By Praveen Swami
He has returned, as the prophecies promised, riding a white horse at the head of a great army — not in flesh, but as an unsmiling simulacrum staring out at the world from computer screens, videos and t-shirts for $38.44, if you’re shopping online in the United States, but just £15.50 in London and even cheaper in Amritsar.
There are songs extolling the war he unleashed, hip-hop and traditional dhadi vaar fused together, belted out by radical singers whose lack of skill is more than compensated for by their adolescent enthusiasm.
“Now,” wrote Salman Rushdie, “I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what”. The ghost of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is just that: unfinished business.
Khalistani Symbols & Icons Are Still Alive
Facing the diplomatic equivalent of a schoolyard shaming from the Indian government on his journey through India, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is learning just how toxic this legacy is.
Earlier this month, Khalistanis turned Bhindranwale’s home — in the curiously named village of Rodé-Landé (which shall remain untranslated here) — into a museum showcasing his murderous career. He figures, too, in the iconography in the basement of the Golden Temple’s memorial to those slain in Operaton Bluestar. Neither place documents his victims.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, among others, believes that two of Trudeau’s ministers, Harjit Sajjan and Amarjit Sohi, harbour Khalistan sympathies — a claim they have denied.
The concern isn’t without foundation, though: last year, Trudeau showed up at an event where Khalistan flags were on display. There’s been anger in India, too, for efforts to have the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 designated a ‘genocide’ by Canada’s parliament.
Khalistani groups are now mobilising to put pressure for a referendum on a Sikh state in India.
There are no prizes to be won for understanding India’s sensitivities: not counting the carnage at the Golden Temple and the 1984 riots, the Khalistan movement claimed over 21,000 lives, a staggering 5,265 in 1991 alone — more bloodshed than Kashmir has ever seen through the course of its long history of ‘jihad’.
Yet, there is something more complex than Canadian political intrigue at play, which Indians need to understand — why the ideas and icons of Khalistan are still alive, long after the movement which birthed them disappeared as a significant force.
Why it is Nothing Unusual
For one, it’s important to discard the notion that something radically new or unusual is playing out in Canada or elsewhere in the Sikh diaspora. Even though the idea that Khalistan is rising has had widespread play in the media, it never quite went away in the diaspora. In 1994, for example, journalist Tarsem Singh Purewal was assassinated for exposing Khalistan fundraising in the United Kingdom; the doughty anti-Khalistan editor of the Indo-Canadian Times was killed in 1998.
Among those who have followed the course of Khalistan politics in the diaspora, the ongoing mobilisation in Canada has provoked a less than intense been-there-done-that sensation.
In 2008, for example, Gordon Campbell, who served as premier of the province of British Columbia from 2001 to 2010, showed up at a procession where Khalistanis had displayed hagiographic images of Talwinder Singh Parmar — the militant responsible for the bombing of Air India flight 182, which claimed the lives of 329 people, 22 of them Indian nationals, and the rest mainly Canadians of Indian descent.
A Tool of Protest Against Marginalisation
For the young recruits to the Khalistan cause in the diaspora, though, the cause has meaning entirely sundered from its political context inside India. In 2008, for example, the town of Surrey in British Columbia exploded with controversy after 20 schools students bearing images of Bhindranwale’s speeches, along with a slogan from his speeches:
I do not fear physical death; it is the death of consciousness that is a sure death.
In another, similar incident, a student had arrived in school wearing a now-popular emblem with diasporic Khalistanis, drawn from the logo of Parmar’s militant group, the Babbar Khalsa: the traditional Sikh khanda, but with its swords replaced by Kalashnikovs.
The years since have seen similar iconography and aesthetics become more common among young Sikhs in the diaspora — and even in India. It is not, however, in any simple sense a sign of a growing endorsement of the Khalistani project.
Scholar Kamala Nayar has noted that young Sikhs have appropriated Khalistan as a tool with which to protest their own perceived marginalisation in societies like the United Kingdom or Canada — one that allows them to fuse other protest cultures, like hip-hop, with the political heritage of their parents.
‘Rap-ization of Sikh Culture’
Nayar has described this new culture as “the expression of marginalisation through the ‘rap-ization’ of Sikh culture” — the Kalashnikovs of Punjab’s death cult playing a role here similar to the display of handguns in African-American pop culture.
In India, too, the politics of millenials’ Khalistan is complex — and distinct from its iteration in the 1980s. Khalistan iconography is, for one, entwined with caste.
In response to the growing economic clout and political activism of Punjab’s Dalits — who, despite their relative wealth and Sikhism’s egalitarian promise, are discriminated against on a large scale — some young Jats have adopted Bhindranwale as an emblem of their masculinity and privilege.
Pro-Khalistan music and lyrics, moreover, often address issues like drug abuse and corruption. Representing, thus, a utopian alternative to Punjab’s discredited political system.
Long in retreat in India, the Khalistan movement in the diaspora has continued to generate violence — ranging from pitched battles in gurudwaras to political mobilisation, and even the dispatch of young men to Inter-Services Intelligence-run training facilities located everywhere from Thailand’s Mae Sot to Lahore.
Time to Have an Honest Conversation
For all the hype, though, it’s important to note the Khalistan movement hasn’t actually succeeded inside India: precisely four civilians and 13 security force personnel have been killed from 2010 on, while 40 militants have been shot dead, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. These figures — far lower than the violence perpetrated by ‘plain-vanilla’ criminals — make clear that while Khalistan militancy might be a cause for concern, it isn’t one for panic.
Instead of fulminating about Trudeau’s alleged ‘sponsorship’ of Khalistan, Indians should treat this time as an opportunity: an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the carnage of 1984, the roots of Sikh fundamentalism, on Khalistan militancy, and on the anxiety unleashed by the rise of Hindutva.
This is a conversation that should be happening in schools and colleges across Punjab where — in ways few understand — the legacy of the Khalistan years still shrouds the cultural and political landscape like a miasma, corroding the state’s civic life.
But that would take real courage — something which comes a lot less easily than outrage.
Featured Image Courtesy: MEAIndia/Twitter
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