The iron gates of the Industrial Training Institute in Punjab’s Faridkot marked the entry into purgatory, where students had to pay, in suffering, the price of entry into the adult world. The system, political scientist Donna Suri wrote in 1981, was designed for grinding down hope and pushing students into “acquiring MA after MA, finally coming to an LLB as a preliminary to enrolling in a commercial institute for learning typing and shorthand.” The sky is always overcast, she evocatively observed, “with heavy clouds of resentment, frustration, and futility.”
Like in all prison systems, the inmates plotted escape—but not all agreed where the light lay. In the winter of 1980, when a group of communists tried to take over the stage at a student festival to preach the gospel of Lenin, they were overpowered by Sikh revivalists, who took their directions from their Gods.
The brawl with the communists at the student festival transformed Kulwant Singh Khukhrana’s life. He was summoned to the Golden Temple to meet with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the rising star of the Sikh neo-fundamentalist movement. There, the preacher ordered Kulwant Singh to stop trimming his beard and become a true Singh—a warrior for the Sikh faith.
Earlier this month, Avtar Singh Khanda—the son of Kulwant Singh and social-media mentor to fugitive Khalistan evangelist Amritpal Singh—acquired some notoriety by inspiring protesters to tear the national flag off the Indian High Commission in London. The story of the trail of blood the father unleashed, and the tidal wave of Instagram posts the son unleashed help us understand why the ghost of Khalistan still haunts Punjab and the Sikh diaspora.
The making of a terrorist
From hagiographic online accounts of Kulwant’s life and Punjab Police records seen by ThePrint, it is clear the Moga student immersed himself in the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF)—the political arm of Bhindranwale’s project to consolidate Sikh fundamentalism. Kulwant was not, however, in the Golden Temple when the Indian Army stormed it in the summer of 1984. The AISSF leader, police records show, did, however, end up in prison, accused with his brother Balwant Singh of attacking a local Hindu.
Eighteen months later, Kulwant was released, but the prison provided an education of its own, bringing him in close contact with the to-be leader of the Khalistan Commando Force, Gurjant Singh Bhudhsinghwala.
Following his release from prison on bail in April 1986, Kulwant was married to Charanjit Kaur on 7 May 1986. Likely, the family hoped the responsibility would bind him to the home. Family accounts of the period claim the Punjab Police relentlessly harassed Kulwant, even arriving at his wedding seeking bribes. Police records, on the contrary, show that he failed to comply with bail conditions, which included a requirement to report to the authorities each week.
Kulwant responded by going underground, and the family moved to rented accommodation near Gurudwara Shri Dukhniwaran Sahib in Patiala. The AISSF leader, though, appeared at public rallies with some regularity. “Fake encounters and false arrests by the Indian security forces are not finishing the movement,” he said at one event in November 1986, “Instead, it is fuelling the movement for freedom,” he added. “When a Sikh talks about justice, he or she is labelled a terrorist.”
There is evidence both from pro-Khalistan accounts and police records that Kulwant was actively involved in the Khalistan Commando Force by 1987. That summer, he was named as the perpetrator for the attempted assassination of Akali politician Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the murder of Senior Superintendent of Police Govind Ram, and the massacre of 21 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers at a park in Moga.
Later, he was alleged to be involved in the killings of a communist leader, a doctor suspected of passing on information to the police, the leader of a heterodox Dalit religious group and the murder of a bank employee who recognised him during a robbery. Finally, Kulwant was shot dead by the Punjab Police in 1991 as he covered the escape of Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala—only for the Khalistani terrorist to be claimed less than a year later.
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The digital-age inheritors
The long beard and his long hanging chogah, or cloak, mark out Avtar Singh as the inheritor of the Sikh tradition his father died for. The Khalistan activist’s speeches are peppered with a language fashionable on the far-fringes of the White nationalist movement, as well as elements of the Left. The Deep State, he claims in one interview, runs the world through a secret cabal that operates from the city of London. He justifies revolutionaries acquiring wealth, invoking the Rolex watches of Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara.
Avtar was born in the summer of 1988, three months before his Kolkata-born sister. Like his father, he studied in a local school where he claims to have been radicalised by taunts about his parentage. Then, in 2010, family sources say, he left for the United Kingdom, travelling on a visa sponsored by kin. There, he successfully claimed political asylum, saying the police persecuted him.
The new arrival, though, had only a marginal influence on the Khalistan scene in the UK until minor movie star Deep Sidhu emerged as a social-media icon during the farmers’ movement in 2020. Sidhu had worked and studied in London briefly, but there is nothing to suggest he met Avtar or discovered the Khalistan cause there. Indeed, he campaigned for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after returning home, before discovering secessionism.
Sidhu and Avtar began speaking frequently online after the farmers’ movement, introduced by common social media friends. Amritpal joined the group, again through Twitter rooms. Avtar, by his own account, helped choose Amritpal to lead the neo-fundamentalist youth organisation Waris Panjab De after Sidhu died in a road accident in February 2022.
Fringe Akali leader Simranjeet Singh Mann and elements of the AISSF hoped Amritpal would emerge as the nucleus of a Khalistan revival in Punjab—helped by diasporic support from figures like Avtar. That didn’t happen, though, and the reasons bear considering.
The Khalistan movement—and the tensions which raged at ITI in Faridkot—rose under specific social circumstances. The scholar Hamish Telford, among others, has noted that the gains of the Green Revolution were uneven, generating pockets of resentment in places like Moga. Like Kulwant, Bhindranwale was one of seven siblings born to a small farmer with little prospect of inheriting viable landholdings. The economy created few opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship,
Following an education up to Class V, aged just 10, Bhindranwale joined the Damdami Taksal—a small religious order founded in the 18th century— to which his family had old ties. The mythic egalitarian brotherhood it represented seemed to him—and other disgruntled Jats—as an alternative to an unequal modernity
Ever since the rise of Sikh leader Fateh Singh in 1962, the simmering economic tensions also acquired cultural and political forms. Akali leaders had realised not all Sikhs supported them—and that required building cross-communal pluralities. To the fundamentalists, this exposed the faith to annihilation by the twin pressures of westernisation and communism.
“At one union meeting, some communists started ridiculing the wearing of the kirpan,” the terrorist Wassan Singh Zafarwal told the scholar Joyce Pettigrew. “I got up and spoke to defend the amritdharis,” he added. The communist ideal was Lenin, Zafarwal argued, and the capitalist ideal was America—so he wanted a distinctly Sikh foundation for change. From successive electoral results, though, it is clear that support for Sikh neo-fundamentalism never acquired critical momentum.
The idea of rebuilding a mythic egalitarian past still has hold in the diaspora, the story of Avtar Singh tells us. Elderly immigrants are concerned at the loss of religious observance among their children, while some young people see neo-fundamentalism as a tool to assert their identity in a sometimes hostile White society. Moreover, as Hindu nationalism grows, many Sikhs fear what lies ahead.
Little, however, was achieved by Amritpal—and even less by Avtar. Amritpal proved unable to expand his recruitment base beyond a small cluster around Moga, where the Damdami Taksal has long had recruitment. Even though Avtar and Amritpal sought to ride the tide of farmer discontent in Punjab, data shows no significant rise in Khalistan recruitment or terrorism. Indeed, as author Ajai Sahni notes, Khalistan groups in the diaspora have mostly had to rely on criminal syndicates to carry out acts of violence—not ideological recruits.
The real danger in Punjab lies in dysfunctional politics, competitive communalism and a dysfunctional economy—all of which could generate new kinds of crisis to come. The ghosts of the past, though, serve only to frighten and distract us from the task of addressing the problems of the present.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)