India: Muddled Mandate In Punjab – Analysis
By Ajai Sahni*
The riotous scenes at the Police Station at Ajnala in the Amritsar District, on February 23, 2023, where followers of the radical ‘preacher’ Amritpal Singh clashed with the Police to secure the release of one of their associates, arrested in a case of alleged kidnapping and assault, have revived memories of the early years of terrorism in Punjab in the end-1970s and early 1980s.
A flood of commentary has drawn parallels between conditions then prevailing, and more recent developments in Punjab, including inter alia, lathi (baton) and sword wielding youth running amok; the failure of the Police to take effective action against the mob; the abrupt dropping of charges against all the accused, including the arrested Lovepreet Singh Toofan, as well as Amritpal Singh, in the kidnapping and assault case; the fact that Amritpal Singh fashion’s his attire and provocative speech on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the initiator of the terror of the 1980s; the open display of firearms by Amritpal Singh’s retinue in public places and Gurudwaras, including the Golden Temple; declarations by Amritpal Singh that India’s Prime Minister, Home Minister and Punjab’s Chief Minister would meet the same end as then Chief Minister Beant Singh did in 1995 (he was assassinated in Chandigarh on August 31), and the failure of the state to take action against Amritpal Singh for these many infractions; all these find echoes in the tumultuous rise of Bhindranwale in the early 1980s.
Crucially, the hostility between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government at the Centre and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Government in Punjab, and widespread and repeated allegations that the former was trying to destabilize the latter, are reminiscent of the efforts of a Congress Party-led Centre instrumentalizing Bhindranwale in order to destabilize the Akali Dal Government in Punjab. There is speculation – though no clear evidence – that present conditions in Punjab are a replay of this Centre-State confrontation, purportedly with Amritpal Singh as the subversive pawn in the game today. A torrent of right wing commentary on social media demanding imposition of President’s rule in Punjab in the wake of the Ajnala incident can only add to such speculation. Similarly, parallels are being drawn between the Akali Dal’s ambivalence towards Bhindranwale, and AAP’s purported ‘soft’ approach to the Khalistanis in general, as well as the specific failure to act decisively against Amritpal Singh’s provocations.
Any simple equivalence between conditions today and the circumstances that gave rise to the Bhindranwale phenomenon and the subsequent Khalistan movement is, however, mistaken. Of course, the smallest sore can turn into a suppurating wound if it is constantly irritated, and the polarizing communal politics that dominates the Indian and Punjab scenario today is most certainly a relentless process of aggravation. It is, nevertheless, useful to look at objective trends.
The challenge created by the mob in Ajnala will certainly be repeated in future, as the radical element gain confidence from this experience, and will require a firm response – even if, as the Police now argue, their ‘restraint’ at Ajnala was induced by the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib that had prominently been mounted at the centre of the rampaging swarm. More probably, the decision was imposed by the political executive. There is little reason to believe that the very substantial Police force deployed at the thana would have crumbled so quickly – even after its personnel had suffered sword and lathi injuries – in the face of a challenge that was far from overwhelming. This was certainly not a ‘law and order’ problem beyond the capabilities of the Punjab Police.
It is necessary to recognize, however, that there has been some deterioration over the past more than six years. It is useful, most significantly, to recall that there was not a single Khalistan-linked fatality for eight years, between 2008 and 2015. However, each year since has recorded such fatalities – three in 2016; six in 2017; three in 2018, and two in each year between 2019 and 2022. Crucially, however, with the exception of the nine targeted killings between 2016 and 2017, investigations reveal that the perpetrators were petty criminal mercenaries or gangsters, and not ideologically motivated Khalistanis. In the nine killings of 2016-17, however, a two-man team had significant ideological motivation.
In almost all these cases – including the 2016-17 targeted killings – the controlling impulse and direction came from elements within the radicalized Sikh Diaspora. This is the source that requires urgent attention, and one where the Indian system has failed to secure an adequate impact. Khalistani organisations and elements abroad continue not only to engage in high-decibel anti-India propaganda, but also to fund and direct subversive campaigns and terrorist operations in India. Prominent among these are Wadhawa Singh Babbar, the Pakistan-based ‘chief’ of Babbar Khalsa International (BKI); Paramjit Singh, the United Kingdom-based ‘chief’ of BKI; Lakhbir Singh, the Pakistan-based ‘chief’ of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF); Ranjeet Singh, the Pakistan-based ‘chief’ of the Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF); Bhupinder Singh Bhinda, a Germany-based key member of KZF; Gurmeet Singh Bagga, a Germany-based key member of KZF; Paramjit Singh, the Pakistan-based ‘chief’ of Khalistan Commando Force; and Hardeep Singh Nijjar:, the Canada-based ‘chief’ of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF). To these may be added Gurpatwant Singh Pannun and his Sikhs for Justice, more of an irritant than a threat, but one with a significant social media presence, and one that has been disproportionately projected both by Indian state agencies and the media.
Nevertheless, despite years of efforts often, coordinated by the Pakistan-based ‘defeated rump’ of the Khalistani terrorist leadership under the protection and likely direction of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), these individuals and groups have failed to secure significant traction among the people of Punjab. While a steady pipeline of weapons and explosives continues to flow into the state – including rising numbers of drone droppings – ideologically motivated cadres willing to take up these weapons are conspicuous by their absence.
This has given rise to a new danger: the emergence of a mutually beneficial nexus between absconding gangsters from Punjab, who have taken refuge in foreign countries – Canada, USA, Armenia, Malaysia and Australia, among others – with the proponents of Khalistan and with narcotics smugglers operating from Pakistan. Almost all significant terrorist operations in Punjab in recent years have involved cadres linked with this terrorist-gangster-narcotics network.
While the gangs operate with substantial impunity from foreign soils, the Punjab Police and national agencies have been quite successful in confronting their associates within the state.
On February 14, 2023, the Punjab Police conducted raids at suspected hideouts of persons linked with Gangster Jagdeep Singh alias Jaggu Bhagwanpuria. 2,371 suspected hideouts of anti-social elements linked with the gangster were raided during a day-long operation carried out by at least 409 parties of Punjab Police, involving about 2,863 police personnel across the state.
On February 10, 2023, in action against Canada-based terrorist Lakhbir Singh aka Landa’s criminal network, Vijay Kumar aka Toti, wanted in 18 cases of narcotics trafficking, illegal weapons possession, kidnapping and extortion, was arrested by the Jalandhar Police, along with three of his associates.
On February 3, 2023, the Punjab Police conducted raids on as many as 1,490 suspected hideouts of gangsters Lawrence Bishnoi and Goldy Brar during a day-long operation. The raids were carried out by at least 200 parties of the Punjab Police and involved some 2,000 police personnel across the state.
On December 7, 2022, the Punjab Police arrested gangster Lawrence Bishnoi in connection with an extortion case filed in Punjab on March 22, 2021. Bishnoi was already in jail, since 2014, and was incarcerated in Bhatinda Jail, after his transfer from Tihar Jail, Delhi, in June 2022.
On October 1, 2022, three operatives of an Inter-Services Intelligence-backed terrorist module, jointly handled by Canada-based gangster-terrorist Lakhbir Singh aka Landa and Pakistan-based gangster-terrorist Harvinder Singh aka Rinda, were arrested in Roopnagar District. One AK-56 assault rifle along with two magazines, 90 live cartridges, and two bullet shells were recovered from their possession.
Just between March and December 2022, the Punjab Police neutralized 140 gangster/criminal modules and arrested 555 gangsters/criminals and killing two. Recoveries included 510 weapons and 129 vehicles used in criminal activities.
Similarly, a significant number of Khalistani terrorist operatives and sympathisers have also been arrested, including:
January 10, 2022: The Police announced the arrest of six International Sikh Youth Federation-Rode operatives from different villages in Gurdaspur District
April 24, 2022: The Punjab Police arrested BKI terrorist Charanjit Singh aka Patialavi, who was accused in Ludhiana’s Shingar Cinema bomb blast (2007). He was also involved in the Ambala blast (2010) and Kali Mata Mandir blast in Patiala.
September 23, 2022: The Punjab Police neutralized an ISI-backed terrorist module controlled by the Canada-based Lakhbir Singh aka Landa and Pakistan-based Harvinder Singh aka Rinda. Two module members were arrested and one AK-56 Rifle, two magazines and 90 live cartridges were recovered from them. The arrestees were identified as Baljit Singh Malhi of Jogewal village and Gurbaksh Singh alias Gora Sandhu of Buh Gujran village, both in Ferozepur District.
October 6, 2022: The local Police arrested an operative of the Khalistan Tiger Force, identified as Lovepreet Singh, from Deon village in Bathinda District.
November 18, 2022: The NIA arrested most-wanted terrorist Kulwinderjit Singh aka Khanpuria, who had been associated with the Babbar Khalsa International and Khalistan Liberation Front, from the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, when he arrived from Bangkok. He had been absconding since 2019.
December 1, 2022: The NIA arrested most wanted terrorist Harpreet Singh aka Happy Malaysia, originally a resident of village Miadi Kala, TehsilAjnala, Amritsar, from the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, when he arrived from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was arrested in the National Investigation Agency Case pertaining to a bomb blast that took place in the Ludhiana Court Building on December 23, 2021, in which one person died and six persons were injured.
December 6, 2022: The Punjab Police neutralised an extortion racket run by KTF operatives Arshdeep Singh aka Arsh Dala and Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who operate from Canada, arresting four gang members, identified as Balwinder Singh, Gurjant Singh, Gurlal Singh and Kamardeep Singh, from Moga District in Punjab.
December 8, 2022: The NIA arrested wanted accused Bikramjit Singh aka Bikkar Panjwar aka Bikkar Baba, after his extradition from Linz, Austria, in coordination with INTERPOL authorities. Bikramajit Singh had formed a terrorist gang to carry out attacks in Punjab, along with his close associates. He was absconding in a National Investigation Agency case and was detained in Linz on March 22, 2021, and, the Linz Regional Court, Austria, extradited him to India. He was the key conspirator in the conspiracy to target Dera Muradpura.
Just between March and December 2022, the Punjab Police neutralized 26 Khalistani modules, arresting 163 terrorists/radicals.
Given a clear political mandate, the Punjab Police and central agencies evidently have the capacities and will to take effective action against offenders, certainly on Indian soil, and at least in some cases, against miscreants abroad. How then is the paralysis on, or appeasement of, Amritpal Singh to be interpreted?
Three factors are relevant here. The first is that Amritpal Singh has been testing the waters with care. His rhetoric tends to skirt outright criminal incitement, and is cast within the arguable bounds of free speech. His implicit threats of assassination against the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister and the Chief Minister of Punjab are framed as hypotheticals, and, with his ‘advocacy’ of Khalistan, may come under the protection of free speech (there are a range of other actions – including the public display of weapons and incidents of vandalism in various Gurudwaras – that would not fall under such protection). The second is the (false) notion attributed to the AAP Government, that any strict action against him would result in a massive and violent backlash; this idea needs to be rejected on two grounds: first, the state must take action if there are infringements of the law, and cannot fail to act because of the possibility of a backlash; and second, as Ajnala has demonstrated, the longer action is delayed, the bigger Amritpal Singh’s transgressions, as well as his following, will become, enormously compounding the costs, likely in blood, of effective action against him. The third reason, quite simply, is the possible political mischief or a competing calculus that seeks to capture the purported ‘Sikh vote bank’ by appeasing Khalistani extremism.
Amritpal Singh is moving progressively towards overt violence, and this would make the task of an effective state response much easier. While it is difficult to accept the current indulgence being extended to this extremist mobilizer, there is little doubt that the enforcement agencies, at the Centre or at the state, will act when they have a clear political mandate. The sooner this is given, however, the better it would be for Punjab, and for India.
Publisher & Editor; SAIR; Executive Director, ICM