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India's Sikhs choose stability over independence

Priorities have shifted since the Golden Temple massacre

<p>Police in New Delhi use water cannon to disperse activists from the Akali Dal organization and victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots during protests in April outside the Congress headquarters (AFP Photo/Prakash Singh).</p>

Police in New Delhi use water cannon to disperse activists from the Akali Dal organization and victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots during protests in April outside the Congress headquarters (AFP Photo/Prakash Singh).

  • Abhaya Srivastava for AFP, Amritsar
  • India
  • June 2, 2014
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As retailer Sukhdeep Singh visits the Golden Temple in northern India, Sikhism's holiest shrine, he laments the bloodbath 30 years ago that catapulted his religion into controversy.

The military's 1984 assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar – called Operation Blue Star – was aimed at flushing out militants holed up inside demanding an independent Sikh homeland.

Thirty years later, support for such a homeland is all but dead, with Sikhs, particularly younger ones, more interested in jobs than a separate nation, according to experts.

"I regret the events of 1984," said Singh, ahead of the June 6 anniversary of the assault that killed at least 400 people.

"People don't want any more violence and bloodshed," said the 31-year-old, who is based in Melbourne and was visiting his family in Amritsar in Punjab state.

"I think we are better off remaining with India," he added as he toured the temple and its museum, which attract scores of visitors every year.

Sikh hardliners' struggle for "Khalistan", or the land of the pure, peaked during the 1970s with demands for its creation in Punjab, between India and Pakistan.

The struggle culminated in the deadly storming of the temple, ordered by the government, which also substantially damaged the building.

The Sikh community was enraged by what it felt was a desecration of the revered shrine, and later that year India's then-prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own Sikh bodyguards.

The assassination triggered anti-Sikh riots in which some 3,000 people were killed, many of them on the streets of New Delhi.

By the mid-1990s, demands for "Khalistan" were fading away, although the anniversary of the raid is still observed every year with protests, especially in Punjab.

"People in Punjab have moved on from 1984," said Sukhdev Sandhu, a prominent Sikh in Punjab opposed to "Khalistan".

"The movement flourished in the past because of the support from the youth but now the younger generation has different priorities," he said. "They want employment not guns."

Support, however, for the independence movement still exists among the Sikh diaspora in Britain, Canada and the United States.

The overseas population of Sikhs, estimated to number between 18 to 30 million, has maintained strong connections with Punjab ever since migrants first left the subcontinent in the 19th century.

The diaspora still tries to mobilize support for "Khalistan", and even provides funds to keep the separatist idea alive, said Kanwar Pal Singh, spokesman of Dal Khalsa group, which is still pushing for the homeland.

Still-simmering anger over the temple raid was evident when Kuldip Singh Brar, commander of Operation Blue Star, was attacked on a London street in 2012. A Sikh gang was found guilty of the revenge knife attack, which the commander survived.

"The aspirations of the diaspora for a Sikh country are very strong," said Singh, whose outfit publishes literature to promote the idea of "Khalistan" and organizes June 6 protests.

"They feel history has been unkind to Sikhs. While Hindus got India, Muslims got Pakistan, but Sikhs missed the bus."

Singh was speaking at the Amritsar office of the outfit, adorned with posters of prominent Sikh figures, including rebel icon Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale holding a machine gun.

Bhindranwale, a dominant leader who almost ran a parallel state from within the temple complex at the height of Sikh militancy, was gunned down by Indian troops during the 1984 raid.

He tapped into widespread anger among Sikhs over their perceived discrimination by the government, which he said had refused to recognize the linguistic, cultural and religious rights of their community.

To avenge Bhindranwale's killing, Sikh nationalists based in Canada blew up an Air India flight a year later, killing 329 people.

Analysts say Punjab's geopolitical significance – the landlocked region shares borders with Pakistan and restive Kashmir – means sovereignty is almost impossible.

"Also, the Sikhs have integrated nicely with the Hindus and there is no longer any discrimination against the community," said Beer Good Gill, professor of history at Amritsar's Guru Nanak Dev University.

"We have had a Sikh as our prime minister for 10 years," she said referring to Manmohan Singh, who retired at the just-concluded election.

"[Besides] we have already lost hundreds of our people in mindless killings, we can't afford to lose another generation."

Gill says in her interactions with students in the last 20 years, "not even one of them had raised the bogey of Khalistan".

Sandhu said public opinion in Punjab, where the movement was strongest, turned over the years against the militants who became embroiled in deadly crime.

"They [the public] started informing police of their presence when they saw they were killing their own neighbors," said Sandhu.

"It was the beginning of the end of Khalistan. Today it's been reduced to mere tokenism.

"It only exists in pamphlets and slogans raised each year when the Blue Star anniversary is observed," he said. AFP

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