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Separatism in Punjab

This map is part of a series of 5 animated maps showing the history of History of India since Independence in 1947.

To the north of India, the region of the Punjab – “the land of the five rivers”–has traditionally been inhabited by Muslims and by Sikhs, a religious group going back to the 15th century.

In 1947, the province was divided between Pakistan and India, provoking a violent exodus of Sikhs who were forced to quit their lands in Pakistan. They lost their rich agricultural properties as well as their sacred sites. The separatist movement was born out of this context.

At the time of independence, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a political party founded in 1920, hoped to create a Sikh state by regrouping the numerous Sikh princely states in the region. However, the Indian government resisted the move, fearing this would set a dangerous precedent for a secular country, which, moreover, had just gone through a territorial partition on religious grounds.

In 1956 the state of Punjab was created to include both Sikhs and Hindus with the newly built city of Chandigarh as its capital.

In 1966, Haryana, with Hindi as its major language, was separated from Punjab which now had a majority of Sikhs. Both states shared the same capital Chandigarh, a factor that added to the discontent of the Sikhs.

Economic prosperity generated by the Green Revolution from 1965 onwards did not put an end to Sikh demands. These became more radical under the leadership of the religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale whilst terrorist attacks and riots between Hindus and Sikhs multiplied in the 1980s.

The call for an independent state of Khalistan was launched in 1981 by a Sikh businessman and American citizen. Khalistan, “land of the pure” adopted its own flag and currency, and claimed its independent status in the United Nations. The Indian government suspected Pakistan of encouraging this separatist and terrorist movement.

On 5 June 1984, the Indian army attacked the Sikhs’ sacred Golden temple at Amritsar, which had become Bhindranwale’s armed headquarters. “Operation Bluestar”, as it was named, provoked strong indignation in India and amongst Sikhs abroad. Sikh soldiers mutinied, others Sikhs resigned from their posts in the administration or returned their state honours. In October 1984, prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This led to massacres of Sikhs in Delhi which, in turn, bred new religious tensions between Hindus and Sikhs.

From 1987 to 1991, the Indian government adopted a two-pronged policy to quell Sikh separatist movements. This included appeasement of Sikhs through new political accords with Delhi or symbolic visits by heads of states to the Golden Temple. At the same time, the central government never abandoned the use of military force. Although the movement for Khalistan has been successfully controlled, continued military operations, such as “Black Thunder” in the Golden Temple, have further alienated the Sikhs. They have created a sentiment of persecution and strengthened a community identity amongst a minority that today considers itself to be vulnerable.