The Hindu (Mumbai)

Painting the big picture: what’s luring poor, jobless youth into spraying proKhalist­an graffiti

- Samridhi Tewari Ramesh Chennithal­a Abhinay Deshpande

In early 2023, proKhalist­an graffiti surfaced on public walls and pillars across several States — Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and even Delhi. What triggered this was a bit of a mystery for the police. Considerab­le intelligen­cegatherin­g and the arrest of two unemployed men revealed a network that lures desperate youth looking to make some money to spread the message of separatist­s.

While the Khalistan movement — demanding a separate nation for Sikhs came into prominence in the 1980s — may have lost popular support in the State, intelligen­ce officials say some people abroad and in India for long have kept fanning its embers.

In the past couple of years, there has been an uptick in Khalistanl­inked incidents in Punjab and neighbouri­ng States. They paralleled the rise of proKhalist­an preacher Amritpal Singh, who was eventually arrested in April 2023 under the National Security Act.

Link to banned outfit

According to intelligen­ce officials, banned outfit Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) is known for “raising false narratives to make separatist demands”. Ahead of the G20 summit in New Delhi last year, graffiti of proKhalist­an slogans came up on the walls of metro stations and public threats were issued to dignitarie­s. Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrested two persons in connection with the case. Investigat­ions rehe Eknath Shinde government is mired in corruption, and discontent is growing among people, says Congress leader and former Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithal­a, 67. He says equal treatment of coalition partners is key to a strong showing in the Lok Sabha poll.

Edited excerpts:

Tvealed the accused were paid by SFJ chief Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who has been running a separatist campaign from the U.S.

According to police officers investigat­ing several such incidents, young men from lowerincom­e families are often offered

Lok Sabha poll?

The MVA is a formidable force. Though some people left our coalition partners — Nationalis­t Congress PartyShara­dchandra Pawar, and Shiv Sena [Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray] — the masses support Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray. Currently, for the BJP, even a corrupt leader becomes a holy cow ₹2,000₹8,000, or a job in the U.S. or Canada, or both. However, more often than not, they never get the money or the job, and land in the police net.

The first graffiti appeared in January 2023 before Republic Day at several locations in Delhi —

Yes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had levelled corruption allegation­s against Ajit Pawar before he switched sides and joined forces with the BJP. Not just in Maharashtr­a, the BJP engages in corrupt politics nationwide, acting as a washing machine for turncoat leaders.

Vikaspuri, Janakpuri, Paschim Vihar, Peeragarhi, Meera Bagh. Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrested two men — Vikram Singh, 29, a resident of Tilak Nagar; and Balram Singh, 34, a resident of Bharatpur in Rajasthan. They painted slogans such as ‘Khalistan

We won’t adopt a ‘big brother attitude’. Everyone in the coalition will be treated equally. With 40 years of experience of coalition government­s in Kerala, I believe equal treatment is crucial for success.

How far have coalition talks with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit

Zindabad’, ‘Referendum 2020’, ‘SJF’, ‘Vote for Khalistan’, and ‘1984’.

The arrested duo, the police said, was promised ₹2 lakh each by their handlers. “They took great risk — Balbir Singh travelled all the way from his village in Rajasthan — but were paid

Winnabilit­y will be the main criteria while deciding the seats. Discussion­s with allies are going on and a final decision will be taken in a few days. All poll surveys are in our favour as the political situation in Maharashtr­a is favouring the MVA. The current Eknath Shinde government is mired in corruption. It is ‘contractor­friendly’. The dissatisfa­ction among people is growing. only ₹2,000 each,” the officer said.

Explaining how the handlers zero in on their targets, the officer said the Internet has helped the SFJ thrive. “ProKhalist­an content is being regularly uploaded on social media channels like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. This helps zero in on likeminded people. There are men working day and night to trace digital footprint. These men track how certain youth behave. In most cases, targets are from lower or middleinco­me groups,” he said.

In some cases, the officer said, neighbours or family members who have moved to the U.S. or Canada often connect people in their villages to get the job done using lucrative offers.

In December 2023, two SFJ operatives were arrested for painting proKhalist­an graffiti and ‘Boycott Air India’ slogans in parts of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

An officer from the Punjab police said the operatives were paid around ₹1.25 lakh in various instalment­s through banks.

“We found that they conduct surveys on social media to identify potential recruits. They not only build a network but also ensure that gullible youngsters believe their promise of money and jobs abroad,” he said.

Once the work is done, the police said, it is rare for handlers to contact the men who painted the graffiti. “In some cases, they were even promised asylum in the U.S. or Canada,” another officer said.

Promises that turned out too good to be true.

 ?? ANI ?? (Left) ProKhalist­an slogans on the walls of metro stations in New Delhi ahead of the G20 summit last year; and Delhi Police officers with a man arrested in connection with the case.
ANI (Left) ProKhalist­an slogans on the walls of metro stations in New Delhi ahead of the G20 summit last year; and Delhi Police officers with a man arrested in connection with the case.
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 ?? ?? Everyone in the coalition will be treated equally, said Congress leader Ramesh Chennithal­a.
Everyone in the coalition will be treated equally, said Congress leader Ramesh Chennithal­a.

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