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The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India –
Political Leadership And Ethnonationalist Movements

Book Review By Parwaz Sra

14 January, 2013

Book Review: The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India – Political Leadership and Ethnonationalist Movements by Jugdep Chima (New Delhi: SAGE Publications), 2010; pp ix – 315, Rs. 750.

Anyone familiar with the history of Punjab realizes that it has had a complex past. The most recent crisis was the separatist and militant agitation during the end of twentieth century. A number of books have been written on this episode, each with its own theory, ranging from numerous conspiracy theories to studies dissecting how the Green Revolution in Punjab changed socio-economic dimensions, leading to the emergence of a rural bourgeoisie with heightened political and economic ambitions. Other theories suggest India is made up of states with unique cultures that do not work well under the centralized state set-up. States have long felt that their democracy and progress are being hindered by the central system. The Punjab crisis arose, according to this theory, as a demand for federalism and sovereignty. Jugdep S. Chima’s book, The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India – Political Leadership and Ethnonationalist Movements, attempts to elucidate the rationale behind the separatist movement in the state of Punjab, India, from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Concerned with the lack of academic study on the grave issues of this turbulent era and unsatisfied with the available literature on this subject, Chima claims to present a novel theory on the rise, sustenance, and fall of the Sikh ethnonationalist movement by primarily examining what he believes is the paramount factor – the “patterns of political leadership, defined as the dynamic interaction between and amongst state and ethnic elites, significantly affect the trajectory of ethnic subnatonalist movements by defining the political relationship between an ethnic group and the central state” (5). He applies this theory to Punjab, and later applies the same theory to similar movements in Chechnya, Assam, Northern Ireland, and Kashmir.

A third generation American Punjabi, Chima himself was keen to comprehend how Punjab, a model state and source of wealth during the late 1960s and early 1970s, fell to a position of such instability. He believes that the key aspect was the clash between state elites on the one side and Sikh elites on the other side. This clash then led to the years of volatility, rise of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala, and the eventual fall of this movement, this call for Khalistan. He also believes the pre-existing explanations - primacy of regional factors, primacy of national factors, Marxist interpretations, conspiracy theories, and Sikh nationalism – to be inadequate, lacking proof and evidence. Chima questions theories of such political scientists as Atul Kohli and Subrata Mitra because they only explain either the rise or the fall of ethnonational movements; they do not provide convincing explanations for all the three phases - that is the rise, sustenance, and fall of these movements. Crediting the patterns of political leadership as the principal explanatory variable for the emergence of the separatist ideology, he explains the demise of the movement by theorizing that, “in the absence of a negotiated settlement or complete military victory, violent subnationalist movements decline when ethnic militants ‘fractionalize’ and lose a viable political front, and unified state elites pursue coordinated policies prompting traditional ethnic elites to unite, moderate, and re-enter the ‘normal’ political process” (11).

In this very basic chronology of events, Chima gives an in depth account of the interaction between political leaders and their own agendas, as well as the decisions they made that affected the course of the movement and the relations of the state and “militants.” Part Three of the book, which covers the period of 1992 to 1997 with the fall of the movement and the supposed normalcy in the state of Punjab, includes an interesting and well-informed eleventh chapter about the return of political normalcy in Punjab. However, this supposed return of normalcy, either politically or socially, in the state of Punjab is questionable. Normal cannot be based upon a relatively and apparently calm political relationship between the state and ethnic elites because that is only a small part of the larger issue. Punjab, which is still economically unsound, politically problematic with a large population addicted to drug and liquor consumption, suffering from the menace of cancer, and numerous farmer suicides cannot be declared “normal.” Even so, Chima does provide an unbiased account of the dealings between the political parties and organizations, among which are the Akali Dal, Congress, and the AISSF, the radical outfit of Bhindranwala. The author presents ample information on the electoral politics and the organization of the parties and leaders. He distinguishes the moderates and radicals. The attempted diplomacy of Indira Gandhi and Punjabi politicians, the roles of Parkash Singh Baadal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Harchand Singh Longowal, and Simranjeet Singh Mann are listed and weaknesses and strengths are granted.

Chima’s argument of "political patterns of leadership” being the central factor of this ethnonationalist movement is, nonetheless, insufficient. No doubt that the “political patterns of leadership” play an important role in the unfolding of events. However, it does not fully explain the emergence of Sikh insurgency in India. Since the demise of British colonial rule, Sikhs, a minority in India, felt discrimination, injustice, and a fear of marginalization that could possibly lead to their ultimate assimilation into the vast Hindu majority. The clash in April 1978 between the Nirankaris and the radicals belonging to the Dam Dami Taksal and Akhand Kirtani Jatha proved to be the watershed. With this, the feeling of victimization and injustice heightened. The highhandedness of the Indian state agencies aided by security forces provided the fuel in flaring anti-India sentiments among the vast sections of Sikhs. So, the root cause of the insurgency was the threat Sikhs felt from the Hindu majority for not being given their own freedom. Notably, contrary to what the author has written and given that it is debatable, Sikhism is not a part of Hinduism. The sense of Sikh distinctiveness crystallized during the Singh Saba movement, and gradually strengthened, finally gathering momentum after 1947. Today, the section of Sikhs who do say Sikhism is a part of Hinduism is miniscule, and the general Sikh population would agree that it is a distinct religion. Secondly, the movement did not arise out of a fear of being reabsorbed into Hinduism. Instead, it is when a country fails to respect a minority’s culture, religion, and language along with granting the right to practice those freely that a minority rises up as a survival instinct. Even Article 25B of the Indian Constitution does not acknowledge Sikhism as a religion separate from Hinduism. As a result, not only are the minorities’ rights not implemented in practice, but the constitution also fails to grant some of these rights in writing. The attack on Harminder Sahib during Operation Blue Star and the subsequent police atrocities on the Sikhs in Punjab were no small matter either. Especially after this catastrophic event in Amritsar, the call for Khalistan was not merely based upon the conflict between state and ethnic elites. This attack had affected Sikhs all over the world. Yet, Chima does not mention the very important role of the Sikh Diaspora. A purely political science formula cannot sufficiently explain the movement as a whole. In its place, incorporating ideas such as Subrata Mitra’s thesis of subnationalism being predicated by the “successful transformation of normal “transactional” politics involving material interests into “transcendental” issues involving identity, community and dignity” show the multi-faceted components of a movement (13). The Sikh separatist insurgency was quite transcendental based heavily upon emotion and a strong sense of loss of recognition of identity, community, and dignity. The demand for sovereignty in Punjab is entwined with the wish to have control over its cultural and religious practices, not simply political or economic power. Chima could have only reinforced his theory by adding the transcendental issues that so profoundly affected the Sikh movement.

As for the rise of a radical movement within a regime, when a minority feels discriminated, either based on real or imaginary concerns, the responsibility of the regime is to address those grievances. The grievances can be accepted, attempts can be made to improve matters, and misgivings can be flayed. In terms of Sikhs and the Indian state, the government did not address those grievances with a sympathetic or honest approach. As already mentioned, Sikhs had been feeling marginalized for some years now, not just beginning in 1978 but as far back as 1947. Sikhs in India were frustrated with the government’s refusal in granting them the right to have a linguistically distinguished state, reluctance in broadcasting kirtan from Harmander Sahib on the radio, and even granting Amritsar the title of a holy city. Similarly, Sikhs abroad were not satisfied with the Indian government’s role in helping them gain equal rights in their respective countries of England, Canada, and the United States. Anti-Indian government sentiment in the Diaspora had been building up for a long time also, and the feelings heightened in the 1980s, providing a space for the growth of militant ideology abroad too.

In Punjab, prior to the popularity of militant ideology, the moderate Akali leadership had exclusive control over political and religious matters. As the moderate leadership failed to satisfy the aspirations of the Sikh masses, the radicals came to the center stage. In explaining the reasons for the fall of the militant movement, one has to realize the ideological and political weakness of the militant leadership rather than focusing on “fractionalization” of the radicals. As the militants began to lose popular support among the Sikhs due to their rash and senseless acts of violence, the atrocious repression of the armed forces of the Indian state succeeded in breaking the backbone of the militant movement. Even though the moderates, that is, the Akali leaders, had no accomplishments to show, they began to regain strength. A sociological analysis would show that the people, tired from the years of unrest, gave in to the moderate promises, however empty they were.

Additionally, Chima’s theory states that the events during the mentioned years occurred due to the decisions made by the state elites and the ethnic elites – the Congress Party represented the central state elite and the Akali Dal represented the Sikh elite in this case. The theory states that if the central state elite has a united front, a radical movement cannot rise because it will be squashed. On the other hand, if the central state elite has a divided front, then a radical movement can find a reason to rise up. The same goes for the ethnic elite and their unity or division. A radical movement can thus also arise “when competing ethnic and state elites cannot always resolve their political differences and ethnic militants emerge often, but not always, facilitated by either traditional ethnic elites and state elites to use in their respective intra-system struggles or against each other” (9). Chima means that the central state or ethnic elite can use the threat of a radical to weaken the opponent. Specific to this movement, the ethnic elite used Bhindranwala as a scare tactic for the central state elite, and the central state elite used Bhindranwala as a scare tactic for the ethnic elite. Such drama ensued and these decisions, did, to some degree, shape the trajectory of the movement in the beginning. However, the central state elite and the ethnic elite do have a social base of their own to which they are obliged to answer in a democratic set-up. Chima presents the masses to be passive crowds, but that is not the case. The masses have to be figured in. The central state cannot do everything it wishes, and neither can the ethnic elite. The people do and will question the government’s decision and the government has to have some validity to stay in power and to get re-elected. If the social base is not satisfied, there will be no votes gained from that section. Thus, the central state elite and the ethnic elite during the separatist movement had a boundary that they could not cross and within which they had to make their choices. For a phenomenon as complex as the Sikh separatist insurgency, one factor, however important it may be, cannot sufficiently explain the whole movement. Apart from politics, many sociological and psychological aspects have to be taken into account. Without considering these aspects, that theory will be flawed and incomplete. As a result, Chima does not succeed in convincingly using his argument to explain the massive movement that rose in Punjab. His theory does not explain the reasons why Khalistan was demanded and continues to be demanded today because he undermines the transcendental dimensions that deeply affected the psyche of the Sikh masses. Some would also argue that the movement still lives on, albeit much weaker. The author’s evidence presents political leaders as ringmasters, without much counterevidence as to the personal effect on the common Sikh citizen. After all, there was some deeper meaning and power that inspired ordinary Sikh youths to leave their homes to willingly fight for the cause. Nor does the same formula of the patterns of political leadership apply to every movement.

This book is a useful resource for referencing the chronology of political developments in Punjab during the mentioned years. It does not, however, measure up to its attempt to explain the dynamics of the Khalistan separatist movement.

Parwaz Sra is a third year student at the University of California – Berkeley, intending to complete her bachelor’s degree in Political Science with minors in French and Anthropology. Raised in Punjab until the age of eleven, she then moved to the United States, still remaining close to Sikh and Punjabi culture. This is her first book review.




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