Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The ghost of Khalistan – The Big Story News

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The team from Punjab police’s counterintelligence wing drove through the night to Lucknow on February 8. They were following a tip-off from Jagroop Singh, a gangster arrested the previous day from Veroval village in Amritsar district. The team had recovered five Chinese pistols from Jagroop and, more importantly, the whereabouts of his accomplices. Among them, the counterintelligence sleuths caught up with Jagdev Singh Jagga, who was travelling from Lakhimpur in Uttar Pradesh to Lucknow, and brought him to Punjab. Another Punjab police team arrested gangster Gurpinder Singh in Nanded, Maharashtra. With this, police said they had busted a module of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) plotting assassinations in India allegedly on the instructions of Paramjit Singh Pamma, a UK-based militant of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI).

The arrests weren’t one-off. On December 7, the Delhi police special cell nabbed Gurjeet Singh and Sukhdeep Singh, criminals allegedly hired by gangster Sukh Bhikhariwal to murder Balwinder Singh Sandhu, an anti-Khalistan activist from Punjab’s Bhikhiwind, in October 2020. Sandhu had received the Shaurya Chakra, India’s third-highest peacetime gallantry award, in 1993 for his fight against militants in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district in the 1990s. Bhikhariwal, who was deported from Dubai and arrested this January, alleges that instructions for the murder had come from Lakhbir Singh Rode, the Lahore-based chief of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF).

BKI and ISYF are among the militant groups that, in the 1990s, were at the forefront of the violent separatist movement in Punjab for an independent ‘Khalistan’. In the past six years, more than 20 incidents, including murders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindutva leaders and attacks on Sikh preachers, have been linked to Khalistan separatists. Officials say such attacks are being carried out to sow disharmony in Punjab, and fear that the ghost of the long-dead Khalistan movement is now sought to be revived, mostly from overseas.

Pamma and Rode are among nine notorious Khalistan masterminds operating out of five countries, say security officials. The others in the list are Germany-based Gurmeet Singh Bagga and Bhupinder Singh Bhinda of the banned Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF); KZF chief Ranjeet Singh Neeta, BKI chief Wadhawa Singh Babbar and Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar, all based in Lahore; Hardeep Singh Nijjar (in Vancouver) and Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, the New York-based founder of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) (see Enemies of the State).

These individuals, officials say, have been using a network of local criminals, gangsters and drug dealers to carry out targeted killings in India. Security agencies also see the hand of Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) behind the attempts to revive the Khalistan movement over the past decade. Khalistan and Kashmir reportedly made up the Pakistan army’s ‘K2’ plan to encourage secessionism in the 1980s. Sandhu’s alleged killers, for instance, were caught with three Hizbul Mujahideen members, one of Pakistan’s many terror proxies.

In a September 2020 paper, ‘Khalistan: A project of Pakistan’, published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think-tank in Ottawa, veteran Canadian journalist Terry Milewski warned about the threat to India and Canada from a renewed Khalistan movement. ‘For Canadians, Pakistan’s actions pose a real and present national security risk. As the Khalistani cause has little traction in Punjab, Pakistan’s support of Khalistani extremists entails leveraging extremists based in Canada, including supporters with ties to terrorism,’ the report said.

Indian officials say the ISI has been using drones since 2019 to offload weapons and drugs in the border areas of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. At least a dozen cases of drone-based consignments have been detected since September 2019. Central and Punjab security agencies also believe Khalistan militants are using religious organisations and the ongoing farmers’ protests over the contentious central farm laws to attract Punjab’s youth to their cause. Ravneet Singh Bittu, the Congress MP from Ludhiana, alleges Khalistan elements having infiltrated the farmers’ agitation taking place at Delhi’s borders since last November. He blames the January 25 assault on him at the Singhu border on Khalistan sympathisers.

Not only Punjab, Haryana is equally wary, given that its Sirsa, Hisar, Ambala, Fatehabad, Yamunanagar and Kurukshetra districts were once the hunting ground for Khalistan separatists. “We are watching the movement very carefully and treading cautiously. We will neither allow radicalisation nor violence,” Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar told INDIA TODAY.


At its peak in the mid-1990s, the Khalistan movement, one of India’s most violent insurgencies, had claimed 21,532 lives in a span of a decade and a half. The dead included 8,090 separatists, 11,696 civilians and 1,746 security personnel (1,415 from the Punjab police alone).

The movement began in April 1981 with US-based Khalistan ideologue Ganga Singh Dhillon demanding an independent Sikh homeland during a seminar in Chandigarh. This coincided with the rise of a charismatic militant figure, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who fortified himself with his followers inside Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1983, an event that led to Operation Blue Star or the storming of the temple complex by the Indian Army in June 1984 and the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in October.

By the mid-1990s, a determined fightback by security forces had wiped out the insurgency in Punjab. But the terror modules shifted base out of India. The leaders of four of the nine modules, Rode, Babbar, Neeta and Panjwar, and Dal Khalsa (International) founder Gajinder Singh ‘Hijacker’ operate from Lahore. Panjwar, believed to be a vital player in the Sikh radicalisation campaign, was earlier allegedly into smuggling of arms, narcotics and counterfeit currency into India and expanding the Khalistan network in Europe.


Khalistan 1.0 found strong echoes in the prosperous Sikh community in Canada, the US and the UK. The movement’s second avatar now has a far more influential Sikh diaspora extending logistical support. It, officials allege, includes organisations like the SFJ and the Canada-based Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF), apart from the conventional Khalistan network. Their propaganda, which is also carried out through gurdwaras in their countries, is primarily built around Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

The SFJ was launched in 2007 by Pannu, an immigrant cab driver-turned-attorney, to seek justice for victims of the 1984 riots. Since 2006, though, the group has turned into a vociferous proponent of Khalistan. In 2019, the Indian government banned the SFJ for announcing the previous year a ‘referendum’ to be held among the Sikh diaspora in 2020 on Punjab’s secession from India (it stands postponed by two years because of the pandemic).

Indian agencies suspect that Pannu and some others in California tried to ‘radicalise’ youth at the peak of the farmers’ protests and had incited mobs to lay siege to the Red Fort during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26. They believe Punjabi actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu and Lakha Sidhana, an accused in the Red Fort violence, were in touch with Pannu.

Over the years, picture galleries of Blue Star and the 1984 riots have found place in gurdwaras in US cities, such as Stockton, Yuba City, Fremont, Sacramento, New York and Washington DC. In Canada, Indian diplomats were recently barred from entering the Dixie gurdwara in Ottawa. The governing body of the gurdwara in Vancouver is headed by Nijjar. There is hardly any platform where Indian diplomats can engage with them. “Those dominating these gurdwaras target Sikh immigrants and try to radicalise youth,” says a top Punjab intelligence officer.

Both in the UK and Canada, the Khalistan movement appears to have the backing of some vocal Sikh diaspora MPs. Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the Labour Party MP from Slough, has raked up the issue of alleged human right violations during the farmers’ protests and sought the British government’s intervention. In August last year, Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill justified the demand for Khalistan, tweeting: “The principle of self-determination is prominently embodied in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations.” Indian agencies have been lately analysing Dhesi’s statements in the British parliament.

Similarly, Canadian MP and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal has demanded that the Justin Trudeau government issue statements against the alleged human rights abuses related to the farmers’ protests. With 24 MPs, the NDP’s support is crucial for the Trudeau government. Some Canadian ministers are viewed by the Indian establishment as sympathetic to the Khalistan cause. In April 2017, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh refused to meet Canadian defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan over his purported support for Khalistan. Indian agencies also suspect Canadian politician Amarjeet Sohi to be a Khalistan sympathiser. Both Sajjan and Sohi deny such links.

India has time and again pressured foreign governments to extradite Khalistan activists. On March 3, Indian authorities sought the extradition of KZF member Kuldeep Singh from the UK, where he has been living for the past 16 years. Kuldeep is wanted for allegedly plotting to kill former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir. In December 2015, India had sought the extradition of Pamma after his arrest in Portugal. But the plea was rejected and Pamma returned to the UK, where he had been granted asylum in 2000.

During Trudeau’s India visit in 2018, Amarinder had shared with him a dossier on overseas terror operatives. The list included Nijjar, Malkiat Singh Fauji, Gurjit Singh Cheema, Gurpreet Singh Lande and Gurjinder Singh Pannu. Trudeau assured Amarinder that Canada did not support separatism anywhere in the world.

India’s case against some of those branded as terrorists is treated with scepticism by many foreign governments who are otherwise tough on terror outfits. G.B.S. Sidhu, former RA&W special secretary, though, argues that western countries are selective in their approach. “These countries have tightened their grip on such individuals or let them loose as per their requirements,” says Sidhu.

In 2019, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) began naming overseas terror suspects in cases of targeted killings, arms smuggling and incitement of separatism in Punjab. Last year, the agency confiscated properties of Pannu, Nijjar and Pamma and filed terror charge-sheets against them.

The farmers’ protests, which first erupted in Punjab last September, became a major rallying point for sections of the Sikh diaspora. Security agencies fear the protests may have given the ISI and some North American groups a springboard to revive the Khalistan sentiment, using social media and web channels for their propaganda. Mo Dhaliwal and Anita Lal, co-founders of PJF, are considered close to NDP chief Jagmeet Dhaliwal, and are thought to be the brain behind the controversial social media ‘toolkit’ on the farmers’ protests.

The farmers’ outfits have tried to keep Khalistan backers out of their agitation, but perhaps without total success. “A sense of injustice prevails among the Sikh diaspora. The farmers’ protests have added to it. Of late, there has been intense radicalisation in North America,” says Sameer Kaushal, host at a radio station in Vancouver. There are reports of car and tractor rallies, with Khalistan flags and sloganeering, in towns in Canada and California to express solidarity with the protests in India.

Indian security agencies suspect Lakhbir Rode and his son Bhagat Brar got Khalistan activists to infiltrate the farmers’ protests at the Singhu border. Based in Canada’s Brampton, Brar allegedly frequents Pakistan to meet his father and ISI agents. In the UK too, support for Indian farmers has donned Khalistan colours. A demonstration outside the Indian High Commission in London in December allegedly saw the presence of BKI activists and Khalistan sloganeering.

Separatist sentiment: A demonstration by Khalistan sympathisers in Ontario, Canada, in May 2012


In June 2017, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, passed a resolution to reinstall a portrait of Bhindranwale at the ‘martyrs’ memorial’ at the Golden Temple complex, after it was removed under pressure from the BJP.

Attempts to glorify Khalistan ideologues aside, Punjab’s intellectuals say the movement has little traction on the ground. “Khalistan is an idea, and an idea never dies. There is a tiny section among Sikhs who propagate this. But the movement has no resonance in Punjab,” says Jagtar Singh Sandhu, author and commentator on Punjab’s contemporary history.

Two events in 2019 are seen as having galvanised opinion against the Narendra Modi government among a section of Sikhs, the abrogation of Article 370 and withdrawal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Many Sikhs view the two moves as a BJP-RSS ploy to extend their hegemony over minorities. Significantly, the controversial Anandpur Sahib resolution by the Akali Dal in 1973 had demanded special status like J&K’s for Punjab.

Former Punjab DGP Shashi Kant says the Khalistan movement is dormant, if not dead, in Punjab. “Some diaspora members, who are perhaps in a time capsule, are fanning it for their own agenda,” says Kant. But he warns of a rising threat from terror sleeper cells activated by the ISI over the past 18 months.

Former Akal Takht jathedar Jasbir Singh Rode, too, sees no groundswell for Khalistan. “I can’t vouch for the future, but there is nothing on the ground at the moment,” he says. Jasbir Rode is the brother of Lakhbir Rode and headed the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, during the peak of Punjab insurgency in 1988.

Balbir Singh Rajewal, chief of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal), delinks the farmers’ stir from Khalistan. “The government is using the Khalistan movement as a bogey to taint the farmers’ protests. People are agitated over the farm laws,” he says. “If those in Canada want Khalistan, they can create it over there. There is no such demand in India.”

Extending an olive branch, the Modi government, over the past two years, removed all but two names of Indian-origin Sikhs from its ‘adverse list’, enabling them to apply for visa and visit India. The government has not disclosed the names of the two barred individuals. Even Sikh families on political asylum in the US, Canada, UK and Germany are eligible for Indian visa. They can eventually apply for registration as Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) after holding a normal visa for two years.

In his book, The Khalistan Conspiracy, Sidhu suggests that a truth and reconciliation commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, document the accounts of victims and witnesses of the anti-Sikh riots. With Khalistan being an assembly election issue in Punjab since 1997 and a vote polariser, this would require a bold political decision. But as Sukhi Chahal, a San Francisco-based attorney and Sikh activist, says: “The idea of Khalistan will die its own death, even among the diaspora, if a closure is brought to [Operation] Blue Star and justice is ensured for the 3,000-odd victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.” It will, he argues, allow the Sikh community to move forward; else, the spectre of Khalistan will remain a tool for vested interests to exploit.

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