By Nijeesh N.*
Ongoing investigations by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in seven separate cases of ‘targeted attacks’, five of which resulted in six killings, reported from across Punjab, through 2016 and 2017, have uncovered a transnational network of conspirators affiliated to Khalistani terrorist groups backed by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), working relentlessly to revive the ‘Khalistani terror threat’ in Punjab. In November 2017, the Punjab Police had cracked the conspiracy and arrested the ‘hit man’, Hardeep Singh aka Shera, as well as key conspirators, including Jagtar Singh aka Jaggi and Taljit Singh aka Jimmy, both from the UK. In view of its “national and international ramifications”, and the fact that “the handlers, conspirators and financers in the targeted killing cases operated from countries such as the UK, Canada and Italy”, the Punjab Government decided to hand over these seven cases to the NIA in December 2017, for further investigation and prosecution. The cases include:
October 17, 2017: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader Ravinder Gosain was shot dead by two unidentified assailants near his house in Mohalla Gagandeep Colony in Ludhiana District.
July 15, 2017: The pastor of a local church, Sultan Masih, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants outside the church in Peerubanda Mohalla in Ludhiana District.
February 25, 2017: Two Dera Sacha Sauda followers, Satpal Sharma and his son Ramesh Kumar, were shot dead by two unidentified assailants at their canteen at Naam Charcha Ghar, a meeting centre for the Dera followers, in Jagera village in Khanna District.
January 15, 2017: Amit Sharma, the ‘Zila Pracharak (District President)’ of the Hindu religious organization, Sri Hindu Takht, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants near Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana District.
April 23, 2016: Shiv Sena’s labour wing chief in Punjab, Durga Prasad Gupta, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants near Lalheri Chowk in Khanna District.
February 3, 2016: Former Shiv Sena youth wing leader, Amit Arora was injured as two unidentified assailants shot at him near Jyoti Motor Basti Jodhewal in Ludhiana District.
January 18, 2016: RSS leader Naresh Kumar was injured when two unidentified assailants fired upon him in the wee hours at Shaheedi Park in Kidwai Nagar in Ludhiana District.
There were another three such ‘targeted attacks’, all of which resulted in killings, according to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM). These include:
October 30, 2017: The Hindu Sangarsh Sena ‘district chief’, Vipan Sharma, was shot dead by four unidentified assailants in the Bharat Nagar locality along the Amritsar-Batala road in Amritsar.
August 6, 2016: Senior RSS leader, Brigadier (Retired) Jagdish Gagneja, was shot at by two unidentified assailants when he was shopping with his wife at a market in Jalandhar. He succumbed to injuries on September 21, 2016.
April 4, 2016: Chand Kaur, wife of the late Satguru Jagjit Singh, the former head of the Namdhari sect, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants at the Bhaini Sahib Gurdwara complex in Ludhiana District.
In all these incidents masked unidentified assailants came on motorcycles and pumped bullets into their victims from a close range.
A total of 11 persons have been arrested thus far, in connection with the 11 cases that have been handed over to NIA. On February 13, 2018, the NIA arrested arms’ supplier Parvez aka Farru, for providing weapons used in the targeted killings. Parvez was wanted in connection with supplying arms to one of the main accused, shooter Hardeep Singh aka Shera, who had been arrested from Fatehgarh Sahib by the Punjab Police on November 10, 2017. During investigations, NIA has so far found that the ‘targeted attacks’ “were executed as part of an international conspiracy whose objective was to destabilize the law and order situation in Punjab and to revive militancy in the State”.
Significantly, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) in its 28th report of Committee on Estimates titled ‘Central Armed Police Forces and Internal Security Challenges-Evaluation and Response Mechanism’ which was tabled in Parliament on March 21, 2018, observed,
Sikh youth are being trained in ISI facilities in Pakistan. Interdiction and interrogations have revealed use of jailed cadres, unemployed youth, criminals and smugglers by Pakistan based Sikh terror groups for facilitating terror attacks.
Similar concerns were raised by the Director General of Police (DGP), Punjab, Suresh Arora on January 4, 2018, when he said,
Nearly 21 foreign handlers involved in providing logistical and financial support to these terrorist modules have been identified. These modules were mainly being operationalised, networked and financed by operatives based in Europe, North America and West Asia, and were aimed at targeted killings of members of organisations associated with the minority community, in order to spread communal disharmony and revive terrorism in Punjab…
On February 21, 2018, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh during his meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was on an eight day official tour of India beginning February 17, 2018, reportedly “raised the issue of Indo-Canadians believed to be involved in targeted killings in Punjab” and “sought the Canadian Prime Minister’s cooperation in cracking down on separatism and hate crime by a fringe element, constituting a miniscule percentage of Canada’s population.” He also handed over to Trudeau “a list of nine Category ‘A’ Canada-based operatives alleged to be involved in hate crimes in Punjab by financing and supplying weapons for terrorist activities, and also engaged in trying to radicalize youth and children here [Punjab].” The names include six alleged members of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and three belonging to the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) or the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI). Police have shared only five names with the media: Gurjeet Singh Cheema, Gurpreet Singh Peet, Gurjinder Singh Pannu, Hardeep Singh Nijjar and Malkit Singh. Other names were withheld as disclosure could compromise ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, Border Security Force (BSF) personnel killed two Pakistani infiltrators (suspected militants) along the Indo-Pakistan border in Ajnala sector of Amritsar District in the intervening night of September 19-20, 2017. “When challenged by BSF troops, infiltrators fired on ambush line with automatic weapons. Taking cover, the fire was appropriately retaliated and infiltrators were neutralised near the border fence,” the BSF spokesperson stated. An AK-47 assault rifle, a pistol, over two dozen rounds, a Pakistani SIM card, four kilograms of heroin and PKR 20,000 were recovered from the slain infiltrators.
During 2016, Punjab had recorded 14 terrorism-related fatalities [one civilian, seven Security Force (SF) troopers and six terrorists), all in one attack: the Pathankot Indian Air Force (IAF) Base incident on January 2 – 3, 2016. Eight infiltrators were also killed along the border. In addition, as discussed above, three incidents of ‘targeted attacks’ were also reported. Similarly, in 2015, there was only one attack, when, after firing at a bus, terrorists attacked and holed up in the Dinanagar Police Station campus in the Gurdaspur District of Punjab in the early hours of July 27, 2015. 10 persons were eventually killed – three civilians, four SF personnel and three terrorists – before Police ended the standoff. Significantly, both these attacks were carried out by Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist formations.
Despite relentless efforts, Khalistani terror formations have failed to inflict major damage within the State over the past over 10 years. On October 14, 2007, seven persons were killed and another 40 were injured in a bomb blast inside a cinema hall in Ludhiana. While there has been no definitive identification of the group responsible, Police sources and contextual information suggest that this was the handiwork of a Sikh terrorist formation based in Pakistan.
Much of the credit goes to the Punjab Police, which continued to register counter-terrorism successes through 2017. On January 4, 2018, Suresh Arora, Director General of Police, Punjab, disclosed that during 2017, Punjab Police launched a sustained drive against terrorist elements and identified and neutralized eight terrorist modules with the arrest of 47 persons and seizure of 43 weapons. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, at least 44 Khalistani terrorists were arrested during 2017 in addition nine arrests in 2016. At least another three persons have already been arrested in the current year (data till March 31, 2018). According to reports, a total of 158 Khalistani terrorists, principally associated with the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), Bhindranwale Tigers Force of Khalistan (BTFK), Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), ISYF and some minor factions, were arrested between 2010 and 2015.
Back in 2015, KPS Gill had noted:
…There have been continuous intelligence flows indicating that the ISI has been pressuring the many ‘rump elements’ of the defeated Khalistani movement – who Pakistan continues to host and fund in the hope of a possible revival – demanding that they ‘do something’ in Punjab to earn their keep. That they have failed is proof of the degree to which their ideology and networks were completely defeated in Punjab, the complete absence of traction that their occasional efforts have met, and the capacities and penetration that the Punjab Police and intelligence continue to retain. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s intentions and objectives in Punjab have never been in doubt, and the prospect that they could employ different instrumentalities – including the Islamist terrorists in their stables – is something we should have been completely prepared for, and utterly unsurprised by…
The ‘ongoing effort of revival’, therefore, is bound to fail unless and until there is complete negligence on the part of the Governments – both at the Central and State Level – in addressing the limited challenges that emerge from time to time.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management