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Khalistan – a lost cause

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The Khalistan movement in Punjab in the 1980s consumed the lives of 21,469 people in less than a decade. No one, including the police, dared to touch Bhindranwale who dictated terms and ran a parallel government till he was killed in Operation Blue Star (June 1984). It was a Molotov cocktail of terror mixed with religion and hatred. Bhinderanwale went on to become a Genie – no one could control or put it back in the bottle again… This changed the fate of Punjab and its people for generations to come…

Khalistan supporters attacking the Ajnala police station
Pic: PTI /The Hindu

Some developments of the past few months in Punjab have given a reason to Cassandras’ in the security establishment and the media to predict a return to the era of militancy in Punjab due to Khalistan supporters. The recent attack on the Ajnala police station by the armed followers of Amritpal Singh was quite disturbing. Subsequently, the police told the court that there was no evidence against his associate Toofan Singh who was arrested earlier on abduction charges. In May 2022, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) was fired at the Intelligence HQ at Mohali. In December 2022, another RPG was fired at the Sarhali police station.

Mistakes of the past – never again

Pic  Getty Images/ Outlook

The Khalistan movement in Punjab in the 1980s consumed 21,469 lives in less than a decade. Bhindranwale and his hoodlums dictated terms. Even the police dared not touch him. He ran a parallel government till he was killed in Operation Blue Star (June 1984). It was a Molotov cocktail of terror mixed with religion and hatred. Despite this, he enjoyed political patronage. Congress (I) invited him to support their candidate in the SGPC elections. He also canvassed for Congress (I) candidates in the 1980 General Elections and even shared the dais with Indira Gandhi. Emboldened by his new-found status as a power broker Bhinderawale and his brood went on to kill Baba Gurbachan Singh the third guru of the Sant Nirankari sect and Lala Jagat Narain the founder of the Hind Samachar Group and a bitter critic of the Khalistan movement. Still, no action was taken against him…The then Union Home Minister, Giani Zail Singh announced in the Parliament that there was no evidence against Bhindranwale. Overnight Bhinderanwale became an enigma and a fictional Genie – no one knew how to control or put it back in the bottle again… This is what in a way decided the fate of Punjab and its people for generations to come…

All that was done was a flurry of deceptive moves for the show of it, outwardly to arrest him, but in reality, countered by a series of manoeuvres to help him escape the consequences of his crimes. Eventually, however, he made himself safe inside the heavily fortified Gurudwara Gurdarshan Parkash at Chowk Mehta. The Gurudwara was surrounded by the police, but no attempt was made to arrest him. Instead, senior officials supposedly went in to ‘negotiate a surrender’, and Bhindranwale announced that he would ‘offer himself for arrest after addressing a ‘religious congregation’. His terms were meekly accepted. At the appointed hour, he came out only to harangue a large mob of his followers armed with spears, swords and firearms. Having aroused the rabble to a pitch, he officially ‘surrendered’ to the police. However, as he was taken away, the mob opened fire on the police—in the firefight that ensued, 11 persons were killed.

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It is very much doubtful whether Bhindranwale could, by himself, have become what he became, had firm action been taken against him at the beginning itself when he was far from becoming an icon. The nation was to pay heavily for such despicable acts of political expedience.

Even after his so-called arrest, he was kept in the government circuit house and not in jail, and for 25 days, violence exploded all over Punjab. These incidents included the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore. Soon, Bhindranwale was a free man again, after the then Home Minister, without the benefit of any inquiry or judicial process, announced to Parliament that Bhindranwale was not involved in the murder of Lala Jagat Narain.  Bhindranwale then appeared invincible. With truckloads of men armed with sophisticated automatic weapons, he moved around with impunity across Punjab and even Delhi.

Between 1981 and 1983, terror was let loose. Finally, fearing an attempt by the government to arrest him, Bhindranwale moved into the Akal Takht and began fortifications. Between January 1, 1984, and June 3, 1984, the terrorists killed 298 persons—obviously at his command. Eventually, on June 3, 1984, Operation Blue Star was launched.

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Following the 1985 elections, the government appointed the Bains Committee, which released, en masse, over 2000 extremists at that time under detention. The impact of terrorist violence was very much clear. Those who were released simply resumed their activities, and others saw in this act a restoration of the immunity they had enjoyed in the pre-Blue Star phase. In March 1988, 40 high-profile prisoners were released in a ‘goodwill gesture’ as part of a compromise with the terrorists. They simply walked into the Golden Temple, where Jasbir Singh Rode was installed as the Jathedar of the Akal Takht. The terrorists again began to build up internal defences within the Temple around the parikrama. Once again 288 people (including 25 policemen) were killed in March and another 259 (including 25 policemen) in April before Operation Black Thunder was launched in May 1988. This was followed later by Operation Rakshak-I.

Eventually, the elections of February 1992 confused the terrorists—their big mistake was to give a call for the boycott of elections. The voter turnout was low, no doubt; but it installed an elected government with a comfortable majority in the state. It made the terrorists lose any moral authority or any pretensions of having influence over the people. There was a time when police stations used to lock themselves up from inside for the night—they got out of that miserable situation and in a way, redeemed themselves through Operation Night Dominance.

Bhindranwale’s – one mistake that cost him his life

The guerrilla or the insurgent, if he knows his business, must never attempt to hold territory or defend a position for the simple reason that holed inside that position, however strong that be, his resources and ammunition are necessarily limited. On the other hand, those who are outside and if they know something about logistics can have practically unlimited resources. Precisely for this reason, military history stands witness, if the armies laying siege to a fort knew their job and managed to secure their supply lines from the rear, they had merely to be patient. They could literally starve the garrison inside the fort both in terms of food and water and ammunition. The fall of the fort was a foregone conclusion. In India, even formidable forts like Golconda, which was actually a fort system with its own agricultural fields inside, eventually fell before a competent general like Aurangzeb after a siege lasting nearly eight months!

What was true of regular armies defending a fort is all the more true for non-state actors like terrorists, insurgents or guerrillas. If they, by any chance, decide to hold ground or defend a position, they write their epitaph. The LTTE was formidable as a terrorist organization with technically some of the most brilliant terrorist attacks to their credit in the history of terrorism. However, when they decided to hold territory and even administer it, they were utterly destroyed. The reason is simple. Then they were obliged to fight on the terms of the enemy. As long as they were attacking the government targets sporadically, they had the government on its toes, because they were fighting on their terms. The moment they held some territory in some grandiose dream of having ‘liberated’ it, they were forced to fight on the terms of the government. Then they had to contend with the superior firepower, artillery and air force of the government for which they had no answer. Nothing could have been more foolish for a guerrilla force with inferior weaponry to dig up trenches and wait for the mighty assault of the enemy infantry and artillery. There was no way they could ever win that war. The superior firepower of the government rolled them up very cheaply and almost made the Sri Lankans forget how the LTTE had bled them all those years with their hit-and-run terrorist strikes. Fighting pitched battles was as terrible a folly as could be imagined. Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi committed the same mistake in the Lal Masjid, Islamabad (2007).

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Back home in India, terrorism in Punjab (in the sense of sporadic terrorist attacks) could have gone on for some more time had Bhindranwale not committed the blunder of taking up shelter in the Golden Temple. His own fate was sealed that very day even if the operation cost us the security forces some losses. By hiding there and mistakenly thinking that a religious place was inviolable, he presented a tangible target to the Indian security forces with vastly superior firepower and was utterly destroyed. Slugging it out with limited ammunition was the cardinal mistake which Bhindranwale had committed in his medieval mindset. The security forces took losses, but when push came to shove, howitzers and tanks were thrown in and each one of the terrorists was killed.

Khalistan – a blind alley and unviable idea

The Khalistan supporters, in the first place, could never understand as it how could a land-locked country survive for a day except for the mercy of Pakistan in providing corridors to port—thereby securing a permanent grip on their throats.

Second, Khalistan was never a popular movement in the first place and derived little support from the Sikh masses—in stark contrast to the early years of militancy in Kashmir when the state seemed to be in the grip of a “climate of collapse” with even state government employees striking work in their support. It therefore really did not have the intrinsic strength that an insurgency demands. That it could survive for so long was only due to inept handling.

Third, while it made sense for the ISI to fish in the proverbial troubled waters and harass India with comparatively very little investment in arming and sheltering the Khalistan supporters, it was doomed to remain limited to that. The Khalistan supporters never realized that even if Khalistan were to get carved out someday, there is no way the people of that land can come to terms with the Pakistanis with whom they had such a bitter experience not so long ago during the Partition. The Kashmiri terrorists could perhaps make peace with Pakistan on the ground of the commonality of religion; the Khalistan supporters could not. Even if the ISI could accept them for tactical gains against India; the people of Pakistan could never reconcile with them. In late November 2019, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, delivered an objectionable sermon against Sikh Gurus and Kartarpur Corridor. Then in late December 2020, he again spewed hatred against Maharaj Ranjit Singh, following which, the extremists vandalised the statue of the Maharaja at the Lahore Fort. In January 2023, far from appointing a Sikh to the PMU (Project Management Unit) that looks after the management of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur Sahib in deference to Sikh sentiments, the Pak government appointed Muhammad Abu Bakar Aftab Qureshi, Deputy Director General, ISI as the CEO of PMU—an affront in fact!

Fourth, the fact is that, unlike the Kashmiris, the Sikhs are widely dispersed throughout India and have economic interests greatly spread across the country. They are not isolated people like the Kashmiris. This meant that some Khalistani Sikhs could not have continued to commit acts of terrorism in Punjab indefinitely in the sense of targeting the Hindus and hoping that there would be no reaction on the Sikhs elsewhere in the country. The November 1984 anti-Sikh riots, however despicable they might have been, drove a point home in a most brutal manner—that some people could not commit atrocities on the minorities in the state and get away with that—people of their religion may have to suffer repercussions elsewhere in the country wherever they happened to be in minority.

Fifth, they still do not understand that pure unadulterated terrorist strikes, simply for the sake of terrorism, do not make much sense and cannot go far. There has to be something political or something emotive attached to it to enable it to draw some supporters. That support could not be had even in the 1980s when the going was good for them courtesy of shady governance; now they have infinitely better weaponry and resources as displayed by them during numerous exhibitions open also to the public.

Sixth, they do not seem to understand that while it is natural for jobless, frustrated or drug-addict youth victims of an old sub-culture of machismo to be drawn to a militant movement, and puff up their chests wielding illegal arms or sports stickers of gun-wielding terrorists on the rear windows of their cars, it does not translate into popular support from the public. The average family man knows very well where his life lies. That is why, even as memorials for Bhindranwale could be erected, they would remain just memorials—they are not likely to ‘fire up’ Khalistani sentiments in the hearts of the people on any significant scale. 

Still, There Is No Scope for Complacence

The foregoing analysis should not be misconstrued to mean that the essentially unviable idea of Khalistan gives the nation a license to mishandle it as we had done in the 1980s. The people of the country had to go through a lot of physical and emotional suffering. Thousands of lives were lost—some at the hands of the terrorists; some at the hands of the security forces; and some at the hands of the rioters. Why let things deteriorate to a state where they would happen again?

We must not grow complacent because many disturbing questions remain to be answered. The militancy in the 1980s was basically bullets and IEDs (the infamous transistor bombs, if you recall). The introduction of the RPG requires deep investigation.

The tail of the RPG fired at the Sarhali police station on the Amritsar-Bathinda highway can be clearly seen in the photo given by The Tribune. Earlier, the same thing was found in Mohali too. I have identified it as the tail of the new disposable tube RPG-18.  The older RPG-7, which is synonymous with the Taliban, was fired quite often in Kashmir in the 1990s—including at famous targets like the Gupkar Road residence of the Abdullahs and the Hyderpora residence of the in-laws of Ghulam Nabi Azad. However, it is a very long thing and difficult to conceal. The RPG-18 is not as powerful (the warhead being only 1.2 kg as compared to 2 kg of RPG-7) but is much more compact and hence concealable. The warhead that self-destructs after a flight of 6 seconds is actually wasted on a target like a room or a building—it was never designed for that purpose. What the police need to realize is that if they fire it on bulletproof or armoured cars, it will make the lives of many VIPs miserable because armour penetration is the purpose for which it is designed.

It does not really help to arrest the kids who might have been hired to fire the RPGs. The fundamental question is how the RPG came into India. The Punjab border has extensive coverage by the BSF without any gaps—electrified fencing, optical, thermal, LORROS and whatnot. The gravity of the situation should not be downplayed for whatever reason.

Prognosis of Punjab from the security perspective

I can only pity the utter ignorance of the Khalistan supporters. Why don’t they understand that now the country does not have a weak-kneed government or a government that had been hobnobbing with the terrorists for years for political expedience?

Also Read: Pakistan going all out to revive the defunct Khalistan movement

If Modi could lance a wound called Article 370 of the Constitution that had been festering for the past 69 years with just one stroke of the pen, what chance did a ragtag band of desperadoes have? They must not forget that when Modi ji had to do away with Article 370, the nation could afford to pump in as many as 38,000 additional troops of the paramilitary forces in a matter of just a few days. Who could ever imagine that sort of deployment at lightning speed? This is a reflection of not just the steel resolve of the government but also the tremendous resources, which the nation commands now. The nation and its paramilitary forces are infinitely stronger than they used to be in the 1980s.

Second, the Khalistan supporters must remember that if they commit violent crimes, the union government will eventually hand over the operations to paramilitary forces like the CRPF and BSF. They had crushed militancy when, back in the 1980s—the period I trained with them—they had just two SLRs (self-loading rifles) per section of 10 soldiers and the remainder had old British .303 rifles. Now they have infinitely better weaponry and resources (as displayed by them during numerous exhibitions open to the public) like—X-95 rifles, Minimi machine guns, UBGLs (under-barrel grenade launchers), AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers, CGRL (Carl Gustav Recoilless Rifle—mistakenly called rocket launcher by many—there is no rocket in it), Mine Protected Vehicles and indigenously produced bulletproof light/medium vehicles, and what not. They would crush any whiff of insurgency. 

Khalistan supporters must remember, if the security forces kill terrorists this time, they would kill a lot more and more ruthlessly. There is still time to behave!

I do not think that anybody should be foolish enough to try taking shelter in a religious place again. There is absolutely no reason to even suspect that the Modi government would allow things to reach that stage—they would be crushed much before that. The government would not let things reach a stage where another Operation Blue Star becomes necessary.

In this article, I do not consider it necessary to conjecture about the people in India or abroad who have propped up Amritpal Singh, or who was behind Deep Siddhu. What matters is what people like them can do on the ground. The nation-state of India knows that the real ‘damage potential’ of the likes of Gurpatwant Singh Pannu of the Sikhs for Justice, USA or Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Canada who had played a key role in organising the Khalistan referendum in Brampton city of Canada is very limited. They had tried their hand during the farmers’ agitation and had miserably failed.

They must understand that a modern nation-state and society do present myriad undefended targets that can be attacked by terrorists. However, running an insurgency is materially different from terrorist strikes. They should not be misled about their strength on the basis of a couple of incidents of browbeating the police or, for that matter, even some terrorist attacks in future. Bereft of an insurrectional focus, terrorism would be just another law and order problem and will be crushed ruthlessly by the might of the nation-state.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 56 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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