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Sikhs in Punjab

Sikhs in Punjab are the majority community. The problems that arose in Punjab were due to the religion-based elements who sought to widen the communal divide between the Sikhs and other communities for their political ends. In the course of time, as many Sikhs fell victims to the terrorist bullets and bombs as Hindus. This defeated the aim of the terrorists of communalizing the Punjab polity. The people of Punjab have rejected terrorist violence and have demonstrated their faith in the democratic process by electing representatives to the State and national legislatures in elections held during 1992.

Sikhs form a religious and cultural community of some 16 million, less than 2% of the Indian population. Some 80% of Sikhs live in Punjab where they form the majority (about two thirds) of the inhabitants. The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), a high caste Hindu who denounced social and state oppression. He took monotheism from Islam, but rejected Ramadan, polygamy and pilgrimages to Mecca. He also rejected Hindu polytheism, the caste system and sati (sacrificing a widow on her husband's funeral pyre). Nine gurus succeeded Nanak. The Sikh commandments include certain prohibitions, notably against alcohol and tobacco. For men the Sikh religion requires observance of the "5 Ks": Kes (uncut hair and beard); Kacch (breeches); Kirpan (a double edged sword); Kangh (a steel comb); and Kara (an iron bangle).

New religious ideologies early in the 20th century caused tensions in the Sikh religion. The Akali Dal (Army of the Immortals), a political-religious movement founded in 1920, preached a return to the roots of the Sikh religion. The Akali Dal became the political party which would articulate Sikh claims and lead the independence movement.

Following the partition of India in 1947, the Sikhs were concentrated in India in east Punjab. Sikh leaders demanded a Punjabi language majority state which would have included most Sikhs. Fearing that a Punjabi state might lead to a separatist Sikh movement, the Government opposed the demand. In 1966 a compromise was reached, when two new states of Punjab and Haryana were created. Punjabi became the official language of Punjab, and Chandigarh became the shared capital of the two states. However the agreement did not resolve the Sikh question.

In 1977, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, an obscure but charismatic religious leader, made his appearance. He preached strict fundamentalism and armed struggle for national liberation. His speeches inflamed both young students and small farmers dissatisfied with their economic lot.

Tensions between Sikhs and New Delhi heightened during the 1980s, as the government did not respond to Sikh grievances. Gandhi remained active in the political arena, and by January 1980 had regained stewardship of the nation. Sensing that she had allowed too much freedom and authority at the state level in the past, she began a process of centralizing power and thereby came in direct conflict with some states that sought greater autonomy. The Punjab was one such state where the majority Sikhs felt threatened by an ongoing, gradual cultural assimilation into Hindu India. Mrs. Gandhi, committed to a unitary system of government, refused to deal with the issues raised by Akali Dal, the political party representing Sikhs, and jailed its leaders. This set the stage for the more militant Sikhs to express their demands in more violent fashion.

Punjab was faced with escalating confrontations and increased terrorist incidents. Akali Dal only achieved limited concessions from the government and Sikh separatists prepared for battle. In the Golden Temple enclosure 10,000 Sikhs took an oath to lay down their lives if necessary in the struggle. Renewed confrontations in October 1983 resulted in Punjab being placed under central government authority.

The violence continued and hundreds of Sikhs were detained in the first part of 1984. Followers of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale established a terrorist stronghold inside the Golden Temple. The Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, then initiated Operation Blue Star which took place on 5-6 June 1984. The Golden Temple was shelled and besieged by the army to dislodge the terrorists. The fighting continued for five days. Bhindranwale was killed and there was serious damage to sacred buildings.

Official figures put the casualties at 493 "civilians/ terrorists" killed and 86 wounded, and 83 troops killed and 249 wounded. Later in the year official sources put the total number killed at about 1,000. Unofficial sources estimated that the civilian casualties alone were much higher. There were apparently more than 3,000 people in the temple when Operation Blue Star began, among them 950 pilgrims, 380 priests and other temple employees and their families, 1,700 Akali Dal supporters, 500 followers of Bhindranwale and 150 members of other armed groups.

The intervention had disastrous consequences for the Sikh community and the whole country. Sikh-Hindu communalism was aggravated, Sikh extremism was reinforced, and political assassinations increased.

On 31 October 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi by two Sikh bodyguards. In the days that followed, anti-Sikh rioting paralysed New Delhi, ultimately claiming at least 2,000 lives; unofficial estimates were higher. Sikhs were also attacked in other cities in northern India.

A peace agreement was concluded between the Indian Government and moderate Akali Dal Sikhs led by Harchand Singh Longowal in July 1985, which granted many of the Sikh community's longstanding demands. However the extremists regarded Longowal as a traitor to the Sikh cause and he was assassinated in August 1985. Moreover the promised reforms did not take place.

In 1987 the state government was dismissed and Punjab was placed under President's Rule. Extremists spread terror throughout Punjab and the Indian government mounted a campaign of anti-terrorist measures designed to restore the situation in Punjab to normal. In May 1988 the Punjab police and Indian paramilitary forces launched Operation Black Thunder against armed extremists who had again created a fortified stronghold within the Golden Temple. At least 40 extremists and several police officers were killed during the battle.

President's Rule was finally brought to an end following elections in February 1992, which were won by Congress (I). However the elections were boycotted by the leading factions of Akali Dal and attracted an extremely low turnout (only about 22% of the electorate). Beant Singh of the Congress (I) was sworn in as Chief Minister, but his government lacked any real credibility. Despite the continuing violence between the separatists and the security forces, the large turnout in the municipal elections in September 1992, the first in 13 years, afforded some hope that normality was returning to Punjab. The local council elections in January 1993, the first for 10 years, also attracted a large turnout.

On 31 August 1995 Beant Singh was killed by a car bomb which exploded close to his car outside the Punjab Secretariat in Chandigarh. 15 security men and aides were also killed. Babbar Khalsa claimed responsibility and three suspects were later arrested.

Political representatives informed the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance during his visit to India in December 1996 that Sikhs were the victims of a policy of intolerance and discrimination based on religion pursued by the authorities. This policy of religious repression reached a climax in June 1984 with the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and was followed by reprisals against Sikhs throughout India, but particularly in Delhi, after the murder of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. It was alleged that Sikhs were being subjected to State terrorism which found expression in the desecration of holy places, murders, extra-judicial executions and forced disappearances of Sikhs. The individuals who expressed these views to the Special Rapporteur stated that this policy had become less violent but was still being pursued by indirect means, such as the continued presence of Indian security forces at the Golden Temple. The Special Rapporteur was informed by other sources, including non-governmental and religious organisations, that the situation of conflict which existed in Punjab had no religious basis, rather it was purely political. The authorities were combating the development of a militant Sikh terrorist movement campaigning for a separate and autonomous Sikh state. The terrorists used religion to secure the support of Sikhs for a political cause. Certain Sikh political parties had exploited that situation for their own ends in the hope of obtaining advantages and concessions from the authorities and of increasing their influence among the Sikh population by creating confusion between religious and political matters.

According to these sources, the purpose of Operation Blue Star (the storming of the Golden Temple) undertaken in June 1984 had been to expel armed Sikh extremists from the sanctuary. There had been no intention of attacking the religious identity of Sikhs. The continued presence of security forces at the Golden Temple was necessary to remain vigilant against any attempt at destabilisation. Access to the place of worship had not been hindered.

These sources concluded that there was no religious problem, Sikhs enjoyed all their constitutional rights in the field of religion, including freedom of belief, freedom to practice their religion and freedom to proselytise.

The UN Special Rapporteur's own conclusions based on the information he had received, and as set out in his report of February 1997 was that the situation of Sikhs in the religious field is satisfactory. There were difficulties in the political field (foreign interference and terrorism) and economic field (in particular with regard to the sharing of water supplies). The Special Rapporteur noted information that there was discrimination in certain sectors of public administration, for example fewer Sikhs in the police force and no Sikhs in personal bodyguard units. Malfunctions in the administration of justice were described but they were connected with the anti-terrorist campaign rather than the Sikh beliefs of the accused.

Virtually all of the militant groups in Punjab pursued their campaign for a separate state of Khalistan through acts of violence directed not only at members of the police and security forces but also specifically at Hindu and Sikh civilians.

Most of the militant groups in Punjab traced their origins to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. After the storming of the Golden Temple the number of militant groups operating in Punjab grew. Some authorities claimed there were no more than 1,700 armed militants, while many journalists believed there may have been five times that number.

The militants were organised in more than half a dozen major groups and all theoretically operated under the authority of one of the Panthic Committees which functioned as decision making bodies and issued instructions. The main militant organisations included: the Khalistan Commando Force (Paramjit Singh Panjwar faction); Khalistan Commando Force (Zaffarwal); Khalistan Commando Force (Rajasthani group); Babbar Khalsa; Khalistan Liberation Force (Budhisingwala); Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan (Sangha); Bhindranwale Tiger Force (Manochahal); All India Sikh Student Federation (Mehta Chawla); and the Sikh Student Federation (Bittu).

In addition to this there were perhaps dozens of other groups, some representing splinter factions, as well as loosely organised armed gangs.

After they first emerged in the early 1980s the militants assassinated civil servants, politicians, journalists, businessmen, other prominent individuals and ordinary Hindu and Sikh civilians. There were also indiscriminate attacks apparently designed to cause extensive civilian casualties, in some cases firing automatic weapons into residential and commercial areas, derailing trains, and exploding bombs in markets, restaurants and other civilian areas. Some of these attacks occurred outside Punjab in neighbouring states and in New Delhi.

Motives for the attacks varied. Moderate Sikh political leaders were assassinated for opposing the militants. Other leaders were killed as a result of militant group rivalries. A number of militant groups tried to impose a Sikh fundamentalist ideology, issuing directives that stipulated appropriate conduct for Sikhs and prohibiting the sale of tobacco and alcohol. Failure to obey these orders meant punishment, including death. In late 1990 and early 1991 militant groups issued "codes of conduct" for journalists which also carried a death penalty for those who dared to disobey. Sikhs belonging to minority sects, which advocated practices perceived as heretical by orthodox Sikhs, were also murdered.

Attacks on civilians were claimed as acts of retaliation for government violence. Other killings appeared to represent executions of suspected collaborators or informers. Militants also kidnapped civilians for extortion, frequently murdering their victims when their demands were not met. Threats were made to the minority Hindu population in an effort to drive them out of Punjab. As a result thousands of Hindus fled the state.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2012 15:18:24 ZULU