No Khalistani hand in farmers protest; separatist movement presently undergoing existential crisis

There’s been no time in our recent history when it has been more important to have a genuine conversation on what went wrong in Punjab, and why — but that would take real courage, something which comes a lot less easily than outrage

Praveen Swami December 02, 2020 07:40:26 IST
No Khalistani hand in farmers protest; separatist movement presently undergoing existential crisis

Representational image. News18

An axe in one hand, a Kalashnikov in the other, his face untroubled by anything but a slight hint of pre-pubescent fuzz, Pritpal Singh sets out mounted on — what else? — a Mahindra jeep with super-wide tyres. To the frenzied applause of 847 admirers on YouTube, Pritpal Singh’s Khalistan Posse terrorise eve-teasers, hand out pistols to oppressed Sikh peasants, and lavish their weapons with gentle, auto-erotic strokes that would alarm even the most hardened psychoanalyst — this, set to the words of the man who played Banquo to Indira Gandhi in Punjab, the revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Last week, lawyer-turned-actor-turned-farmer activist Deep Singh Sandhu — sometime winner of Kingfisher Model Hunt and star of Ramta Jogi, a not-quite-durable-classic involving tears, fighting, and less predictably, large fish and a mouth organ — proclaimed his belief in the virtue of Bhindranwale. His less than robust grasp of Bhindranwale’s beliefs and the Khalistan movement — and his even less robust claims to be a farmer leader — didn’t stop the media from seizing on his statements to assail the farmer movement.

The notion that the protests are driven by Khalistanis is, on the face of it silly: Secessionists, by definition, wish to evict the Indian State from their lives, not entrench its presence, as the farmers are seeking. Yet, there’s an important story to be told here about the strange afterlife of the Khalistan movement: An afterlife that suffuses Sikh youth culture from Amritsar to London and Toronto.

“I know what a ghost is”, Salman Rushdie wrote, “Unfinished business, that’s what”. In the Golden Temple Museum, the ghost appears in the form of portrait installed in 2007, where it now — without evident discomfort — shares space with images of the heroes of the wars of 1965 and 1971, General Harbaksh Singh, General Jagjit Singh Aurora, and Air Marshal Arjan Singh. There are hundreds of new songs — ranging from Dhaadi folk, to hip-hop — in Bhindranwale’s praise online; car-stickers and t-shirts bear his grim image.

The conventional explanation for this cultural project — Khalistan 2.0, if one wishes — is that it is a tool for the Sikh religious Right, quietly egged on by the mainstream Shiromani Akali Dal, to legitimise its waning political power. This is, without truth — but it is of great significance that Khalistan 2.0 has found its largest audience among the young, not the greybeards in the farmer protests, the natural constituency of Akali politics.

From the wider zeitgeist of Punjab pop culture, it’s possible to gain some useful insights into why this is so. In the state’s online counterculture, gangsterism is celebrated. Lawrence Bishnoi, a small-time student politician turned extortionist, had songs written praising his machismo after he threatened to murder Salman Khan — revenge, Bishnoi claimed, for the actor poaching Nilgai. The song, interestingly, appears to have drawn a considerably larger audience than Pritam Singh’s paean to Bhindranwale.

The Bishnoi story is far from exceptional: Earlier this year, the Punjab government banned Shooter, a movie alleged to have valorised the criminal Sukha Kahlwan. There is an entire genre of movies — Kapil Batra’s Gangster is a good example — that casts criminals as heroic opponents of a despotic State.

Indeed, political and religious disputation has become increasingly weaponised — something the young Pritam Singh discovered last year, when he was targeted for assassination by members of a rival religious cult, whom he had assailed as blasphemers.

Little about this should surprise us: The African-American ghettos of the United States, the narco-empires of Mexico, and, indeed, jihadism in West Asia have all birthed subcultures that reflect deep social dysfunctions. The scene of a toxic drug culture, and the site of among the highest unemployment rates in the country, Punjab home to a youth cohort that sees no prospects of sustaining the enormous gains their parents made during the Green Revolution.

Emigration — which provided various kinds of escape opportunities through the 1970s and 1980s — has become increasingly expensive; even then, as Firstpost had reported, thousands sell their ancestral lands and risk death to head West.

For those left behind, the ghost of Bhindranwale hovers above their lives as one of several competing icons of youth masculinity and defiance against “The Man” — a pietist machismo, if one wishes, as distinct from the Vodka-swilling machismo of a Lawrence Bishnoi or Sukha Kahlwan.

The making of Khalistan 2.0, though, also has something to do with a second layer of cultural anxieties: The search of young Sikhs in a globalised diaspora, long cut-off from the milieu and culture of their homelands, that offers them a distinct identity.

Khalistan, its important to note, never quite went away in the diaspora. As early as 1994, a time when Khalistan terrorism was decimated in Punjab, violence continued overseas. That year, the journalist journalist Tarsem Singh Purewal faced the first of a series of assassination attempts for exposing Khalistan fundraising in the United Kingdom; the doughty anti-Khalistan editor of the Indo-Canadian Times was killed in 1998.

Hoping to cash in on Gurudwara networks and communities who drew their sense of identity from religious nationalism, politicians in the West sometimes gave legitimacy to such enterprises. In 2008, for example, Gordon Campbell, who served as premier of the province of British Columbia from 2001 to 2010, showed up at a procession where Khalistanis had displayed hagiographic images of Talwinder Singh Parmar — the terrorist responsible for the bombing of Air India flight 182, which claimed the lives of 329 people, 22 of them Indian nationals, and the rest mainly Canadians of Indian descent.

For the young Khalistanis of the diaspora, though, the cause has meaning entirely sundered from its political context inside India. In 2008, for example, the town of Surrey in British Columbia exploded with controversy after 20 schools students bearing images of Bhindranwale’s speeches, along with a slogan from his speeches: “I do not fear physical death; it is the death of consciousness that is a sure death”.

In another, similar incident, a student had arrived in school wearing a now-popular emblem with diasporic Khalistanis, drawn from the logo of Parmar’s terrorist group, the Babbar Khalsa: The traditional Sikh khanda, but with its swords replaced by Kalashnikovs.

The scholar Kamala Nayar has noted that young Sikhs like these have appropriated Khalistan as a tool with which to protest their own perceived marginalisation in societies like the United Kingdom or Canada — one that allows them to fuse other protest cultures, like hip-hop, with the political heritage of their parents. Nayar has described this new culture as “the expression of marginalisation through the ‘rap-isation’ of Sikh culture” — the Kalashnikovs of Punjab’s death cult playing a role here similar to the display of handguns in some African-American pop culture.

It is, likely, not without significance that the young activist Deep Singh Sandhu served, for a time, with a United Kingdom-based law-firm — likely picking up, from his social milieu, his sanitised understanding of Bhindranwale as a utopian seeking greater federalism, rather than a murderous religious nationalist.

There’s little doubt Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has sought to cash on the culture of Khalistan 2.0: From pitched battles in gurudwaras to political mobilisation, and the dispatch of young men to terrorism-training facilities located everywhere from Thailand’s Mae Sot to Lahore, the effort to disrupt Punjab is both serious and credible. Hindu-nationalist politicians have been assassinated, along with heterodox Sikhs; bombings have been conducted; Khalistan flags flown.

For all the hype, though, it’s important to understand that these efforts to revive the Khalistan movement haven’t exactly met with great success: In the two decades  since 2000, figures published by the South Asia Terrorism Portal show, only 73 people, 28 of them terrorists, have been killed — far less than a single year’s harvest of plain-vanilla murders.

The reason for the failure of Khalistan 2.0 shouldn’t surprise us: No terrorism can spark off a genuine political movement unless the necessary social conditions exist. Today, there is no Indira Gandhi to prop up religious nationalists like Bhindranwale to divide her Akali opponents; no State-supported communal politics pitting Sikhs against Hindus of the kind that was to explode in the savage pogroms of 1984.

Yet, as we contemplate the farmers agitation, we should beware this: The legacy of the Khalistan years still shrouds the cultural and political landscape like a miasma. The crisis of the Green Revolution that underpinned the political currents which coalesced into the Khalistan insurgency are still with us, stoked by the failure of successive governments to breathe new life into Punjab’s economy and civil institutions.

There’s been no time in our recent history when it has been more important to have a genuine conversation on what went wrong in Punjab, and why — but that would take real courage, something which comes a lot less easily than outrage.

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