On March 9, 1946, about 80 members of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) general house convened at the Teja Singh Samundri Hall in Amritsar to pass a resolution calling on Sikhs to strive for a separate Sikh state.
“The present political state of affairs in the country holds out ominous portents for all nations, including the Sikhs,” read the SGPC resolution. “In view of the revolutionary changes which are occurring in the country and realising the need to protect Sikh identity, the SGPC declares that the Sikhs are a nation. This general house of the SGPC considers it imperative to have a Sikh state to preserve the main Sikh shrines, Sikh social practices, Sikh self-respect and pride, Sikh sovereignty, and the future prosperity of the Sikh people. Therefore, this house appeals to the Sikh people to endeavour to achieve the goal of a Sikh state.”
At a meeting in the same hall on May 11, Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann, a retired IPS officer whose party is the only one to still contest elections in Punjab on the demand for Khalistan (a separate Sikh state), joined the other two rival Akali Dal groups – the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Delhi) to demand the release of Sikh prisoners. Mann did not miss the opportunity to subtly remind the SGPC about the 1946 resolution for a Sikh state and urged the organisation to back the idea of Khalistan. He even asked the gathering to wink to show their support for a separate Sikh state.
But what Mann glossed over was that the context of the 1946 resolution and his party’s Khalistan demand are not the same.
Opposing demand for Pakistan
Before Partition, Sikhs constituted about 13 per cent of the population of Punjab province where Muslims were a majority. The SAD was born in 1920 with the objective of looking after the political interests of Sikhs. The SAD worked primarily as a “Sikh extension” of the Congress before the demand for Pakistan became a part of the national discourse.
At a meeting between the SAD and the Khalsa Darbar — an organisation representing different Sikh parties established in 1932 in Lahore — on June 14, 1936, a 19-point manifesto was tabled for elections. The first point was on the fight for “Puran Sawraj (complete independence)” as there was apprehension that the colonial government could declare Punjab a Muslim-majority province.
Four years later, at a party conference in February 1940, the SAD opposed the idea of Pakistan and repeated its demand for “Sawraj”. At the time, with relations between the SAD and the Congress breaking down over the Pakistan issue, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Master Tara Singh, “You have nothing in common with the Congress. You believe in the rule of the sword, Congress doesn’t.”
Of the three resolutions passed at the SAD conference in Attari on February 10-11, 1941, one was on the opposition to the idea of Pakistan and the second reiterated the demand of “Puran Sawraj”. The all-parties Sikh conference on April 8, 1942, in Amritsar passed a resolution saying, “We will not allow Punjab to become Pakistan.”
At an “Akhand Hindustan” conference in Delhi on October 8, 1944, Master Tara Singh said, “Sikhs are protectors of India. Punjab is ours. It is a Sikh state. Mahatma Gandhi cannot excommunicate Sikhs from India. Even if the majority of Hindus agree with Pakistan, there is no justification that it should be forced on Sikhs.”
The Sikh leader participated in another “Akhand Hindustan” conference in Ludhiana the following month to oppose the formation of Pakistan.
Towards the 1946 resolution
With the possibility of Pakistan’s formation growing stronger, many Sikh leaders started calling for a separate Sikh state to counter the demand for Pakistan. Though the word “Khalistan” was mostly used from the 1970s, its emergence can be traced back to pamphlets distributed in 1942 by Dr Veer Singh who called for a Sikh homeland.
On May 19, 1940, more than 100 Sikh leaders gathered in Amritsar and formed 21-member committees of the Khalsa Raj on the lines of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh empire. On June 6, 1943, the Sikh National College in Lahore released a manifesto on “Azad Punjab” or independent Punjab. The same month, the SAD passed a resolution calling for “Azad Punjab”. Master Tara Singh said the idea of “Azad Punjab” was no different than the 17-point charter presented to Mahatma Gandhi on March 20, 1931.
On July 28, 1944, Sikh MLA Mangal Singh said, “Demand of Azad Punjab will come to existence after formation of Pakistan. If there is no Pakistan then there is no demand. Then Azad Punjab will be part of India. Azad Punjab is different from Pakistan and not on its lines.”
At a meeting of more than 500 Sikh leaders at the Teja Singh Samundari Hall in 1943, a resolution supporting the demand for a Sikh state was passed. The SGPC resolution three years later came when it became apparent that the formation of Pakistan was almost inevitable.
Khalistan and sedition law
Unlike the 1946 SGPC resolution, the Khalistan demand emerged in the 1970s in reaction to the alleged discrimination against Sikhs in independent India.
In the 1986 Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab case, the Supreme Court acquitted two Sikhs who had been charged with sedition, saying their slogans of “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Raj Karega Khalsa” did not incite violence. This judgment allows Mann’s party to contest the elections on the Khalistan demand and not attract charges under the sedition law. But the party is now on the margins of Sikh politics and received only 3.85 lakh votes in the Assembly elections in February.