The Nation That Declared Independence in The New York Times

The Nation That Declared Independence in The New York Times

By Sanjena Sathian

Jagjit Singh Chauhan addresses a group of Sikhs in Amritsar


Because if you can declare yourself a nation by placing an ad in The New York Times, we’ve got a whole other set of issues on our hands.

By Sanjena Sathian

A religious group bands together far away from its motherland. It amasses its forces across the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. It demands recognition as an independent state. It’s willing to kill for it.

It’s a familiar tale of extremism — one worth thinking about at a time when we’re baffled at how many of the Islamic State’s fighters are coming to Syria from far off, even from the West.

But this story is about how one 20th-century extremist group grew out of a scattered population of Indians living abroad. Now all but forgotten in the West, these Sikh separatists jockeyed for an independent state called Khalistan. They fought from the 1970s through the 1990s. Plenty of the battles over the imagined state were fought in India, but more still took place amid mainstream Canadian politics and in London’s back alleys.

The declaration of the “state’s” founding arrived, improbably, as a half-page advertisement in the Oct. 12, 1971, issue of The New York Times. “The Sikhs demand an independent state in India … the only guarantee for peace on the subcontinent,” it declared. “The world has been oblivious to the fate of 12 million Sikhs living under political domination in India and in constant fear of genocide. … Today we launch the final crusade.”

Newspaper ad with the words, The Sikhs Demand Independence from India

A view of schoolboys at the Golden Temple beside the holy tank in 1908.

Source Corbis

The author was Jagjit Singh Chauhan, the India-born, London-based cultish inceptor of the movement. So committed to his cause was he that he created passports, currency and even embassies for the unrecognized, amorphous “nation” of Khalistan.

But the call for an independent Sikh religious state goes back a century earlier. At the turn of the 18th century, the Sikhs ruled over an expansive empire in modern-day Punjab full of arable land, captured from Mughal leaders. British colonialism ended their reign in 1849, and it was not until India and Pakistan were being partitioned in the 1940s that Sikh leaders returned in earnest to the idea of a Sikh-majority state.

But the maps, drawn by Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten and others, didn’t yield a Sikh-majority country. India, the idea went at the time, would embrace religious pluralism. Muslim-majority Pakistan was already being hacked away, and India’s leaders wouldn’t stand for the creation of yet another religious state division.

Yet the Khalistani movement lay dormant for a decade after its public declaration.

As colonial India became post-colonial India and as the Indian diaspora swelled in the decades after partition, the seeds of Khalistan grew, too — in large part because of the West.

Sociologist Benedict Anderson once wrote that newspapers and other print media help communities materialize by letting them imagine themselves as communities. A potent idea about any community, but especially about one trying to actualize itself in diaspora, with its citizens physically dispersed and no central town square to hold it all together. 

For years prior to Chauhan’s 1971 ad, diasporic Sikhs had communicated mostly among themselves via ethnic papers and pamphlets. The New York Times, on the other hand, spoke to the Western world. Yet the Khalistani movement lay dormant for a decade after its public declaration, restricted to underground meetings in London temples.

Until 1984, when the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards — just months after Chauhan publicly warned she would be “beheaded” by the Sikhs. Earlier that year, citing a Khalistani threat, Gandhi had led a violent attack on the Golden Temple, a sacred Sikh site.

A year later, in 1985, a group of Sikh separatists blew up an Air India flight in midair off the coast of Ireland (the incident appears in fantasized form in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses). A full-blown war was being waged by a frightening new group of extremists.

Back in the West, the Sikh diaspora was mobilizing — often peacefully, it must be said: Aunties and uncles cheered for Khalistan as they waged a sit-in in Madison Square Garden after Gandhi’s attack on the Golden Temple. Many Sikhs condemned the violence in ethnic newspapers like the U.K.’s Des Pardes and Canada’s Indo-Canadian Times, though some who wrote publicly were beaten on the streets of Toronto and London.

The surreal war over a state that didn’t exist wound its way through information highways and into pockets of immigrant communities thousands of miles away from either Indira Gandhi or the Ireland-bound flight. As 66-year-old Canadian politician Ujjal Dosanjh said 20 years later, the violence seemed, to white Canadians, to be “happening to some brown guys that were arguing with each other that we don’t understand.”

And yet the bloodshed had landed squarely on the Western homefront, where it was slow to dissipate. In the late 1990s, a Canadian Sikh journalist named Tara Singh Hayer, who offered to testify about Western involvement in the 1985 plane bombing, was gunned down by Khalistani extremists. The U.S. State Department says this period marked the crest of the movement, but as recently as a decade ago, the British government suspected U.K. Khalistani extremists were funding a new round of violence and even, the BBC reported, making use of al-Qaida training camps

Whether or not the Sikh separatist movement remains strong enough today to mobilize beyond a few well-curated websites — and the occasional haunting violent crime — is hard to say. But what is certain is that the idea of a homeland has an enduring, seductive power that we who have our feet on comfortable ground almost always underestimate.