The Indian state is showing a double standard in its response to a New York-based Sikh group' s controversial posters seeking a referendum on an independent Sikh state in 2020.
Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) is asking for the referendum in Punjab so that the Sikhs can decide their political future. The SFJ supports Khalistan, an imaginary Sikh homeland that would be carved out of northern India.
Posters have sprung up in different parts of Punjab and are giving sleepless nights to the Indian leadership and a section of the mainstream media. The SJF's critics accuse it of trying to disturb the peace in an Indian state that witnessed a decadelong bloody insurgency for Khalistan from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The movement died partly due to police repression and partly because of a loss of popular support from the excesses committed by extremists.
Both the ruling Congress party in Punjab and the opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)—a Hindu nationalist force—have come out openly against these posters. Under these circumstances, SFJ activists have been booked for sedition. Notably, the BJP has been calling for tearing down the posters, along with stringent police action.
Not to be left behind, a section of the big media has tried to raise a false alarm by blowing the story out of proportion.
There is little doubt that the Khalistan movement does not enjoy a big following in Punjab. The SFJ's actions are mainly limited to propaganda, which has lot of currency among the Indian diaspora. But there are few takers for Khalistan in Punjab, where voters have repeatedly rejected pro-Khalistan parties in elections. As things stand today, the Khalistan movement of the SFJ is more like a harmless group of people who are only making noise through demonstrations and a poster war.
What is more striking about the reaction of the Indian leadership is its deafening silence over growing threat of Hindu extremism in their country. Ever since the BJP came to power in India in 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, violence against religious minorities has grown.
Modi who was earlier the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, is widely blamed for an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 that followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. The incident left more than 50 people dead. The Modi government accused Muslim fanatics of torching the train. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists and the BJP supporters participated in the violence against Muslims with the complicity of the police.
Not surprisingly, a major VHP leader, Ashok Singhal, announced in 2015 that India would become a Hindu state by 2020. No big fuss was raised about it back then. If this was not enough, when Singhal died the same year he was given last respects by the ministers in the BJP government. Modi also paid tributes to this leader, who was known for spewing venom against Muslims.
The BJP has no moral ground upon which to denounce SFJ referendum in the first place. If the SFJ's demand is dangerous and divisive, so is the BJP's politics of turning secular India into a Hindu theocracy.
It seems that the Congress, which is running the government in Punjab, also lacks the will to take on the Hindu fanatics involved in antiminority activities. Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh recently accused Sikh ministers in the Canadian government of being sympathizers of Khalistan.
Clearly, he wants to misguide urban Hindu voters for his political survival by creating a fear of the revival of the Khalistan issue in Punjab. Singh should be going after the growth of Hindu extremism in the state. It's a shame that he could not provide an alternative to the sectarian politics of the BJP in Punjab so that people can seriously count on non-BJP parties in the future.
Consumed by nationalist politics, both parties keep blaming Pakistan, which shares a border with Punjab, for any untoward incidents. In this case too, the two parties see a Pakistani hand behind pro-Khalistan propaganda.
The problem is that the Congress, like the BJP, is not willing to see majoritarian extremism as a real internal security threat. The opposition to SFJ therefore badly reflects on the Indian leadership, whose take on separatism and violence is not just selective but also hypocritical.
The mainstream media must also take some blame for raising a false alarm about Khalistan instead of spending more resources and time covering Hindu extremism that is fuelling counter-attacks by minority extremists because of its supremacist designs.