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Development Issues in South Asia

How does the empirical case of the Khalistan Movement challenge our conceptual  understanding of the theory of relative deprivation in International Development? 

Development Issues in South Asia The economy of India has been labelled as ‘unorganised’ and diverse in its ethnography and political makeup (Harris-White, 2004). India has striking poverty figures as one of the largest economies in the  world1, with $2.9 trillion in nominal GDP in 2020, the state of Punjab is one of the wealthiest in India  with a rich social history. The social structure of India cultivated a society where individuals are deprived of resources and exploited from a top-down perspective, particularly with the caste system  and trade unions being deliberately disorganised (Harris-White, 2004).

India’s Economy Is The Fastest In The World To Come Out Of Covid

It is also apparent in the form of  religion, as a highly religious country, religious groups have driven social movements, originating from  their sense of deprivation, such as the Khalistan Movement which lasted for over a decade.

The Khalistan Movement was rooted from Sikhs attempting to gain independence by establishing a sovereign  state with regional autonomy and identity. It was a result of the accumulation in political, economic and  social disadvantages along with the alienation among Sikhs in India (Jetly, 2008). This particular  movement will be examined through the prism of the theory of relative deprivation, allowing this essay  to conclude the extent to which this movement validates, and simultaneously expose the shortcomings  of this theoretical framework.  

Drawing on the theory of relative deprivation, this essay seeks to understand and challenge the theory  of relative deprivation from the empirical case of the Khalistan Movement. This essay deploys this  theory due to its clear relevance to the Khalistan realities, particularly the perceived and intrinsic  isolation between the Sikh group and the rest of Punjab, along with economic and social marginalisation, has driven separatist momentum.  

This essay will use the empirical case study of the Khalistan Movement during the time period of 1980  to 1992, due to the unique beliefs of Sikhs on equality amongst a heavily unequal society. Examples  drawn from the movement will challenge the conditions which construct the theory, namely the dispute  over the 3 rivers: Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, alienation amongst the Sikhs and the attack on the Golden Temple.

The Khalistan Movement in India: The Interplay of Politics and State (Jetley, 2008) will serve  as the representative empirical literature for the movement. The essay will first provide further  background knowledge on both the theory of relative deprivation and the Khalistan Movement, where  the definition adopted will be justified amongst scholars in the discipline. Followed by the examples  from the case study which will argue that the theory of relative deprivation cannot be a complete  explanation of the rise of social movements, such as the Khalistan Movement. Finally, limitations of  the theory and what can be improved in its premise will be explored.  

Theory of Relative Deprivation  

To thoroughly engage with subsequent sections of the essay, this section will be dedicated to elaborating  upon the theory of relative deprivation in International Development. In developmental theory, land  reforms, trade liberalisation and industrial policies are three important factors for development.  However, the direction and extent of both the policy implementation and subsequent effects is heavily  shaped by institutions. Institutions govern social interactions and by preserving elite wealth and  political dominance. In the case of India, the preservation of elite wealth and their domination of  political institutions, combined with the social foundations laid by the caste system, has driven societal  fragmentation. It is argued that poor rural Indians that have been deprived of resources will demand  more from the state when they observed people of their social class have successfully mobilised for  


better services and public goods. This fosters a positive feedback loop on the responsiveness of the state,  followed by the expectation of the citizen and citizen claim-making (Kruks-Wisner, 2018).  

The theory of relative deprivation works along similar assumptions, emphasising the comparative  aspect of individual wellbeing against a reference group as a chief motivator for social movements. 

While Davis was the first to formalise this into a theoretical model, (Davis, 1959), it has been refined  by many scholars, namely Runciman, Crosby and Gurr, and this essay will assimilate this academic  range into a holistic, constructive definition.  

Runciman argues that the three elements of relative deprivation are egoistical, fraternal and double  deprivation (which is the interplay of both egoistical and fraternal deprivation) (Ruciman 1966). The deprivation is felt individually, with egoistical deprivation referring to the  deprivation that an individual felt relative to others in their comparison group. Individuals in fraternal  deprivation are gratified while their own group is being deprived of resources and opportunities relative  to another group. Similarly, Crosby expands this further by developing Runciman’s argument by stating  that egoistical deprivation is conditioned by a number of variables: environmental antecedents,  preconditions, felt deprivation, mediators, behaviours and lack of personal responsibility for failure  (Crosby, 1979). Both scholars focus on the notion of individuality and the perception of individuals  which, in the context of India’s collectivist society, is harder to measure.  

Gurr put forward that there are three strands of deprivation: aspirational, decremental and progressive, and is calculated through six measures: economic discrimination, political discrimination, potential  separatism, dependence on private foreign capital, religious cleavages and lack of educational  opportunity (Gurr, 1968). In addition, value expectation and value capabilities are key concepts within  Gurr’s theory, where value expectation refers to what individuals feel entitled to in terms of goods and  opportunities, while value capabilities refer to the feasibility to attain goods and opportunities. 

Aspirational deprivation occurs when value capabilities remain constant while value expectancy  increases, in decremental deprivation, value capabilities decrease while value expectation remains  constant. As for progressive deprivation, the value capabilities decrease while the value expectation  increases. Progressive deprivation bears most relevance to the case of Khalistan Movement in terms of  the series of events that built up to the movement and announced by the central government in India, and will therefore be adopted as the definition to analyse the theory and for the remainder of the essay. 

Gurr places equal emphasis on the six measures, however, this essay will focus on exploring the  Khalistan Movement through the strands of economic discrimination, religious cleavages and political  discrimination. The extent of potential separatism will be examined under each individual strand, and  as a whole reality. Unlike most movements, the objective of the Khalistan Movement is to develop the  state of Khalistan and gain regional autonomy from India.  

Economic Discrimination  

Punjab was a separate state from India prior to the British Rule, following the Partition of India in 1947,  Sikhs expected to be given their independent state but were rejected as they were listed as a Hindu sub group, hence the lack of grounding to form an independent state. This catalysed how Sikhs were viewed  and discriminated against in subsequent years (Kruks-Winser, 2018). Following British  colonization, agriculture became a vital part in the driver of economic growth in the nation. With  Punjab being a relatively wealthy state while India as a whole was still a developing country, Punjab  took on the role of being a major producer in agricultural products in India, and was the first state to  commence the Green Revolution. (Jetly, 2008).  

The Green Revolution was celebrated as a huge success in the eyes of the government, although the  hidden costs and consequences were not made aware to farmers. Nevertheless, this failed to  properly account for economic discrimination, as Sikhs was actively involved in the economy without  systemic exclusion and was provided economic opportunities. This set forth the base foundation that 

Punjab is particularly valuable to the Indian economy, as the Green Revolution first started in Punjab  and individuals regardless of religion were able to generate capital which financed the developmental  projects that followed. Under the theoretical framework of economic discrimination, Sikhs in Punjab  have not been systematically excluded from opportunities in growth, and is actively participating in the  economy in generating capital for the nation and future developmental projects. However, the benefits  of the Green Revolution did not persist, rather, it led to growing pauperisation of peasants as 

government subsidies became insufficient (Jetly, 2008). In addition, Sikh farmers and peasants  expressed concerns on the disproportionate amount of their efforts being transported to neighbouring  Indian states, and the benefits were not to the advantage of Sikhs. Considering the deprivation in this  particular aspect, Sikh’s are not excluded from opportunities, but are heavily deprived of the benefits  that followed the Green Revolution. The series of unfortunate events following the Green Revolution,  such as shortages of electricity and water and the rising cost of inputs can be traced down to poor  planning and lack of long-term considerations by the government, rather than the act of active  systematic exclusion of Sikh in the economy.  

With two thirds of the Sikh population as landowners, roughly a third of Sikhs are producers and  labourers throughout the Green Revolution (Harris-White, 2004). Although Sikhs employ an egalitarian  religious idea, an observation can be made between the wealthy Sikh landowners who deliberately trap  labourers and fostered the pauperisation to curb crop yields, as seen from the theoretical argument made  by Studwell (Studwell, 2013). Therefore, when Sikhs with the identity of labourer and producers  experience an increase in value expectation which is the benefits from the Green Revolution, the  identity of landowners has marginalised the labourers and producers to an extent, therefore decreasing  the feasibility to attain the expected benefits.

This sense of relative deprivation is sourced within Sikhs and their own relationship as landowners, producers and labourers, rather than from the government  (which will be an external group and as described by the theory). This demonstrates that the element of  economic discrimination is not present in the form of systematic exclusion of opportunities, but is  present in the accessibility of the benefits from opportunities such as the Green Revolution. In addition,  considering the nation of India as whole, it is understandable that the benefits Punjab experienced  economically and technologically was spread amongst various states who have fewer resources and lack  the conditions that will allow the Green Revolution to gain success in the way Punjab was able to  (Kruks-Winser, 2018). Therefore, the deprivation of benefits from the Green Revolution could be seen  as a strategic decision by the government to equalise the states rather than deprive wealthy states  financially.  

Religious Cleavages  

While the level of violence increased in subsequent years, the movement was exacerbated after the  shooting of Sikh extremists and the attack of the Golden Temple by the Indian government (Jetley,  2008). This echoes the framework of religious cleavages in relative deprivation through the form of a  racially motivated attack. Following the attack, Sikhs and its diasporas condemned the action, and has  led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India who gave the order on the  attack. The series of events aggravated the Khalistan movement as it then became a militant and violent  campaign for Khalistan to be a separate state. 

The Khalistan Movement is inherently religious, and the chronic source of deprivation should be  explored through the interaction between a blend of both politics and religion. It can be argued that  Sikhs did not receive the same level of respect compared to other religions in India, particularly from  the Central Government, which conducted a racially motivated attack on the Golden Temple as an  attempt to capture Sikh extremists (Jetly, 2008). Bhindranwale repeatedly expressed his aggression  towards the central government and organised killer squads with the aim of ‘eliminating’ enemies  of Sikhs. Viewed in a purely religious prism, these behaviours are irrational according to Sikh beliefs  and characteristics, and instead this is a prime example of the interaction between religious and political  motivations. The political nature is further evident by the central government taking the opportunity of 

Bhindranwale seeking refuge in the Golden Temple as an excuse to conduct a racially motivated attack.  The result of this attack included significant casualties and considerable damages to the Golden Temple.  

The behaviour of Bhindranwale can be explained through the theory of relative deprivation, as Gurr  believes that if an obstacle persists in the journey of an individual achieving their objectives and  demands, the source of the deprivation, in this case Gandhi’s government, will eventually be harmed.  This can be seen from Bhindranwale’s act of organising killer squads. Although Bhindranwale’s action were extreme, it led to the increase of violence in the movement significantly, as an increasing number of  Sikhs experienced similar levels of aggression, and training camps along with armoury financed largely  by Sikh diasporas became the scene in the following years.  

The complex nuances between religion and politics in India is one that is unique, as the relationship  between politics and religion is intertwined through the strong ties between religion and political parties.  Religious deprivation can come in many forms, in the context of the Khalistan Movement, cleavages  arise from religion and politics, as inter-constitutional forces rather than the simplistic version purported  by the theoretical framework of these forces being separate drivers, shaping how a citizen identifies  oneself in a state. Therefore, the theory begins to decrease in explanatory power the more it is applied  to highly religious states or situations, such as India.  

Political Discrimination  

Religion is inherently political in India and politics is inherently religious. As seen from the case study,  the Akali Dal party in Punjab is favoured by Sikhs, while the Congress is centred on moderate Hinduism  and the Bharatiya Janata party is centred on right wing Hinduism (Jetley, 2008). Political organisation  is vital for majority and minority alike, and it was the lack of a considerate and holistic policy that led  to the Khalistan Movement. It was also argued by Singh that although the Sikhs had their mistakes, they  were treated grievously by the Central Government, and the movement cannot be traced from a single  and unified force, rather, the accumulation of oppression faced by Sikhs (Singh, 2002).  

Majority of the Sikhs reside in Punjab 2 and are integrated strongly in the society through Indian  businesses, army and bureaucracies (Jetley, 2008). Prior to the Khalistan Movement, Sikh leaders  partitioned for a Sikh state, commonly known as The Partition of Punjab. As value expectation increased  of opportunities increase due to Sikhs observing the political advantages Pakistan enjoyed, the sense of  relative deprivation slowly builds up, setting the foundation for the rise of a social movement as the  value capacity decreases due to the Indian government rejecting the proposal of an independent state,  reflecting that Khalistan as a state is unfeasible to attain.  

With the two main political parties in Punjab being Akali Dal and the Indian National Congress, the  Akali Dal received more support from Sikhs than Congress through strong advocates of the Sikh  culture and religions, however, the Akali Dal were continuously undermined and seen as a political  target (Jetley, 2008). The source of this oppression is from the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi,  who pushed for the centralisation of Punjab and India under a strong authoritarian approach.

Under Ghandi’s reign, the policies that Akali Dal supported was considered unfavourable to the central  government, using her influence over the Congress party, the Akali Dal party was dismissed. This  systematic limitation of a political party in representing the Sikh population ignited the frustration of  Sikhs in Punjab as it significantly deprived Sikhs of a political party that will actively represent them  in political activities. This would be understood within the theoretical framework of relative deprivation  as a clear political discrimination accumulated the momentum in leading to the rise of the Khalistan  Movement.  


Similarly, Sikhs were politically discriminated against following the elaborate canal system that diverted water  from river Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, which were vital in agricultural growth within the state (Jetley, 2008).  The Akali Dal referred this to a tribunal, however, there was never a final decision. This dissatisfaction  of a vital part in the livelihood of Sikhs echoes the deprivation and discrimination Sikhs faced politically.  

In hindsight, the accumulation of policies and lack of policies regarding the welfare of Sikhs in Punjab  has strongly led to the rise of Khalistan Movement, as the central government repeatedly act against the  interest of Sikhs politically, depriving them of a voice and a chance to challenge decision made by the  Indian central government.  


To conclude, the theory of relative deprivation can only explain the rise of the Khalistan Movement  under the elements of political deprivation and religious cleavage, as the two elements are closely  intertwined in the context of India. The remaining element of economic deprivation is weak in Punjab  as Sikhs are not excluded from economic opportunities. In addition, the reality of the Khalistan  Movement reflected that the theory cannot solely be an explanation of the rise of the movement due to  varying limitations in its theoretical framework. By using the empirical case of the Khalistan Movement  and drawing examples from pivotal moments such as the Green Revolution, attack on the Golden  Temple and a series of political oppression, it can be seen that Sikhs are inherently deprived politically  from the social structure of India leading to the Khalistan Movement that lasted for over a decade. 

Development Issues in South Asia

Written by Irene So

Business Development Associate at London Blockchain Labs, President of KCL BAME in the City, BA International Development at King’s College London.

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