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Punjab violence: Rising concerns for resurfacing pro-Khalistan sentiments

Punjab violence: Punjab, a northern state in India, emerged as one the most flourishing parts of the country and is considered the ‘food bowl’ of the country, recently witnessed violence initiated by pro-Khalistan elements.  

On February 23, members of a pro-Khalistan outfit, Waris Punjab De, attacked a police station in the district Amritsar in the northern state of Punjab. This has raised questions on the prevalence of peace in the state as the swords and guns brandishing crowd, led by self-styled radical preacher Amritpal Singh held the police station at ransom, seeking the release of one of their aides, Lovepreet Singh Toofan.

However, the state had a long ordeal with insurgency, which not only impacted its economy but cost tens of thousands of human lives. 

Bloody past of insurgency in Punjab

Amritpal is the head of the Waris Punjab De outfit which propagates the demand for Khalistan, a separate state for the Sikhs, to be carved out of India. The incident has sent shock-waves across political and social streams across India and many are associating it with the years of unrest and insurgency of the 80s and 90s in Punjab. The agrarian state witnessed the loss of lives of thousands of its youth and bore financial losses and it took several years to overcome them. Something similar, which happened in the year 1978 triggered years-long Punjab violence.

Punjab has had a long association with conflict, which has not only impacted common lives but has also contributed to the political agendas of several parties. The assassination of one of India’s former Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi is also rooted in the Punjab insurgency. Here’s a look at Punjab’s unpleasant association with socio-political unrest.

What happened in 1978?

The Ajnala incident is seen as a flashback moment of the incident that happened during the Baisakhi Day celebration in the month of April 1978. The leader at that time was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the radical leader, who later headed the violence-filled demand for Khalistan. 

An event was religious event was organized in Amritsar, by a sect of Sikhism, the Nirankaris. The radicals led by Bhindranwale opposed the organization and led a protest march to the venue of the Nirankari event. 

When police tried to stop the marchers, violence ensued and police had to open fire to disperse the protestors. 13 people died and Bhindranwale accused the police of selectively targeting and killing his supporters. What happened after that, changed the course of Punjab’s politics and economics, forever. 

Brief about Punjab insurgency

The next few years were like a nightmare for Punjab. There was bloodshed across the state, where separatist factions threatened businessmen and the common folk, and demanded ransom. Some of these groups were affiliated with Bhindranwale, while some worked independently. There were hundreds of police encounters in which terrorists and even innocent people lost their lives. The was crippled with constant curfews, and lockdowns and the movement of people was gauged by various restrictions. 

Operation Bluestar and the peak of Punjab violence

In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched a military Operation Bluestar, to catch Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. Little did the government know of the amount of artillery and armed terrorists who were inside the complex and the forces were met with immense resistance. As a result, several army personnel were killed. The religious buildings inside the complex suffered great damage and the Akal Takht, the Sikh temporal seat, was left in ruins. The operation continued for three days and Bhindranwale was killed, while several of his accomplices were arrested by the forces. The events were expected to bring peace back to the state, but the events following Operation Bluestar further worsened the situation.

Assasination of Indira Gandhi

In October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards, who wanted to avenge the attack on the Akal Takht. Soon after her killing riots hit the national capital, and other cities, where members of the Sikh community were targetted and killed. The actual number of deaths is still debated, where the government data claims about 3350 deaths, while independent sources have estimated the number to vary between 8000-17000. 

For several years following the riots, disturbance prevailed across Punjab, where youth, who were directly or indirectly involved in the Khalistan movement, was arrested, jailed and even killed in police encounter without prosecution. Several international human rights forums have time and again raised voices about innocent killings and questioned the role of the police but to no avail. All this happened because of the stance taken by one man, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and how he challenged the Indian establishment. Amritpal Singh is behaving in a similar pattern, which is a worrisome sign for Punjab.

Who is Amritpal Singh and how is he reviving Punjab violence?

Amritpal Singh was in Dubai for several years, where he claims, he took care of his family-owned transport business. He had short hair and sported a clean-shaven look, things which are forbidden in the Sikh faith. He returned to India in 2022, got baptised, and organized a Dastar-Bandhi (customary turban-tying ritual for Sikh youth) ceremony in Bhindranwale’s home village, Rode village in Moga district of Punjab. He openly says he is a “Punjabi and not Indian” and demands a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, and encourages the youth of Punjab to join his movement, Waris Punjab De.

Amritpal Singh (left, before in Dubai), and (right, after his baptism)
Amritpal Singh (left, before in Dubai), and (right, after his baptism)

There are too many similarities between him and the slain separatist, Bhindranwale and this identical existence is worrying not just the political thinkers, analysts and civil societies, but the common populace of Punjab, the most. 

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