What happened during the Khalistan Movement

  • Know what happened in North India during the Khalistan Movement.
  • Seeds of the Punjab Problem were sown by the British starting the 1860s.
  • Punjab faces a deeper problem. What is that?
  • Is modern day Sikhism is a post 1900 construct. 

Recently the government banned the pro-Khalistan group Sikhs for Justice.

Earlier, there was a scuffle between a Sikh tempo driver and the Delhi police where the driver threatened the policemen with a sword. Later he was overpowered and beaten up by the cops. The video of the incident went viral. Soon a crowd of around 400 Sikhs gathered at the police station demanding Singh’s release. The group thrashed ACP Tyagi, raised slogans and damaged atleast a dozen vehicles. For video see Kirandeep’s tweet here .  For one who lived in North India during the 1980s the incident brought back bad memories.  

This article jogs your memory on what happened during the Khalistan Movement, the cause and the affects. Read on.   

From 1988 to 1990, for nearly three years, I was posted in the Rajpura factory of Hindustan Levers. Our family retained many aspects of Punjabi culture. The mandir at home had a largish picture of Guru Nanak. My Ma's grandmothers, on both sides, were Sikh and am born Punjabi so was comfortable working in the state of my origin. 

Here is my first experience of an encounter with the situation in Punjab in April 1988.

A senior colleague and I were returning to Chandigarh from a factory visit to Ludhiana. It was about 9 p.m. A CRPF barricade forced the car to stop. A jawan walked up with a fully loaded weapon, pointed it to my throat and asked who I was. I gave my visiting card and said am an employee of the company that made Lifebuoy. That saved the day for us.

To get a sense of conditions then in Punjab, here is what Sunil Sharan wrote in the Times of India: “It is estimated that between 1980 and 1984, thousands of Hindus lost their lives to Bhindranwale’s goons. Nobody ever even memorializes their lives, leave alone talks about their deaths. I was a teenager applying to engineering college and wanted to travel to Kurukshetra to pick up the application forms. A friend of mine was accompanying me. The bus drove through Punjab. Those were the days when Bhindranwale’s thugs would stop buses, separate Sikhs from Hindus, and then mow the Hindus down.” 

Those who protested against the Army action during Operation Bluestar were earlier silent when terrorists converted the holy shrine into an armed fortress.

Bhindranwale pic San Jose Gurudwara, California. Pic 2015.

Having said that, am sad that those responsible for the unfortunate 1984 anti-Sikh violence were not convicted, be it HKL Bhagat, Dharma Dass Shastri, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar (recently sent to jail).  

Yet, I am tired of the use of 1984 to paint a narrative as if Sikhs are continuously oppressed. Conversely, baring the late Khushant Singh and Tavleen Singh how many Sikhs publicly criticized Sikh militants?

Simultaneously there is a renewed campaign to malign K.P.S Gill, the then Director General of Punjab Police, but the truth is he restored peace.

Ajai Sahni, Director, Institute of Conflict Management wrote in the Tribune, Chandigarh, “For long, Khalistani formations alleging ‘genocide’ have claimed, with not a shred of evidence, that between 1 lakh and 2.5 lakh Sikhs were killed in the counterterrorism campaign in the state. The reality is, a total of 21,532 persons were killed between 1981 and 1995 in connection with Khalistani terror, including 8,090 categorised as terrorists; 11,696 civilians, almost all killed by the Khalistanis, but including some who lost their lives in ‘crossfire’; and 1,746 security force personnel (1,415 of the Punjab Police alone) killed by the terrorists.”

In the same article Ajai Sahni wrote about mass murders, e.g. train massacres of January, June and December 1991, the slaughter of 38 bus passengers in July 1987, among a numberless other acts of carnage.

There was not a word of regret about these mass killings from the Sikh community.  

K.P.S. Gill, the man who saved Punjab. 


Whilst many blame the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for the Punjab problem, the seeds were sowed by the British starting the 1860s. The Akalis and the Congress built on that. Here is a chronological sequence of key events between 1860 and 1995.

The British were grateful to the Sikh princes for assistance received during the mutiny of 1857 and seeing the bravery of the Sikh armies realised that they could be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India. The British replaced the Bengali soldiers with loyal Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. Only Sikhs who sported the five “k’s” or symbols of Sikhism, could join the army.

Kahan Singh Nabha’s book, Ham Hindu Nahin Hain was published in 1898. It was a vitriolic appraisal of Hinduism, focusing on why Sikhs were not Hindus.

* 1905: Idols were removed from the Golden Temple as a result of pressure applied by the Singh Sabha.1

* Between 1881 and 1931, large numbers of Hindus became Sahajdhari Sikhs, who were baptised to become Khalsa.1

* 1925: Sikh Gurudwaras Act was passed. This was the beginning of the intertwining of politics and religion.

* 1957 onwards the Akalis started to demand a state where Punjabi, in Gurumukhi script, would be the state language. Consequently, there was a Hindu-Sikh divide on which language constituted the mother tongue of Punjabis: Hindi or Punjabi.

* In 1966, Haryana consisting of the Hindi-speaking areas was carved out of Punjab, while the rest remained Punjab.

* 1967, for the first time the Akalis came to power (1967-1971), followed by Congress (1972-77), Akalis (1977-1980) and Congress (June 1980 to October 1983).

* In 1977, a coalition of the Akalis and Jan Sangh (now BJP) ruled Punjab. Sanjay Gandhi wanted to break the coalition. Senior Congress leader Zail Singh asked Sanjay to look for a new religious leader to discredit the traditional Akali Dal leadership. They zeroed in on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

* In 1978, clashes took place between the Damdami Taksal, headed by Bhindranwale and the Nirankaris. The Damdami Taksal is an influential school founded by Baba Deep Singh, one of the greatest Sikh heroes.

* In 1982, protests by the Akali Dal took place at Delhi’s border during the Delhi Asian Games.

Bhindranwale’s strategy was to cause communal tension so that Hindus left Punjab in fear. He hoped a Hindu backlash elsewhere would make Sikhs realise they were safe only in Punjab.

Bomb blasts occurred across North India including those called “tiffin” and “transistor bombs”.

On 23 April 1983, Deputy Inspector General of Punjab, A.S. Atwal was shot dead in the Golden Temple.

* By March 1984, Bhindranwale and his men began fortifying the Golden Temple. Sandbag emplacements were seen on either side of the clock tower. Young Sikhs with automatic rifles had taken up positions on top of the tower.

* In April 1984, a prominent Sikh man in Delhi, H.S. Manchanda was shot in broad daylight. BJP’s prominent politician Harbans Lal Khanna killed in Amritsar.

* In June 1984 took place the Operation Blue Star.

* On 31 October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Anti-Sikh violence followed.

All over Punjab, doctors, industrialists and businessmen moved to safer locations. People were compelled to sell their land and property for a pittance.

* In 1985, the bombing of Air India aircraft Kanishka killed 329.

* On 10-11 May 1985, 20 bombs exploded in Delhi and 18 bombs in other parts of North India, leaving 82 dead.

* In 1985, the Rajiv-Longowal accord was signed. Sant Longowal was killed on 20 August 1985.

* In 1988, terrorists occupying the Golden Temple were forced out by the Punjab Police and the security forces. Operation Black Thunder II was carried out under the supervision of K.P.S. Gill.

Punjab witnessed a complete breakdown of the judicial system.

* The Punjab Police under K.P.S. Gill and supported by other armed forces and under the political leadership of Congress Chief Minister Beant Singh, broke the back of the terror movement. Peace returned to Punjab in 1994.

* Beant Singh was killed in a bomb blast in 1995.

Khushwant Singh wrote in Outlook Magazine (7 November 2004),Did the Sikhs deserve to be taught a lesson” post Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination

“I pondered over the matter for many days and many hours and reluctantly admitted that Hindus had some justification for their anger against Sikhs. The starting point was the emergence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a leader. He used vituperative language against the Hindus. He exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus to solve the Hindu-Sikh problem.” 3


The problems in Punjab are deeper.  

One is the intertwining of religion with politics. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, apex body for management of gurudwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal, is the key to political power in Punjab. So both the Akalis and Congress try to control it.

Two, there exists a Sikh belief that their religion has nothing to do with Hinduism. Many ignore what Khushwant Singh wrote in the 29 March 1999 issue of Outlook: “There is a new breed of Sikh scholars who bend backwards to prove Sikhism has taken little or nothing from Hinduism. All they need to be told is that of the 15,028 names of God that appear in the Adi Granth, Hari occurs over 8,000 times, Ram 2,533 times, followed by Prabhu, Gopal Govind, Parbrahm and other Hindu nomenclature for the Divine. The purely Sikh coinage ‘Wahe Guru’ appears only sixteen times.”

When I say that name of the Golden Temple is Hari Mandir I am ridiculed and when point out that Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated gold to Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, Jwalamukhi Mandir and Hari Mandir, the response is he was secular. 

SGPC Booklet says name is Hari Mandir.

However, Hindus see Sikhs as part of the larger Hindu community, i.e. why, in spite of Sikh militants killing Hindus they continue to visit the Golden Temple.

Bengali family outside Golden Temple 2012.

Another problem is the picture of Bhindranwale in gurudwaras. Recently Haryana Chief Minister Khattar refused to enter a gurudwara in Karnal because it had a picture of Bhindranwale.

Simultaneously efforts are being made to keep Khalistani terror alive. Pakistan’s efforts are backed by radical elements in the Sikh diaspora, mainly based in Europe and North America. They continue to propagate, fund raise and recruit for the Khalistani cause.

Most Sikhs do not want to have anything to do with the extremist fringe. But if they see the government buckling under pressure the tide could turn. If Punjab takes to terrorism again there will be no Beant Singh and K.P.S. Gill to save my home state from self-destruction.

Until religion and politics are delinked, Punjabi society might never see lasting peace.  

Would it be correct to say that modern day Sikhism is a post 1900 construct?

Yes. Pashaura Singh of Department of Religious Studies, University of California wrote, “As a consequence of the success of the Tat Khalsa reformers, Sikhs in the early 20th century came “to think, imagine and speak in terms of a universal community of believers united by uniform rites, symbols and scripture.” 

“The Singh Sabha ideologues employed Protestant categories of Christian missionaries to redefine Sikh concepts. As such, modern Sikhism became a well-defined ‘system’ based on a unified tradition and the Tat Khalsa understanding of Sikh identity became the norm of orthodoxy. ” 

“In a recent study, Arvind-Pal Mandair described the impact of colonial rule on the Sikh tradition as follows: “In the process of projecting themselves as a legitimate body in the public sphere governed by British law, the earlier principle of heteronomic sovereignty was overlain, and to some extent displaced, by modernist principle of autonomic sovereignty which was essential for converting the Panth into a nationalized community (or qaum) characterized by the notion of a people with its proper religion (Sikhism), their own language (Punjabi) and a geographical territory or homeland they could call their own (Punjab).” Source here

Examples of Hindu Suffering

During 2020 farmer agitation Dr Sudhir Sabharwal tweeted. Sharing 2 tweets


"In 1984, the Khalistani fundamentalists would come on mobikes, with covered face & the pillion rider would just shoot down the person who wouldn’t pay the 2 lakhs demanded by them or who wouldn’t sell his property at the rate offered by them!"

Tweet 2  

"KPS Gill forced Khalistanis to migrate to foothills of Nainital. My parents who were refugees in 1947, from Jhelum dist; had settled in Rudrapur; had to sell property at throw away price & shift to Delhi in early 1985; became refugees twice!"

Author is author of a mini book ‘How the British sowed the seeds for the Khalistani Movement before the Indians took over’ and a Chartered Accountant.

A shorter version of this article was first published in The Sunday Guardian and here


1. A History of Sikhs, Volume II by Khushwant Singh

2. How the British divided Punjab into Hindu and Sikh

3. Oh, That other Hindu riot of passage by Khushwant Singh

4. The real butchers of Punjab were Khalistanis and not K.P.S. Gill 

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