The foreign policy community has always been troubled by the legal dilemmas created when breakaway regions of existing countries clamor for international recognition. Former President George W. Bush provoked outrage in Serbia after acknowledging the independence of Kosovo, long a bitter and controversial subject in the Balkans. The entire region seemed headed for conflict until timely threats and deals prevented widespread bloodshed.
The border disputes provoked by secessionist movements like those in Kosovo often provoke bloodshed. But what happens when a secessionist group urges for the formation of an ethnic or religious homeland without possessing any physical territory? Pixels and Policy investigates the interesting case of Khalistan, the Sikh homeland that exists only in the virtual world.
Building an Independence Movement Through the Internet
Unlike secessionist movements like those in Kosovo, Khalistan doesn't physically exist. This is both a positive and negative for advocates of a physical Khalistan: Without a physical space on which to focus attention, Khalistani nationalists risk appearing illegitimate from the beginning. However, their virtual nation also allows Sikh supporters worldwide to lay claim to the decades-long fight for a physical Khalistan.
The struggle to create a Sikh homeland began as early as the 1947 Partition of India, but gained strong support during the 1970-80's as political activists pushed the Indian government towards recognition. With the rise of digital communication technology like the Internet – and now social media – Khalistan's fight expanded onto a worldwide stage. Early Sikh militancy fizzled in favor of the new concept of a "virtual Khalistan," to the point where Khalistan now exists more as an idea than a set of distinct territorial claims.
Foreign Policy recently tossed out a dismissive reference to Khalistan that actually explains why Sikh nationalists have sustained the fruitless independence movement for so long. In his article on "limbo states," Graeme Wood plays it pessimistic:
…The hopeless chatter of
virtual Khalistan, a Sikh separatist state that talks a big game and has a
president in exile, but not a postage stamp of actual land.
Despite not possessing physical territory – long considered an essential rallying point for secessionist movements – Khalistani activists are well aware of what their government is doing. That's because Khalistan operates a series of virtual government offices and news agencies devoted to keeping the cause of Khalistan alive in the bloodless realm of the Internet. Without the mass communication that social media and digital communication offer, the Khalistan movement would likely have dried up.
In fact, Khalistan's virtual secessionist movement turned enough policy heads that the United States Congress even offered up a bill in favor of Sikh self-determination during the 105th Congress. Even then-Vice President Al Gore addressed the Khalistani secessionist movement based entirely on information received through virtual channels. The real question is: For all the virtual organization and ardor of "virtual Khalistanis," what might be the long-term impact of the virtual movement on the pursuit of a physical Khalistan?
Transitioning from a Virtual to a Physical Khalistan
One thing is certain: Virtual communication between self-proclaimed Khalistanis is a major reason why the Khalistan secessionist movement has retained its influence. As a popular article on SikhNet, a web community for Sikhs worldwide, evidences, virtual communication strengthens the Khalistan movement by giving every Sikh regardless of geographic location a sense of unity with the ephemeral idea of a Sikh homeland.
Whereas the pursuit of an independent Kosovo relied heavily on Kosovars and pro-independence activists in the Balkans, Khalistan requries no such geographical commitment. This also means that the financial support that keeps Khalistan's government websites operating is similarly unbound from previous geographic constraints. Think of virtual social media as an amplifier for the voice of Sikh self-determination – lowering costs while increasing potential reach.
Recent research by South Asian Studies expert Dominika Sokol points out that the cyberspace diaspora that is Khalistan has actually served to create a virtual network of information, support, and activism for Sikhs in search of a physical homeland:
According to my recent mappings, there are at least fifty functional
websites dealing with Sikh issues. The range of topics that Sikhs cover on
their websites is quite broad. The websites can be generally divided according
to their topics into four overlapping categories: 1) religious and cultural
websites, 2) websites providing local and specific news, 3) weblogs focusing on
connecting the Sikh diaspora and 4) political websites and websites focusing on
the violation of human rights in Punjab.
Much like the pro-democracy outbursts stemming from Iran's recent elections, a virtual-based advocacy campaign prevents security forces or other potential disruptors from breaking up rallies or attacking physical organizational centers. For web-savvy advocates, mounting a virtual protest can both protect the lives of activists and prove dauntingly difficult to censor. Either way, the lack of a physical protest space encourages long-term political activism. Khalistani activists discovered this the same way Iranian democracy advocates have.
Will virtual Khalistan someday result in a physical Khalistan? Given the history of secessionist states, it's not likely. But Khalistan may be plowing new ground in how groups seeking self-determination work. Implementing the Internet as the focal point of a secessionist argument could ultimately spare the lives of activists and greatly expand the number of eyes focused on the issues. That alone is a major policy achievement.