The fears of a revival of the Khalistan movement had never died completely and were always lurking in the shadows.
The 2nd generation in the Sikh diaspora, which hardly had any real-time exposure of living in India, lacked the understanding of India’s cultural dynamics, inter-religious harmony and diversity. They have been nurtured on the politically-motivated propaganda engineered by Sikh extremist leaders and the ISI, of injustices and killings that Sikhs faced in India during the separatist movement. The false propaganda machine also thrives on lies that even now the Sikhs in India are facing suppression in India at the hands of the Indian state and the Hindu nationalist parties.
They are the members of proscribed terrorist organizations like Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) and International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF). US’s National Counter-Terrorism Strategy unveiled in October 2018, categorically stated that Babbar Khalsa wants to establish an independent Sikh state through terror and violence. After the Sikh militancy was crushed in Punjab, the groups mentioned above had largely confined themselves to low-profile activism. However, from 2015 the Khalistan movement has been on the rise again. The movement’s second avatar now has a far more influential Sikh diaspora extending logistical support. It includes organizations like the SFJ and the Canada-based Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF), apart from the conventional Khalistan network. Their propaganda, which is also carried out through gurudwaras in their countries, is primarily built around Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Informed sources indicate that the Sikh extremist groups have moved beyond activism and have started indulging in violent activities.
In the past six years, more than 20 incidents, including murders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindutva leaders and attacks on Sikh preachers, have been linked to Khalistan separatists. Such attacks are being carried out to sow disharmony in Punjab and the ghost of the long-dead Khalistan movement is now sought to be revived, mostly from overseas.
As the Khalistani cause has little traction in Punjab, Pakistan’s support of Khalistani extremists entails leveraging extremists based in Canada and some other countries, including supporters with ties to terrorism.
The Pakistani establishment is seeking to forge an understanding between Sikh extremist groups and Pakistan-based Islamist outfits as well as Kashmir-centric terrorist groups for targeting Indian interests.
ISI has been using drones since 2019 to offload weapons and drugs in the border areas of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. At least a dozen cases of drone-based consignments have been detected since September 2019.
The farmers’ protests, which first erupted in Punjab last September, became a major rallying point for sections of the Sikh Diaspora. The protests may have given the ISI and some North American groups a springboard to revive the Khalistan sentiment, using social media and web channels for their propaganda. The farmers’ outfits have tried to keep Khalistan backers out of their agitation, but perhaps without total success.
To counter the revival of militancy in Punjab, action needs to be taken on multiple fronts. They are elucidated as follows:-
1.The major reason for the ‘revival’ of militancy in Punjab is the support from the Sikh organizations based abroad.
Intelligence agencies should find substantial evidence and link these front organizations to the militants in Punjab. The senior leadership of these organizations should be extradited and tried in India. Moreover, their properties should be seized. The MEA needs to be more proactive and must assert its presence in the international forums. It is unfortunate that even after great efforts by the Indian security agencies, most of these organizations and their leaders are not affected detrimentally.
Indian diplomats should cultivate better relations and network with the countries where these organizations are based. An informal group in international media must be formed to support India’s cause. Also, some splinter groups of the Khalistan supporters may be propped up by Indian intelligence agencies to counter the propaganda of the pro Khalistan groups.
Apart from banning organizations like SFJ, Indian diplomats need to engage with their counter parts and ensure that no support is extended to such organizations. India’s displeasure should be conveyed in no uncertain terms to all the countries that help foster the Khalistan movement in any way.
The MEA should present dossiers prepared by the Indian security agencies to their counter parts to make India’s case strong and clear.
Moreover, we must insist on quid pro quo from these countries particularly Canada, UK and Germany, in exchange of our support to them against Islamic organizations like the ISIS.
Indian intelligence agencies should also have something on the lines of the ISPR, the public relations wing of the ISI.
2.To tackle the militancy cases, we should have a unified command centre in Punjab involving the IB, RAW, NIA, Military intelligence and Punjab police. It will of course help in immediate dissemination of information and a much quicker response from the concerned agencies. Experts should be recruited to monitor and control the data and metadata of the content providers, particularly foreign based. Young people, experts in cyber warfare and hacking can be hired to trace the activities and movements of the suspects. The banking and financial transactions of the suspected individuals or groups should be constantly monitored.
The security agencies should have funds specially to purchase cyber tools and equipment. They should not only train some of their own men but also hire experts working in cyber technology.
Whatsapp, Facebook and other application companies should be made responsible to provide relevant information to law enforcement agencies instantly.
Fake profiles on social media using false Sikh identities should be immediately blocked and counter propaganda should be done.
If required, certain legal amendments can be brought to admit evidences of phone data.
3.The Khalistani factions and their supporters have woven a false narrative sowing the seeds of disaffection amongst the disgruntled people, particularly the youth of Punjab. They have been using various forums and have been particularly effective on social media like Face book, Twitter and even Clubhouse. We need to counter this narrative by having an active presence on all these platforms and the social media. The representatives of the Indian Government posted abroad should cultivate relationships with global think tanks, publishing houses, news agencies to get articles published in favour of the work done in the state of Punjab by both the central and state governments. Even the sizeable Indian diaspora can augment the dissemination of positive information about the Indian state. Seminars may be organized by Sikhs, preferably popular and non controversial, with the support of the government informally.
A separate budget should be earmarked to hire articulate, erudite preferably Sikhs and Punjabi persons to speak about the glorious past and the promising future of Punjab. There should be a sustained campaign to counter the false narrative. The government should invest more in the vernacular media.
Unfortunately, the media at times has spoken too much about ‘Khalistan’ giving unnecessary publicity and credence to a dormant issue. The media should definitely tone down its discussions about Khalistan and refrain from using the ‘K’ word as much as possible.
4.Punjab was among the richest state of India but for various reasons, it lagged while India progressed further in the early 2000s. The youth of Punjab did not participate much in the modern Indian economy. The youth felt left out. Many of them fell prey to drug addiction and some of them got attracted to militancy too. The minds of unemployed, disgruntled youngsters were fertile grounds for sowing the seeds of an anti establishment thought process.
Hence, there is an urgent need to revive industries, particularly those related to agriculture in Punjab. Special attention should be paid to the hot spots of trouble. The youth have to be meaningfully employed. The almost dormant tourism industry has to be supported. Youngsters have to be given training though the Skill India mission and other government schemes. The state government should provide incentives to people to start new businesses and start ups, particularly related to new age economy. There should be a much better synergy between the centre and state. The incentives and packages from the central government will definitely invigorate the people of Punjab, and alleviate the feeling that Punjab was given a step motherly treatment by the centre.
5.Punjab was long known for producing sportsmen of both national and international levels. A culture of sports has to be cultivated from schools to colleges. More sports universities should be established. The CAPFS, state police and various government organizations should have more recruitment through sports quota. This move will certainly motivate the youth to be attracted towards sports. The various paramilitary forces and army should train the people, particularly the youngsters of the border population so that they can qualify for the recruitment tests of these forces.
The state should also draft a new education policy, laying more stress on new age technologies. The textbooks and curricular should emphasize on the work done by the government for the betterment of Punjab. Youngsters should be given a purpose, a meaning to their lives. School children, particularly of the rural areas, should be encouraged to work with the police as student police cadets.
The demand for drugs has to be reduced substantially and finished ultimately. Apart from a sustained campaign against drugs, it should be ensured that the youth who had been treated in the de-addiction clinics should not have a relapse. The youngsters should be educated properly and a scientific follow up of the health of the de- addicted youth should be done.
6 (a) The ISI has been using the borders of Punjab to promote Narco terrorism for quite a long time. The sealing of borders is paramount in defeating the designs of the ISI and pro Khalistan supporters. The routes to supply drugs are also used to smuggle weapons. The BSF mans the borders diligently but security measures have to be augmented using technology. A number of simple yet cost effective measures can be used to support the border men.
Installation of the following low cost technology measures have already been found effective by the BSF in the AOR of Rajashtan:-
i) Infra red sensors
ii) Laser beams
iii) Improvised alarm systems
Latest software systems can be combined with the CCTVs and PTZs to have a virtual fence on the display monitors and have an alarm go off if any crossing takes place.
In addition to these, the HHTIs and other thermal sensors need to be effectively utilized with a quick turnaround rate for repairs. The new pilot project of SMART fence is a step in the right direction.
b) The staff of G branch of BSF should be more tech savvy and better trained. Moreover, they should have a good command of the local language and culture to extract more information from the locals. The secret service fund should be more generous, though based on results gathered from the information. All the Intelligence agencies should have excellent coordination and exchange real time information. Often, the location of a suspicious satellite phone reaches the BSF through the NATGRID after a substantial time lapse. This anomaly has to be rectified to have any meaningful action.
c) There is no effective solution to the challenge of enemy drones being used to drop weapons, fake currency and narcotics in our area. The guns are hardly effective as the drones are too high and barely visible, particularly in the nights. Latest anti drone technology can be imported. At the same time, our own IITs, DRDO and even private defence equipment manufactures can be asked to develop a technology to counter drones.
To counter the threat from drones, a unified command of the BSF, air force and the army can be set up to alert about the sighting of an enemy drone.
Now that the BSF has got jurisdiction up to 50 kms, it needs even better coordination with the local police. The BSF has also demanded powers to intercept calls of antinational elements and smugglers. These powers will definitely help the BSF to act on intelligence really fast.
The riverine gaps along the international fence have to be specially taken care of. More manpower should be deployed in those areas, of course supported by CCTVs and other force multiplies. High mast lights and LEDs are quite effective in illuminating the border areas.
A proper and detailed database should be made of all the smugglers and anti national elements by the BSF in consultation with the NCB and state police. The database should be uploaded on an app for instant access any detail of the antinational element.
On the other hand, the vigilance branch of the BSF should keep a tab on the personnel of the BSF too, to prevent any connivance with the smugglers. Their social media accounts should be checked. The ISI often uses honey traps to elicit information from our BSF jawans.
7. To thwart the nefarious designs of the ISI to promote Narco terrorism in Punjab, the NCB needs to have a bigger presence in Punjab. The Punjab police should also have an STF headed by senior police officers. Huge rewards can be announced for the haul of drugs and arrest of the kingpins. The antisocial elements that are sent to jail should not be allowed to run their business from the confines of the jail. The prosecution should ensure that smugglers do not come out on bail easily; rather all efforts should be made to ensure conviction.
The new law that designates even individuals as terrorists is a welcome move. The NIA and other security agencies must seize their assets and ask the counterparts abroad also to act against them.
Our agencies should keep a tab on the source of terror funding. Various means of siphoning money into our country should be effectively blocked. Terrorists and their sympathizers should not be allowed to take advantage of the weaknesses in the banking system and misusing them. Even the dark web, havala rackets and crypto currency transactions should be closely monitored. Some dubious NGOs and even movie production houses have been used as routes to transfer money into Punjab, ultimately to support the Pro Khalistan movement. Their accounts should be scrutinized and strong action should be taken if any illegal activity is noticed.
8.The Punjab police have to be more professional in dealing with the rise of militancy. First and foremost, there must be a strong political will to make the police function independently. A strong, professional and incorruptible DGP will post a similar set of officers in the districts. Young officers of the IPS and CAPF can be called on deputation, if need be. The weaponry and surveillance techniques should be upgraded. Sadly a few Punjab policemen were seen without bullet proofs and obsolete weapons, when fighting with terrorists in Dinanagar near Pathankot. The training of policemen needs to be professional on the lines of NSG and other commando forces.
Quite a few policemen are facing problems due to their role in fighting terrorism around 30 years back. They should be provided legal support by the Government in case their cause was justified.
The knowledge and experience of officers who have worked in Punjab during the peak of insurgency must be utilized to train and familiarize young officers to counter the pro Khalistani resurgence.
The Punjab police must develop a quick response system, especially to tackle problems related to militancy. It can have high speed vehicles and motorcycles moving fast on getting calls on special telephone numbers.
The police should forge more partnerships with the public to earn its trust and let go of its dictatorial and feudal image. Police public committees can help the police get better information and also dispel a lot of rumors floated by the parties inimical to a peaceful Punjab.
Even small time criminals and local gangsters can be used by the ISI to carry out terrorist operations. Such groups should be found out and decimated immediately. Exemplary action should be taken against militants and their supporters. The top brass of the militants, both in India and abroad should be specifically targeted. Once the leadership is weakened, it will not be difficult to control the nascent militancy. The NIA and other agencies must gather comprehensive evidence and special courts must be set up for the trial of the accused.
The leaders need to be separated from their followers. The state should go all out against the leaders and punish them legally and financially. At the same time, the followers should be shown a ‘humane’ face and allowed to join the mainstream again. They can be provided training in skill development and become special police officers too in some cases.
At the same time, the state agencies should not go overboard in their drive against militancy. The human rights of the accused should be respected. The torture and extra judicial treatment of the militants or suspects should be out of question.
It should be noted that all counter-militancy efforts must be conducted within the letter and spirit of the law and under firm civilian political command. Excessive force and disregard for human rights is not sustainable in a political democracy, it will only fuel militancy.
9. The ISI First tried to disturb the communal harmony in 2016 by masterminding desecration of religious books and targeting Sikh and Hindu temples to radicalize the youth.
A number of Hindu leaders, particularly of the RSS were killed. The terror groups even killed religious leaders of Christian and Namdhari communities. Several psy-operations like incidents of sacrilege of the holy scripture of Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib have also been reported. Such incidents add to the perceptions of injustice against the Sikh community. These cases have to be investigated thoroughly and the offenders should be brought to the book.
The Punjab police and intelligence agencies should be very alert to these kinds of developments. They should develop sources, particularly around religious establishments to gather Information well in time. The police should have regular peace committee meeting in villages and Mohallas to foster trust.
A tab should be kept on the social media and phones of the unscrupulous elements in those areas.
At the same time, a close watch must be kept on the changing social dynamics in the region. In the absence of any proper leadership, some groups, particularly of the poor and backward community, might waver towards militancy.
10. The brazen propaganda, pro Khalistan rallies and even public venerations of slain terrorists should not be allowed. Perpetrators should be asked to refrain from these activities. And if the atmosphere is conducive and these is little or no chance of a law and order problem, strict action should be taken against the offenders.
11. Pakistan always had the doctrine to bleed India into a thousand cuts. After the abrogation of Act 370, Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir is not working. Thus, its need to ignite the Khalistan Movement. It is Pakistan’s objective to destabilse the law and order situation in Punjab and revive Khalistan linked terrorism in the state.
The Pak army and ISI have organized training camps for Jaish, Kashmir and Khalistan militants along the border. On the direction of the ISI, Khalistan militants established contacts with Punjab gangsters and smugglers who know the state and its escape routes, to ignite the fire of militancy again.
The nefarious designs of Pakistan have to be answered in its own language. RAW and Indian security agencies can fan the fire in trouble spots like Baluchistan.
If need be the Indian army can again launch a few Balakot like strikes, as a last resort.
It will not be a surprise if there is Chinese support to the cash strapped Pakistan. China is already supporting the Taliban. Some of the surplous weapons of Afghanistan will definitely find way to India, particularly Punjab.
Costs have to be imposed on Pakistan in the form of cross border activities by the RAW. A low level equilibrium has to be maintained with China.
India should try its best to put Pakistan on the black list of the FATF for money laundering and terror financing. Pakistan has so far avoided being on the black list with the help of China but India must keep providing evidence to the FATF and the UN.
The government should come down heavily on the political patronization of all anti national elements. The nexus of unscrupulous politicians, policemen and anti national elements has to be destroyed. If the police is given a free hand, the drug syndicate can be demolished. On the other hand, if we manage to garner international support to marginalize the pro Khalistani groups, the resurgence of militancy in Punjab can be ripped in the bud.
An attempt to glorify Khalistan ideologues aside, the movement has little traction on the ground. Khalistan is an idea, and an idea never dies. There is a tiny section among Sikhs who propagate this. But the movement has no resonance in Punjab.
A truth and reconciliation commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge may document the accounts of victims and witnesses of the anti-Sikh riots.
If a closure is brought to [Operation] Blue Star and justice is ensured for the 3,000-odd victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, it will allow the Sikh community to move forward; else, the spectre of Khalistan will remain a tool for vested interests to exploit.
The Indian state must win back the hearts and minds of the disaffected people of Punjab. Winning the confidence of the people is the only real long term solution to this protracted crisis
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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