On the morning of Sept 30, 1981, an alert was raised at Lahore airport: an aircraft was heading towards Pakistani territory without permission. Within minutes, an Indian passenger plane landed at the Lahore airport — it was said that the plane had been hijacked by five Sikh men while it was on a normal Jammu to New Delhi flight, and the hijackers had forced the pilot to divert the aircraft towards Lahore with 111 passengers on board.

This was an act of Sikh militants struggling for a separate homeland, Khalistan. The Sikh hijackers wanted the Indian government to release their associates jailed in India. They released all but 45 passengers and wanted to swap them with Sikh prisoners jailed in India on charges of creating unrest in the country.

The Pakistani government immediately sprung into action. A smart squad of Special Services Group (SSG) commandos, pretended to be aircraft cleaners, sneaked inside the plane. In a lightning quik operation, all five knife-wielding Sikh hijackers were arrested and the passengers freed. The militants were identified as Tejinder, Satnam, Gajendar Singh, Karan Singh Kini and Jasmir Singh Jima; they were prosecuted under the relevant laws and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Indian government appreciated the Pakistani act.

But the issue had a thorny history. Since the day the Sikhs began their struggle for Khalistan, India had been accusing Pakistan of backing the Sikh separatists in their struggle. Since Pakistan has many Sikh religious places and shrines, it had been hosting visiting Sikh pilgrims on various occasions round the year. Original protagonists of the Khalistan movement, including Dhillon, Gajendar Singh and Jagjit Singh, had been visiting Pakistan and meeting Pakistani politicians too.

India accused Pakistan of supporting the burgeoning Sikh uprising, but eventually, it was Pakistani support that helped crush the movement

After the 1977 martial law, India began alleging that General Ziaul Haq had been extending “unusual hospitality” to visiting Sikh pilgrims. It was also reported that the General had been meeting them in the President House and had been bidding farewell to them with some souvenirs. These gestures were not liked by the Indian government.

Dhillon, who had been banned from entering India after Operation Blue Star in June 1984 and had sought American citizenship, used to visit Pakistan and became friends with some political figures too. During his stay, he would routinely avail their hospitality. This was termed by the Indian government as an anti-India act.

When the Khalistan movement became active in India and abroad, the Indian government claimed that “Pakistan armed, trained and to a certain extent financed Sikh militants.” In a research paper written by Dr Shinder Purewal of Kwantlen University, Canada, titled “The Evolution of Sikh Secessionist Movement in Western Democracies” (September 2012), the author argues that the Sikh movement had three phases. The first was Home Rule movement that began in 1960s and lasted till 1978. From 1978 to 1993, ‘terrorism’ was added to its struggle after its demand changed to a separate Khalistan state. Thereafter, the movement adopted the politics of grievance, which began in 1994 and continues till today. Khalistan leader Dr Chohan had declared in 1970s that he would even declare a parallel government in Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, now in Pakistan.

When the Khalistan movement became active in India and abroad, the Indian government claimed that “Pakistan armed, trained and to a certain extent financed Sikh militants.”

Despite Pakistan’s assurances that it did not support the Sikhs in their movement, the Indian government tried to drag Pakistan in the Khalistan issue. It later became known that major Sikh organisations such as All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), Babbar Khalisa, World Sikh Organistaion (WSO), International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) were all getting support from Sikh Diaspora in United Kingdom, Canada, United States and other countries.

In 2007, the Press Trust of India (PTI) released an intriguing report regarding US involvement in the Sikh issue. It said that in 1971, the Richard Nixon administration initiated a “covert action plan” in collusion with General Yahya Khan’s government in Pakistan to encourage a separatist movement in the Indian Punjab. The report quoted B. Raman, a former officer of India’s RAW in his book titled The Kaoboys of R &W — Down Memory Lane (2007), wrote that “the plan envisaged the encouragement of a separatist movement among the Sikhs for an independent state to be called Khalistan.”

The writer claimed that following this development, Jagjit Singh Chauhan went to the UK and after taking over the leadership of defunct Sikh Home Rule movement, renamed it as Khalistan. He claims that Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan also invited Chauhan to Pakistan and handed some holy relics to him that had been kept in Pakistan. Chauhan took these to the UK, to win a following among the Sikh Diaspora.

Raman also claimed that Chauhan went to the US, held meetings with American journalists and told them about the human rights violations in India. He also met with UN officials. These meetings were organised by officials of the US National Security Council secretariat, which was then headed by (Henry) Kissinger. In 1984, with US Vice-President George Bush visiting, the Indian government protested these developments but he denied the charge.

In the backdrop of some violent acts such as the aircraft bombing at Narvi airport, Tokyo and the blowing up of an Air India aircraft over the Atlantic in June 1985 (which killed all 325 passengers on board), the Indian government was already wary. The storming of the Golden Temple was thought to be aimed at cleansing the temple of terrorists, while the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi followed by Sikh massacres seemed to be a natural reaction to those violent acts.

When the Sikh movement published a map of Khalistan, it included parts of the Pakistani side of Punjab. This prompted Gen Zia to order his government to keep Sikhs “under strict surveillance”. Later in 1988, the then director-general of the ISI, Gen Hamid Gul, called on prime minister Benazir Bhutto and advocated a plan to support the Khalistan movement in Indian Punjab as a bid to pre-empt any Indian threat. Bhutto told the General to drop the card.

Later on, prime minister Bhutto, in a bid to create a friendly atmosphere, collected all information about Sikh activists and reportedly sent it to Indian prime pinister Rajiv Gandhi through a special messenger. This information rpparently helped Rajiv bring an end to the Sikh uprising.


Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine July 12th, 2015

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