Well before sunrise on May 21, a Border Security Force (BSF) special operations squad led by company commander S.N. Kalita spotted a Toyota Innova driving suspiciously close to the electrified security fencing along the India-Pakistan border in Amritsar’s Ramdas sector. On intercepting the vehicle, the BSF troopers detained two Nihang Sikhs with illegal weapons— a .315 rifle and a revolver. Maan Singh and Sher Singh confessed they were to pick up an arms consignment smuggled in the night before from Pakistan. Zeroing in on the drop-point coordinates, Kalita’s men seized the biggest cache of illegal weapons and explosives in Punjab in recent years— close to 500 rounds of ammunition and firearms that include Chinese-made AK-47 and modified MP9 rifles, 7.62 mm pistols, a .32 bore revolver and a sack full of hand grenades.
A fortnight later, on June 4, the fortuitous capture of the two Nihangs resulted in more arrests. Based on their interrogation, a calibrated operation, by Punjab police’s counterintelligence unit, led to the arrest of Gurdial Singh, Jagroop Singh and Satwinder Singh, key Khalistani hitmen suspected to be part of a widespread assassination plan in Punjab and Delhi. The arms seized in Ramdas on May 21 were meant for these terrorists, says a security officer who questioned the suspects.
Custodial interrogation unravelled more. Of the three men picked up from Hoshiarpur’s Pojewal village on June 4, Gurdial is the only one with past connections to Khalistan terrorism and is in touch with International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) chief Lakhbir Singh Rode and his cohorts in Canada and Germany. In 1992, he was arrested for possessing a Thompson submachine gun. Jagroop and Satwinder are recent recruits, radicalised through extremist propaganda that has flooded social media in the past decade.
Jagroop, interrogators say, confessed to travelling to Pakistan (Lahore and Nankana Sahib) with Sikh pilgrims from November 12 to 21 last year. The visit was facilitated by ISYF’s Germany-based
handler Balvir Sandhu, along with Rode and Khalistan Liberation Force’s Harmeet Singh, both living in an ISI safehouse at Dera Chahal near Lahore Cantonment. Jagroop went through a four-day training in explosives and automatic weapons while in Pakistan.
Related developments have caused even more alarm in the security establishment in Punjab and Delhi. Since April 17, six Khalistan terror modules have been busted and 23 terrorists arrested with a small arsenal of weapons. Officials say it signals a concerted fresh effort to renew terrorist violence in Punjab—the most significant such development since the demise of the Khalistan movement in the mid-1990s. “After the mid to late 1990s, Pakistan’s biggest problem was finding foot soldiers to execute its Khalistan design,” says a senior Punjab police officer. He adds that a robust intelligence network that has infiltrated every Khalistani outfit sheltering in overseas havens in the West had also helped keep things below a simmer.
But all seemed to change after the summer of 2015 that witnessed a series of protests by farmers’ organisations over crop losses from spurious pesticides. While the farmers eventually scaled down their agitation, the countryside erupted again over the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Faridkot’s Bargari village on October 12. Outraged Sikhs hit the streets against the then SAD-BJP government’s perceived inaction. Many believed the Akali leadership was somehow complicit in the incident in Faridkot and at gurdwaras across the state. The violence spiralled out of control after October 14 when police firing killed two people among a peaceful crowd holding a prayer meeting in Behbal Kalan village over the desecration in Faridkot two days earlier.
Till date, close to 150 incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib have been reported. Though there are credible explanations for a majority of the incidents and the culprits have been apprehended in many cases, it is all being used to revive perceptions of injustice against the Sikh community. A conspiracy by Pakistan’s ISI and extremists within the Sikh diaspora is more than discernible. Social media has been abuzz—dubious videos depicting Sikh demonstrators and purported excesses by the police; preachers openly abusing mainstream politicians and exhorting Sikhs to take to the streets; imagined and exaggerated reports of sacrilege.
Almost akin to what is under way in the Kashmir Valley in the wake of militant Burhan Wani’s killing last year, intelligence officials say much of the social media content in Punjab is fed by Sikh radicals abroad and ISI networks. It’s all served to whip up a fresh wave of radicalisation among young Sikhs. “It’s the biggest tipping point since 1984,” says a senior counterintelligence expert associated with investigations of the six terror modules busted since April this year. “To the present generation, brought up on the ‘ultimate heroism’ and ‘supreme sacrifice’ narratives around Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and other slain Khalistanis, the incidents of sacrilege are unforgivable affronts. Although there are perfectly plausible explanations, such as an electrical short circuit, for many of the cases, they’re unwilling to see it as anything but extreme disrespect of their Guru.”
Social media helps such notions go viral. Besides the hundreds of WhatsApp groups, intelligence agencies
have detected some 140 Facebook Messenger groups and 125 Facebook pages purveying radical propaganda. On the night of May 29, an intelligence operation by the Mohali district police led to the arrest of four most unlikely ‘terrorists’. Amritpal Kaur alias ‘Amrit’ is a Ludhiana homemaker and a triple MA; Harbarinder Singh, in his forties, is the son of a retired district education officer; Jarnail Singh is a resident of Kalanaur in Gurdaspur district; and Randeep Singh, just 19, has briefly trained at the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh seminary near Amritsar.
Not one of those arrested has any record of being a Khalistan sympathiser. They all met up on Facebook to become members of ‘Khalistan Zindabad’, a Facebook Messenger group with intensely radical content. Police officers who interrogated them in Mohali say they were all nursing a sense of grievance over the failure to stop the acts of sacrilege. “Harbarinder, who otherwise seems like a reasonable and educated person, has been keeping a count of every reported incident of sacrilege in Punjab,” says an officer. Amritpal’s Facebook page bears the following message below a picture of Bhindranwale: “I am Mrs Amritpal Kaur from Ludhiana. I don’t want to be ruled by India. Khalistan zindabad.”
The group has not only received funding from Khalistani elements abroad but also local financing to procure weapons. Those arrested were found carrying pistols and a .315 bore rifle. Eleven members have so far been apprehended. Besides the four nabbed by the Mohali police, five others—Tarsem Singh, Mokham Singh, Manjit Singh, Jaswant Singh and Jasbir Singh—were picked up at Rampura Phul in Bathinda district as they set out for an assassination attempt. Two others, Ramandeep Singh and Parminder Singh, were detained following the interrogation of the initial group. Police believe the group that came together after the Faridkot incident in 2015 has links with Khalistani elements in Dubai and Lahore and may have a much larger following than what has yet been exposed.
Senior Punjab police officers say the rise of the Hindu right wing across the country is also stoking Sikh radicalism. In addition, saffron outfits, including the RSS and Shiv Sena, that hardly had any presence in Punjab during the Khalistan years, are now increasingly active and visible. “There’s a clear backlash,” says an officer, pointing to the new Khalistanis’ choice of targets. Besides the usual names on the hit list, many of the attacks post the BJP’s ascent in 2014 and the acts of sacrilege in 2015 targeted lower rung Hindu leaders (see graphic: The Killing Fields of Punjab).
Khalistan networks have continued to thrive not only in Pakistan but also in safe havens in Malaysia, Thailand, UK, Germany, Canada and the US. But what is making the security establishment sit up and take notice is that unlike in the two decades since chief minister Beant Singh’s assassination in August 1995, there is suddenly no dearth of local foot soldiers for the Khalistan terror machine.