Skip Navigation


Illustrations by Rosalia Mejia ’23, an Industrial Design major at RISD

It may be forever unknown whether a London barrister named Sir Cyril Radcliffe, sketching a map in the summer of 1947, pondered the words written a century earlier by a fellow countryman: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Still, the lines Radcliffe drew would in time prove the adage’s validity. On August 15 of the same year, those lines defined the borders of the newly independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, cutting a wound deeper than what could have been produced by the sharpest of blades. 

What ensued was the largest migration in human history. Hindus and Sikhs left the newly formed West and East Pakistan for India, and Muslims left India for Pakistan, with the total number of displaced people estimated at 15 million. Thrown into a state of chaos and confusion, the ruptured border provinces of Punjab and Bengal saw massacres, forced conversions, arson, and sexual violence ravage communities that had coexisted peacefully for centuries. While no precise measurement of the death toll exists, between 500,000 and two million people are estimated to have died either while migrating or in the widespread carnage. 

For the Sikh population, the wounds of Partition stung even more. Whereas Muslims ended up in Pakistan and Hindus in India, demands for an independent Sikh state were brushed aside. That two-thirds of the northwestern province of Punjab—including where the highest proportion of Sikhs lived, and even where Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, was born—became part of West Pakistan only added salt to the lesions. Nevertheless, the scars of decolonization shaped a novel Sikh identity rooted in the notion of Punjab as a homeland. In asserting their territorial claims, Sikhs forged a consciousness that underwrote, if not drove, their advocacy for greater autonomy from the Indian central government.

In the 1980s, however, the central government’s overreach led to the rise and fall of a more radical brand of Sikh separatism in India which lingers today in the Sikh diaspora. The Indian National Congress Party’s errors started with meddling in Punjabi politics, which aided in fueling the rise of Sikh militancy. In June of 1984, after already suspending the Punjabi state government the year before, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent federal troops to raid Sikh militants taking refuge at the Golden Temple, which resulted in hundreds of casualties and damage to the shrine. The attack created tremendous ripple effects, beginning with PM Gandhi’s assassination by Sikh bodyguards that in turn spawned anti-Sikh massacres abetted by Congress leaders and the police. 

The Sikh independence movement spread outside of India as well, culminating in Sikh immigrants in Canada bombing a plane and killing all 329 people on board in 1985. Attempts at conciliation with the Sikhs of Punjab gave way to a series of military operations and police action that, by the early 1990s, largely quelled the Sikh struggle. Nonetheless, the events of 1984 galvanized the Sikh diaspora, which today constitutes the strongest force behind the drive for regional autonomy. Outside of political lobbying and demonstrations, its main campaign has been organizing an unofficial consensus-building referendum among international Sikhs, with an eye toward petitioning the United Nations for an independent state in Punjab on the basis of it being a historic homeland.

Although Punjab formed the geographic backdrop for Sikhism’s origin and much of its evolution, it did not figure centrally in how most Sikhs viewed themselves until Partition. Scholar Harjot S. Oberoi traces the transformation of Sikh metacommentaries, or “stories that [a people] tell themselves about themselves,” as a proxy for identity construction across four historical periods: the Guru Phase (1600-1707), the Heroic Phase (1708-1849), the Colonial Phase (1850-1947), and the Nation-State Phase (1948-present). During the first, Sikhs were characterized by their studying Guru Nanak’s and his nine successors’ teachings (bani), founding congregations (sangats), and sharing communal meals (langars). After the last living Guru passed, Sikhs relied on external symbols (the five k’s), a code of discipline (rahit), and scripture (Guru Granth Sahib) to bind the community (Khalsa). The Golden Temple in Amritsar served as a holy pilgrimage destination, but Punjab was still never explicitly linked to Sikh selfhood.

When it grew clear in the late colonial period that Punjab might be split, the Sikh political party—the Akali Dal—passed a resolution invoking Punjab as the Sikh “homeland and holy land” and calling for “the creation of a Sikh state.” They justified their petition by professing “intimate bonds of holy shrines, property, language, traditions, and history” to the area, citing the domain of the last Sikh ruler, and advocating for the protection of Sikh “religious, cultural, economic, and political rights.” Even though British officials overseeing the transition and non-Sikh independence leaders disregarded their appeals, Sikhs had formally articulated an ideal concept of belonging in the postcolonial paradigm tied to a sense of place in Punjab. 

In the post-Partition era, Sikh leaders in Punjab continued pushing for territorial rights, now facing an Indian federal government controlled by the Congress Party that seemed just as impervious, if not hostile, to their claims. The Indian government opposed carving out an independent religious state, so the Akali Dal agitated for a “Punjabi Suba,” or a state within the republic whose population would be majority Punjabi-speaking. A decade-long campaign resulted in the Punjab Reorganization Act of 1966, which further separated Punjab into a majority Punjabi-speaking (and Sikh) state bearing the same name, a majority Hindu-speaking (and Hindu) state of Haryana, and a union territory called Chandigarh that would serve as the capital city of the two states. Since the Act also specified that Punjab would receive only 23 percent of its river waters, with the rest diverted via canals to Haryana and the state of Rajasthan, the Akali Dal remained profoundly dissatisfied. In 1978, the party re-litigated its grievances by drafting the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which pressed not only for the redistribution of river waters in Punjab’s favor but, more broadly, for “an autonomous region … wherein the Sikh interests are constitutionally recognized as the fundamental State policy.” The charter, though not secessionist, argued for Punjab gaining total jurisdiction over its administration and law with the central government’s reach limited to matters of foreign policy, defense, currency, railways, and communications. 

The Partition of British India into India and Pakistan, excluding Sikh governance, sparked the creation of a new Sikh identity focused on the idea of Punjab as the just place for an autonomous nation. Although unsuccessful to date with respect to their supreme objective, the Sikhs of Punjab persistently advocated for their religious, cultural, linguistic, regional, and territorial rights. Accordingly, they established themselves as a resolute political force that has grown and endured well beyond Punjab’s borders.