Fifty years back, on October 12, 1971, Dr Jagjit Singh Chauhan, the founder of the Khalistan movement, placed an advertisement in the New York Times, proclaiming the birth of the Sikh state. “We are a nation in our own right,” he wrote as he declared himself to be the first president of the Khalistan state. Canadian journalist Terry Milewski’s book, ‘Blood for blood: Fifty years of the global Khalistan project’, published by HarperCollins Publishers India begins at this point. From there on, Milewski provides an extraordinary account of the last half a century of what has been a very violent movement. “For all sides, Khalistan became a case study in how not to do it,” he writes as he ends the prologue to his book.
Milewski explained that neither did the separatists have any coherent objective or rationale in mind, nor did the politicians or the media know how to react to it. In an interview with Indianexpress.com, Millewski spoke at length about how the movement has been sustained all these years primarily because of the support it has from Pakistan and more recently China. The role played by Pakistan, he said, has been that of providing a safe haven to the terrorists, including Talwinder Singh Parmar, the prime accused in the 1985 Air India bombing incident. He also spoke about the incoherency in what the movement supporters expect the new nation of Khalistan to be, why large parts of the original 19th century Sikh empire have been left out of it, and why there is stronger support for the movement among the Sikh diaspora abroad rather than among those in India.
Excerpts of the interview
Why do you say that the Khalistan movement is a case study in how not to do it?
What occurred to me is, as I put the research together for this book, almost everyone involved made a hash of it. By that I mean the separatists who never managed to get a coherent strategy together to bring about the purpose of an independent state of Khalistan. They never seemed to have a coherent rationale, they never had democratic support among the majority of Sikhs. The politicians, who confronted this both in India and in Canada, the UK and elsewhere sort of looked the other way and didn’t really understand what was going on and didn’t do much about it. The security agencies seemed to let things happen. Notably, for example, the Air India bombing in 1985, they had the suspects under surveillance for three months before the bombing, they knew what they were up to. They followed them into the woods for test bombing and still failed to stop it. And the media, I would include myself as somebody who followed this for 35 years and failed to convey to the wider public what was going on, why it was going on and who was doing it. So that’s why I said that this was a case study on failure and how not to do it.
What are the origins of Khalistan and what does the movement want exactly?
If you look at the Khalistan movement, you wonder where the rationale is. Where is the description of what Khalistan is supposed to be? The Khalistanis themselves don’t describe it precisely because, other than a motive of revenge for the blood extracted from Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, there’s really no description anywhere of what kind of state would Khalistan be.
For example, I have made a note in the book of a map that has been published to illustrate where Khalistan will be, and it is very revealing. It makes very grand claims on Indian territory, to the east of the Radcliffe line, but makes no claims on Pakistani Punjab. How do you explain that? Half of traditional Sikh lands that are now in Pakistan are somehow left off the map. Lahore, for example, was the capital of a Sikh Empire 200 years ago. We can’t say that’s irrelevant to Sikh culture and history. What about Nankana Sahib? It is the birth place of Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion. They are not claiming that. These have been left off for strategic reasons to maintain Pakistani support.
Perhaps the original plan was to reclaim the Sikh empire. But the Sikh empire reached all the way to the Khyber Pass in the west and to western Tibet in the east, down to the Sutlej river. However, there’s a whole chunk of Indian Punjab, which was not included in the old Sikh Empire 200 years ago. For instance, it did not include Patiala, the home base of Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab. Rather the empire was dominated by its capital at Lahore, which was Ranjit Singh’s seat of power and his home base. So clearly, the map of the Sikh empire does not match with the various versions of Khalistan being proposed by the separatist leaders.
But they also do not define what is the character of the proposed state of Khalistan. Is it a democracy? Is it a westward leaning free market economy? Is it a theocracy? What about religious minorities in Khalistan? Are the Hindus supposed to flee again like they did during the Partition?
I have seen one proposed constitution of the state of Khalistan for example, which is unsigned. There’s no clue who wrote it. It says Khalistan will be a free country and a westward leaning democracy, but non-Sikhs will not be allowed to play any part in politics. That gives the game away again. If that’s their idea of a free market democracy, where if you are the wrong religion you don’t get to have any say in politics, then it’s not a very coherent idea.
Why would you say that some areas of the Sikh empire have been excluded?
I think it’s because they can’t do without Pakistani support. Let’s step back for a moment and remember that there is no other country on the face of the earth, where Sikh separatists have been able to, for decades to train, get weapons, have a safe haven and do cross border attacks into Indian Punjab and elsewhere in India. There’s only Pakistan which has supported the movement since the very start. It is the need for revenge in Pakistani eyes for the 1971 War, which tore off what was then East Pakistan to turn it into Bangladesh, an independent country… That’s when Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, the then leader of Pakistan, said that we need to get revenge, we need to tear off a piece of India in retaliation and that would be Khalistan. That would provide a buffer state between Pakistan and its arch enemy India and it would cut off Indian land access to Kashmir which is another important priority for the Pakistani leadership. So they had their reasons for supporting Khalistan. The Khalistan movement has gotten nowhere despite Pakistani support, but it certainly had no prospects without it.
What role has Pakistan played in helping the Khalistan movement?
The principal role played by Pakistan has been in providing a base or a safe haven for wanted terrorists. When Talwinder Singh Parmar had finished with the Air India bombing in 1985, and when he thought that the police were getting close he fled Canada. He was a Canadian citizen, as were the other members of his gang that did the bombing. He fled to Pakistan, and he was left alone. He could do what he wanted. He was given contacts with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. He was operating a gun running operation. He was introduced to his weapons dealer by an ISI agent who was an Islamic jihadist, with whom the Khalistanis formed an alliance for strategic reasons. It is a mistake to assume that Pakistan funded this operation. The diaspora had a lot of money and they funded themselves. But they needed a place to survive and that was Pakistan’s role.
Why is it that the Khalistan movement has more popular support from the Sikh diaspora rather than the Sikhs in India?
Firstly, within India this is not ancient history. More than 20,000 people were killed in the Sikh insurgency in the 80s and early 90s. These were friends and families of the people who are living in Punjab today. They remember this all very clearly. They do not want a repeat of it and that’s certainly one reason for the lack of support. If you look at the voting figures of the last 30 years when separatists have run for office in Punjab they have gone absolutely nowhere. In the last election in 2017, they got 0.3 percent of the vote. That’s how bad the level of support is within India.
Also, people often forget that Sikhs have been a successful community in India. They have succeeded far beyond their numbers. They are just about 2% of the population, but have been extremely successful in business, the professions, the bureaucracy, and the army. Despite being such a small community they have produced a president and a prime minister of the country.
Whereas the diaspora is composed predominantly of people who don’t want to live in India. That’s obviously why they are living in Canada or West London or California, because they chose to leave. These people include many who remember the bad old days of the 80s and have no experience of the modern age in India. Many of them had been banned from getting a visa to visit family in India for years. That changed in recent years when under Manmohan Singh the black list was purged and a lot of people were allowed to visit India and bury the past. Those people who have been excluded from India didn’t really know what new India was like, and they remember the bad old days of 84, and they were living in the past. The new generation doesn’t have much memory of all that. So, how long this movement will survive even in the diaspora is a question to be asked. I think it’s failing pretty fast.
Does the Sikh diaspora demanding Khalistan wish to live in the new state if at all it is made?
That is questionable to me. The Sikh community in Canada, for instance, has been extremely successful. Most of them have no interest in Khalistan politics. They are professionals, driving big cars, living in nice houses, living the Canadian lifestyle. They are worried about getting to work on time and trying to bring up their kids, same as everyone else. There is a small minority that is clinging to the past, and that small minority remains significant not because of popular support, but rather because they are trying to keep up their political influence with various political parties both from the left and the right. They can rally supporters en masse who will vote for the politicians who can sing their song.
For example, there is a very important Gurdwara in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada, which has big posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the 1985 Air India bombers. This man is Canada’s worst-ever mass murderer. He is a proven terrorist who slaughtered more than 300 completely innocent civilians, and he is held up as a hero and a martyr by this important Gurdwara. They get away with it, they are indulged and tolerated by politicians who support their agenda by looking away in return for thousands of votes during election time.
What role is China playing in supporting this movement?
Sometime last fall, the English language version of The People’s Daily, which is an official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ran a learned academic article by a supporter of the CCP. It said that if India should start to recognise and support an independent Taiwan, then China might start supporting independence movements in India. So for Indian strategists, two supporters of the Khalistani movement on the northern front need to be considered, the Pakistanis and the Chinese. Or perhaps, it is just one front, now that China basically owns Pakistan. With the One Belt, One Road initiative, billions of dollars have been sunk into Pakistan by the Chinese. Pakistan is in hock to China.
And guess who the Khalistani separatists are pledging allegiance to? ‘Sikhs for Justice’ for instance, which is the lobby group that is campaigning around the world for a referendum on Sikh independence, officially pledged in writing their allegiance to, firstly, Pakistan and secondly to China. The Khalistan movement is not about popular support… it’s about geo-politics. China could well tolerate, subsidise and assist in various ways the Khalistan movement on the basis that it is making trouble for their enemies in India.