Referendum 2020, the Campaign to ‘Liberate’ Punjab

The separatist rally was organised by Sikhs for Justice (SJF), a separatist Sikh organisation.

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
An image shared by the organisers of the ‘Referendum 2020’ rally, held in London on Sunday, 12 August.
i
Snapshot

Four men, with the Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag) in their hands flying high, marched on Trafalgar Square in London on Sunday, 12 August this year. They were followed by a ragtag group of secessionists, wearing long beards – holding placards condemning India’s treatment of Sikhs – who congregated to once again demand a separate Punjab state.

The “Referendum 2020” rally, organised by Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), is trying to understand if Punjabis across at least 20 countries want a separate state. If they find that they do, they’ll call for a referendum by 2020.

During the event, congregants were confronted by a pro-India group, with its own flags and drums to drown out the call for Punjab’s secession. They put up slogans like, “Sikhs for a United India” and “We stand for one united India”, according to a report in The Hindu.

Referendum 2020, the Campaign to ‘Liberate’ Punjab

  1. 1. What is ‘Punjab Referendum 2020’ and its Objective?

    The website of the referendum describes it as a campaign to liberate Punjab, "currently occupied by India". They aim to:

    • Gauge what the "Punjabi people" think about re-establishing Punjab as a nation state.
    • Give the people of Punjab the privilege to decide their future political status.
    • Once the consensus around the question of independence is established, the organisation, which has its offices in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, will present its case to the United Nation and other international bodies.
    Expand
  2. 2. Who Backs ‘Referendum 2020’?

    The Indian government has, since the very beginning, accused the Pakistani establishment of supporting the separatist activities in Punjab. First in the 1980s when the movement took a violent route to achieve its objective, and now again when it seeks to establish a separate state through a referendum, Pakistan's name has been brought up.

    Even on Sunday, British-Pakistani, Lord Nazir Ahmed, who was in the Labour Party but thrown out for his political views, was among the speakers. Ahmed, who calls himself a sympathiser for Kashmiris and Sikhs, spoke of breaking up Punjab from India, news agency ANI reported.

    Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the presence of Pakistani politicians at the rally confirms it was an out-and-out ISI plot which fell through, just as their attempts to create trouble in India have been failing all these years.

    The SFJ is just a group of fringe elements that is playing into the hands of Pakistan’s ISI to divide India, but they have failed, and will continue to fail in their nefarious designs.
    Punjab CM Amarinder Singh as quoted by PTI

    Former army chief general JJ Singh had, earlier this month, alleged that the "Referendum 2020" was a ploy of Pakistani establishments to foment communal tensions in India.

    Almost a decade ago in 2007, the PTI had reported that the Richard Nixon administration tried to encourage a separatist movement in Punjab by initiating a “covert action plan” in collusion with General Yahya Khan’s government in Pakistan in 1971.

    B Raman, a former top officer of the Research and Analysis Wing, supported this view in his book, The Kaoboys of R&AW – Down the Memory Lane. He wrote, "This plan envisaged the encouragement of a separatist movement among the Sikhs for an independent state to be called Khalistan. In 1971, one saw the beginning of a joint covert operation by the US intelligence community and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence to create difficulties for India in Punjab."

    Expand
  3. 3. What Does the India Government say now?

    Tarun Chugh, BJP’s national secretary, termed Referendum 2020 a “useless exercise’ by a desperate group of radicals who have no support from Punjabis living across the globe”.

    He told PTI that the idea of Referendum 2020 was an ‘anti-national’ proposal designed to break the communal harmony among the people of the community in and outside Punjab.

    Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) mastermind Gurpatwant Singh Pannun was following the commands of Pakistan based ISI and trying to brainwash and misguide youth to bring back black days in Punjab, but his efforts won’t be successful.
    Tarun Chugh

    Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had said there are no takers in Punjab for Referendum 2020. Singh had on Friday dubbed the proposed rally in London on Sunday by Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) as an attempt by a handful of frustrated ISI-backed Sikhs abroad to foment trouble.

    "They have been at it for long and have been playing into the hands of the ISI, which has an open agenda to foment trouble in Punjab and India," he had said.

    The chief minister said he was not at all worried about the fringe elements or their rally. He said there are no takers for this campaign in the state as people want peace and development.

    Expand
  4. 4. Should India be Worried?

    India has repeatedly communicated its apprehensions not just to the United Kingdom, where this rally was organised, but also to Canada, considered a hotbed of the modern Khalistani movement.

    Even before the rally, the Indian government had issued a demarche to the British government requesting it to deny permission for the rally. The British government, however, had said that they can not ban the rally under their law.

    But they did assure India that “any group which spreads hate or deliberately raises community fears and tensions by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities will not be tolerated,” News18 reported.

    A dinner invitation to a convicted terrorist, Jaspal Atwal, during the recent visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had caused dismay in India. While Canada has witnessed anti-India protests intermittently, the two primary violent Sikh groups – Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation – have been defunct in the country for decades.

    Besides this, there is a near non-existent support for any such global movement calling for a separate Punjab in India. Punjab's principal opposition party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), said that “no Sikh in India had any sympathy for such demonstrations”.

    “Sikhs are loyal Indians. They've made more sacrifices for India than any other community,” SAD leader Naresh Gujral was quoted as saying by DNA.

    Expand
  5. 5. The Khalistan Movement, in Brief

    The struggle for a separate Punjab state dates back to the Punjabi Suba Movement. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – a powerful Sikh political outfit – sought a separate province of Punjab, but the State Reorganistion Commission, in its recommendations, rejected the demand. A series of violent protests, however, compelled the then-prime minister Indira, Gandhi, in 1966, to trifurcate the state into Haryana, Punjab and the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

    However, six years later, when the Congress swept to power, relegating the Akalis to the margins, the SAD went into a huddle to revive its fortunes. The party adopted "The Anandpur Sahib Resolution", the founding stone for the movement demanding a separate Sikh state.

    While the resolution didn't help the Akalis gain political mileage, it found an admirer in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who galvanised the Sikhs into action. In an articl, published in 2004 in Outlook India magazine, Khushwant Singh described how Bhindranwale resorted to using provocative language against the Hindu population.

    "He used vituperative language against the Hindus. He exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus to solve the Hindu-Sikh problem. Anyone who opposed him was put on his hit list and some eliminated," Khushwant wrote. "The list of Bhindranwale's victims, which included both Hindus and Sikhs, was a long one."

    In 1982, when Bhindranwale and Harsharan Singh Longowal, then-president of the Akali Dal, launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha or a civil disobedience movement, both took up residence inside the Golden Temple and had to be flushed out by Operation Bluestar, initiated by Indira Gandhi.

    Read the explainer on Operation Bluestar and the Khalistan Movement here.

    (With inputs from PTI, Hindustan Times, DNA, News18)

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    Expand

What is ‘Punjab Referendum 2020’ and its Objective?

The website of the referendum describes it as a campaign to liberate Punjab, "currently occupied by India". They aim to:

  • Gauge what the "Punjabi people" think about re-establishing Punjab as a nation state.
  • Give the people of Punjab the privilege to decide their future political status.
  • Once the consensus around the question of independence is established, the organisation, which has its offices in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, will present its case to the United Nation and other international bodies.

Who Backs ‘Referendum 2020’?

The Indian government has, since the very beginning, accused the Pakistani establishment of supporting the separatist activities in Punjab. First in the 1980s when the movement took a violent route to achieve its objective, and now again when it seeks to establish a separate state through a referendum, Pakistan's name has been brought up.

Even on Sunday, British-Pakistani, Lord Nazir Ahmed, who was in the Labour Party but thrown out for his political views, was among the speakers. Ahmed, who calls himself a sympathiser for Kashmiris and Sikhs, spoke of breaking up Punjab from India, news agency ANI reported.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the presence of Pakistani politicians at the rally confirms it was an out-and-out ISI plot which fell through, just as their attempts to create trouble in India have been failing all these years.

The SFJ is just a group of fringe elements that is playing into the hands of Pakistan’s ISI to divide India, but they have failed, and will continue to fail in their nefarious designs.
Punjab CM Amarinder Singh as quoted by PTI

Former army chief general JJ Singh had, earlier this month, alleged that the "Referendum 2020" was a ploy of Pakistani establishments to foment communal tensions in India.

Almost a decade ago in 2007, the PTI had reported that the Richard Nixon administration tried to encourage a separatist movement in Punjab by initiating a “covert action plan” in collusion with General Yahya Khan’s government in Pakistan in 1971.

B Raman, a former top officer of the Research and Analysis Wing, supported this view in his book, The Kaoboys of R&AW – Down the Memory Lane. He wrote, "This plan envisaged the encouragement of a separatist movement among the Sikhs for an independent state to be called Khalistan. In 1971, one saw the beginning of a joint covert operation by the US intelligence community and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence to create difficulties for India in Punjab."

What Does the India Government say now?

Tarun Chugh, BJP’s national secretary, termed Referendum 2020 a “useless exercise’ by a desperate group of radicals who have no support from Punjabis living across the globe”.

He told PTI that the idea of Referendum 2020 was an ‘anti-national’ proposal designed to break the communal harmony among the people of the community in and outside Punjab.

Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) mastermind Gurpatwant Singh Pannun was following the commands of Pakistan based ISI and trying to brainwash and misguide youth to bring back black days in Punjab, but his efforts won’t be successful.
Tarun Chugh

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had said there are no takers in Punjab for Referendum 2020. Singh had on Friday dubbed the proposed rally in London on Sunday by Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) as an attempt by a handful of frustrated ISI-backed Sikhs abroad to foment trouble.

"They have been at it for long and have been playing into the hands of the ISI, which has an open agenda to foment trouble in Punjab and India," he had said.

The chief minister said he was not at all worried about the fringe elements or their rally. He said there are no takers for this campaign in the state as people want peace and development.

Should India be Worried?

India has repeatedly communicated its apprehensions not just to the United Kingdom, where this rally was organised, but also to Canada, considered a hotbed of the modern Khalistani movement.

Even before the rally, the Indian government had issued a demarche to the British government requesting it to deny permission for the rally. The British government, however, had said that they can not ban the rally under their law.

But they did assure India that “any group which spreads hate or deliberately raises community fears and tensions by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities will not be tolerated,” News18 reported.

A dinner invitation to a convicted terrorist, Jaspal Atwal, during the recent visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had caused dismay in India. While Canada has witnessed anti-India protests intermittently, the two primary violent Sikh groups – Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation – have been defunct in the country for decades.

Besides this, there is a near non-existent support for any such global movement calling for a separate Punjab in India. Punjab's principal opposition party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), said that “no Sikh in India had any sympathy for such demonstrations”.

“Sikhs are loyal Indians. They've made more sacrifices for India than any other community,” SAD leader Naresh Gujral was quoted as saying by DNA.

The Khalistan Movement, in Brief

The struggle for a separate Punjab state dates back to the Punjabi Suba Movement. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – a powerful Sikh political outfit – sought a separate province of Punjab, but the State Reorganistion Commission, in its recommendations, rejected the demand. A series of violent protests, however, compelled the then-prime minister Indira, Gandhi, in 1966, to trifurcate the state into Haryana, Punjab and the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

However, six years later, when the Congress swept to power, relegating the Akalis to the margins, the SAD went into a huddle to revive its fortunes. The party adopted "The Anandpur Sahib Resolution", the founding stone for the movement demanding a separate Sikh state.

While the resolution didn't help the Akalis gain political mileage, it found an admirer in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who galvanised the Sikhs into action. In an articl, published in 2004 in Outlook India magazine, Khushwant Singh described how Bhindranwale resorted to using provocative language against the Hindu population.

"He used vituperative language against the Hindus. He exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus to solve the Hindu-Sikh problem. Anyone who opposed him was put on his hit list and some eliminated," Khushwant wrote. "The list of Bhindranwale's victims, which included both Hindus and Sikhs, was a long one."

In 1982, when Bhindranwale and Harsharan Singh Longowal, then-president of the Akali Dal, launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha or a civil disobedience movement, both took up residence inside the Golden Temple and had to be flushed out by Operation Bluestar, initiated by Indira Gandhi.

Read the explainer on Operation Bluestar and the Khalistan Movement here.

(With inputs from PTI, Hindustan Times, DNA, News18)

Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

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