The Punjab crisis

Context: After the Punjab police launched a coordinated crackdown against the Dubai-returned radical preacher, Amritpal Singh, and his associates on March 18, there is growing concern about a revival of the Khalistan movement in Punjab.

Earlier thousands of Sikhs protested on Thursday for the release of Lovepreet Toofan, a close associate of Sikh leader Amritpal Singh. Later, the same peaceful protest turned violent when police used force to disperse the protesters.

The resurgence of Khalistan Demand

The book Blood for Blood: Fifty Years of the Global Khalistan Project, Canadian journalist Terry Milewski wrote how the Khalistan movement in Canada, the United Kingdom and India has been sustained for decades by Pakistan. The demand have always had a fringe but it has existed peacefully with the mainstream and performs a function of democracy

Recent issues

  • Punjab is an agrarian powerhouse, but its intense wheat-paddy agriculture cycle has depleted the ground water levels. Once the “breadbasket of the nation”, Punjab is fast becoming a desert. 
  • Heavy use of chemicals has turned the State into a cancer belt. Mafias dominate every revenue source, from sand to gravel to transport.
  • Punjab being a border State, the Centre has always been reluctant to install big industry here. Small- and medium-scale industry is dying out because of a huge electricity crisis and the labour exodus. 
  • Education levels have dropped, health facilities are dismal. Once the country’s number one State, Punjab has now moved to a middling 16th position in GDP ranking. 
  • The State’s loan burden is over Rs.3 lakh crore. The average individual farmer loan exceeds Rs.2 lakh. In the last two decades, about 20,000 farmers and labourers have died by suicide
  • A study conducted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), revealed that in the state of 30 million people, 15% of the population are consuming drugs.
  • The 2021 economic survey reported that Punjab has an unemployment rate of 7.4%, one of the highest in India. Even though both drugs and unemployment have consistently ranked high as issues in political polls, politicians have yet to provide results.
  • A maverick separatist leader like Amritpal Singh becomes so quickly popular because rural Punjab is desperately seeking a hero to deliver it from its present penury.
  • The growing influence of the Deras and conversions to Christianity in Punjab and the thorny issue of Centre-State relations.
  • Incidents of storming and the lack of action taken against the mob will only “embolden radical elements“. It equally raises questions about police Intelligence.
  • Further as discussed a section of the diaspora sitting abroad  as well as the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence) have been continuing their nefarious activities to create trouble in Punjab.

History of the crisis

  • During the 1980s, Punjab was engulfed by a separatist movement which was transformed into a campaign of terror and which has been aptly described by some as a low-intensity war and a dangerous crisis for the Indian nation. 
  • The genesis of the problem lay in the growth of communalism in Punjab in the course of the twentieth century and, in particular, since 1947, and which erupted into extremism, separatism and terrorism after 1980 
  • Before 1947, communalism in Punjab was a triad with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communalisms, opposing one another, and the latter two often joining forces against the first. After August 1947, Muslim communalism having disappeared from the Punjab, Hindu and Sikh communalisms were pitted against each other. The Akali leadership adopted certain communal themes which became the constitutive elements of Sikh communalism in all its phases. 
  • The Akalis asserted that religion and politics could not be separated as the two were essentially combined in Sikhism. They also claimed that the Akali Dal was the sole representative of the Sikh Panth which was defined as a combination of the Sikh religion and the political and other secular interests of all Sikhs. 
  • Akalis highlighted that Sikhs were being continuously subjected to discrimination, oppression, persecution, humiliation and victimization, and that there were all sorts of conspiracies against them. There was also constant anti Hindu rhetoric. Hindus were accused of designs to dominate Sikhs, of imposing Brahminical tyranny over them, and of threatening their ‘Sikh identity’. Akalis raised the cry of Sikh religion in danger. 
  • A commission appointed by Nehru in 1961. The  political scientist Baldev Raj Nayar was to point out in 1966 that though Sikhs ‘are less than 2 per cent of the Indian population, they constitute about 20 per cent of the Indian army , have double their proportionate share in the Indian administrative services, and that in the Punjab their share in the services, as also in the legislature, the cabinet, and the Congress Party organisation, is higher than their proportion in the population 
  • The use and manipulation of the institutions and symbols of the Sikh religion in order to harness religious sentiments and fervour to communal appeal. Nehru adopted three basic rules for dealing with militant agitations and their demands: no negotiations or political transactions with the leaders of a movement or acceptance of their demands if they had secessionist tendencies, if they took recourse to violence, or based their movement or demands on religion or communalism. Nehru was more than aware of the fascist character of extreme communalism, including its Akali variety under Master Tara Singh’s leadership. 
  • At the same time, Nehru, being very sensitive to the feelings of the minorities, tried to conciliate the Akalis by accommodating, as far as possible, their secular demands. This approach led him to sign pacts with the Akali Dal twice in 1948 and 1956 when it agreed to shed its communal character 
  • The accommodative strategy failed, however, to stem the growth of communalism in Punjab. New leaders soon emerged and resurrected the Akali Dal on a more extreme ideological and political basis, formulating and putting forward new lists of demands and grievances. Simultaneously , the Congress accommodation of the Akalis strengthened Hindu communal forces. 


  1. The first issue was that of state language: to decide what was to be the language of administration and schooling in bilingual Punjab. The Hindu communalists wanted this status for Hindi and the Sikh communalists for Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script The issue was given a strong communal complexion by both the Sikh and Hindu communalists. 
  2. The second issue—that of the Punjabi Suba—proved to be more emotive and divisive. After the SRC was set up in 1955, the Akali Dal, the CPI, many Congressmen and Punjabi intellectuals put before it a demand for the reorganization of the state on linguistic lines, which would lead to the creation of Punjabi-speaking Punjab and Hindi-speaking Haryana. Though PEPSU was organised in 1956 but later Akali Dal under the leadership of Master Tara Singh soon organized a powerful agitation around the demand for the formation of a Punjabi Suba. Giving the demand a blatantly communal character, the Akali Dal alleged that the non-acceptance of the demand was an act of discrimination against Sikhs. 
  3. The Harijan Sikhs, known as Mazhabi Sikhs, who were mostly landless agricultural labourers, also opposed the demand for a Punjabi Suba because they were afraid that the new state would be dominated by their class opponents, the rich peasants, who as Jat Sikhs were the main supporters of the Akali Dal. 

The Akali Problem

  • After the formation of Punjab state, the Akali Dal failed to secure a majority in the 1967 and later elections. For one, the population arithmetic did not favour it as the Sikhs constituted less than 60 per cent of Punjab’s population 
  • Second, the Scheduled Caste Sikhs, constituting 25 to 30 per cent of the Sikh population, had, as agricultural labourers, a basic class contradiction with the rich and middle peasants, who were the main social base of the Akali Dal. They , therefore, voted for the Congress and the Communists till 1980. 
  • Third, and most important of all, Sikhs did not vote exclusively along communal lines. Most often, a good majority of Sikhs voted for the Congress and the Communists. 
  • In fact, from 1952 to 1980, the Akali votes hovered between 35 and 45 per cent of the Sikh votes. In the 1980 elections to the Punjab assembly , just before launching its most militant and communal movement, the Akali Dal secured only 26.9 per cent of the total vote. This meant that less than 50 per cent of Sikhs voted for it and that the majority of Sikhs rejected the Akali politics and ideology . 
  • Having lost the elections in 1980 and in order to widen their support base among Sikhs, the Akalis began to intensify the communal content of their politics and to continuously escalate their demands 
  • Akali Dal, headed by Sant Longowal, submitted to the prime minister a memorandum of forty- five religious, political, economic and social demands and grievances, including the issue of the sharing of Punjab’s river waters between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and the question of the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, and launched a virulent campaign around them. Very soon, implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR), adopted in 1973, became the most prominent demand. 


  • Terrorism made its appearance in Punjab in 1981 as a partial culmination of communal politics since 1947 and the policy of appeasement towards communalism followed by the Punjab Congress leadership, especially since the early 1970s. 
  • The initiator of terrorism was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who emerged in the late 1970s as a strong campaigner of Sikh orthodoxy . In this campaign he received the tacit support of the Punjab Congress led by Giani Zail Singh, who hoped to use him to undercut the Akalis. He was, however, to soon become a Frankenstein and turn against his erstwhile patrons. 
  • The terrorist campaign by Bhindranwale and the All India Sikh Students Federation, headed by AmrikSingh, began on 24 April 1980 with the assassination of the head of the Nirankari sect. This was followed by the killing of many Nirankaris, dissident Akalis and Congress workers. 
  • Bhindranwale was shielded from government action by Giani Zail Singh who had in 1980 become the home minister at the Centre. Bhindranwale moved in July 1982 to the sanctuary of Guru NanakNiwas, a building within the Golden Temple complex from where he directed the campaign of terrorism in Punjab. 
  • Bhindranwale was, however, since 1981, carrying on a verbal campaign of hatred against Hindus and ‘fallen’ Sikhs, that is, members of reformist Sikh sects, and inciting violence against them, especially through widely circulated audio cassettes. Later he started targeting Hindus on an increasing scale, and indiscriminate killing of Hindus began; this could be done with relative impunity as the Punjab administration and police were in a run-down condition and the Government of India was hesitant to take action against terrorism. 
  • He organized the looting of local banks, jewellery shops and home guard armouries, the killing of Nirankaris and government officials and random bomb explosions Bhindranwale also gave a call for a separation from and an armed struggle against the Indian state, emphasizing the separateness and sovereignty of Sikhs. 
  • Fearing arrest, in December 1983, Bhindranwale moved into the safe haven of the Akal Takht within the Golden Temple and made it his headquarters and armoury , and a sanctuary for his terrorist followers, many of whom were criminals and smugglers. He smuggled on a large scale light machine-guns and other sophisticated arms into the temple, and set up workshops there for fabricating Sten-guns, hand grenades and other arms . A large number of other gurudwaras were also used as sanctuaries and bases for terrorist activities. 
  • Bhindranwale hoped to gradually transform terrorism into a general insurgency and an armed uprising. They were fighting for political and ideological hegemony over the people of Punjab. All their activities were designed to prove that the Indian state was not capable of ruling in Punjab and, therefore, separation from India was a realizable objective 

Response of Akalis

  1. There was no open stand against the terrorists or unequivocal condemnation of their activities or the senseless killings or the vitriolic propaganda of Bhindranwale. Instead, even the moderate Akali leaders defended, directly or indirectly , those accused of terrorist acts. They condemned every concrete action of the police against the terrorists. They objected to any government action against Bhindranwale. 
  2. It was on rare occasions, the Akali leaders did condemn violence and individual killings, they put the blame on the government and the Congress, accusing them of organizing the violence and killings in order to tarnish the Sikh image. 
  3. The feeling that their leadership of the Sikh masses was in danger, they tried to keep up with Bhindranwale. As they lost ground to the latter, they took up more and more extreme positions, competing with him in demands and aggressive political and ideological posturing. 
  4. Akali leaders found it difficult oppose Bhindranwale was the fact that they shared a common political ideology with him and the extremists, even though they had tactical and strategic political differences. The Akalis equally whipped up communal feelings; and the public manifestations of the Akali ideology were indistinguishable from those of Bhindranwale and the extremists and, in fact, echoed them 

Response of Indira Gandhi

  • Instead of boldly confronting the communal and separatist challenge to the Indian polity , Indira Gandhi gave way to indecisiveness; her response, uncharacteristic of her political style, was to dither and vacillate between a policy of appeasement and tactical manoeuvring and firmness. 
  • Indira Gandhi carried on endless negotiations with G.S. Tohra, Parkash Singh Badal and H.S. Longowal. Knuckling under the Akali and terrorist threats, she failed to evolve what the situation demanded, namely, a strategy of combating communalism, secessionism and terrorism. 
  • K.P.S. Gill, former director- general of police in Punjab who directed the successful phase of the antiterrorist campaign there, has pointed out: ‘Nothing encourages the terrorists to greater audacity than the spectacle of weakness in the political leadership, and of confusion in the security forces 
  • An increasingly dangerous feature of the situation was Pakistan’s growing involvement in Punjab affairs. As a part of its strategy of waging low-intensity warfare against India, Pakistan had started providing training, weapons, ideological indoctrination, safe areas for hiding, and military guidance to terrorist organizations. Certain extremist Sikh groups abroad were also giving increasing encouragement to the secessionists and helping them with money and weapons. 

Operation Blue Star

  • By June 1984, the situation had reached an explosive point as terrorist activity escalated. There was in Punjab and in the country as a whole an intense feeling of danger to the peace and unity of the country. Fear and panic were spreading among Hindus in Punjab with an increasing number leaving the state. 
  • One of the most worrisome features of the situation was the increasing Hindu–Sikh divide in Punjab and the spread of Hindu communalism in the rest of the country , especially in North India. A warning came from Haryana when anti-Sikh rioting broke out in February.
  • The Government of India undertook military action, code-named Operation Blue Star. While there was no alternative to military action once the situation had worsened to the extent it had, there is no doubt, as later events were to show, that the operation was hastily conceived, undertaken without adequate information and proper planning and poorly executed, with the result that its political and emotional cost proved to be far higher than its planners had anticipated. 
  • The military operation turned into a full-scale battle, with the army having to deploy tanks in the end. What was worse, over a thousand devotees and temple staff were trapped inside the temple and many of them died in the crossfire. Moreover, the buildings in the temple complex were severely damaged, with the Akal Takht being virtually razed to the ground. Harmandir Sahib, the most hallowed of the Sikh shrines, was riddled with bullet marks, even though the army had taken special care at the cost of the lives of its soldiers not to damage it. 
  • Operation Blue Star produced a deep sense of anger and outrage among Sikhs all over the country . It was seen by most of them as a sacrilege and an affront to the community rather than as a necessary though unpleasant effort to deal with Bhindranwale and the terrorists.
  • Operation Blue Star had certain positive features. It established that the Indian state was strong enough to deal with secession and terrorism; it put an end to the charismatic Bhindranwale and his gang; and it created that minimum of law and order which enabled secular parties such as the Congress, CPI and CPM to move among the angry people and counter communal politics by explaining to them that the real responsibility for the Punjab situation lay with Bhindranwale, the terrorists, and the Akali communalists. 
  • Following Operation Blue Star, the terrorists vowed vengeance against Indira Gandhi and her family for having desecrated the Golden Temple. In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh members of her security guard. Earlier she had rejected her security chief’s suggestion that all Sikhs be removed from her security staff .
  • The assassination of the popular prime minister, in an atmosphere of heightened communalization in North India during 1981–84, led to a wave of horror, fear, anger and communal outrage among people all over the country , especially among the poor. This anger took an ugly and communal form in Delhi and some other parts of North India, where anti-Sikh riots broke out as soon as the news of the assassination was announced.

Response of Rajiv Gandhi

  • Rajiv Gandhi succeeded Indira Gandhi as prime minister in November 1984. He moved quickly after the general elections in December 1984 to tackle the Punjab problem. In January 1985, the major jailed leaders, including the Akali Dal president, H.S. Longowal, were released. A month later Rajiv Gandhi ordered an independent judicial enquiry into the November riots. 
  • Rajiv Gandhi soon initiated negotiations with the Akali leaders in the belief that a settlement with them would provide a lasting solution to the Punjab problem. 
  • Rajiv Gandhi and Longowal signed the Punjab Accord. The government conceded the major Akali demands and promised to have others reviewed. In particular, it was agreed that Chandigarh would be transferred to Punjab, a commission would determine which Hindi-speaking territories would be transferred from Punjab to Haryana, and the river water dispute would be adjudicated by an independent tribunal. 
  • The Akali government, headed by Surjit Singh Barnala, was, however, from the beginning riven with factionalism and, consequently , immobilized. The militant groups soon regrouped taking advantage of the soft policies of the Barnala government. There was, over time, a resurgence in terrorist activities, and the state government, riven with factionalism, was unable to contain them. Consequently, the central government dismissed the Barnala ministry and imposed President’s Rule in Punjab 
  • The fact is that the Akali Dal and an Akali government, sharing the ideological wavelength of the extremists and the terrorists, were incapable of confronting or fighting communalism and separatism. It was, therefore, a strategic error on the part of the Rajiv Gandhi government to stake all on Barnala and his supporters. Also despite President’s Rule, terrorism in Punjab went on growing, going through phases of waning and resurgence, especially as after 1985 it had begun to be openly funded, supported and even directed by Pakistan. 
  • Most of the terrorist gangs took to extortion, robbery, smuggling, drugs, abduction and rape, land grabbing, murder of innocents, and a lavish lifestyle. From 1987, they also began a systematic campaign to acquire political and ideological hegemony over the people. Their ban on meat, liquor, tobacco, and the use of sarees by women, their effort to determine the dress of schoolchildren, their restrictions on marriage rites and practices, their hoisting of the Khalistani flag on public buildings, their collection of parallel taxes, were all designed to convince the people that they were the rulers of tomorrow. 
  • The Rajiv Gandhi government several times came near getting an upper hand over the terrorists, but it lacked the determination to run the full course. It, thus, lost the advantage gained by strong state action, and inevitably led to higher levels of state violence against terrorism every time. The policy of ‘solving’ the Punjab problem through negotiations with and appeasement of the terrorists and extreme communalists was followed even more vigorously by the governments of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar during 1990 and 199 1
  • The state did finally take strong action. A preview of such action was Operation Black Thunder,  undertaken by the Punjab police and paramilitary forces in May 1988, which succeeded in flushing out the terrorists from the Golden Temple. 
  • A hard policy towards terrorism was followed from mid-1991 onwards by the Narasimha Rao government at the Centre and after the February 1992 elections by the Congress government led by Beant Singh in Punjab. As a result of the approach by 1993, Punjab had been virtually freed of terrorism. 

Way forward

  1. There are certain elements who are trying to and have been trying to indulge in various activities, and surface time and again; but the people of Punjab, whatever the community, whatever their affiliations might be, everybody had suffered during the 1980s and none of them are ready to go back to that time.
  2. There is need for political mobilisation. All political parties, irrespective of whatever differences they may have on other issues, must ensure that on this particular issue an overwhelming part of the population, which is already in the democratic mainstream, continues to remain in that mainstream.
  3. The police should have all kinds of intelligence set-ups, they should ensure that they have prior information and have the identification of the specific person. 

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