Khalistan Movement: Rising from the Ashes?
In the backdrop of Punjab’s political instability, owing to inner-fighting in the then ruling Congress party, that catapulted a comparatively new and inexperienced government of ‘Aam Aadmi Party’, Pakistan’s State and non-State actors, in collaboration with West-based extremist elements, have been desperately making attempts, to revive militancy in Punjab. It was manifested on February 23, when, hundreds of followers of a radical leader Amritpal Singh, the self-styled Chief of a pro-Khalistani outfit ‘Waris Punjab De’,clashed with the police outside Ajnala police station near Amritsar. Furthermore, inputs that Pakistan’s ISI and other foreign elements are funding Amritpal Singh to project him as ‘Bhindranwale-II’, has sounded alarm bells in the Indian security establishment. Importantly, the radical and anti-India narrative by Amritpal, even succeeded, in finding a limited support from a very small section of Punjab’s radical elements.
With Jagjit Singh Chohan, the former Finance Minister of Punjab in 1960’s, emerging as the founder of the Khalistan movement, the demand for separate Khalistan reached its peak during 1980s after originating in 1970s. Jagjit Singh initiated (Nankana Sahib, 1971) setting up a Sikh government in Pakistan and subsequently visited United States, and collected millions of dollars there for forming Khalistan. He supported Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, another radicalist in India, fighting for independent Khalistan. Bhindranwale’s violent campaign, supported by Pak ISI, posed national security threats to India in 1980s. Indian security forces’ Operation Blue Star in 1984, led to neutralization of Bhindranwale and eventually militancy in 1993.However, vested interests, including from Pakistan and West-based elements, particularly from US, UK and Canada have constantly been trying to keep the movement simmering by providing funding/logistic support to such elements.
Reviving the legacy of Bhindranwale
Recently, the radical preacher and the self-styled chief of the separatist Khalistani pressure group – ‘Waris Punjab De’, Amritpal Singh, with ideology and support base compared to Bhindranwale came into limelight after the Ajnala incident (Feb. 2023).Hemoves with an army of heavily armed Nihang Sikhs and singing provocative songs, he is trying to establish himself as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale 2.0.He and his supporters not only brandish state-of-the-art firearms/sharp weapons, publicly, but are also issuing threats to people.
Amritpal’s rise started in 2022 when he took over as the head of the ‘Waris Punjab De’, a social organisation established by actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu, who actively participated in the year-long farmers’ agitation.Amritpal Singh has been espousing the cause of Khalistan on Facebook for quite some time. However, unlike Bhindranwale, Amritpal did not attend a Sikh seminary. His lack of training shows up when he speaks on theological issues. Yet, masses flock to him for his ‘clear, courageous’ political views. He made to headlines for his recent threat to Union Home Minister Amit Shah stating that Shah’s “fate will be similar to that of former prime minister Indira Gandhi.”
Indian agencies suspect Pakistan’s ISI’s role behind the rise of Amritpal Singh in order to plant a “real, flesh and blood cult leader” to breed separatist sentiments particularly among Sikh youths who are increasingly following the social media. Amritpal’s social media account shows that he is a fierce critic of the Modi government and even criticised the abrogation (2019) of Article 370 in J&K as well as he followed stories on Bhindranwale. Professor Sarchand Singh, former spokesperson of the Damdami Taksal and executive member of the BJP states that “Amritpal has understood the psychology of Punjab’s people. He wears Damdami Taksal’s costume and tries to copy Bhindranwale, but he cannot match his character. Significantly, while, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has been evasive on Sandhu’s dangerous rhetoric, owing to political compulsions, the former Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh, demanded immediate arrest of Amritpal Singh and appealed to impose a governor’s rule in the state.
Social Media aiding Propaganda
The easy access to new tools viz. internet, mobile phones, social media handles, deep-fake technologies and such other tools facilitated by globalization proved a boon for anti-Indian elements to revive Khalistan narrative by propagating religious and fundamentalist agenda and circulating fake news like during farmers agitation to instigate Punjab youth with the backing of Pak ISI.
The Khalistan supporters are widely active on social media, alluring the young Sikhs to join their movement. Organizations like Sikhs for Justice, KLF and BKI run misinformation campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Between April 2018 and April 2019, the pro-Khalistan social media content increased in the form of Twitter posts (from 161 to 1181), Youtube videos (218 to 1374) and Facebook posts, from 56 to 1439. A senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Sushant Sareen observed that there has been a greater focus on spreading Khalistani propaganda online, since it’s the cheapest, most cost-effective way to spread propaganda, and Pakistan has been funding and supporting these efforts. According to a senior Punjab police official, ISI has been funding pro-Khalistan activities like Referendum 2020, which its website calls “a campaign to liberate Punjab, currently occupied by India”. The police officer added that most of the propaganda content is now shifting to WhatsApp, instead of public platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Hate videos featuring people who are trampling and tearing Indian flag and shouting slogans in support of Khalistan has been in circulation in recent past.some accounts have Indian-sounding names, but when you track the IP address, they turn out to be based in Pakistan or the UK.
Meanwhile, Khalistan supporters established several organizations garbed as the charity based non-profit organisations to foment disturbance in Punjab. Indian government also proscribed several organizations like Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and the recently banned (February17, 2023) ‘Khalistan Tiger Force’ (KTF). Importantly, four of the nine Khalistani activists, designated as terrorists by the Indian government in 2020, are based in Pakistan.
Foreign Intervention and Criminal-Terrorists Nexus
A three-day Annual police meet (New Delhi, Jan. 2023) noted that Post-2015 there has been rise in attempts to revive the militancy in Punjab, with most of the perpetrators based in Pakistan/western countries. It also noted that diaspora in U.S.A, Canada, U.K. and other European countries were also channeling funds and radicalising the youth in Punjab. A recent Hudson Institute report has warned of the threat posed by pro-Khalistan groups operating in the West and allegedly financed/supported by Pakistan’s ISI.
Significantly, foreign governments who are otherwise tough on terror outfits has treated India’s demands for action against branded terrorists with scepticism. Former RA&W Special Secretary G.B.S. Sidhu argues selective approach of western countries stating that “These countries have tightened their grip on such individuals or let them loose as per their requirements”.
The recent trend witnessed the revival of Khalistanis’ strategy of re-engagement of local criminal groups, like in 1980s and 1990s to promote their agenda. These groups apart from providing logistical support to terrorists, facilitates funding and kidnappings for extortion. Notably, Punjab police’s counter-intelligence wing busted (February 2021) a KTF’s module, plotting assassinations on the behest of Paramjit Singh Pamma, a UK-based BKI militant. Similarly, Delhi police nabbed (December 7, 2021) two criminals Gurjeet Singh and Sukhdeep Singh, hired by gangster Sukh Bhikhariwal to kill(October 2020) Balwinder Singh Sandhu, an anti-Khalistan activist from Punjab’s Bhikhiwind. Bhikhariwal, who was later deported from Dubai, confessed receiving instructions for the murder from Lahore-based ISYF terrorist Lakhbir Singh Rode.Over 20 incidents, including murders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindutva leaders and attacks on Sikh preachers, have been linked to Khalistan separatists in the last six years.
Indian agencies claim that apart from Pamma and Rode, prominent Khalistani terrorists active from various foreign countries include – Germany-based Gurmeet Singh Bagga and Bhupinder Singh Bhinda of Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF); Lahore-based KZF chief Ranjeet Singh Neeta, BKI chief Wadhawa Singh Babbar and KCF chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar, all based in Lahore; Vancouver-based Hardeep Singh Nijjar and New York-based founder of ‘Sikhs for Justice’ (SFJ)’s Gurpatwant Singh Pannu.Notably,SFJ’s websites have been linked to Pakistani addressesand Pakistan army’s ‘K2’ plan includes Khalistan and Kashmir to encourage secessionism in India.
Indian intelligence agencies claim (June 2020) that Canada-based criminal gangs, comprising Indian expatriates from Punjab including Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) are funding Khalistani groups. British Columbia-based Dhaliwal and Grewal gangs, involved in drug trafficking are linked to SFJ’s Gurpatwant Singh Pannu and founded a Vancouver-based notorious mafia syndicate ‘Brothers Keepers’. The SFJ, having linkages to Pakistani establishments, has been pushing for a referendum for self-determination in support of Khalistan. Canadian syndicates are funding SFJ and also transferring money through hawala to SFJ activists in Punjab and Tarai area of Uttar Pradesh. In early 2000, Ranjeet Singh Cheema had established a cocaine smuggling cartel in Canada. Notably, Cheema and slain gangster Bhupinder Singh Sohal were responsible for over a dozen killings in Canada during 1990-2012.Canada-based Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) is one of the other organizations engaged in promoting Khalistan’s narrative. Their propaganda, carried out through gurdwaras, revolves around Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots post-Indira Gandhi’s assassination. PJF founders, Mo Dhaliwal and Anita Lal, close to NDP chief Jagmeet Dhaliwal, are believed to be the brain behind the controversial social media ‘toolkit’ on the farmers’ protests.
In one of the incidents, Indian diplomats were barred from entering the Dixie gurdwara in Ottawa. The Vancouver Gurudwara’ governing body is headed by pro-Khalistani Hardeep Singh Nijjar and Indian diplomats finds no platform to engage with Sikh community being subverted by Khalistani elements, enjoying support of some vocal Sikh diaspora MPs. In August 2020, 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.” Similarly during the farmer’s protests Canadian MP and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal had demanded Justin Trudeau government to issue statements against the alleged human rights abuses.
The US Link
After Jagjit Singh Chohan’s formation of government in exile, that supported Punjab militants led by Bhindranwale, the Gurdwaras in US cities, including in Stockton, Yuba City, Fremont, Sacramento, New York and Washington DC were prominently hosting the picture galleries of Blue Star and the 1984 Delhi riots.In January 2022, the US wing of SFJ announced that it was dedicating US $1 million to its ‘Raise Kesari Khalistan’ (Raise the Saffron Khalistan Flag) and ‘Block Modi Tiranga’ (Block Modi’s Indian Tricolor) campaigns. They also announced their intention to target India’s capital, Delhi, on Republic Day, which were effectively thwarted, by Indian agencies. SFJ spokespersons in the West have taken part in events organized by the Pakistani embassy in the US in collaboration with groups such as Friends of Kashmir – a Houston-based organization, having linkages to the Pakistani regime and other proscribed jihadist organizations.
Other Players from Foreign Soil
A bomb explosion (Dec. 23, 2021) in the district court of Ludhiana, Punjab, wherein the attacker, a dismissed former policeman Gagandeep was killed and six others were injured, was attributed to Europe-based Sikh militants. In this context, German police arrested the mastermind, Jaswinder Singh Multani. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had formally charged Multani and others for the attacks.
Recently Australia also witnessed steep rise in the Pro-Khalistan movement support. Khalistan supporters targeted (February 23, 2023) the Honorary Consulate of India in Taringa suburb of Brisbane. Importantly, few days earlier, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar during his visit to the country had emphasised the need for vigilance against “radical activities” targeting Indian community in Australia. Earlier Khalistan supporters vandalized (January 2023) the historic Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple in Carrum Downs suburb of Melbourne on the occasion of “Thai Pongal” festival. The Swaminarayan temple in Melbourne was also defaced by ‘anti-social elements’ with anti-India graffiti.
The resurgence of Khalistan extremism in India fueled by local and foreign actors is a cause of grave concern for the Federal Indian and the State government. The factors behind the rise of Khalistan extremism are complex and multifaceted. Using the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as a foundation, parts of the Sikh diaspora, abetted by Pakistan have successfully been targeting the youth to keep the Khalistan issue simmering for taking it to their perceived goal. Although substantial ground support is missing, the logistical support from a section of the diaspora and Pakistan is trying to revitalize the once weakening movement. Indian agencies need to be pro-active and effectively counter the misinformation campaign against Indian establishments and dispel any disconnect between the Indian government and the larger Sikh diaspora particularly in the US, UK, and Canada.
Very informative and well written article. Highlights the grave situation of extremism.