The Pakistan Taliban operating in the tribal area bordering Afghanistan captured two Sikhs, compelled them to convert to Islam, and on their refusal, beheaded them. After that they added salt to wound by sending the severed heads to the Joga Singh Gurudwara in Peshawar. By doing this the Pakistan Taliban might just have made the costliest error in its bloodstained history. It might just have taken the one step that could pose greater danger to its existence than anything that might have been attempted thus far by the US or NATO.
The Pakistan Taliban consists of Pashtuns settled for generations in the Punjab. They were formerly led by the Mehsuds. There are other Afghan outfits that subscribe to the Al Qaeda ideology, such as the Haqqani outfits, also based in Pakistan ’s FATA territory. The long term aims of the Afghanistan Taliban led by Mullah Omar and the Pakistan Taliban do not necessarily coincide. The Pakistan Taliban’s atrocity against the Sikhs might just recoil fatally against it. Here is why.
Even a cursory acquaintance with Sikh history and character would reveal that the Sikhs have embedded deep within them a fanatical dogged streak that if aroused becomes almost impossible to extinguish. Sending the severed heads of two martyrs committed to their faith to the Gurudwara is precisely the kind of action that could ignite that streak. The rage that will inevitably spread across the Sikh community in rural Punjab could alter dramatically the power alignments within the terrorist fold. To appreciate that a few facts not commonly recognized need to be recalled.
For decades it was commonly stated that fifty or so families in Punjab ruled Pakistan. What was not stated was that about 40 percent of these ruling families of the rural Punjab province of Pakistan were Jat Sikhs who voluntarily converted to Islam in order to retain their land holdings. These converted Jat Sikhs had no trouble gaining acceptance from their Muslim Jat cousins, farmers all. The converts are Muslims in name. What their commitment to any religion might be only time will reveal. Their commitment to land, wealth and power has been confirmed beyond doubt. They could now constitute a potential fifth column in Pakistan. It would be not a fifth column that could serve the Indian government. It would be the fifth column serving the Sikh Diaspora that contains several terrorist outfits with a presence in Europe, Canada and the US.
Now recall the aborted Khalistan demand. Before Khalistan was formally announced by Jagjit Singh Chauhan he sought my opinion. I told him it was worthless because it made no sense. I further said that the demand for a united Punjab cutting across India and Pakistan made greater sense given the norms of nationhood. I said that would create ‘United States of Asia’. A little after my interaction with him I recounted our dialogue and my views in the weekly column that I wrote then for the Sunday Observer published in Bombay. Predictably, the Khalistan demand floundered. But the Sikhs continue to remain dissatisfied, though not disruptive.
Sikh grievances were heightened after the creation of Haryana state carved out of Punjab. The manner in which Indira Gandhi reneged on solemn assurances given to Punjab regarding the sharing of waters and the future status of Chandigarh not surprisingly was viewed by Sikhs as evidence of Hindu communalism. Added to the assurance given by Pandit Nehru at the time of Independence that the Sikhs would be made “to feel the glow of freedom”, Sikh frustration inevitably grew.
The partition of the Punjab during Independence left the Sikhs most orphaned among the state’s three main communities. The loss of identity among the Muslims in Punjab was compensated partially by the creation of Pakistan, of the Hindus by the creation of Bharat. The Sikhs felt that they got little or nothing.
After the subsequent mishandling by the union government Sikh separatism was bound to erupt. The Khalistan movement further depleted the community. Today Punjab is the sufferer. Witness the very large number of youth in Punjab who seek migration to make a future abroad. Is it not symptomatic?
It is in this context that the unfolding drama across the border may revive the Khalistan demand in a new avatar. Current reports suggest that ISI is reviving the Khalistan insurgency. Good! This might become the agency’s biggest ever goof up. Because now all the Sikh militants who are given sanctuary by ISI in Pakistan could eventually switch loyalties. Egged on by Sikhs in India and their NRI financial backers abroad they could turn against ISI and Taliban. Defying New Delhi India’s Sikh militants could infiltrate into Pakistan not to seek sanctuary but to create disruption. There could develop for Pakistan a Kashmir syndrome in reverse. Might not Sikhs eventually seek common ground with the Pashtuns who share greater affinity with Afghanistan than with Pakistan ? Might not the Afghan Taliban, which does not share as much the long-term goals of the Al Qaeda as does the Pakistan Taliban, dump the ISI?
If such developments do occur the Khalistan demand might revive for a region encompassing as much of Pakistan ruled Punjab as the Indian Punjab. Along with Pashtunistan and Baluchistan, Khalistan too could become Pakistan’s headache. Islamabad and New Delhi, caught in the pincer move of Sikhs and the Pashtuns, could be compelled to fundamentally alter the present sub-continental arrangement.
Does this sound like a wildly improbable scenario? Perhaps. But do wait for at least one year before arriving at a final judgment.