In the first few years after India’s independence, the Sikh migrants from Punjab constituted the largest single group of Indian origin in the Indian diaspora in the UK, the US and Canada. Some of them had migrated even during the British rule—particularly to Canada to work in the saw mills of British Columbia. Others had gone after 1947. Most of these migrants came from poor rural families and many of them in the UK earned their living by working as drivers and conductors in the public transportation systems of the municipalities. Some of the farmers, who had migrated to the US, did extremely well in citrus farming in California. The Yuba City in California had a prosperous community of Sikh farmers. The migrants to Canada earned their living in factories and in the public transportation systems.
I was given to understand that at the request of Kao, two officers of the British Security Service (MI-5) visited the Golden Temple as tourists and gave a similar advice to Indira Gandhi—- be patient and avoid action or use the police.
Despite their living in Western countries, they continued to be attached to their religion and led their lives as true Sikhs. Whenever they could save enough money, they would come to India to visit their relatives and worship in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Sikhs, who were working abroad as salary-earners, started facing difficulties because their employers began insisting that they should shave off their beard and stop wearing turbans. This was particularly so in the public transportation companies of the UK. Moreover, the Sikh migrants in the West faced difficulties in getting permission from the municipal authorities for acquiring land and constructing gurudwaras where they could worship.
In the UK, many of the affected Sikhs took up the matter with the Indian High Commission in London and sought its intervention. The High Commission declined to intervene and advised the Sikhs to approach the local authorities for a redressal of their grievances. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s Prime Minister at that time, followed a hands-off policy with regard to the migrants of Indian origin living abroad. He was against the Government of India intervening on their behalf with their host governments. They were told that they should sort out matters themselves by taking up their problems with the local authorities.
The affected Sikhs compared what they thought was the indifferent attitude of the Government of India with the helpful and interventionist role played by the Government of Israel in responding to the religious sensitivities of the Jewish people, wherever they might be living and whatever might be their nationality. The Israeli Government, according to the aggrieved Sikhs, always assumed a moral responsibility for protecting the religious interests of the Jewish people. Moreover, Israeli citizenship laws permitted dual nationality, whereas the Sikh migrants, who acquired a foreign nationality, had to renounce their Indian citizenship. Another demand of the Sikhs was that the Government of India should take up with Pakistan the question of facilitating pilgrimage visits by Sikhs living in India as well as abroad to their holy shrines in Pakistan such as the Nankana Sahib gurudwara.
When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, Chauhan went back to London and re-started his Khalistan movement.
Dissatisfaction over the reluctance of the Government of India to vigorously take up such issues with other Governments gave rise to a feeling among some of the Sikh residents of the UK, the US and Canada that only by creating an independent State for the Sikhs would they be able to have their religious rights protected. A group of Sikh bus drivers and conductors in the UK formed an organization called the Sikh Home Rule Movement under the leadership of one Charan Singh Panchi. Some well-to-do Sikh farmers in the US floated an organization called the United Sikh Appeal, which was modeled after the United Jewish Appeal, which had actively supported the rights of the Jewish people and worked for an independent State of Israel. However, the majority of the Sikh communities in the West kept away from these organizations. They did not support the idea of an independent Sikh State.
Before the India-Pakistan war of 1971, Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan, who had served for a few months between 1967 and 1969 as the Deputy Speaker of the Punjab Assembly and then as the Finance Minister of Punjab, went to London, joined the Sikh Home Rule Movement, took over its leadership and re-named it as the Khalistan movement. He wanted that the independent Sikh State to be created in Punjab should be named as Khalistan. Even before his arrival in the UK, the Pakistani High Commission and the US Embassy in London were in touch with the activists of the Sikh Home Rule Movement. They established contact with Chauhan after his arrival and started encouraging his propaganda against the Government of India in order to embarrass Indira Gandhi. Gen. Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s military dictator, invited him to Pakistan. He was received warmly and lionized as the leader of the Indian Sikh community even though he had no following in the Sikh community of Punjab. During his visit to Pakistan, the Pakistani authorities presented to him some of the Sikh holy relics kept in the gurudwaras of Pakistan. He took them with him to the UK and sought to use them in order to project himself as a leader, who could protect the religious interests of the Sikhs.
Before the outbreak of the war in December, 1971, the R&AW, on the instructions of Indira Gandhi, had started a PSYWAR campaign to highlight the violation of the human rights of the people of East Pakistan and the resulting refugee exodus into India. The CIA and the ISI sought to counter this by starting a PSYWAR campaign on the alleged violation of the human rights of the Sikhs in India and the indifferent attitude of the Government of India to the problems of the Sikhs living abroad. Chauhan visited New York and met the local media and others in order to brief them on the Khalistan movement. These meetings were discreetly arranged by some members of the staff of the US National Security Council Secretariat, then headed by Dr.Henry Kissinger. On October 13, 1971, he had an advertisement published in the “New York Times” proclaiming the beginning of a movement for an independent Sikh State. Enquiries made by the R&AW indicated that the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC had paid for this advertisement. This PSYWAR campaign against India and Indira Gandhi on the question of the alleged violation of the human rights of the Sikhs continued till 1977. When Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977 and was replaced by Morarji Desai, this campaign was abruptly discontinued by the CIA and the ISI. Dr. Chauhan returned to India and stopped campaigning for the creation of the so-called Khalistan.
When Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977 and was replaced by Morarji Desai, this campaign was abruptly discontinued by the CIA and the ISI. Dr. Chauhan returned to India and stopped campaigning for the creation of the so-called Khalistan.
In the meanwhile, a number of other Sikh organizations formed by sections of the Sikh youth in the UK, the US and Canada came into being with names such as the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), the Dal Khalsa, the Babbar Khalsa etc. These advocated a violent campaign for the creation of Khalistan and repudiated the leadership of Dr. Chauhan, who was against resort to violence. By the end of the 1970s, the ISI had lost interest in Chauhan and started encouraging the new organizations. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, Chauhan went back to London and re-started his Khalistan movement. As part of his propaganda campaign, he got postage stamps and alleged currency notes of the so-called independent State of Khalistan printed in Canada and started circulating them. He went to Ottawa, met a Chinese diplomat there and allegedly sought Chinese support for his movement. The Chinese declined. He reportedly went to Hong Kong and tried to go to Beijing in order to meet the Chinese leaders. The Chinese authorities refused him entry into China. After 1980, he was thus spurned by China and downgraded by Pakistan, but the US continued to maintain interest in him. He frequently visited Washington DC, met US officials and members of the Congress and testified before Congressional committees on matters such as India’s relations with the USSR, the alleged presence of Soviet military officers in India etc. The CIA maintained a distance from the new Sikh youth organizations because they advocated violence, but it kept itself briefed on their plans and activities through journalists and other intermediaries.
After Indira Gandhi came back to power, a new Sikh leader became active in the US. His name was Ganga Singh Dhillon, who was in the Punjab Police as a junior official before he migrated to the US and settled down in Washington DC. After migrating to the US, he married a Sikh woman of Kenyan origin, who was a close personal friend of the wife of Gen.Zia-ul-Haq, and also belonged to a Kenyan family. With the help of wives, Dhillon came to know Zia and became one of his trusted friends. He formed in Washington DC an organization called the Nankana Sahib Foundation and used to visit Pakistan often. The two families became so close to each other that when Zia visited Washington DC, his physically disadvantaged daughter used to stay with the Dhillons and not in the hotel in which Zia and his wife were put up by the local authorities. Dhillon also became a strong critic of Indira Gandhi and helped the US in the propaganda campaign against her.
As a result of these activities, Suntook decided towards the end of 1980 to create a separate Division to collect intelligence about the activities of the Sikh extremist elements abroad and monitor their links with the ISI. I was put in charge of the Division. After taking over, I collected all past reports bearing on this subject, collated them and prepared a detailed background note, which I could use as a database in the Division. One day, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) rang me up and asked me whether the R&AW had any background note on Sikh extremist activities abroad, particularly in the US. I sent him a few copies of the detailed note which I had prepared.
My view was not accepted because till then the Sikh extremists—-apart from carrying out a massacre of some members of a sect known as the Nirankaris— had not indulged in any act of terrorism.
Some days later, the office of Narasimha Rao, who had taken over as the Minister for External Affairs under Indira Gandhi, rang me up and said that Rao, who was going on a visit to the US, wanted me to meet him and brief him on Khalistani activities in the US and their links with Pakistan. I met him and briefed him. He showed me the background note, which I had prepared of which he had a copy, and asked: “This is a very good background note prepared by the MEA. Why can’t the R&AW prepare something like this?” I replied that I had, in fact, prepared it after going through the R&AW files on the subject and sent some copies to a Joint Secretary in the MEA. Rao remarked in surprise: “But the Joint Secretary said he had prepared it!”
On September 29, 1981, the then Cabinet Secretary (CS) received a flash from the New Delhi airport control tower that an aircraft of the Indian Airlines had been hijacked by some unidentified terrorists and forced to fly to Lahore. The Crisis Management Committee of the Government of India immediately met in the office of the Cabinet Secretary. The initial assessment was that the hijacking must have been carried out by the members of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which had earlier carried out a hijacking in 1971. I was called by the Cabinet Secretary. At that time, the terrorists had not identified themselves. The CS asked me for my assessment. I disagreed with the view that the JKLF must be responsible for it and added that it was most probably carried out by a Sikh extremist organization called the Dal Khalsa headed by one Gajendra Singh. My view was not accepted because till then the Sikh extremists—-apart from carrying out a massacre of some members of a sect known as the Nirankaris— had not indulged in any act of terrorism.
As I reached back my office, my Personal Assistant told me that the office of the CS was frantically trying to contact me and that they wanted me to come back to his office. When I reached there, an official in the CS’ office told me that the terrorists had identified themselves. It was some members of the Dal Khalsa led by Gajendra Singh, who had carried out the hijacking. He asked me how I was able to identify them before they had identified themselves. I replied that a few days earlier the then “New York Times” correspondent in New Delhi had visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar and met some members of the Dal Khalsa. He had also interviewed Gajendra Singh on the objectives of the Dal Khalsa and the problems of the Sikhs. In that interview, Gajendra Singh had said: “The time has come for the Dal Khalsa to emulate the Palestine Liberation Organisation.” The official asked me whether the “New York Times” published the interview. I said I did not know since I did not get the paper.
The hijackers wanted that they should be allowed to go to the US. They seemed confident that the US would not act against them.
He asked: “How then do you know he was interviewed by its New Delhi correspondent?” I replied that the IB used to intercept for the Press Information Bureau all telex despatches sent by the foreign correspondents based in New Delhi to their headquarters. They used to circulate to all senior officers dealing with national security intercepts of relevant despatches. They had intercepted the telex message sent by the “New York Times” correspondent to his headquarters about his meeting with Gajendra Singh and other members of the Dal Khalsa. I also received a copy of that intercept.
The Pakistani authorities persuaded the hijackers to release the passengers and the plane and to surrender themselves. The plane with the passengers returned to India. The surrendered hijackers, including Gajendra Singh, were allowed to live in the Nankana Sahib gurudwara. The Zil-ul-Haq Government refused to hand them over to the Government of India for investigation and trial. They promised that they would try them in their court after proper investigation. They made a sham of an investigation and trial. They were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, but instead of sending them to jail, they were allowed to continue living in Nankana Sahib. Gajendra Singh used to meet Sikh pilgrims visiting Nankana Sahib from India and abroad and carry on propaganda against the Government of India. New Delhi’s protests against this used to be rejected by the Pakistani authorities.
Three more hijackings followed, with a similar course of events. The Pakistani authorities would allow the plane to land, facilitate interactions between the hijackers and the media to enable the hijackers indulge in anti-India and anti-Indira propaganda, persuade them to release the passengers and the aircraft so that they could return to India, make a pretense of arresting the hijackers and allow them to stay in a gurudwara instead of in a prison.
However, in the case of the fifth and last hijacking on August 24, 1984, they did not follow this drill since their earlier fraternization with the hijackers of the previous flights had come in for criticism from some sections of the international community. When this aircraft landed in Lahore, the ISI officials found that the terrorists had hijacked it with a toy and not a real weapon. They, therefore, gave the terrorists a revolver and persuaded them to go to Dubai. When the plane landed at Dubai, the authorities of the United Arab Emirates persuaded them to terminate the hijacking, by promising that they would not be handed over to the Indian authorities. The hijackers released the plane and passengers so that they could go back to India and handed over the revolver to the security authorities of Dubai. They wanted that they should be allowed to go to the US. They seemed confident that the US would not act against them.