalistan would secure these employment opportunities, free trade, or open borders with India.

So, what would an independent Khalistan be able to do that the Punjab state of India cannot? Ostensibly, it would have control over its borders, rivers, and economic policy. However, given that all the rivers that flow through Punjab also flow through Pakistan and other parts of India, revising or renegotiating existing treaties for water sharing would be a nightmare and their outcome would be unlikely to favor Punjab. It is unclear if the economy of Punjab – a landlocked, agricultural state propped up by federal state subsidies – would really benefit from independence.

The main benefit for many advocates of Khalistan, however, is a homeland in which Sikhism would be in a primary position, and would solve society’s problems: corruption, drug use, poverty, crime, and inequality. But as we know from the experience of some countries in the Middle East, a pivot to theocracy is not a panacea for society’s ills and usually turns out to be a pipe dream.

Thus, contrary to the narrative expounded by activists and heard in the halls of power in Western capitals, the very premise of the Khalistan movement is incorrect. The Sikh people of Punjab in India are not facing imminent genocide or persecution, nor are they deprived of political agency. An independent Khalistan would be a non-viable, landlocked, agricultural country surrounded by India on three sides and Pakistan on the other side. These are both nuclear-armed powers with hundreds of millions of people.

The goal of many advocates for Khalistan is a theocratic state – contrary to the will of most of its people – that can only be achieved through acts of violence and not the democratic process. It is no surprise then that the Indian government considers the leaders of this movement to be terrorists. That may not justify extraterritorial assassinations in the U.S. and Canada, but it certainly elucidates the Indian perspective that the Khalistan movement is not a garden variety college-campus style activist movement in favor of an oppressed minority, but a radical ideology with unrealistic and unpopular goals in both the context of Punjab and India.