By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Punjab is one of the most strategically important states in India. It borders rival Pakistan, the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and is one of the buffer states between Pakistan and the Indian capital, Delhi.
The Akali Dal, formed in British-ruled India in 1920, has ruled the state for a longer period than any other political party since the creation of the Punjabi-speaking Sikh-majority state in 1966, though it lost power to the Congress Party in the 2017 legislative assembly election.
It articulates the aspirations of Punjabi regional nationalism along with trying to protect the interests of the Sikhs as a religious minority in India and abroad.
Sikhs, as a community neither Hindu nor Muslim, have always sought a separate status on the subcontinent. Before the British annexation of Punjab in 1849 and the eventual merger of Punjab with the rest of colonially occupied India, it had defied India’s Muslim Mughal emperors and existed as a sovereign state for 50 years under the rule of a Sikh monarch, Ranjit Singh.
Sikhs became a majority in post-1966 Punjab and the Akali Dal first gained power as the state’s government a year later.
The party demanded greater autonomy for states in India’s federal structure. It wanted implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, a 1973 document outlining its regional aspirations.
But its failure to get Punjab’s demands accepted led to strengthening extremist Sikh tendencies. Conflicts with Indira Gandhi led the prime minister to dismiss the party’s government and institute direct rule from Delhi in 1980.
This eventually resulted in the bloody confrontation in 1984 known as Operation Blue Star between the Indian army and armed Sikh militants led by Jamail Singh Bhindranwale who had occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
They were supporters of the Khalistan movement, which sought to create a separate country called Khalistan as a homeland for Sikhs.
In the late 1970s Gandhi’s Congress Party supported Bhindranwale in a bid to split the Sikh votes and weaken the Akali Dal, its chief rival in Punjab.
Gandhi was assassinated in the aftermath of the Indian Army’s assault. This was followed by a wave of violence against Sikhs throughout the country. At least 6,000 were massacred.
So fierce has its anti-Congress attitude been since then that the Akali Dal has in recent years allied itself on the national level with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even though the BJP espouses Hindu nationalism.
The Akali Dal has broadened its ideology to emphasize an all-Punjabi identity. Hence its demand for inclusion in Punjab of the city of Chandigarh and other Punjabi-speaking areas left in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh following the partition of the state in 1966.
Chandigarh had become the joint capital of that state and Hindu-majority Haryana. The city is not a part of either state but is governed directly by the Indian government.
If these areas were to be included in Punjab, it would lead to a decline in the Sikh proportion of Punjab’s total population, so this reﬂects a Punjabi nationalist dimension in its policies.
But the Akali Dal does continue to defend and promote the interests of Sikh minorities in the other states of India and abroad.