By Nijeesh N*
As in previous years, Pakistani efforts to create disturbances in the Indian State of Punjab in support of Khalistani separatism continued through 2018. Worryingly, Khalistani terrorists managed to inflict a major attack (resulting in three or more fatalities) in the State after an 11 year gap, with three persons killed and another 20 injured in a grenade attack at a religious congregation at the Nirankari Satsang Bhawan at Adliwal village in Amritsar District on November 8, 2018. The last such major attack was reported on October 14, 2007, when seven persons were killed and 40 were injured in a bomb blast inside a cinema hall in Ludhiana.
The Punjab Chief Minister Captain (Retd.) Amarinder Singh referring to the Satsang Bhavan blast stated on November 19, 2018, that the attack had Pakistan’s ‘signature’ as the grenade used (HG-84) in the attack was similar to the grenades manufactured by Pakistan’s Army Ordnance Factory. Indeed, Punjab Police subsequently arrested two members of the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), Bikramjit Singh (arrested on November 21, 2019) and Avtar Singh (November 24, 2019), for their involvement in the grenade attack and identified three other persons residing in foreign countries as accused (names not disclosed). The arrested persons disclosed that the grenade was provided by Pakistan-based KLF ‘chief’ Harmeet Singh Happy aka PhD.
Harmeet Singh had earlier masterminded the conspiracy to carry out a series of targeted killings in different parts of Punjab over 2016-2017, with the support of Pakistan’s military establishment and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). A total of nine persons, including some leaders of Hindu outfits, were killed over this period in ‘targeted attacks’ which the National Investigation Agency (NIA)’s investigation unveiled were planned and executed by a transnational network of conspirators, including Harmeet Singh.
Punjab recorded another attack on September 14, 2018, when four militants hurled four grenades at the Maqsudan Police Station in Jalandhar District, injuring two Police personnel. Investigation revealed that Jammu and Kashmir-based Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, headed by Zakir Rashid Bhatt aka Zakir Musa, had carried out the attacks. Zakir Musa had also directed Kashmiri students to plant a grenade at the Chandigarh bus stand.
On December 26, 2018, the UMHA banned KLF and all its manifestations under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). KLF was the 40th entry in the list of terrorist organizations banned by the Government of India.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2018 three civilian fatalities were recorded in Punjab, all in the November 8, 2018 attack. In 2017, apart from the targeted killings of six persons, Punjab had recorded two fatalities as the Border Security Force (BSF) shot dead two Pakistani infiltrators along the Indo-Pakistan border. During 2016, Punjab recorded 25 fatalities, which included the attack on the Indian Air Force (IAF) Base at Pathankot on January 2-3, 2016, by Islamist Terrorists of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). 2015 also saw an Islamist terrorist attack at the Dinanagar Police Station campus in the Gurdaspur District of Punjab in the early hours of July 27, 2015, in which 10 persons were killed (three civilians, four SF personnel and three terrorists). No fatalities were recorded in 2014 and 2013. Two infiltrators were killed along the Punjab border in 2012.
Significantly, the Minister of State in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), Hansraj Gangaram Ahir on January 2, 2019, informed the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) that a total of 18 Khalistani terrorist modules were neutralized, resulting in the arrest of 95 Khalistani operatives, during the preceding two years in Punjab.
Earlier on November 18, 2018, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh stated that at least 15 terrorist modules had been neutralized in the preceding 18 months, with indications of ‘Kashmiri terror’ links emerging in some instances as well, as evidenced in the case of the grenade attack at Maqsudan Police Station on September 14, 2018.
Partial data on the SATP database records at least 16 Khalistan militants arrested through 2018, in addition to 42 arrested in 2017. A total of 234 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), International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) as well as some minor factions have been arrested since 2010 (data till April 28, 2019). At least seven of these militants have been arrested in the current year (data till April 28, 2019).
Most recently, on March 31, 2019, the State Special Operations Cell (SSOC) of the Punjab Police neutralized a terrorist module and arrested five ‘highly radicalised’ members of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) from a park near Dara Studio in the Phase 6 area of Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar in Mohali District. One .32 bore pistol along with a magazine and four live rounds, as well as 15 letter pads of BKI, were recovered from the possession of the arrested persons.
According to reports, the fives arrestees were part of a bigger module which also included three other militants, identified as Rupinder Singh, Daler Singh Bunty and Ranjit Singh, who are yet to be arrested. Ranjit Singh, former ‘chief’ of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), is based in Germany, and was the mastermind providing help to the accused and motivating them to eliminate the targets. The arrested persons were also reportedly in touch with Jagtar Singh Hawara of BKI, currently lodged in Tihar jail in New Delhi.
According to Varinder Paul Singh, Assistant Inspector General (AIG) of SSOC, Mohali, the arrested persons were radicalised over social media by suspected persons based in Europe. The module was planning to kill specific targets in Punjab, including Hindu leaders and members of Dera Sacha Sauda. The accused wanted to kill certain people to fulfill the ‘incomplete’ task other militants who were lodged in different jails in Punjab and other States. The module was mobilising funds and had already procured lethal weapons. They were also planning to arrange weapons’ training in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and were in touch with leaders such as Ranjit Singh and Jagtar Singh Hawara in this regard.
Meanwhile, activities to keep Khalistani/Sikh separatism alive continued at the international level. Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a marginal Khalistani diaspora group headquartered in the United States (US), organized an event on August 12, 2018, at Trafalgar Square in London and announced the ‘Khalistani Referendum 2020’ campaign. The ‘referendum’ purportedly aims to determine the wishes of the Sikh community settled across the globe on the issue of Punjab’s ‘liberation’ from India by 2020, and then pursue a referendum through the intervention of the United Nations (UN).
According to intelligence sources in August 2018, ISI, a secret operation code-named as ‘Express’ was funding and promoting the ‘Khalistani Referendum 2020’ campaign. Significantly, on November 23, 2018, when India’s Cabinet approved the decision on the construction of the Kartarpur corridor, Pakistan gave permission to the SFJ to open its office in Lahore. On November 28, 2018, the SFJ leadership even declared, ‘the Kartarpur corridor is a bridge to Khalistan’ and announced their intention to organise the Kartarpur Sahib Convention-2019 in support of the referendum agenda at Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, if the proposed corridor for Sikh pilgrims between India and Pakistan is functional by then. On April 14, 2019, however, the Pakistan Government disallowed foreign-based Khalistani Sikhs from commencing registration for ‘Referendum 2020’ in Pakistan.
On the Sikh festival of Baisakhi (April 14), the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC) general secretary, Gopal Chawla, raised slogans in support of Khalistan while trying to instigate Indian Sikh pilgrims from the stage at Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Pakistan. An unnamed Indian intelligence officer observed,
|Things are not as they are being presented. It appears a preplanned game plan of both the ISI and SFJ… Its [Pakistan’s] leadership is under tremendous pressure from international community and can’t afford to allow a secessionist movement to operate from its soil which has the potential to turn violent. Allowing its own Sikh leader to raise Khalistan slogans is less detrimental than allowing foreign separatists to use its land for fanning anti sentiments in full public and media glare.|
Interestingly, on April 12, 2019, due to the domestic political compulsions, the Canadian Government removed eight references to Sikh extremism and six references to Khalistan from its terror report – “2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada”. Earlier, in December 2018, for the first time, the Canadian Government had listed Khalistani extremism among the threats the country is facing, in its annual federal report on terror threats since the commencement of the report in 2013. On February 21, 2018, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had handed over a list of ‘A’ category operatives of BKI, KTF and ISYF to the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, during the latter’s visit to Punjab.
The peace that has long prevailed in Punjab, after a decade and a half of Khalistani terrorism, is now being tested. Islamabad is exerting efforts to create a bond between Islamist and Khalistani terrorist formations in its stables. According to an April 8, 2019, media report, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had warned that Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and several pro-Khalistan groups would come together to disrupt the General Elections in Punjab, scheduled to be held on May 19, 2019. Seven-phase general elections are currently underway across the country, with the last phase on May 19, and the counting of votes on May 23.
There is a continuous trickle of Khalistani extremist recruitment and radicalization in the Punjab, fuelled by extremist elements in the Sikh Diaspora and generously supported and actively directed by Pakistan’s ISI. The Punjab Police and intelligence apparatus has been successful in neutralizing a large number of potential terrorists and cells within Punjab, and consequently in preventing a number of incidents. The impact within Punjab remains marginal, but any complacency would be an invitation to future disasters, and the risks of major incidents remain constantly alive.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management