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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 41 October 7, 2023

The Khalistan Question: An Interview with Pritam Singh (2020)

Saturday 7 October 2023, by Pritam Singh


Feb 9, 2020

Joe Hayns

An interview with Pritam Singh on the demand for Khalistan

This year, Punjabis will hold a referendum (known as “Referendum 2020”) over whether Indian Punjab should become an independent state called Khalistan. The non-binding referendum aims to gauge the interest of Punjabis in establishing Khalistan before making a formal case at the UN for a binding referendum. In this context, Joe Hayns interviews Pritam Singh, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Oxford Brookes University and long-standing analyst of the political economy of India (with a focus on Punjab). Among other things, they discuss the movement’s social and class bases, its relationship to Sikhism, its dynamics in Punjab compared to diaspora, and its curious relationship to Hindutva nationalism.

Joe Hayns: In 2020, Punjabis in India and in the diaspora will hold a referendum (“Referendum 2020”) over whether Punjab should become independent from India. Could you give a sense of the basic political impetus for the referendum?

Pritam Singh: There are several things I want to say on Referendum 2020.

First of all, not everyone in favour of the referendum supports the demand for an independent Punjab (which would be called Khalistan). There are different kinds of supporters.

Some of the referendum’s supporters are people who feel injured and pained by what happened during the 1984 attacks against Sikhs in Delhi and many other towns. Instead of being punished, many perpetrators of the massacre in Delhi were even honoured later on. Amongst many Sikhs, there is an enduring sense of injustice.

Also, we can’t forget the pain of Operation Blue Star itself, when the Indian army conducted a military operation in one of Sikhism’s holiest places, the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). The operation was unjustified: there were other ways of dealing with the problem. But Indira Gandhi’s objective with Blue Star was to mobilize the Hindu majority for electoral purposes.

Many of those who come to the so-called Khalistan rallies in the UK have these mixed feelings about the Indian state. They feel that it has been unjust (especially towards Punjabis), but one should not automatically assume that everyone who comes supports the Khalistan demand. This is not commonly recognized in the coverage of these rallies.

The second point is that even amongst those who are supporters of Khalistan, there are two groups. In one group are those who are very committed ideologues of Khalistan. In the second are those who are not entirely committed to the idea that Sikhs should have their own state; rather, they are showing their disaffection with the Indian state through the idea of Khalistan.

The people who are ideologically committed, they are probably very small in number. For various reasons, their ultimate aim is a Sikh state.

The second group do not have a clear conception of what Khalistan will mean. Will it be a theocratic state, or a state in which Sikhs are numerically dominant but all religious minorities will have equal rights? Will the demand for Khalistan be achieved by an armed struggle or through peaceful means? Will Khalistan be a pure capitalist economy or with socialist features? How will it fit with the teachings of the Sikh faith with those of Guru Granth Sahib? And I will say that even those who are committed, the first variety, even they have not articulated well their notion of the Khalistan state.

Is the Khalistani aspiration more Sikh than Punjabi, would you say?

First of all, keep in mind that the original aspiration of the Sikhs was not to have a separate state, but to have the Punjab remain within a federated India but with more powers. And the aspiration wasn’t even limited to the Punjab. It was part of a larger aspiration for a national devolution.

The aspiration — either for an independent Khalistan or greater devolution of powers to Punjab — certainly has several elements that connect it to Sikhs and Sikhism.

First, the aspiration certainly comes from being a minority all over the country, in which we Sikhs are only about 2%, but a majority in the Punjab. There is therefore a sense that we should have some kind of self-rule. Many Sikhs in the Punjab do feel that the Indian state is over-centralized; that there is too much power at the centre. In the centralized structure, even if you have a government at the state level, it can be dismissed at any time — that has been happening. It is only in the last ten years that a local government has completed a five-year term; every single one that previously came into power has been dismissed.

“there’s also a feeling amongst Sikhs that we are sovereign. And that comes from a long history of the Sikh faith.”

But, there is also a feeling amongst Sikhs that we are sovereign. And that comes from a long history of the Sikh faith. Sovereignty has several meanings in the faith.

First, we have a direct relationship with a God. We don’t accept any other authority. All this partly stems from the Sikh experience under Mughal rule. There was a sense that, “You might have political power in your hands, but you don’t have power over our destiny: we, as a people, we will shape our own destiny.” There is then an aspiration for Sikh sovereignty, which doesn’t necessarily mean Khalistan, a separate state. What this aspiration entails is that in the internal affairs of the Sikhs, no external power has the right to say what we should do. We might debate with each other, oppose each other, but in the end we have the right to make a decision ourselves.

Theologically, this sense is quite deep-rooted. One of the central institutions of the Sikh religion, built just next to the Golden Temple, is the Akal Takht. It was constructed by the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, when Punjab was part of the Mughal Empire. And it was a spiritually rebellious answer to that empire. It expressed the idea that “we have our own rule within your empire, that we are sovereign.”

And in contemporary, or near-contemporary India, how have the political changes at the centre, between the BJP and Congress, affected Sikh perceptions of this more general relationship with the Indian state?

In one sense, there is continuity between the Congress party and the BJP. Both have in common an ideology that India must be a unified nation. The Congress has been using the trope of a secular nationalism, even though it was always compromised with a Hindu tinge right from the writing of the constitution. But, at least at the formal level it was secular, though not in the strict sense of secularism — not a separation of state from religion — but in the peculiar Indian version of secularism, of treating all religions equally. The BJP and RSS also have the same idea of building India into one nation. However for them, this is to be done through Hindutva nationalism, the very glue of which is Hindu identity.

“With the BJP coming to power, those ideologically committed to the Khalistan movement feel that their demand now has greater legitimacy than before.”

Whether it is the Congress or BJP, in their vision for a strong nation, there was a need for a strong centre. Both parties are very suspicious of any demand for decentralization, regional autonomy, self-determination and, of course, secession.

With the BJP coming to power, those ideologically committed to the Khalistan movement feel that their demand has greater legitimacy than before. Previously, their demand was seen as a theocratical one, at odds with what Indian state (through the mouth of Congress) was saying about itself: that the Indian state and India is secular. But now, the BJP is saying India is a Hindu nation. So some in the Khalistan movement are saying, “Ok if you want to turn India into a Hindu nation, we can ourselves become a Sikh nation”.

As a “classic” fascist organization, what is the RSS’ broad relation with Sikhs and Sikhism today?

Atrocities against Sikhs were committed during the Congress regime. Oppression took place under Indira Gandhi. The subsequent Sikh genocide in Delhi took place under Rajiv Gandhi.

Under the BJP regime, attacks or killing of Sikhs has not taken place. And that is due to the ideology of the RSS. They have this vision that Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are “external religions”, whilst Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are “internal religions”, which they see as offshoots of Hinduism. They consciously do not want to antagonize the Sikhs, but rather want to incorporate Sikhism as an arm of Hinduism.

That they don’t want to attack frontally also raises fears amongst the Sikhs: the fear that they will just co-opt us and Sikhism as a distinct identity will be abolished by the BJP. Many Sikh organizations feel that the BJP and RSS are including themselves into Sikh organizations — sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes semi-surreptitiously, sometimes openly — and they see the influence of the RSS in these organizations.

Many Sikhs feel that this is what the BJP-RSS are doing. They are sweet talking us, but they are also slowly maneuvering to abolish the Sikh identity entirely.

To return to Khalistan, is there any clear class basis for the more radical aim of a separate Sikh nation? A regional capitalist class that is motivating others, achieving some hegemony over a cross-class grouping?

Among left-wing academics, there is a kind of superficial formulation that the demand for regional autonomy, self-determination, or even secession, is the aspiration of a regional capitalist class.

Yes, that was my suspicion [laughs].

You know, it’s very crude.


The way capitalism has developed in India, it has penetrated each and every corner, and is a very integrated capitalism.

The Sikh capitalist class does not stand as a distinct, separate capitalist class whose interests are located only in Punjab. The Sikh capitalist class have business interests all over India, even abroad. Their class interests are obviously not in having some small internal market. Their class interests actually go against the demand for Khalistan. It is likewise with other sections of the Sikh elites, especially the Sikh bureaucratic elites (those who are of the state, who are in top positions in the police, army, the civil services). I have personal observed people who, once they enter this elite, undergo a kind of Indianisation.

“There is no distinctive class whose interests are aligned with Khalistan — such a class is very difficult to identify.”

There is no distinctive class whose interests are aligned with Khalistan — such a class is very difficult to identify. Certainly, there is no section of the Sikh working-class which thinks, “in Khalistan, we will be among the first class”. I will even say that the Sikh landowning classes, the rural capitalist class, don’t see any clear economic gains in having a separate state because, again, they are very much integrated into the Indian market. There is no easy identification of a group that has a genuine class interest in pursuing Khalistan.

If this regionalism has no class acting as prime-mover, what social force, or forces, animates it?

The demand for Khalistan, whether made in the Punjab or outside, remains an amalgam of three elements. A small group, who are ideologically committed to Khalistan, for whatever reasons; second, the elements who feel that Sikhs should have some right to self-determination: that they have their own history, their own heritage, which is more likely to be preserved if there are more powers devolved from the central state to Punjab.

Third, the large mass of the Sikh population, who feel dissatisfied with the centre over the fact that the culprits behind various anti-Sikh atrocities have not been punished. There is a sense of injury over that. That is common to both diasporic and domestic Sikhs.

In the Sikh diaspora, let’s say, in Canada and the UK, are there great differences in their broad attitudes towards Khalistan? Do we find those same three types?

The only difference I would find between the Sikhs in India, especially in the Punjab, and Sikhs abroad is that if they are pro-Khalistan in India, they will have a fear of police retaliation. Only a few leaders openly say, “I am a supporter of Khalistan”, and they do so by also declaring that they are for a parliamentary process. They always quote one Supreme Court judgement, which states that the demand for Khalistan through peaceful means is not unconstitutional. It is not an illegal activity and you cannot be prosecuted for supporting the movement on that basis. Only if you adopt violent means are you liable to face legal action. But, even if the Supreme Court has allowed one to articulate a demand for Khalistan, the Indian state does view with great suspicion everyone who either raises the demand for self-determination, or even a greater devolution of power — though this is slightly more tolerated, since it’s coming from other states as well.

I mentioned those three elements for Khalistan. I might add a fourth — the new generations of Sikhs born outside India that are very much into the discourse of human rights. They are lawyers, political scientists, professionals. They do feel that several human rights violations have taken place in the Punjab, and that there has been an impunity. They feel dissatisfied. They are not asking for Khalistan; they are not asking for self-rule. They are simply asking for “human rights”. But, what the Indian state does, if anyone raises the question of human rights, they immediately accuse them of being a Khalistani. This is a weakness of the Indian state apparatus: they are unable to differentiate between these positions.

There’s also something to be said about the evolving relationship between the Left, the Sikh diaspora and the demand for Khalistan.

The Sikh migrants which came to Britain or Canada — not so much to America, as they were more middle-class and professionals — were generally people from a rural background: small peasants, middle peasants, some rural labourers, and dalits also.

In the UK, they were originally great supporters of the Left. The Indian Workers’ Association was a very powerful organization, with thousands of members, and they had a very organic relationship with the Sikh community. The gurdwaras were an integral part of it. When the Indian Workers’ Association would have a demonstration, the gurdwaras would provide the food and so on.

What has happened since 1984 is that the Indian Left, especially the parliamentary left, took a position on Operation Blue Star which alienated a large number of Sikhs in the UK. The Indian Left came very close to the Indian state, under the slogan of “Unity and Integrity”, an alliance that was partly dictated by the global power blocs – the Soviet Bloc, the American Bloc – the former of which advised the Communist Party of India (CPI), a parliamentary party, to not weaken the Indian state.

“The gurdwaras don’t allow these people in anymore – the left is seen as traitors”

They did not protest the human rights violations or the genocide committed against the Sikhs. They did not protest against Operation Blue Star. That traumatized the Sikhs who had been supporting the Left in the UK, who now felt alienated. The Indian Workers’ Association is nearly a rump now. You can count them on your fingers. The gurdwaras don’t allow these people in anymore — the Left is seen as traitors.

I think this was a grave mistake of the Left. Even if you disagreed with Khalistan, as socialists, it is your moral duty to defend people’s human rights. You should stand with them and oppose police repression, oppose military repression, oppose rapes of women. The Left did not do that.

There’s another element behind the Sikh diaspora’s alienation from the Left: a section of the diaspora has become prosperous. I’ve personally known many examples of people who were bus drivers, say, and are now hugely successful business people, even millionaires. They have started seeing themselves as a distinctive class, and they do identify with the Conservative Party, which is the party that defends the interests of those who might otherwise have to pay high taxes, of those who are property owners. However, this is a small section. At the level of sentiment, the Sikh diaspora remains more-or-less sympathetic to the Labour Party.

Similarly, in Canada, there is that section of prosperous and conservative Sikhs which have developed. But, a considerable section remains with the Liberals, with the New Democratic Party, whose leader, Jagmeet Singh, is in fact a Sikh — the first political party in the Western world whose head is a Sikh.

Yes, a section of the diaspora has changed class position, but there is also this disenchantment with the Left.

To stay with the diaspora, we saw explicitly Sikh presence at anti-English Defence League marches around 2010, and I’m sure amongst anti-fascism groups more generally. This was after, I believe, some attempt by the far-right to utilize non-Muslim South Asian activists — to be “not racist”. Was this attempt a total failure, as it appeared to me?

It is complicated in this sense. There is an old Sikh tradition, a memory, that they were persecuted under the Mughals, which is not entirely correct, since some Mughal rulers were very good to the Sikhs, especially Akbar. Many, many Muslim religious figures supported the Sikh Gurus against the Mughal rulers. But still, the historiographic tradition that was created in India said that Muslims persecuted the Sikhs. Many Sikhs do carry this idea.

This idea however was punctuated by Operation Blue Star. Many Sikhs went to Pakistan, which gave them shelter — for their own reasons, not because they love Sikhs or Sikhism particularly. And so the anti-Muslim elements in the Sikh population became weaker. But there is that residue, that prejudice against Muslims. In the UK, stories get circulated that Muslim boys are trying to groom Sikh girls and Hindu girls that they pretend to love, that they get married, and then they force them to convert. Of course, there might be isolated instances, but there is no evidence to show that there has been some concerted plan by any Muslim organization. Yet some Sikhs have become victim to that propaganda.

I also agree with you that EDL has tried to incorporate individual Sikhs and Hindus. But they have faced a lot of stigma from the Sikh community. One Sikh man called Rajinder Singh joined the EDL, and his photograph was circulated. But he was widely condemned by the Sikh community, so these groups have no acceptance.

Especially since the 2000s, some Sikhs felt — and this was a mistake, I think they learned through the experience that it was a mistake — that if we are not presented as Muslims, we are safe. In America especially — because in England Sikhs are reasonably well understood — many Sikhs were attacked because people thought that they were Muslim. The flaw, of course, is the suggestion that if they had been Muslim, the attack would be justified.

It is clearly racism which is behind such attacks. By saying you’re Sikh, you are not safe. Now, a lot of Sikhs don’t say, “we’re not Muslim”, but rather, they recognize the need to play a part in anti-racist struggle.

There are 500,000 Muslims in Indian Punjab, I believe. Is there any animus against non-Sikh Punjabis in some versions of the Khalistani effort?

No. It’s not against the Muslim minority. The demand from Khalistan comes from a fear of — a dread of — Hindu domination. The error which, I think, Khalistan ideologists have fallen into is not answering how they’ll treat not only the Hindu minority in Punjab, but also the Muslim and Christian minorities. They are as big a part, statistically, as Sikhs are of Canada.

To illustrate how minorities may be treated in a future Khalistan state, some Sikh ideologists invoke the memory of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh emperor: “See, we had a Sikh ruler and no one was discriminated against.’’

That is true, but it is also true that Ranjit Singh was a feudal monarch who ruled over a region where Sikhs were only 8% of the population. He knew that he couldn’t rule by antagonizing the Muslim majority, so he included Muslims in the administration and also respected Hindu traditions. He also recruited Christians who came from Europe into his armed forces for modernization of his army. When Ranjit Singh is invoked as an archetypal Sikh ruler, it is not adequately recognized that there were compulsions of governance behind his pluralist mode. Certainly, the Sikh Gurus’ teachings on human equality had an influence on Ranjit Singh. The physical presence of some Sikhs during his period of rise to power who had personally seen the last Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, would have been a powerful reminder to him of Guru’s egalitarian teachings. But we also have to keep in mind that any ruler would take into account the pragmatic needs of governance beyond his own beliefs.

Of course, in another sense, it is a good thing that some ideologists of Khalistan cite Ranjit Singh to suggest that Khalistan would be based on equality of citizenship. In their imagination at least, they believe that Sikhs will rule without discriminating against others. But such ideologists overlook the fact that the experience of Sikh self-rule from the late 18th to mid-19th century cannot be mechanically taken as the complete model for Sikh governance in the 21st century.

To conclude, I want to emphasize that the functionaries of the Indian state make an error in dubbing any Sikh dissatisfaction with Indian state governance as Khalistani. Likewise, the ideologists of Khalistan make an error in dubbing any Sikh criticism of Khalistan as pr0-Indian nationalism. There are real economic, political, ecological and cultural issues relating to Punjab-Centre relations and Sikh-Hindu relations that can not be resolved within the paradigm of opposing or supporting Khalistan. To explore those issues, we need another discussion, and another interview.

(Authors: Joe Hayns is a PhD candidate (UCU), and works in the arts (Bectu).

Dr Pritam Singh is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics at Oxford Brookes University. His research has focussed on the political economy of Indian capitalism and Punjab, with special reference to aspects of federal economic relations, nationalism, religion and human rights. Most recently, he has been studying from an eco-socialist perspective the sustainability implications of the spatial shift taking place in global capitalism.)

[The above Interview appeared earlier in Jamhoor in 2020 and is reproduced here for edcational and non-commercial use)

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