By Ajai Sahni*
On June 18, 2023, (8.27pm local time), the Canada-based Khalistani leader and ‘chief’ of the banned Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was shot dead by two unidentified youth outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, in the British Columbia Province of Canada.
On June 15, 2023, (12.45am IST), Avtar Singh Khanda, ‘chief’ of the banned Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) and a radical mobilizer and activist, died in a hospital in Birmingham in the United Kingdom (UK), initial reports suggested, of cancer.
On May 6, 2023, wanted Khalistani terrorist and ‘chief’ of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), Paramjit Singh Panjwar aka Malik Sardar Singh, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen at Lahore in the Punjab Province of Pakistan. Panjwar, along with his guard, was in a park at Sun Flower Housing Society in the Jauhar Town of Lahore, when assailants opened fire on them and escaped on a motorcycle. His guard was also hurt and died later that day.
Three deaths of Khalistani leaders in rapid succession in countries other than India – two manifest killings, and a third that has been brought into dispute – have created a storm of speculation regarding the possibilities of covert operations by India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, as well as a wave of abusive triumphalism by Hindutva nationalist on social media. Most of the commentary is devoid of context, and its tone and content is based entirely on the sentiments and affiliations of the ‘analysts’.
While the death of three Khalistani extremists in widely dispersed locations abroad over a relatively brief period of 45 days is certainly surprising and may call for close scrutiny, it does fit into a broader context of criminal alliances and activities that have seen numerous incidents of violence – including fatal violence – in the past. While the possibility of covert operations by state agencies cannot automatically be ruled out, the sudden acquisition of capability and intent, and its abrupt operationalisation in multiple cases, would fit poorly into the profile of any intelligence agency of long-standing.
It is useful, at the outset, to separate the death of Avtar Singh Khanda from the two obvious killings. While several fanciful theories, including some recalling the poisoning of Russian dissidents abroad by radioactive or nerve agents, have been put forward to support imagined conspiracies of Khanda’s ‘poisoning’ by R&AW, the claims have little credibility outside a Khalistani sub-culture desperate to find new ‘martyrs’ to the cause. Moreover, while Khanda’s terrorist lineage is impeccable – his father, Kulwant Singh Kukhrana, was a KLF terrorist who was gunned down by Security Forces in 1991, and his mother was related to Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala, the KLF ‘chief’ killed in 1992 – his own involvement in what could strictly be defined as terrorism is, at worst, dubious. While Indian state agencies have tended to bandy the term ‘terrorist’ somewhat loosely in the recent past, the hard allegations against Khanda relate to a ‘violent’ demonstration orchestrated at the Indian High Commission in London on March 19, 2023 (the Indian flag was torn down, but there were no casualties), as well as support to Amritpal Singh, another dubious ‘terrorist’ in the new Indian lexicon.
Amritpal Singh involved in widespread and often disruptive Khalistani mobilization in Punjab between August 2022 and March 2023, was eventually arrested on April 23, and is presently incarcerated at Dibrugarh in Assam in India’s northeast. Crucially, reports indicate that Khanda had been hospitalized for two weeks for treatment of a (as yet publicly unidentified) ‘blood cancer’. Significantly, an early Sikh Federation UK (a Khalistani advocacy group) Tweet confirmed that he died after being diagnosed with ‘blood cancer’; however, the Khalistani Diaspora quickly seized upon the propaganda potential of the death – particularly after the Nijjar killing in Canada barely three days later, to whip up a storm of allegations of Indian state mischief. The present investigation into the death will now allow such inflammatory speculation to flourish for weeks, and up to six months, till the issue is finally settled by the Coroner’s Inquest report.
This leaves the remaining two fatalities. These are far from the first high-profile deaths/killings of Khalistani activists or terrorists abroad. Recently, for instance, on November 19, 2022, a prominent Pakistan-based operational commander of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Harvinder Singh aka Rinda, died at a military hospital in Lahore, allegedly due to a drug overdose. Rinda was among the foreign based ‘masterminds’ of the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attack on the Punjab Police Intelligence Headquarters at Mohali in Punjab, on May 9, 2022. The incident has also been linked to several gangsters abroad, crucially including Lakhbir Singh aka Landa in Canada, Satbir Singh akaSatnam Singh in Greece, and Yadwinder Singh in the Philippines.
The Mohali RPG attack illustrated the increasing incidence of the Khalistani-gangster networks operating across multiple borders, as well as the deep involvement of Khalistani terrorists and activists in a range of other criminal activities. Rinda was a key figure in the drugs and weapons supply chain from Pakistan into India.
On January 27, 2020, another arms and drug dealer, as well as the then ‘chief’ of the KLF, Harmeet Singh alias ‘Happy PhD’, was killed at the Dera Chahal Gurdwara near Lahore, apparently because of a financial dispute over drug deals with another local gang. Indian Police sources indicated that Harmeet Singh was involved in a chain of killings in Indian Punjab between 2016 and 2017, which also had a prominent footprint in the Khalistan-gangster networks abroad.
It is within the murky milieu of the Khalistani-narcotics-gangs network, patronized and substantially controlled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that the killing of Paramjit Singh Panjwar needs to be assessed. Panjwar was deeply involved in the smuggling of heroin, weapons and Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) from Pakistan, even as he sought to keep the KCF alive with the revenues generated from these activities. However, his significance as a terrorist and trafficking facilitator had been progressively diminished, as younger and more aggressive players arrived on the scene. There is, yet, no clarity on who killed Panjwar, and the case is unlikely to be ‘solved’ in Pakistan, where Panjwar’s existence is not even acknowledged, and where his death was reported as the killing of ‘Malik Sardar Singh’, the identity he had been given by the ISI. However, Panjwar, with several far more active Islamist and Khalistani terrorists operating from Pakistan, Panjwar would not be a very high priority target for Indian agencies, were they to begin to draw up any ‘hit lists’ in that country.
Nijjar, however, has certainly been high among India’s concerns about Khalistani elements in the Western Diaspora. He is accused of the killing of a self-styled godman, Baba Bhaniara, in 2014; of the murder of Manohar Lal, a Dera Sacha Sauda follower in 2021; of attempts to kill a Hindu priest, Pragya Gyan Muni, also in 2021, as well as several other conspiracies to target Hindu elements as well as other followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda. Indian intelligence also claims Nijjar organised a terrorists training camp in Canada in 2015 (a trainee, Mandeep Singh Dhaliwal, was subsequently sent to Punjab to target Shiv Sena leaders there; Dhaliwal was arrested in June 2016).
With little traction on the ground in Punjab, Nijjar linked up with gangster Arshdeep Singh aka Arsh Dalla, to provide the logistics and manpower for several of these operations in Indian Punjab. Dalla has now been placed on a list of Khalistani terrorists abroad, who are sought by India’s National Investigation Agency.
Nijjar was also prominent in the Sikhs for Justice ‘Khalistan Referendum’ campaign, and organised its most successful event at Brampton on September 19, 2022.
Crucially, Nijjar has long been associated with an often-violent Gurudwara politics in Canada. He was also engaged in a long-drawn confrontation with the principal architect of the IC 182 Kanishka Bombing of 1985 in which 329 persons were killed (as well as two luggage handlers in a second explosion at Narita Airport, Japan), Ripudaman Singh Malik. Nijjar had objected to the printing and distribution of copies of the Guru Granth Sahib by Malik, and had seized these copies, as well as Malik’s printing unit. After Malik was ‘turned’ by Indian intelligence agencies he began criticizing “anti-India elements”, and accused Nijjar of “obviously working at the behest of some agencies of a foreign government” – a reference to Pakistan. On January 23, 2022, at the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, Nijjar ranted against Malik for over an hour, describing him as a “Qaum da gaddaar” (traitor to the nation) and an “agent”, adding that he should be “taught a lesson.” Malik was killed in a gang-style hit – with eerie similarities to Nijjar’s own subsequent killing – by two men on June 22, 2022. Investigations into the Nijjar killing are also likely to head into a dead-end, as did investigations into the Ripudaman Singh Malik hit.
Khalistani conspiracy theorists also found some grist for the mill in the June 5, 2023, statement by Jody Thomas, Canada’s National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, identifying India as a source of ‘foreign interference in Canada’ – a curious inversion of reality, since it is from Canada that a continuous separatist campaign is being fuelled and funded by Canadian citizens and permanent residents of Indian origin, and where extremists openly flaunt their affiliations with terrorists as well as with terrorist organisations banned in Canada, as well as their close connections with Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party.
In partnering with gangsters involved in a range of activities, dominated by drug smuggling, but also including gun running, targeted killings and extortion in their country of origin, the Khalistani Diaspora has chosen a path fraught with danger. In Canada, in particular, the Punjabi gangster culture is rampant. 21 per cent of gangsters killed in gang wars or police operations since 2006 are of Punjabi origin, while just 2 per cent of the Canada’s population is Punjabi (1.4 per cent Sikh). On August 4, 2022, Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit – British Columbia released a poster “identifying 11 individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety due to their ongoing involvement in gang conflicts and connection to extreme levels of violence”. Nine of the 11 gangsters listed were of Punjabi origin. While the Punjabi gangs struggled against the Italian-Canadian Mafia and the Asian Triad gangs in past decades, they have now come to dominate organised criminal activity in the country, with fratricidal conflicts within the Punjabi gangs accounting for much of the present gang violence.
And while no possibility can be ruled out in the investigations into the Panjwar and Nijjar killings, as well as Khanda’s death, there are far more credible explanations within the vicious politics and criminal associations of the Khalistani Diaspora, than in the claims that India’s agencies are now ‘bumping off’ relatively low-level targets abroad, even as far more active and dangerous elements are allowed to flourish.
- Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR, Executive Director, SATP and ICM