India Today - - PUNJAB - By Asit Jolly

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.

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