The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India: Political Leadership and Ethnonationalist Movements


Jugdep S. Chima

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    For my three little sources of daily frustration (Navkiran, Noorkaran, and Gurmehar), and the wonderful woman (Mandeep) who blessed me with them.

    List of Tables

    List of Abbreviations

    ADAkali Dal
    AD(A)Akali Dal (Amritsar)
    AD(B)Akali Dal (Badal)
    AD(Baba)Akali Dal (Baba)
    AD(Babbar)Akali Dal (Babbar)
    AD(K)Akali Dal (Kabul)
    AD(L)Akali Dal (Longowal)
    AD(M)Akali Dal (Mann)
    AD(Manjit)Akali Dal (Manjit)
    AD(P)Akali Dal (Panthic)
    AD(T)Akali Dal (Talwandi)
    AD(U)Akali Dal (United)
    AISSFAll India Sikh Students Federation
    AISSF(B)All India Sikh Students Federation (Bittu)
    AISSF(B/B)All India Sikh Students Federation (Bundala/Buttar)
    AISSF(G)All India Sikh Students Federation (Gurjit)
    AISSF(K)All India Sikh Students Federation (Kahlon)
    AISSF(M)All India Sikh Students Federation (Manjit)
    AKJAkhand Kirtani Jatha
    BJPBharatiya Janata Party
    BSPBahujan Samaj Party
    BKBabbar Khalsa
    BTFKBhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan
    BTFK(C)Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan (Chhandra)
    BTFK(M)Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan (Manochahal)
    BTFK(S)Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan (Sangha)
    CP(I)Communist Party of India
    CP(M)Communist Party (Marxist)
    DKDal Khalsa
    DTDamdami Taksal
    INCIndian National Congress
    JDJanata Dal
    KCFKhalistan Commando Force
    KCF(P)Khalistan Commando Force (Panjwar)
    KCF(R)Khalistan Commando Force (Rajasthani)
    KCF(S)Khalistan Commando Force (Sultanwind)
    KCF(Z)Khalistan Commando Force (Zafferwal)
    KLFKhalistan Liberation Force
    KLF(E)Khalistan Liberation Force (Engineer)
    KLF(S)Khalistan Liberation Force (Sekhon)
    MLAMember of Legislative Assembly
    MPMember of Parliament
    NCKNational Council of Khalistan
    PCPanthic Committee
    SSFSikh Students Federation
    SSF(B)Sikh Students Federation (Bittu)
    SSF(M/C)Sikh Students Federation (Mehta/Chawla)
    SYLSutlej Yamuna Link Canal
    UADUnited Akali Dal
    UAD(B)United Akali Dal (Baba)
    UAD(M)United Akali Dal (Mann)
    UAD(T)United Akali Dal (Talwandi)


    Terrorist violence results essentially from ethnic, religious, and ideological motivations. Violence in Punjab, India in the later part of the 20th century took the form of an ethnonationalist movement for an independent Sikh state. Sikh content and context added the religious elements as a force multiplier, thereby increasing the scope and intensity of the violence.

    Jugdep S. Chima is a third-generation Sikh, who was born and raised in the Sikh diaspora in northern California. Punjabi and American cultures provided him with a passion for understanding and doing something about the human tragedy that encompassed his ancestral homeland. Jugdep began college in California as the movement and state carnage in Punjab increased yearly. He moved in a world of both Khalistan activists and supporters of the Indian state. Above all, he became involved in a scholarly context that increasingly led him to examine micro-political behavior on the one hand and theoretical constructs on the other.

    His scholarly interests grew while examining the behavioral patterns of the Sikh insurgency and the larger arena of ethnonationalist and terrorist movements throughout the world. Focusing on a specific case helped inform him about particular patterns and provided avenues to understanding violent behavior in other situations. The reverse also is true with the comparative perspectives assisting him in understanding the “Punjab problem”.

    I witnessed these developments and Jugdep's continuing scholarly growth as his major advisor while he earned a PhD in political science. In one graduate seminar focusing on comparative terrorism, he compared and contrasted the Khalistan movement in Punjab with the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. A published article in a major peer-reviewed journal resulted. Scholarly intensity in research and publication marked his academic pursuits at the University of Missouri. Our intellectual exchanges were mutually beneficial.

    Scholarly objectivity marks the author and the book that he now presents to the public. It doesn't dwell on “terror” as does so much of what has become a worldwide publishing industry. Political violence is a fact whether committed by a movement or the state. Categorizing a phenomenon as terrorist or as a movement by freedom fighters is a pre-judgment. “Militant” became the acceptable term in Punjab for the armed Khalistani activists.

    Jugdep's meticulous research—originally presented in a 1,000 page dissertation—involved the identification of leadership changes from point to point during the Khalistan insurgency and its battles with various state forces. His analysis establishes key points from the beginning to the end in what he terms the trajectory of the movement. Patterns of political leadership and the changes that took place are set forth as the key conceptual framework. His major contribution, therefore, is to the rich political and sociological literature on political elites.

    The social sciences critically need a return to this type of focus if they are to deal with real life problems. In a test of his original theoretical formulations, Jugdep applies them to ethnonationalist movements in four other very different contexts. Chechnya's first stage is an ethnic attempt at independence from Russia. It is reinforced in a second stage by Islamic radicalism. Thus, like Punjab, it involves ethnonationalism and religion. Northern Ireland and Kashmir also include both factors, ethnic and religious. Assam's case is more purely based on ethnic/tribal identities. In all these very dissimilar cultures, Jugdep's theoretical constructs provide a major comparative bridge.

    Dr Jugdep Chima emerges with his present book as a significant contributor to comparative studies of political violence—read terrorism for the publishing industry—and provides notice that a young scholar is making his mark in the social sciences.

    DrPaulWallace Professor Emeritus Department of Political Science, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, USA


    The researching and writing of this book emanated from two interrelated scholarly frustrations and concerns. First, there had been much written about the “Punjab crisis,” but no academic study existed that offered a sufficiently-detailed and systematic political history of the entire movement from its initial emergence in the early-1980s to its demise in the 1990s. Such a work, in my scholarly assessment, was necessary in order to critically understand the evolution of the various organizations and individuals involved in the conflict, their changing motivations and interests over time, and their transitory political interrelationships with each other—not to mention the entire trajectory of the Sikh ethnonationalist insurgency itself. Second, I was intellectually unsatisfied with existing theories in the field that attempted to explain the phenomenon of ethnonationalism, which, much to my chagrin, tended to be ahistorical and relied on underlying abstract variables for explanation. Furthermore, most of these theories explained the factors behind the emergence of ethnonationalist movements but not for their sustenance and/or demise. In contrast, I assumed that the actions of individuals and organizations—including in relation to each other—had a determining effect on the rise, sustenance, and/or fall of ethnonationalist insurgencies. Thus, in the attempt to incorporate observable human agency into the explanation for this phenomenon, I constructed a theory of how “patterns of political leadership” affect the trajectory of ethnonationalist movements. The “theory” forwarded in this book includes empirically-verifiable and testable propositions for each, the rise, sustenance, and/or demise of this phenomenon. Thus, this book provides a unique explanation both for the rise and fall of the Sikh ethnonationalist movement in particular, and for the trajectory of ethnonationalist movements in general. The wider applicability of the propositions formulated in this study is demonstrated in its concluding chapter by critically examining four additional cases of ethnonationalist insurgency—Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, and Assam. Thus, this book should be of significant interest to area specialists working on India and the Sikhs, academic theoreticians dealing with the conceptual issues of ethnonationalism and social movements, and also to public policy makers in multiethnic societies.

    JugdepS.Chima, PhD Berkeley, California, USA


    Researching and writing a PhD dissertation or a book is never a solo project. One inevitably accumulates a host of intellectual and personal debts whenever doing so. Fortunately, I have had the honor and privilege of working with a number of well-known and emphatic scholars who never made me feel that either I or my project was ever a burden on them. The intellectual exchanges I had with them vastly improved this work, and I hope it also somehow contributed to their own work and academic knowledge as well. In particular, I would like to thank Professor Paul Wallace who has been both a friend and mentor for years. Words cannot describe the personal and intellectual debt I owe him for his guidance and courtesy over the past many years. Paul is the model of a PhD advisor who combines the first-rate academic knowledge of a scholar of his caliber with the helpfulness and sensitivity of a true friend. While a doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I also gained immensely from my long conversations with Professor N. Gerald Barrier. In particular, I thank Professor Barrier for emphasizing the importance of human agency and process in determining political outcomes, instead of the abstract variables we political scientists are often trained to focus on. His methodological perspective as a historian helped shape the content and presentation of both the original PhD dissertation and this published book.

    I have accumulated many academic, personal, and professional debts while both as an undergraduate student and then as a professional scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. The late Professor Leo E. Rose and Professor Jyotirindra Das Gupta initially led me into the study of South Asian politics while an undergraduate at this institution. Professor Das Gupta, in fact, advised me to undertake my graduate studies at Missouri under Paul Wallace, and remains a readily available and always cheerful source of academic advice even today. I would also like to thank Daisy Rockwell and Mark Koops Elson, who provided me with institutional affiliation as a postdoctoral researcher and visiting scholar with the Center for South Asia Studies (CSAS) at UC-Berkeley after completing my doctoral degree. This time allowed me to revise and transform the original dissertation into a publishable book manuscript. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my colleagues at Asian Survey, including David Fraser, Bonnie Dehler, and Professor Lowell Dittmer. They were always there to provide their input and encouragement, not to mention flexibility in terms of my schedule, while I completed this project. Finally, no one at Berkeley has been as instrumental in the final presentation of this study as Professor Pradeep Chhibber who acted as my postdoctoral advisor while I was affiliated with CSAS. Pradeep's razor-edged and incisive, but always constructive, comments helped me flesh out this book's contribution to the existing theoretical literature in the field. His witty intellect and detailed commentary helped me ponder the implications of the Punjab case to the broader conceptual issues of political leadership and ethnonationalist insurgency. Without his time and input, this study may have looked much different than it does today.

    The publication of this book is also the product of the highly responsive and professional editorial team at SAGE Publications India. In particular, I would like to thank Sugata Ghosh, Vice President for Commissioning, who expressed initial interest in publishing this project and then waited patiently while I appropriately revised the dissertation into a book manuscript. Rekha Natarajan, Senior Commissioning Editor, has also always been there to answer my incessant questions and to politely provide me with the cogent editorial advice necessary for the presentation and production of a marketable book. I wish to thank her for her time and professionalism.

    Finally, I simply could not have completed this project without the help and support of my family. My father, Lal, waited patiently while I completed this book, often nudging me to get it done. My mother, Kirpal, spent seemingly endless days babysitting my eldest daughter, Navkiran, while I completed my dissertation, and then did the same with Noorkaran and subsequently my son, Gurmehar, while I revised the dissertation into a book manuscript. Without her willingness to watch my children while I worked, I would have probably never finished this book project. Finally, the various debts I owe to my wife, Mandeep, and my three children are too numerous to list. In short, they had to “live” with this book while their husband and father was incessantly distracted, both mentally and emotionally, with issues of Sikh politics, political leadership, and ethnonationalist insurgency. For whatever consolation it may be, this book is lovingly dedicated to them. They are most precious in my life today, and the publication of this book is a testament to their love, strength, and commitment, for which I will eternally remain grateful.

  • Glossary

    Akali:translated literally “immortal;” a member of the Khalsa order; a member or supporter of the Akali Dal.
    Akali Dal:translated literally “army of immortals;” the main Sikh political party in Punjab.
    Akal Takht:a Sikh shrine within the Golden Temple complex which is considered to be the main seat of temporal and religious authority for the Sikhs.
    akhand path:the ceremonial continuous reading of the Granth Sahib.
    amrit:the baptismal nectar consisting of water and sweets stirred with a double-edged dagger which is used to initiate an individual into the Khalsa order.
    amritdhari:a baptized Sikh and member of the Khalsa.
    Baisakhi:a festival celebrating the end of the traditional harvest season; also refers to the day (April 13) on which the Khalsa was created by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.
    bandh:literally translated “a closure;” a strike or closure of shops and offices in an act of peaceful protest.
    bhai:literally translated “brother;” an epithet of respect used for a Sikh priest or religious person.
    dhadi: Dharam Yudha minstrel singer.
    morcha:literally translated “the religious war agitation” or “agitation for righteousness;” refers to the peaceful Akali agitation of the early-1980's.
    diwan:a formal large gathering.
    ghallughara:massacre or holocaust.
    giani:a Sikh priest or religious scholar.
    Granth Sahib:the main Sikh religious text considered to be the “living guru” for the Sikh community.
    granthi:a Sikh priest.
    gurbani:literally “the gurus’ words;” oral reading of the Guru Granth Sahib.
    gurdwara:a Sikh temple.
    gurmata:a collective resolution passed at a Sarbat Khalsa in the presence of the Granth Sahib.
    Gurmukhi:literally “from the lips of the gurus;” a script used for writing the Punjabi language and Sikh religious texts.
    guru:a religious teacher or leader; an term used for the founder of the Sikh religion and his nine successors and the Granth Sahib.
    hartal:a strike or peaceful protest.
    hukamnama:a supreme religious edict usually issued by the Jathedar of the Akal Takht in conjunction with the other Head Priests.
    jatha:a group; a band of local Akali volunteers.
    jathedar:the leader of a jatha; a local leader of the Akali Dal; the head of a major Sikh shrine, including heads of the Five Sikh Takhts.
    kar sewa:voluntary, community service on cleaning, repairing, and rebuilding Sikh temples.
    kesdhari:a Sikh who keeps unshorn hair, a beard, and some of the Five K's, but is not formally baptized.
    Khalsa:the militant Sikh order instituted by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699; also refers to a baptized Sikh.
    kirpan:one of the Five K's; a ceremonial dagger a long sword.
    lakh:an Indian word commonly used for the number 100,000.
    langara community kitchen found in Sikh temples; the food prepared in a community kitchen.
    lathi:a long wooden or bamboo baton used by the police in India.
    Lok Sabha:literally translated, “the people's house;” the lower and representative house of the Indian parliament which is the main legislative body for India.
    morcha:a bunker or battle fortification; used metaphorically by the Akalis for their non-violent political agitations.
    Nihangs:members of a militant Khalsa Sikh sub-sect.
    Panj Pyara:literally translated “the Five Beloved;” a group of any five amritdhari Sikhs often considered to be a collective decision-making body in Sikh congregations.
    Panth:translated literally the “religion” or “community;” a term used for the collective Sikh community or the collective Khalsa order.
    quam:community or nation.
    Rajya Sabha:the largely ceremonial upper house of Indian parliament which has less legislative power than the Lok Sabha.
    sahajdhari:a follower of the Sikh religion who does not espouse the amritdhari or kesdhari identity.
    sangat:the Sikh congregation.
    Sarbat Khalsa:literally “the entire Khalsa;” a “representative” or symbolic meeting of the “entire Sikh community” called at the Akal Takht to decide important temporal matters for the Sikhs.
    satyagrahis:a term originally coined by Mahatma Gandhi for non-violent protesters.
    siropa:a robe of honor usually presented in a gurdwara.
    suba:a province or state.
    tankhaiya:one who is guilty of breaking Sikh religious norms; a precursor to excommunication from the Panth.
    Vidan Sabha:state legislative assembly.

    Select Bibliography

    Print Newspapers

    Indian Express (New Delhi)

    Hindustan Times (New Delhi)

    New York Times (New York)

    The Hindu (Madras)

    The Tribune (Chandigarh)

    World Sikh News (Stockton, California USA)


    India Today (New Delhi)

    Frontline (Chennai)

    Unpublished Documents

    Wallace, Paul. Unpublished MS. ‘Religious Composition of the Three Punjabs’.

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    Internet Websites

    British Broadcasting Corporation, available at

    Jammu & Kashmir: The Complete Knowledge Base, available at

    Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, available at

    South Asia Terrorism Portal, available at

    The Jamestown Foundation, available at

    The Tribune, available at

    USA Today, available at

    Wikipedia, available at

    Yahoo News, available at

    About the Author

    Jugdep S. Chima currently holds the position of Associate Editor for South Asia with Asian Survey (Institute of East Asian Studies) at the University of California, Berkeley. He previously held the positions of Visiting Scholar and Research Fellow with the Center for South Asia Studies at the same institution during 2005–06 and 2003–05, respectively. His research articles have been published in Asian Survey, Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Review of International Studies, Small Wars and Insurgencies, and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

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