Homeland Security

"Behind Closed Doors: Covert Machinations in the Khalistan Separatist Movement"
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 24 Nov , 2023

….This plan envisaged the encouragement of a separatist movement among the Sikhs for an independent state to be called Khalistan. …In 1971, one saw the beginning of a joint covert operation by the US intelligence community and Pakistan’s ISI to create difficulties for India in Punjab,” – B. Raman, Additional Secretary; Cabinet Secretariat (Rtd), “The Kaoboys of R&AW – Down the Memory Lane”

In the annals of modern history, the shadowy world of intelligence agencies has often been the backdrop for covert operations and clandestine agendas. In the extensive catalog of geopolitical intrigues, the Khalistan movement stands out as one of the most intricate- a separatist movement that sought to establish an independent, sovereign Sikh state carved out of the Indian state of Punjab and also parts of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. It’s imperative to acknowledge that the Khalistan movement had deeply rooted socio-political origins within the local complex dynamics, however, the role played by external intelligence agencies, notably the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, in fanning the flames of this movement cannot be underestimated.

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency, has a well-documented history of using proxy groups to destabilize its regional rival, India. This strategy has included supporting Sikh militant groups in their pursuit of an independent Khalistan. The ISI’s involvement in the Khalistan movement can be seen as part of Pakistan’s broader strategy of asymmetric warfare against India, aimed at keeping its adversary embroiled in internal conflicts. Research by various experts has highlighted Pakistan’s longstanding policy of employing militant proxies to further its interests, with the Khalistan movement serving as a prime example of this strategy.

Under the patronage of the ISI, Sikh militant groups were not only provided with training and weapons but also offered safe havens within Pakistan’s borders. This covert support significantly escalated the conflict in Punjab, leading to widespread violence and terrorism.

The ISI’s involvement underscored its willingness to exploit regional tensions and foment instability in pursuit of its strategic goals, ultimately contributing to the protracted nature of the Khalistan insurgency.

On the other side of the globe, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was also intricately monitoring the Khalistan movement with a keen interest. During the Cold War era, the United States was navigating its complex web of geopolitical objectives, and the notion of a potentially destabilized India, a nation that held friendly relations with the Soviet Union, could have been viewed as strategically advantageous.

While concrete evidence of ‘direct’ CIA support for Sikh separatists remains elusive, historical records, claims and secondary evidence have surfaced suggesting that the Agency may have turned a blind eye to the activities of Sikh militant leaders residing in the United States. This purportedly lenient approach allowed these leaders to potentially raise funds and disseminate propaganda, indirectly contributing to the Khalistan movement’s activities and objectives.

Moreover, in the book “The Kaoboys of R&AW – Down the Memory Lane” by B. Raman, who retired as Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, said the US interest in Punjab militancy “continued for a little more than a decade and tapered off after the assassination of Indira Gandhi” on October 31, 1984. Elaborating, Raman said Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a Sikh leader from Punjab, went to the UK and took over the leadership of the defunct Sikh Home Rule movement and renamed it after Khalistan. The then Pakistani military ruler Yahya Khan invited Chauhan to Pakistan, “lionised” him as a leader of Sikhs and handed over some Sikh holy relics kept in Pakistan, which Chauhan took to the UK to win a following in the Sikh diaspora. Chauhan also went to New York, met officials of the United Nations and some American journalists and alleged human rights violations of Sikhs in India. “These meetings were discreetly organised by officials of the US National Security Council Secretariat then headed by (Henry) Kissinger,” the former R&AW officer says.

While examining the historical accounts swivelling between the twilight zones, the extent of CIA involvement remains a subject of speculation and debate, it underscores the intricate geopolitical dynamics of the time and the various interests that intersected in the backdrop of the Khalistan movement.

The Cold War era was marked by a multitude of covert operations and intelligence manoeuvring, and the Khalistan movement was not immune to the geopolitical considerations of major powers like the United States. In the pursuit of its strategic interests, the CIA’s awareness of the Khalistan movement may have played a role in shaping its approach toward Sikh separatist leaders operating within its borders. While any direct support remains unconfirmed, the indirect consequences of this approach cannot be overlooked. This historical context sheds light on the multifaceted nature of intelligence agencies’ involvement in global affairs and serves as a reminder of how complex geopolitical interests can influence their actions and decisions, often leaving a trail of speculation and debate in their wake.

The involvement of external intelligence agencies in the Khalistan movement left an indelible and tumultuous mark on its course of development. Throughout the 1980s, Punjab bore witness to a relentless wave of violence and terrorism that exacted a devastating toll in terms of lives lost and instilled a pervasive atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and instability. It resulted in the state’s economybeing devasted from which it has still not recovered. As external actors, notably Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), began to exert greater influence over the movement, it became progressively entangled with extremism, militancy, and foreign agendas, effectively sidelining the more moderate, inclusive, and rational voices within the Sikh community. The magnitude of the conflict’s brutality, coupled with the tragic loss of countless innocent lives and the erosion of societal cohesion, serves as a sombre and poignant reminder of the far-reaching consequences of external interference in such movements. It underscores the complex dynamics at play during that tumultuous period, where geopolitical interests intersected with the aspirations and grievances of a community, resulting in a tragic chapter in India’s history that continues to shape perceptions and narratives to this day.

Moreover, the Khalistan movement served as yet another flashpoint in the already complex and volatile relationship between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbours with a long history of territorial disputes and geopolitical tensions. The movement exacerbated existing animosities and added a layer of religious and ethnic complexities to an already intricate web of geopolitical rivalries. Pakistan’s support for Khalistani militants and the Indian government’s accusations of cross-border interference deepened mistrust between the nations. The conflict not only had significant domestic implications for India but also strained regional stability and international relations, underscoring the intricate and multifaceted nature of conflicts in South Asia.

In hindsight, through historical analysis it may become clearer as to how the Khalistan movement serves as a poignant illustration of the way external intelligence agencies can opportunistically exploit internal grievances and conflicts to serve their strategic agendas by eliminating potential competitors. Swept away by the winds emanating from “Islamabad” and “Langley” the Khalistan movement underwent a tragic transformation under the sway of external forces who, driven by their self-interests, orchestrated an extended period of unrest and instability. This transformation, instigated by covert external interventions, catalysed a prolonged period of violence and instability that reverberated across the region, leaving a lasting mark on the course of history.

FLASHFORWARD– In recent times, the Government of India has persistently raised concerns about the Khalistan movement, alleging continued support for militants within Canada. New Delhi has repeatedly accused Ottawa of providing a safe haven for what it terms as “Khalistani terrorists and extremists.” This strain in bilateral relations was further exacerbated in 2019 when the Trudeau administration removed references to Khalistan and “Sikh extremism” from an annual public report addressing terrorism threats in Canada. Additionally, New Delhi has expressed deep concern regarding public referendums held in several countries, including Canada, the UK, and Australia that advocate for the establishment of an independent Khalistan state. These biased and fraudulent referendums have added complexity to the situation, and New Delhi views them with unease.

The concept of Khalistan, or an independent Sikh state, garnered support from Pakistan, ‘interested elements’ in the USA, and select groups of affluent Sikhs residing in various countries, Canada being one of them. Historically, these nations, including Canada, had adopted a non-interference policy toward religious groups operating within their borders, as long as these groups did not disrupt local law and order.

Moreover, A “Hudson Institute” report says that such diaspora-based efforts are worrisome because Pakistan’s intelligence agency may be assisting pro-Khalistan groups financially and organizationally. “Cooperation between Khalistani and Kashmiri groups has become increasingly apparent in North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe,” it says. For example, in August 2020, Khalistani and Kashmiri activists staged a demonstration in New York against India, and, in September 2019, activists appropriated imagery and slogans from the Black Lives Matter movement that sought systemic reform in the United States. Joint protests of Khalistani and Kashmiri separatists have occurred in Washington DC, Houston, Ottawa, London and other European capitals. There have been Khalistan referendums and calls to attack Indian diplomats and officials that have been stoutly condemned by India.

Going forward, understanding the United States’ stand within the context of the Khalistan issue is of paramount importance. On July 2, 2023, the Indian Consulate in San Francisco fell victim to a second attack by Khalistani radicals in just five months. In response, Matthew Miller, the spokesperson for the United States State Department, swiftly condemned this act of extremist vandalism and arson, categorising it as a “criminal offence.” While this may seem like the end of the story, it raises questions about whether the CIA had any prior knowledge of this incident. Was Director William J. Burns preoccupied with other ‘more important’ matters, such as providing guidance to “Volodymyr Zelensky” on strategies involving the “Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power plant” before the 2023 NATO Summit in Lithuania, ultimately aimed at implicating Russia? Question needs to be raised.

India took an unprecedented and bold decision by suspending visa services for Canadian nationals. This drastic action came amidst a rapidly escalating dispute surrounding the killing of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil. The tensions reached a boiling point when Canada publicly linked India to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who the Canadian PM called, ‘a Canadian citizen’ and prominent separatist leader. Nijjar was shot dead by two masked gunmen, who have not been identified till now, outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, sparking outrage and controversy.

India’s steadfast and unyielding response to Canada’s groundless accusations will unquestionably find a lasting place in the chronicles of history, serving as a momentous chapter in the nation’s diplomatic narrative. This episode stands as a watershed moment, a historical juncture where India has boldly and unequivocally articulated its stance in the face of a Western nation, sending a resounding message about its unwavering commitment to safeguarding its reputation and protecting its interests on the international platform.

This significant milestone is emblematic of India’s maturing role on the global stage, where it asserts itself as a formidable and principled player in the complex realm of international relations. It reflects India’s resolve to address issues with a steadfast dedication to facts, diplomacy, and fairness, irrespective of the nation involved. By firmly pushing back against baseless allegations, India reaffirms its commitment to upholding the principles of justice, fairness, and sovereignty in the international arena.

Moreover, this historic moment underscores India’s recognition of its own worth and the respect it commands on the global stage. It signifies that India is no longer willing to tolerate unsubstantiated accusations that could tarnish its reputation or undermine its standing in the world. Instead, it demonstrates India’s proactive approach in preserving its image as a responsible and just actor on the international platform.

In essence, India’s resolute response to Canada’s allegations serves as a testament to the nation’s evolving role in international diplomacy, exemplifying its determination to protect its interests, integrity, and reputation in an increasingly interconnected and complex world.

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In the assessment of international dynamics surrounding Khalistani terrorism, it is crucial to note that the Khalistan movement lacks support among the Indian Sikh population as also majority of the Sikh diaspora in these countries. Those Sikhs expressing interest in Khalistan predominantly reside in affluent Western nations such as Canada, the USA, Australia, the UK, and Germany—geographically distant from India. Indian Sikhs remain dedicated to the concept of a unified India and hold no affiliation with or sympathy for separatist movements like Khalistan. Sikhism, as a religion, places significant emphasis on principles of peace, unity, and social harmony, values that stand in stark contrast to the divisive objectives of separatist movements driven by external influences.

Foreign intelligence agencies, driven by their covert agendas, have encountered formidable obstacles when attempting to manipulate the course of the Khalistan movement within India. Their endeavours have proven to be largely ineffectual, primarily due to the resolute resistance displayed by the local Sikh community in India. Despite their relentless and determined efforts, which emanate from organisations like the ISI and other intelligence entities with assertive objectives, these external actors have struggled to exert significant influence over India’s social and security dynamics. The sentiments and attitudes of the Indian Sikh population have remained largely impervious to their overtures regarding the Khalistan movement. It is worth noting that our own intelligence agencies are meticulously monitoring their activities, ensuring that any nefarious designs of belligerent spy networks shall continue to face repeated failures.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr. Aniruddha Babar

is a Senior Faculty, Researcher & National Security Analyst, Dept. of Political Science, Tetso College, Nagaland and The Director of "Project Constitutional Justice," is a well- known figure whose influence spans across various domains, including public service, social advocacy, law, politics, research and academia. Dr. Aniruddha's expertise in Geopolitics, National Security, Civil-Military Relationship, Public Policy, Constitutional & Procedural Law and Governance has earned him significant respect and recognition within his field.

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