Radical Sikh groups want Vatican status for Golden Temple, PM’s apology for Operation Blue Star
Radical Sikh groups in other countries, engaged in secret talks with the government, put forward three main demands, including an apology at a global forum for the 1984 military operation in the Golden Temple and a special status for the Akal Takht and Harmandar Sahib on the lines of the Vatican, according to two people familiar with the developments.
One of them, who was familiar with the process to reach out to Sikh groups since its inception, said contact was initially established with UK-based Sikh groups through London-based interlocutor Jasdev Singh Rai, director of the Sikh Human Rights Forum, shortly before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London in November 2015 and formal talks began after Rai and some 30 Sikh leaders met Modi during the visit.
“The interest by India to start talks predated the Modi government but with his government coming in, it picked up speed,” said another person.
In the course of subsequent contacts, the Sikh groups put forward two “preliminary steps” and three main issues for the dialogue, the first person quoted above said.
The first two steps — sought as a show of goodwill and sincerity — were to take radical Sikh activists abroad off a “blacklist” that barred them from visiting India, and the release of some 20 political prisoners.
The three key issues, raised by interlocutor Rai with the Indian side, included an apology from the Indian prime minister to Sikhs worldwide for Operation Blue Star, the exercise to flush out Sikh militants holed up in the Golden Temple that resulted in more than 500 deaths.
The other demands were for the government to accept the “supremacy” of the Akal Takht and Harmandar Sahib, which should be given a special status akin to that of the Vatican so that Sikhs living abroad could have a say in its decisions, and that the government be prepared for “open ended” talks on all issues arising from Operation Blue Star, including the anti-Sikh riots and alleged extrajudicial killings, the two people said.
The government pointed out that former prime minister Manmohan Singh had apologised in Parliament in 2011 for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots — which followed the assassination of then premier Indira Gandhi, itself a consequence of Operation Blue Star — but the Sikh groups responded by saying that this apology had been meant only for “Indian Sikhs”.
They said they wanted an apology to Sikhs worldwide, which should be made by the current PM at an international venue, one of the people familiar with the developments said.
He added that the demand for special status for the Golden Temple was meant to give Sikhs living around the world a say in choosing the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, one of the five seats of power of the Sikhs. Experts believe this demand will require constitutional amendments to allow non-Indian citizens to engage with an institution in Indian territory.
“The decisions at the Akal Takht affect Sikhs around the world and they would like to have a say in these matters,” the person added. The foreign ministry did not respond to requests for a comment on the issue.
Regular contacts have continued between the Sikh groups and the government despite the obstruction by Canadian authorities of a key meeting in Toronto in November 2016 between Rai, Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav and the Sikh groups, as reported by Hindustan Times on February 22.
After establishing contact with UK-based Sikh groups, the government had been hoping to bring on board the radical groups in Canada. But after Canada denied an Electronic Travel Authorisation to Rai, the Sikh groups refused to meet Madhav in the interlocutor’s absence.
Rai visited New Delhi in January for talks with Indian officials to take forward the process.
The people familiar with the developments said there had been some progress in whittling down the “blacklist”, allowing former Khalistan supporters to visit India. One case that recently came to light was the removal from the list of Jaspal Atwal, a Canada-based convicted Khalistani terrorist, though his presence in India during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit caused embarrassment to the Canadian government.
A handful of political prisoners have also been released though about 17 of the most high-profile prisoners, such as Lal Singh, continue to be in jail, the people said.