After several postponements, the “Punjab Referendum Commission has announced to hold the “Punjab Independence Referendum on October 31, 2021. The Commission has been appointed by the US-based Khalistani separatist group Sikhs for Justice. The Commission” consists of “non-aligned direct democracy experts” who are to organise and hold a referendum on whether Punjab should be independent. The referendum will start in London on October 31 and then take place in other countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, and the region of Punjab, the commission stated.
Commission’ chairman M Dane Waters, based at the University of Southern California clarified that the commission’s role is to “help the SFJ conduct a referendum that is as consistent with international norms as possible”. He added, ‘Although a non-governmental and non-binding referendum, the result will be used as the basis for the Sikh community to request an official binding vote from the United Nations on establishing the Indian governed region of Punjab as an independent homeland for the indigenous people of whom Sikhs are the single largest group’. India is irked y the date of referendum, October 31, as on this date anti-Sikh riots, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination by his body guards, erupted, leaving 3000 to 17000 Sikhs dead.
India fought tooth and nail to forestall the intended referendum. It sent a dossier to the British government blaming Pakistan and Paramjit Singh Pamma, “an ordinary criminal”, for sponsoring the event. The UK rejected the request.
SFJ has promised help and assistance for those seeking visas to come to London to attend the rally. The organisation has booked rooms in a hotel in South all for participants travelling from outside the UK. From Britain’s Green Party, which has a lone MP in Westminster, Caroline Lucas and George Galloway, a former MP and former broadcaster respectively, have registered their support for the rally. Lucas said, `Sikh people have a right to determine for themselves whether they want to establish an independent Punjabi state’.
Why India fears the non-binding referendum?
Indian High Commission has planned a counter demonstration at the same venue few hours before the ‘Referendum 2020’ rally. India is worried that the referendum would open wounds of 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
The riots resulted in genocide of thousands of Sikhs. Not only the Congress Party leaders like Sajan Kumar and Jagadish Tytler but also police colluded with the killers. India’s then foreign minister and later prime minister Manmohan Singh said , ‘If then home minister Narisamha Rao had paid to IK Gujarat’s suggestion to call in the army, the 1984 Sikh riots could have been avoided’.(1984 Sikh riots could have been avoided if Narrasimha Rao had listened to IK Gujaral: Manmohan Singh, India Today December 5, 2019).
Desire for autonomy
Guru Gobind Singh asked Sikhs to adopt Khalsa way of life. At the gathering of 1699, Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa Vani – “Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki fateh“. He named all his followers with the title Singh, meaning lion. He also founded the principles of Khalsa or the Five ‘K’s, kara, kirpan, kachha, kais, and kanga (a wrist bracelet, underwear, long hair and a comb). The five K’s have spiritual connotation.
Sikhs have a long history of fighting repression. In 1973, Akali Dal put forward the Anandpur Sahib Resolution to demand more autonomy to Punjab. It demanded that power be generally devolved from the Central to state governments. The Congress government considered the resolution a secessionist document and rejected it.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a prominent Sikh leader of Damdami Taksal, then joined the Akali Dal to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982 to implement the Anandpur Sahib resolution. Bhindranwale had risen to prominence in the Sikh political circle with his policy of getting the Anandpur Resolution passed. Others demanded an autonomous state in India, based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.
India used iron fist tactics to gag the demand. The high-handed police treated the protesters (Dharam Yudh Morcha) as ordinary criminals. The Sikh youth retaliated by starting an insurgency. By 1983, the situation in Punjab was volatile.
Operation Blue Star
It was launched (1 June) “to remove him and the armed militants from the Golden Temple complex. On 6 June Bhindranwale died in the operation. The operation carried out in the temple caused outrage among the Sikhs and increased the support for Khalistan Movement.
Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi killed
Four months after the operation, on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Public outcry over Gandhi’s death led to the killings of Sikhs in the ensuing 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Very few people were punished. In Delhi, 442 rioters were convicted. Forty-nine were sentenced to the life imprisonment, and another three to more than 10 years’ imprisonment. Six Delhi police officers were sanctioned for negligence during the riots. That month, the Karkardooma district court in Delhi convicted five people – Balwan Khokkar (former councillor), Mahender Yadav (former MLA), Kishan Khokkar, Girdhari Lal and Captain Bhagmal – for inciting a mob against Sikhs in Delhi Cantonment. The court acquitted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar. But, upom revision, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In the first ever case of capital punishment in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case death sentence was awarded to Yashpal Singh convicted for murdering two persons, 24-year-old Hardev Singh and 26-year-old Avtar Singh, in Mahipal Pur area of Delhi on 1 November 1984. Additional Sessions Judge Ajay Pandey pronounced the Judgement on 20 November 34 years after the crime was committed.
Ten commissions or committees were formed to investigate the riots. But, most of the accused were acquitted or never formally charged. The commissions or committees include Marwah Commission, Misra Commission, Kapur Mittal Committee, Jain Banerjee Committee, Potti Rosha Committee, Jain Aggarwal Committee, Ahuja Committee, Dhillon Committee,
Narula Committee, and The Nanavati Commission, The most recent, headed by Justice G. T. Nanavati, submitted its 185-page report to Home Minister Shivraj Patil on 9 February 2005; the report was tabled in Parliament on 8 August of that year.
The Marwah Commission was appointed in November 1984. As Marwah was completing his inquiry in mid-1985, he was abruptly directed by the Home Ministry not to proceed further. The Marwah Commission records were appropriated by the government, and most (except for Marwah’s handwritten notes) were later given to the Misra Commission.
The Misra Commission was appointed in May 1985; Justice Rangnath Misra submitted his report in August 1986, and the report was made public in February 1987. In his report, he said that it was not part of his terms of reference to identify any individual and recommended the formation of three committees.
While the commission noted that there had been “widespread lapses” on the part of the police, it concluded that “the allegations before the commission about the conduct of the police are more of indifference and negligence during the riots than of any wrongful overt act.”
The Kapur Mittal Committee was appointed in February 1987 at the recommendation of the Misra Commission to enquire into the role of the police; the Marwah Commission had almost completed a police inquiry in 1985 when the government asked that committee not to continue. Although the committee recommended the dismissal of 30 of the 72 officers, none have been punished.
The Potti Rosha Committee was appointed in March 1990 by the V. P. Singh government as a successor to the Jain Banerjee Committee. In August 1990, the committee issued recommendations for filing cases based on affidavits submitted by victims of the violence; there was one against Sajjan Kumar.
The Jain Aggarwal Committee was appointed in December 1990 as a successor to the Potti Rosha Committee. The committee recommended the registration of cases against H. K. L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Dharamdas Shastri and Jagdish Tytler.
The Ahuja Committee was the third committee recommended by the Misra Commission to determine the total number of deaths in Delhi. According to the committee, which submitted its report in August 1987, 2,733 Sikhs were killed in the city.
The Dhillon Committee, headed by Gurdial Singh Dhillon, was appointed in 1985 to recommend measures for the rehabilitation of victims. Although the committee recommended ordering the (nationalised) insurance companies to pay the claims, the government did not accept its recommendation and the claims were not paid.
The Narula Committee was appointed in December 1993 by the Madan Lal Khurana-led BJP government in Delhi. One recommendation of the committee was to convince the central government to impose sanctions.
Khurana took up the matter with the central government, which in the middle of 1994, the Central Government decided that the matter did not fall within its purview and sent the case to the lieutenant governor of Delhi. It took two years for the P. V. Narasimha Rao government to decide that it did not fall within its purview.
The Narasimha Rao Government further delayed the case. The committee submitted its report in January 1994, recommending the registration of cases against H. K. L. Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar. Despite the central-government delay, the CBI filed the charge sheet in December 1994.
The Nanavati Commission was established in 2000 after some dissatisfaction was expressed with previous reports. The commission reported that recorded accounts from victims and witnesses “indicate that local Congress leaders and workers had either incited or helped the mobs in attacking the Sikhs”. Its report also found evidence against Jagdish Tytler “to the effect that very probably he had a hand in organising attacks on Sikhs”.It also recommended that Sajjan Kumar’s involvement in the rioting required a closer look. The commission’s report also cleared Rajiv Gandhi and other high ranking Congress (I) party members of any involvement in organising riots against Sikhs.
Role of Jagdish Tytler
In March 2009, the CBI cleared Tytler amidst protests from Sikhs and the opposition parties.
At present the Sikhs are distraught by farmers’ prolonged protest and pettifoggery among political leaders. Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh’ rivals remind him that Pakistani journalist Aroosa Alam, his sweetheart, is a Pakistani agent. Still, the referendum may gain momentum in future.