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Cry for Khalistan Again


Deccan Herald, London, Jan. 18, 2005

Photo: Piara Singh Khabra

A decade after the Sikh separatist movement was successfully crushed in Punjab, a few radical Sikh organisations in Britain continue to espouse the cause of the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh state.

It is not the groundswell of public support but hope and ingrained bitterness that fuels the dreams of organisations which actively supported and funded Sikh militancy in Punjab which was at its height in the decade spanning 1980s and 1990s. Britain, which is home to the second largest Sikh population - more than five lakh [500,000] - outside India, had proscribed two Sikh militant organisations – the Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation (I.S.Y.F.) – in 2001.

The U.S. had followed suit in blacklisting the two Sikh militant organisations after 9/11. The ban acted as a temporary dampener to the spirit of the radical Sikh organisations in Britain but their efforts to revive militancy in Punjab are continuing.

'The Indian government can never suppress the movement. Sikh aspirations can only be met when they have their separate homeland,' says Jaswant Singh, president of the Dal Khalsa International. He says the Sikhs are law-abiding citizens in Britain with freedom to voice their opinions.

The Dal Khalsa, Babbar Khalsa, Council of Khalistan, Khalistan Government-in-Exile and the Sikh Federation are the most pro-active groups among radical Sikh organisations in Britain. The Sikh Federation was formed after the proscription of the I.S.Y.F. while the Babbar Khalsa cadres are reportedly working under the aegis of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha [A.K.J.] after the ban imposed by the British government.

Gurmej Singh of the Khalistan Government-in-Exile protests when called a 'separatist.' 'Will you call Gandhi a separatist because he fought for India's independence?' He says they were peacefully propagating the cause of Khalistan. 'We cannot wage a battle against India,' Gurmej adds. In fact the new resolve to shun violence marks a major shift in the strategy of the militant groups. They now talk of spreading public awareness and drumming up support for their cause. This appears to be their new strategy. Perhaps they are acutely conscious of the adverse public opinion which the militancy-related violence generated in Punjab and the fact that 25,000 people were killed.

Back home in Punjab, Jagjit Singh Chauhan, who is credited with raising the bogey of Khalistan for the first time in 1971 from Britain, is a much mellowed person now. 'Mindless violence marred the spirit of the movement. In retrospect, I think it was not a movement for Khalistan at all. I do not support violence,' says Chauhan who returned to India in 2001 after spending over 20 years in Britain. He is still rooting for Khalistan in Mohali near Chandigarh where he has settled down but his ideas have not found any public support.

The spokesman of Council of Khalistan, founded by Chauhan in London, says the thrust of the movement is now public awareness. 'People in Punjab need to be made more aware of the cause for the Sikh nation. Expatriate Sikhs see things differently. Sikhs in Punjab must realise that political and economic decision-making should be in the hands of Punjabis without any influence of the Central government,' says Raj Pal Singh Dhillon, spokesman for the Council, headquartered in London. Remarkably, these organisations have hardly found any support among the prominent Sikh community leaders in Britain who have been elected to the House of Commons or the city Councils.

Piara Singh Khabra, Labour M.P. from Ealing, Southall, dubs the idea of Khalistan as 'ridiculous' and 'illogical.' He says, 'Only a tiny minority is raising this issue. It is a Pakistan-supported movement. I am dead against it.' Similarly, another Sikh M.P. in House of Commons, the young and dashing 35-year-old Paramjit Dhanda is also opposed to the idea. 'I went to India two years ago. Sikhs have achieved a great deal in India. They grace the highest positions in military and public services. They are doing so well. We should be proud of India.'

Paramjit, though a second generation Sikh in Britain, has roots firmly grounded in Punjab. Gurcharan Singh, Mayor of Ealing, claims there is hardly any support for the idea of Khalistan in Britain.

'There was a phase after the Operation Bluestar in the Golden Temple when the Sikhs really felt hurt by the army attack and demolition of the highest Sikh shrine. They thought the Government of India had deliberately humiliated them. But things have moved on. No rational sikh will raise the demand for Khalistan.'

Gurcharan came to England after he got married in 1972. He made Ealing, Southall his home. The Indian High Commission officials in London say they are keeping a close vigil on the movement of the radical Sikh organisations. But they also claim the movement has no fizz left in it. 'The demand for Khalistan emanates from a small Sikh minority. For the large majority it is a divisive issue,' says Navdeep Suri, counsellor in the Indian High Commission. He claims that an overwhelming majority of Sikhs in Britain are supportive of India and the national days of India are celebrated with fervour and vigour.

Officials say the blacklist of Sikh militants had almost vanished - there are only a few who are banned from visting India. Among them Jaswant Singh of Dal Khalsa and Narinderjit Singh of the newly formed Sikh Federation are bitter about the continued ban on India visits. 'We have not killed a sparrow. Still we are being persecuted by Indian police authorities. It does not make sense in preventing us from visiting Punjab,' says a rueful Narinderjit who till recently was the secretary general of the I.S.Y.F.

However, Indian security agencies in Punjab continue to be wary of the presence of five top Sikh ultras in Pakistan who are maintaining links with their silent cadres in the border state. The five are on the list of 20 Most Wanted persons handed over to Pakistan by India. They are Gajinder Singh of Dal Khalsa, Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the Khalistan Commando Force [K.C.F.], Ranjit Singh alias Neeta of Khalistan Zindabad Force (K.Z.F.), Wadhawa Singh Babbar of Babbar Khalsa and Lakhbir Singh Rode of I.S.Y.F.

Many of these Sikh organisations have become a part of another campaign seeking recognition from the British government as a separate ethnic community. Their contention is based on increased Sikh representation in public service employment.

They claim that the 5-lakh-strong Sikh population in Britain needs to be classified as a separate ethnic community for better share in employment, promotion of Sikh identity and Punjabi language and the establishment of single faith schools. Khabra who is a Labour M.P. does not support the idea though.

'The Sikhs are covered by British laws governing minority, ethnic communities. There are so many ethnic groups in Britain. If such demands start emanating from Muslim or Black groups of different nationalities then there will be no end to the issue,' he reasons.

The Labour government has so far refused to give ear to the demand by Sikh organisations. Dhanda, however says there was some merit in the suggestion. 'However, there is opposition to the demand within the Sikh community. After all some have cut their hair and do not wear turbans. They do not want separate ethnic status,' he says.

The Indian High Commission officials strongly oppose the idea and they have been lobbying against such a move.