Terrorism in Punjab
Parallel to Akali militancy, terrorism made its appearance in Punjab in l981 as a partial culmination of communal politics since 1947 and the policy of appeasement towards communalism followed by the Punjab Congress leadership, especially since the early seventies. The initiator of terrorism was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who emerged in the late seventies as a strong campaigner of Sikh orthodoxy. In this campaign he received the tacit support of the Punjab Congress led by Giani Zail Singh, who hoped to use him to undercut the Akalis. He was, however, to soon become a Frankenstein and turn against his erstwhile patrons.
The terrorist campaign by Bhindranwale and the All India Sikh Students Federation, headed by Amrik Singh, began on 24 April 1980 with the assassination of the head of the Nirankari sect. The killing of many Nirankaris, dissident Akalis and Congress workers followed this. In September 1981, Lala Jagat Narain, editor of a popular newspaper and a critic of Bhindranwale, was killed. Gaini Zail Singh who had in 1980 become the home minister at the Centre shielded Bhindranwale from government action. To protect himself, Bhindranwale moved in July 1982 to the sanctuary of Guru Nanak Niwas, a building within the Golden Temple complex from where he directed the campaign of terrorism in Punjab.
Till September 1983, terrorist killings were confined to Nirankaris, petty government officials and Sikhs who disagreed with Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale was, however, since 1981, carrying on a verbal campaign of hatred against Hindus and ‘fallen’ Sikhs, that is members of reformist Sikh sects, and inciting violence against them, especially through widely circulated audio-cassettes. A new dimension to terrorist activity was added when from September 1983 he started targetting Hindus on an increasing scale, and indiscriminate killing of Hindus began. He also organized the looting of local banks, jewellery shops and home guard armouries, the killing of Nirankaris and government officials and random bomb explosions. In April 1983, A.S. Atwal, a Sikh deputy inspector-general of police, was killed just as he was coming out of the Golden Temple after offering his prayers. Bhindranwale also gave a call for a separation from and an armed struggle against the Indian state, emphasizing the separateness and sovereignty of Sikhs.
Fearing arrest, in December 1983, Bhindranwale moved into the safe haven of the Akal Takht within the Golden Temple and made it his headquarters and armoury and a sanctuary for his terrorist followers, many of whom were criminals and smugglers. He smuggled on a large-scale light machine-guns and other sophisticated arms into the Temple, and set up workshops there for fabricating sten-guns, hand grenades and other arms. He erected pillboxes in and around the Akal Takht and other buildings, where he provided weapons training to new recruits and from where he sent out death squads and conducted his campaign of murders, bombings and loot. A large number of other gurudwaras were also used as sanctuaries and bases for terrorist activities.
All their activities were designed to prove that the Indian state was not capable of ruling in Punjab and, therefore, separation from India was a realizable objective. Their bullying of the Press and the judiciary, their killing of police officials (and their families) and those suspected of cooperating with the police and administration, their successful diktats to administrators to do their bidding, their collection of ‘parallel taxes’, their silencing of intellectuals and political workers, their coercion of the peasants in giving them shelter, and their random killings—all were designed not only to facilitate their activities but also to convince the people of Punjab that they had the capacity to challenge the Indian state and that they were the rulers of tomorrow. To achieve this objective, they made no distinction between Sikhs and Hindus. Nearly 55 per cent of those killed from 1981 to 3 June 1984 were Sikhs.
Revival of khalistan terrorism
In November 2018, an attack against the premises of the Sant Nirankari Mission in the Indian state of Punjab has once again brought back fears of the revival of Pakistan-backed Sikh separatism, known as the Khalistan movement. Nirankari is seen as heretic by orthodox and extremist Sikhs and has historically found itself at the receiving end of violence for worshiping a living guru against the conventional Sikh belief of absolute loyalty to the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. On April 13, 1978, a bloody clash between Nirankaris and extremist Sikhs left 13 dead. Two years later, in 1980, Nirankari’s spiritual leader, Baba Gurbachan Singh, was killed in Amritsar.
On September 13, 2013, Sikh extremists in central London attempted to murder retired Lt. General Kuldeep Singh Brar, the man who commanded Operation Blue Star — a military operation launched in 1984 by the Indian Army to flush out Sikh militants from a sacred Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar stabbing him in the neck. In mainland Punjab, Sikh organizations like Dal Khalsa and Damdami Taksal have kept the Khalistan issue alive with covert patronage by some political parties.
The second generation of the Sikh diaspora often lacks real-time exposure to India’s interreligious harmony and diversity. Nurtured on the anti-India propaganda engineered by Sikh extremist leaders and the ISI, the youth in the diaspora is sympathetic to the Khalistan movement. Organizations like Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) and International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), banned in a number of countries including India, the US, Canada and the European Union — play an important role in this narrative. The 2018 US counterterrorism strategy categorically stated that BKI wants to establish an independent Sikh state through terror and violence.
After Sikh militancy was crushed in Punjab, these groups largely confined themselves to low-profile activism. However, from 2015 the Khalistan movement has been on the rise again. Informed sources indicate that Sikh extremist groups have moved beyond activism and have started indulging in violent activities. The Sikh diaspora is collecting religious donations in Punjab to revive the Khalistan movement.
Several psy-ops have been conducted in order to revive terror in Punjab. Since 2015, more than 150 incidents of the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib have been reported. It appears that the underlying objective could be to stir up Sikh sentiment against India by rejuvenating the perceptions of injustices and atrocities committed by the government in Delhi against the Sikh community. Social media is flooded with extremist audio and video content reviving memories of the Operation Blue Star anti-Sikh riots of 1982, which led to the killing of
8,000 Sikhs. Indian agencies have detected 140 Facebook Messenger groups, 125 Facebook pages and hundreds of WhatsApp groups being used to radicalize Sikh youth in Punjab. Indian intelligence agencies inform that the rise of Hindu nationalist groups and their activities in Punjab are also being used to create the perception of fear among the Sikh community. There already is a backlash against the increasingly vocal presence of radical Hindutva groups in Punjab specifically, and India in general.
The international arm of Sikh separatism is visible more in the form of civil rights activism and sophisticated propaganda operations. Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a human rights advocacy group, has called for Referendum 2020 — a campaign to “liberate” Punjab from India and make it a nation-state. Besides, on various occasions, Indian diplomats and consular officials have been banned from entering gurudwaras — Sikh places of worship in Canada and the US.
The Devil’s Advocate
Pakistan, India’s archenemy, is playing a lynchpin role in the revival of the Sikh militancy in Punjab. Pakistan’s support is in line with its long-term strategy of keeping India on the boil by fomenting terror in Kashmir and Punjab, provoking social unrest and creating economic turmoil. Pakistan has used terrorism as a strategic asset against India for over four decades now.
According to sources in Indian intelligence, ISI officers are acting as handlers and organizers of Sikh separatist activities in Canada, Europe, US, UK and Malaysia. Allegedly, the ISI is making vigorous attempts to revitalize the Khalistan movement by providing weapons, financial support, moral backing and propaganda in mainland Punjab and abroad. As per Indian intelligence, Lt. Colonel Shahid Mehmood Malhi, better known as “Chaudhary Sahib” among the Pakistani military, is the mastermind of Referendum 2020. Indian security services are said to have recovered documents about Referendum 2020 from his computer.