Punjab 1984–95: the Sikh Insurgency and Counter Insurgency

From the 1980s until 1995 the north Indian state of Punjab was caught in a torrent of mass human rights violations. A political movement by the majority Sikh population of Punjab, for regional autonomy developed into a separatist movement for an independent Sikh state. Counter-insurgency operations by the Punjab police, the Indian army and paramilitary resulted in extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of combatants as well as non-combatants. Thousands of those abducted remain missing to this day. They are known as the Punjab’s disappeared (Lapata).

The causes of the Sikh insurgency and the repressive and brutal counter-insurgency in Punjab are both complex and multifaceted. The context of the decade of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings in Punjab stem from the cataclysmic events of 1984. The decade of armed conflict arose from

discontent over unfulfilled guarantees of Sikh autonomy and self-governance, the origins of which can be traced back to the partition of India in 1947, when Punjab was divided and western portion of the province was merged with Pakistan.

The demand for greater autonomy for the majority Sikh state of Punjab, within the federalist composition of India remained unresolved by the late 1970s and led to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The resolution was a codified set of demands for the Sikhs to have greater control over their religious affairs without state interference, greater self-sufficiency, and greater political, economic and social freedom for Punjab. Despite being advocated as within the federalist set up of India, the Resolution was fiercely resisted by the Central government in India, which described it as subversive and secessionist document. The complexity of regional, religious and ethnic aspirations were viewed with hostility by the Centre. By the 1980s, the Sikh agitation for autonomy had escalated; mass protests, arrests and detentions of thousands led to a cycle of violence and counter-violence.