India: Challenges To Peace In Punjab – Analysis
By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On April 15, 2022, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), issued a letter – ‘Haryana Banega Khalistan’ (Haryana will become Khalistan) – and threatened to raise ‘Khalistani’ flags at the office of the District Collector in the Ambala District of Haryana on April 29, 2022. SFJ posters on roads near Ambala urged the people to join the group on April 29. SFJ also released a ‘map of Khalistan,’ which included Haryana.
On March 12, SFJ offered USD 100,000 to any person who “shows the shoe” and disrupts the oath taking ceremony of the then Punjab Chief Minister designate, Bhagwant Mann, who was take his oath of office on March 16. SFJ alleged that Mann has disrespected Sikh tenets by bowing down with his turban and touching the feet of Aam Aadmi Party National President and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The outfit has been trying constantly to discredit the newly formed State Government.
On March 8, the SFJ asked ‘Sikh Soldiers in the Indian Army’ to desert and join the ‘Sikh Regiment for Khalistan’ to “Defend Ukraine and Liberate Punjab.”
It is useful to recall here that SFJ, which was formed in 2007, has been trying to make inroads into Punjab in particular, and India at large, since August 2018, when the group came into prominence after its August 12 ‘London Declaration,’ where it called for a ‘Referendum 2020’ for Khalistan. Despite an incessant campaign on social media and announcements of increasing monetary incentives, the group has failed to secure a visible presence in Punjab, as necessary action has been taken by enforcement authorities from time to time.
Most recently, on February 22, 2022, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting took down several mobile applications, social media accounts and websites of the UK-based news outlet Punjab Politics TV, for its links with SFJ, after reviewing “intelligence inputs that the channel was attempting to use online media to disturb public order during the ongoing State Assembly elections”. The Ministry’s statement read,
The ministry of information and broadcasting has ordered blocking of apps, website, and social media accounts of the foreign-based Punjab Politics TV for having close links with Sikhs for Justice, an organisation that has been declared unlawful under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).
The statement added that the contents of the blocked apps, website, and social media accounts had the “potential to incite communal disharmony and separatism”, and that
[They] were found to be detrimental to the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, and public order. It was also observed that the launch of new apps and social media accounts was timed to gain traction during the ongoing elections.
On the other hand, prominent Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed Khalistani terrorist groups, with their leaders operating out of Pakistan and abroad, persist in their efforts to revive the ‘movement’. Several terrorist modules have been detected and neutralized by the Security Forces (SFs) in the recent past. According to available data, at least 50 terrorist modules have been exposed and deactivated inside Punjab since 2019, including three in 2022 (data till April 17).
Most recently, on February 19, 2022, four pro-Khalistan terrorists Sagar alias Binny, Sunil alias Pehlwan, Jatin and Surendra alias Sonu, were arrested from Sonepat, Haryana. Police recovered one AK-47, five foreign pistols, 56 live cartridges, and some forged documents from their possession. The probe has so far revealed that they were connected with the main leaders of the Khalistan Tiger Force, the International Sikh Youth Federation – Gurjant Singh alias Janta in Australia and Arshdeep Singh Dala and Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada, and Lakhbeer Singh Rode in Pakistan – through social media. It is believed that the arrestees were provided illegal weapons and money by these terrorists.
Moreover, at least 92 Khalistani terrorists have been arrested in Punjab since 2019, including 13 in 2022. SFs continued to recover arms and ammunition from terrorists and to uncover weapons’ caches. Since 2019, at least 38 incidents of arms recoveries, including eight in the current year, have been reported.
Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been assigned 16 cases related to Khalistani terrorism since 2019, including one in 2022. The NIA has so far charge-sheeted 48 persons in these cases, including 11 in 2022. On March 15, 2022, NIA filed chargesheets against six accused – Sukhwinder Singh, Parveen Singh, Gurpreet Singh aka Gora, Ranjit Singh aka Gora, all from Punjab, India; as well as Habib Khan, a Pakistani National and Lakhbir Singh Rode, based in Pakistan – in a case that pertains to a bomb explosion in the Jalalabad town of Fazilka District, Punjab, on September 15, 2021. One person was killed in the blast.
Indeed, the actions taken by the SFs on the ground and the vigilance of the security entablement in monitoring cyberspace have prevented the ISI-backed Khalistani elements from making any significant gains.
Since 2017, the state has recorded 18 fatalities (11 civilians and seven terrorists). There were two fatalities (one civilian and a militant) in 2021, three fatalities (one civilian and two militants) in 2020, two fatalities (both militants) in 2019, three fatalities (all civilians) in 2018 and eight fatalities (six civilians and two terrorists) in 2017. Remarkably, 2016 alone recorded 25 fatalities (four civilians, seven SF personals and 14 terrorists). There had been no Khalistani terrorism-linked fatalities in the preceding eight years (2008-2015).
Sources indicate that at least 72 incidents of seizures of ‘composite consignments’ [weapons/drugs/Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN)] were reported from the border districts of Amritsar, Ferozepur and Gurdaspur between 2009 and 2019. The recoveries included drugs such as of heroin, opium, etc.; and weapons and ammunition including AK-47/56 rifles, pistols, and RDX. The ISI uses the services of a common network of ‘drug smugglers/couriers’ to push in composite consignments into Indian Punjab from Pakistan, exploiting gaps along the land and riverine border. The ‘drug smugglers/couriers’ working under the ISI’s aegis also throw the consignment over the border fence in areas where infiltration is not suspected. Their Indian partners later collect the goods. Khalistani groups in Pakistan and their sympathisers on the Indian side are intimately connected with the drug/weapons smuggling activity.
With increasing vigilance along the International Border, Pakistan has, since August 2019, started using drones to send transport such consignments. Indeed, the Punjab Government informed a Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs that drones had been sighted near the Pakistan border over 133 times in the last two years. The total length of Punjab’s border with Pakistan is 553 kilometers. The report, Police Training, Modernisation and Police Reforms, by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, tabled in the Rajya Sabha on February 10, 2022, observed,
The State Government of Punjab further informed the Committee that in the recent past, the movement of drones from across the international border has increased significantly… The first recorded delivery of arms/ammunition by drone was in August, 2019.
According to reports, of the 100-odd drone sightings reported by the Border Security Force (BSF) in 2021, as many as 67 have been on the Punjab Frontier. In 62 incidents where enemy drones operating in the vicinity of the border were fired upon by BSF personnel, 43 were along the Punjab Frontier. BSF data also showed there were 58 detected incidents of drones crossing over into Indian territory, out of which 45 were in Punjab alone.
Indeed, on April 9, 2022, during a meeting in Fazilka regarding security issues in the border district, Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit called upon the people to be the eyes and ears of the BSF. Stating that the SFs are doing their part, but that local inputs and support could go a long way in checking the influx of contraband weapons and drugs into the State, Governor Purohit, noted,
Border districts are vulnerable to the menace of contraband arms smuggling. Therefore, it is mandatory that in the interest of the safety and security of the state and the country, people should extend wholehearted support to the Border Security Forces and the state police and report any suspicious activity or person. People should also cooperate with local authorities to stop drug trafficking in the area.
Governor Purohit, further said that the drugs crossing over from the borders percolate into the cities, towns, schools and colleges, and thus,
Supply of drugs to youth is a direct assault on our posterity, our future. We cannot let this menace hurt our State’s present or mar its future. We need to join hands and seal our border against all sorts of infiltration.
Despite fitful successes, little of the ‘support’ the Khalistanis secure on Indian soil is ideologically motivated. Indeed, the February 19 arrests in Haryana of non-Sikh mercenaries who had been tasked by their foreign-based Khalistani associates to execute targeted killings, underscore the failure to mobilize support for the movement beyond the criminal fraternity.
Nevertheless, the political instability and communal volatility of the present situation in India demand extreme vigilance, particularly in view of the relentless efforts by Pakistan and by radicalized elements in the Sikh Diaspora to fund and incite violence, as well as to exploit any emerging disorders. Every possible effort by the intelligence and enforcement apparatus in Punjab must, consequently, continue to be made to counter even the most incipient challenges to peace.
*Ajit Kumar Singh, Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management