On Monday (6 June) morning, around two dozen youth raised pro-Khalistan slogans in Amritsar's Golden Temple and demanded a "Sikh referendum by 2020."
The early-morning drama marked the 32nd anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army's 1984 offensive to flush out Sikh separatist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed militia from the Golden Temple.
A day before the anniversary, the state government had turned the Golden Temple into a fortress, deploying a three-layered security around the shrine. Simultaneously, more than a hundred hardliners were detained from across the state to ensure peace is not disturbed by pro-Khalistan protesters and activists.
Hardliners had given a call for shutting down Amritsar on the day of the anniversary. But, in the city, it was business as usual.
For the past few years, hardliners have been trying to revive the Khalistan movement in Punjab. On every anniversary of the India Army's operation in the premises of the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, competing groups of hardliners try to ignite the separatist sentiment through slogans, posters and interruptions in religious ceremonies at the Golden Temple. Two years ago, a similar effort was made on Bhindranwale's death anniversary, when overnight posters and slogans hailing him as a martyr had sprung up across Punjab.
Will the hardliners succeed?
In 1984, when Indira Gandhi asked the Army to enter the Golden Temple, the Indian government's principal adversaries were the hardliners led by Bhindranwale's Damdami Taksal. As its religio-political head, the fiery Sikh separatist had positioned the Taksal, headquartered around 40 kilometres from Amritsar, at the vanguard of fundamentalism.
But, in what could be seen as a sign of changing times, the Taksal is now trying to go back to its moderate roots, turning itself into a centre of religious teachings instead of just remaining a custodian of Bhindranwale's legacy and philosophy.
According to a report in the Hindustan Times, in the past couple of years, it has made a concerted effort to recreate itself from the rubble and project itself as not just the custodian of the legacy of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, its 14th head, and Guru Gobind Singh, the last Sikh guru, but also the keeper of the ‘purest’ form of Sikhism, wedded to modernity.
Such has been the transformation that Damdami Taksal is now under attack from fringe elements for turning moderate and allying itself with the ruling Shiromani Akal Dal (SAD).
The feeling within Punjab is that the separatist movement is all but dead. Though pro-Khalistan activists still abound in large numbers, their movement exists only at a conceptual level, as a mirage that nobody is willing to chase.
The sentiment is echoed by many. In December 2015, Firstpost met Harpal Singh Cheema, one of the prominent separatist voices in Punjab. At the peak of the Khalistan movement, Cheema was jailed on several occasions in India and in California—on the basis of "classified information." Having fought for a separate state for several decades, Cheema now believes their struggle will now exist only as political movement. "Militancy will never return to Punjab," he had told Firstpost in December.
Punjab's problem is that several fringe elements are active in the state under various banners. In a bid to outdo each other, they often come up with calls for bandhs and sporadic—mostly weak—protests against the Indian government.
Their only recent show of considerable strength was the Sarbat Khalsa--the 18th century tradition of a conclave of all the Sikh misls-- in November 2015, where participants demanded Khalistan and anointed former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh's assassin Jagtar Singh Hawara as jathedar of Akal Takht. But, after that the movement fizzled out.
Politics, however, can queer the Punjab pitch. Elections in the state are due next year and there is apprehension that the Akalis may try to go back to the Panthic agenda as a last-gasp effort to stop the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
In popular perception, the Akalis have fallen way behind Arvind Kejriwal's party because of a variety of reasons—anti-incumbency, charges of corruption, the drug problem and the inability of the Congress to get its act together. Analysts believe the established parties could reach out to hardliners to keep the "party of Delhiites" out of Punjab.
Former DGP Shashi Kant says there is no immediate threat of militancy in Punjab. But the pot is boiling. "Those who recall the pre and post 1984 situation are well aware that the militant phase of Punjab had two sets of ‘forces’ working on ground. One was the sections thought that it was fighting for an ideological cause; right or wrong, for I am no one to sit on judgement. The second section—which incidentally was more predominant and active—primarily consisted of criminals anti-social elements, working either independently to stack in cash or working for certain political parties/organisations to add on to the general mayhem. This latter section also consisted of individuals working for certain influential officials as ‘cats’ and bringing in both 'cash and laurels' to their employers. And this latter category is once again hyperactive in Punjab at the instance of the anti-social segment of the Punjabi polity and officialdom. These criminals, who are called gangsters in today’s parlance, own their allegiance to no one but this anti social segment of Punjab’s polity and officialdom," he argues.