Gurdwara Kesgarh Sahib sits majestically atop a hillock. Its white edifice, visible from a distance, establishes its solemn authority in the Sikh religion. The Khalsa panth (community) was formally established in Anandpur Sahib by Guru Gobind Singh, the last Sikh guru. Kesgarh Sahib is the second-most sacred temple for the Sikhs after the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and is associated with an event that influenced Akali politics in post-independent India: The Anandpur Sahib resolution of 1973.
“I was in school when the meeting of Akalis took place at the first-floor hall of the gurdwara,” said Surinder Singh, who is a member of the Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), an elected body that looks after Sikh temples, and principal of Sikh Missionary College. “People had gathered in numbers to see the leaders. I remember Sirdar Kapur Singh telling the leaders not to come out till they take some decisions. ‘Lock them inside,’ he said.”
Sirdar Kapur Singh wore multiple hats. He was an Indian Civil Service officer and went on to become a theologian and politician. He is widely considered to be the architect of Anandpur Sahib resolution.
The resolution was a comprehensive document adopted by the Akali Dal, asking for greater federal freedom, inclusion of more Punjabi-speaking areas (including Chandigarh) into Punjab, considering Sikhs as a separate entity and protecting the rights of the state over river water, among other demands. The Akalis presented it as a treatise on Centre-state relations where currency, defence and foreign affairs should be with the Centre, and the states be allowed to manage the rest. As the document gave impetus to Sikh nationalism, many thought it led to a demand for separatism culminating in Khalistan. In 1982, the Akali Dal was joined by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha agitation to push for the Anandpur Sahib resolution demands. “The document was considered, by those outside the state, as a precursor to the demand for Khalistan. But it was for political aspirations of Sikhs,” said Surinder.
This region has a history of people fighting for their rights. He recalls the contribution of the Sikh gurus in fighting foreign aggressors and saving the local Hindu and Sikh communities. Even during the struggle for independence, over 80 per cent of those martyred were Sikhs and Punjabis.
Mohinder Singh Baaghi was a teacher in the local Khalsa college when the Anandpur Sahib conference took place. He says the importance of the document was felt in the subsequent years as more political and religious agitations were centred around it. “Despite Anandpur Sahib being so famous and important for political and religious reasons, it has never been a political hotbed. Even during the days of terrorism, it was peaceful,” said Baaghi. He recalled listening to speeches of Sirdar Kapur Singh, who would say that Akalis alone cannot get the Sikhs a separate state.
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Since the 1970s and 1980s, the Akali Dal has splintered into multiple groups and factions. The group led by Parkash Singh Badal has survived politically. Various Akalis over the years refer to the Anandpur Sahib resolution in their political speeches, but are cautious about it. Even now, when new Akali Dals are formed, they hark back to the magna carta of Sikh aspirations.
“The Anandpur Sahib resolution talks about greater devolution of powers as enshrined by our country’s Constitution,” said Ranjit Singh Bhrampura, former MP and patron of newly formed Akali Dal Sanyukta. “If you look at the 1920 Akali Dal demands, when the party was formed, it talked about greater rights. Countries like the USA have progressed as they gave greater rights. The work is done better when it is divided between the states.”
The idea of Khalistan often surfaces whenever Sikh nationalism gains prominence in the politics of various leaders and outfits. There were apprehensions that the recent farmers’ agitation had shifted towards the demand for separatism as some participants were vocal on the issue. But the union leaders have kept the longest running movement (since November 2020 at Singhu Border) as apolitical as possible.
The talk of Khalistan can cause a scare among people, especially outside Punjab, as the state has witnessed long periods of violent terrorism. “Khalistan is a nostalgia of Sikh rule that the community witnessed under Maharaja Ranjit Singh,” said Baaghi. “One of the reasons for the separatist movement was the Green Revolution. Those who owned 20 acres became rich. However, the land got divided into smaller units as families grew. As they were born in riches but were forced to divide, they tilted towards Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as he propagated Sikh rule. People have emotional attachment with land. Now, all those who migrated abroad for better facilities and riches that the 20 acres gave, again dream of power back home.” There are more Khalistani supporters in foreign countries than in India.
Even in the case of the farmers’ agitation, the farmers are bound to the emotional value attached to land and they also fear the loss of the economic cushion if minimum support price was to be taken away.
Anandpur Sahib’s importance in Sikhism is known world over. For colourful festivities during Holi, Nihangs showcase their martial arts. The city, located near the Sutlej river, also attracts visitors to Virasat-e-Khalsa, the Sikh museum designed by Israeli architect Moshe Sadie.
Despite it being a key place for Sikhs, Anandpur Sahib’s politics has not been dominated by the Akalis, but rather the Congress or the BJP, because of the large Hindu population. But Anandpur Sahib, as the seat of Sikh faith and with its aspirations, is back in currency as demands of regional sub-nationalism gain ground across the country.