For those who believe history moves in a straight line, and what’s past is past, some signs can set you thinking. Like you’re being awakened to a bad dream—a strangely familiar one—and bits and pieces of memory flash by, brought back to life. Words that recall a time of great tumult—Khalistan, Sikh radicals, Bluestar, 1984 pogrom—are abuzz again. If your attention has been focused elsewhere, little pieces of news are recalling an epoch filled with thousands of unknown victims, marking out new stirrings full of old forebodings.
‘The foreign hand’…rings a bell? It was one of the oft-heard phrases of the 1970s—both bogey and shadowy reality. Is it making a comeback of sorts, in a new avatar? Why are overseas gurudwaras banning Indian authorities—not just politicians, even diplomatic functionaries? Is there a new mistrust on all sides? What exactly is going on in Canada and the UK, two countries that host the Sikh community’s busiest hubs outside India?
Canadian PM Trudeau sits behind Harjit Singh Sajjan (front row, centre) at a Sikh gathering in Ottawa
The ban came, like a fort’s gates clanging shut, in December 2017, when the management committees of 14 gurudwaras in Canada issued a terse statement: “Pursuant to the Trespass to Property Act (1990), the management of these gurudwaras reserves the right to bar entry to officials of the Indian government, including but not limited to Indian elected officials, Indian consular officials and members of organisations who seek to undermine the Sikh nation and Sikh institutions.” The word ‘nation’, of course, floats ambivalently between the old sense of community and the more modern meaning.
Soon, similar declarations followed in the UK—forming a rather unprecedented chain of events. Apparently, these firmans formalise a soft ban that was already in place. Hardliners mince no words, saying it’s meant to prevent Indian mission officials from “running pro-India and anti-Khalistan propagaNDA”. That speaks of a much higher level of ideological hardening—and counter-engagement—than may have been suspected by common Indians. Even so, a ban is more of a statement, since no one could have addressed a gathering at gurudwaras without permission from the management anyway. And it’s a delicate line: despite the ban, an Indian official in the UK paid a personal visit to a gurudwara, which has not been barred.
What set off this new drawing of borders, if you like? One immediate provocation was the November arrest, in Punjab, of Glasgow-based Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal (Jaggi), who had come down for his wedding in October. Police suspect him of involvement with a series of political murders over the past two years, including of RSS/right-wing figures, but talk of Jaggi being implicated in a false case and custodial torture soon spread among the diaspora. Some UK gurudwaras protested the arrest: as British media kept up a sharp focus, even premier Theresa May had to mention it.
The first physical ban was in Melbourne where a Sikh stopped an Indian mission official from entering a gurudwara to protest Jaggi’s arrest. Then came the ban in Canada, followed by a similar ban by 96 gurudwaras in the US, which also extended it to members of the Shiv Sena and the RSS. The ‘Free Jaggi Now’ campaign is truly global.
Not all these voices are radical or secessionist—many Sikh rights groups openly disavow extremism—but it’s part of the spectrum, and a growing part. What lies behind this resurgence of Khalistani politics? Several factors. At one level, deep anger over the thwarted justice for the 1984 pogrom blends with the radical charter that predated it. Canadian politics, where migrant Sikhs are now major players, offers a hospitable space to cultivate this hard dissent towards India. If one end of it articulates genuine human rights issues, at the other there’s a whole ecology built around Khalistani politics and activism; indeed, an economy too. The UK differs perhaps only in the concentrated pitch of voices. Into this mire come accusations that Indian officials are into spying and manipulation of events in gurudwaras.
This offshore radicalism is also organically linked, and bleeds right back, to the narrative unfolding in Punjab. An extreme, religion-tinged language is never too far away from mainstream politics in the state—and this sector of opinion links back to Canada and the UK. Since the mid-1990s, when militancy faded out here, the public sentiment backing it also largely petered out. Strands simmered in the fundamentalist corners of panthic politics, occasionally manifesting itself—such as in incidents targeting the many Dalit religious and cultist movements. The recent killings too fall into these shadow zones. Some non-violent activist groups such as the Dal Khalsa have officially aligned with Kashmiri separatists in common demands for a referendum on self-determination.
In India, news of the ban was received with dismay. It’s being read as coming out of a view that equates Indian officials with Hindutva footsoldiers: an unfortunate collapsing of categories because the Indian State, while it has security concerns that are real and as valid as any other country’s, flows from a secular constitutional code. But its rejection is fairly pointed: the Canadian ban was declared on a day when gurudwaras were observing the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s assassins. Though, to be sure, some other gurudwaras have started to question the ban, saying places of worship are not meant for politics.
Yet, Khalistani separatism is no covert creed: its activists operate both underground and “overground”. Jaggi’s website neverforget84.com, an online database, is a regular haunt for sympathisers. It has no direct espousal of violence—only history, protest songs/poetry, writing on Sikh issues—but it’s coloured by Khalistani themes and a section describes slain militants as “Khalistan shaheeds” (martyrs). The roster features fallen members of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan, Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), Sikh Students Federation and ISYF, Khalistan Liberation Army and so on—many of them proscribed terrorist organisations.
Such online exhortations for solidarity also help create sentiment in favour of families of the slain extremists and those in jail, serving sentences or awaiting trial. Hardliners in gurudwaras routinely pass around donation boxes to raise money for their “welfare”. That’s the benign end; the keener edge moves below the radar. Its GPS map has to be inferred from piecemeal lines.
Sources in the police claim Jaggi was linked to Gursharanbir Singh, an alleged BKI member, and the two had met in France in 2014 shortly after the arrest of KLF chief Harminder Singh ‘Mintoo’ in Delhi. Gursharanbir regarded Mintoo’s arrest as a loss and decided to become more active in India. He is believed to have planned many of the recent attacks. Jaggi’s family and lawyers vehemently deny he had any direct or indirect links to terror activities.
Anyway, hardliners soon decided Jaggi’s arrest was a result of Indians spying on Khalistani sympathisers at offshore gurudwaras. Neutral observers believe RAW spooks do keep a watch on activities in these zones because of the extremist presence, but linking that to Jaggi’s arrest may be flawed reasoning. Punjab Police seems to have relied on traditional policing, ploughing its trail through arrests and interrogations. The police do not, as yet, think Jaggi was a “mastermind”, but are keenly following the spoor. A vital element that links the stories, with usual ingredients like handlers in Pakistan, is also money.
Follow the Money
The old terrorism was fuelled differently—an ex-RAW man calls it a “simpler” matter of Afghan drug money funding the guns, logistics and livelihoods. Now, police tracking the flow of funds into Punjab’s radical circles trace it back to small donations in gurudwaras abroad, raised during regular cultural events: martial arts displays, kabaddi, wrestling, turban-tying competitions et al.
“Radicals have taken over most gurudwaras in Canada, the US and the UK, and organise events where the themes of Khalistan and persecution of Sikhs in 1984 are a running refrain,” says a senior police officer. The “cultural glorification of slain terrorists as martyrs in films and songs” is routine, he says.
Sikhs march in London protesting ‘state violence’ in Punjab
The funds thus raised, he adds, go into supporting the families of those arrested in Punjab for terror activities—covering their education needs, livelihood and legal costs. “This is indirect support for terror. We have had some bank accounts seized and the NIA has filed an FIR against the Sikh Organisation for Prisoner’s Welfare (SOPW),” says the officer.
The taint hardly touches all Sikh support organisations: some are purely humanitarian, and play straight. The officer cites the globally active Khalsa Aid. Its separate wing for Punjab (Focus Punjab) did not kick off because it eliminated middlemen who made a cut, the cop says. “Khalsa Aid provides material help, not cash. It directly engages contractors to build/renovate houses, pay school fees…. Since it does not give cash doles that enable a payout to brokers, they didn’t find much popularity here,” he adds.
The more targeted donations flow in through charities, often evading mandatory FCRA clearances by using direct bank transfers. The UK-based Sikh Relief, for instance, runs a programme called the SOPW, which is currently under an NIA probe. Parminder Singh Amloh, who runs SOPW’s Punjab wing, has been summoned thrice to the NIA HQ in Delhi. A former stuntman, he was arrested in 2008 under the Arms Act for carrying bullets meant for Gurmeet Ram Rahim—he spent four years in jail.
In 2013, a former prison inmate introduced Parminder to UK citizen Balbir Singh Bains, who launched the UK-based Sikh Relief and SOPW. They have never met each other, Parminder discloses to Outlook. Both Parminder and Bains choose the beneficiaries.
Including Jaggi? “We help those who approach us and verify who really needs help,” says Parminder. “The NIA is yet to close the FIR. It should go and talk to Bains in the UK to clear things up.”
At the bare minimum, SOPW Punjab is caught in a regulatory tangle. “We applied for registration and were told categorically there were ‘instructions from upstairs’ that it would not be permitted. There’s no option but to approach the High Court,” says Parminder. And he has a clean line to offer. During his time in jail, he claims, drug-runners offered him work as a mule or peddler, but he declined.
Canadian Politics and Separatism
The Sikh rise in Canadian politics has been fairly visible over the years. It’s a rainbow-hued presence: Ujjal Dosanjh, as outspokenly moderate as they come, rose to be a provincial premier. But now, more striking than the four faces in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, is the newly ascendant Jagmeet Singh of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP). The first non-white figure to head a federal party, Jagmeet is a man of sharp politics: he was the one who proposed the motion to declare 1984 a “genocide”. But not just that.
The motion is yet to succeed federally; its big moment came in April 2017 when the Ontario legislature adopted it. But clouding the moment was its celebration at a gurudwara where photos of Talwinder Singh Parmar, mastermind of the 1985 Kanishka bombing, adorned the walls as a “martyr”. If there was any doubt, Jagmeet has maintained a studied silence whenever asked to condemn Parmar. Context: the NDP lost 59 seats in the 2015 federal elections and fell to third place nationally. The Sikh population, less than two per cent of Canada’s total but with significant concentrations across constituencies, is a real factor.
Canada has not played straight with its stand on terror, particularly in the context of the Kanishka case (see V. Balachandran’s column). It has made some token gestures like proscribing some Khalistani terror organisations. (ISYF chief Lakhbir Singh Rode, for one, had to shift from Canada to Lahore, where he runs a meat business.) This forms a delicate, controversial background ahead of Trudeau’s visit to India this month, which will include a stop at the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar.
Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, often the target of ire at ‘cultural’ events in Canada’s gurudwaras, takes a no-nonsense stand (see interview) against both Sikh radicals and politicians soft to them. He has not minced words in reproaching Canadian ministers publicly—last year, he even called Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, a Khalistani sympathiser and announced on TV that he would avoid Sajjan on his India visit.
Sajjan, for his part, said Canada would help with crackdowns on any terror outfit based on real intelligence inputs and assist in evidence-based probes. That statement is set to be tested. Punjab Police have found links between two terror modules busted in 2017 and four Sikhs currently in Canada—Gurjit Singh Cheema, Sulinder Singh, Gurjinder Singh in Ontario and Gurpreet Singh in Vancouver—all wanted in connection with a May 2017 FIR lodged in Amritsar.
Article 25 Revisited
In a way, Canada only shows a mirror to Punjab’s own old-new politics, where mainstream patronage to radicalism waxes and wanes with the season. In January, ex-deputy CM Sukhbir Badal reprised the demand for amending Article 25—the one that says any “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including” a reference to Sikhs. In 1984, his father Parkash Singh Badal had first burned a copy of the document. Why now, after 34 years? Last year’s assembly poll, of course. The Akalis were ejected from power and clipped to 15 seats in a 117-strong house. Why not when Badal Sr was CM three times, a full 15 years? No answer. Even now, Sukhbir’s wife, Harsimrat Kaur, is a Union minister, sworn to protect the Constitution.
If that’s the mainstream, harder positions can be inferred. This is a zone where local and global blends seamlessly. There is, for instance, the Referendum 2020 demand, now backed by the Dal Khalsa, for the political and religious “self-determination of Sikhs”. (The year 2020 marks the centenary of the historic referendum of 1920, when Sikhs voted to eject Brahmin priests who controlled the Nankana Sahib gurudwara.) The referendum was first mooted in 2014 by the secessionist Sikhs for Justice (SFJ). The NY-headquartered advocacy group had presented its petition to the then Canadian PM Stephen Harper, asking him to share it with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, during his 2015 Canada visit. As the 2020 campaign picks up heat, five SFJ men (including its legal advisor from NY, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun) have been charged in Punjab for sedition.
Earlier, the SFJ has filed a complaint in Canada against Modi for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. It also filed a suit in the US to proscribe the RSS for its alleged bid to convert India into a homogenous Hindu country, based on the ‘ghar wapasi’ campaign. Hindutva is seen with hostility by Sikh groups as an ideology partial to treating Sikhism as a sect of Hinduism.
It didn’t take long for ideological arguments to start flowing from the muzzle of the gun. The first incidents were in Ludhiana—a firing at an RSS shakha in January 2016, and an attempt to gun down Shiva Sena leader Amit Arora. Then came the killings: of Durga Das Gupta (Shiv Sena) in Khanna, Brigadier (retd) Jagdish Gagneja (state vice-president, RSS), Amit Sharma (preacher, Hindu Takht), Satpal Kumar and Ramesh Kumar (Dera Sacha Sauda followers), Sultan Masih (Christian pastor) and Ravinder Gosain (RSS functionary). In all, there were eight incidents in 22 months.
The CBI is probing Gagneja’s murder; the other seven cases have been handed over to the NIA. Punjab Police, says a source, would have found it tough to deal with authorities in other countries. Especially in the case of KLF operational head Harmeet Singh ‘PhD’, believed to be the handler of the two arrested suspects, Ramandeep and Hardeep ‘Shera’. PhD was a research scholar in Guru Nanak Dev University in 2008 when he skipped across the border to Lahore after getting mired in a drugs and arms smuggling racket in Amritsar.
Police zeroed in on Ramandeep after 40-odd arrests, and thence to the mysterious Shera: a muscular, six-foot-tall, Italian-speaking youth, who had a lion tattooed across his chest. For the killings, Ramandeep rode a mobike, while Shera rode pillion and shot at the targets. Yet the two were apparently never in direct contact. Shera would be merely picked up or dropped off at locations specified by PhD, via encrypted smartphone apps like Whatsapp, Signal and Telegram. Since Ramandeep had no details on Shera, it took a laborious manhunt (including across various gyms) before the shooter was nabbed on November 10, 2017.
It’s into this scenario that Jaggi Johal had walked in. “In April 2017, Jaggi was here to get engaged, but we weren’t aware of his activities,” says Dinkar Gupta, D-G (Intelligence), Punjab Police. “Information about his role in funding the procurement of weapons from J&K for terror activities in Punjab had been confirmed by Taljit Singh ‘Jimmy’ in October-November 2017.” Arrested after being deported from Coventry, Jimmy told the police Jaggi had allegedly passed on 1,000 pounds for the guns. That led to Jaggi’s arrest in late October, just days after his wedding, while he was out shopping with his wife in a mall. His family and lawyer deny such links and say he’s being targeted only because of his advocacy for Sikh rights.
The police put in some hard yards on the probe—first mistakenly treating it as pure crimes. But then they worked outwards—through the shadowy area of operational overlap between criminal gangs and radical groups—till they hit upon what they say are disturbing signs for Punjab. They speak of fresh recruits lying low in sleeper cells and eight new modules busted with the 45 arrests.
Meanwhile, according to Amritsar-based social scientist Harish Puri, “an SFJ video asking gangsters in Punjab to support separatism has gone viral”.
The resurgence of extremist violence has caught many by surprise. Outright Sikh radical politics had long been in hibernation in Punjab, showing up only occasionally, say in attacks on religious leaders around a decade ago or the 2009 killing of Rulde Singh, then chief of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, the Sikh wing of the RSS. Militancy had fizzled out by the mid-1990s though a powerful sentiment lingered in the minds of Sikhs, harking back to the army’s storming of the Golden Temple and the massacre of thousands in 1984.
Panthic orthodoxy, which has a Jat Sikh core to it, was also at loggerheads with many cults that emerged from the subaltern castes. Baba Bhaniarewala, for example, created a separate cult and even attracted politicians looking for Dalit votes in the early 2000s. His cult published an alternative text of the Sikhs’ holy book, with photos of him in Guru Gobind Singh’s attire. Angry reactions from all sections of Khalsa Sikhs—clergy, laity, an Akali regime—followed. Hardliner outfits carried out unsuccessful assassination attempts on the godman.
After 2007, the pattern repeated with Gurmeet Ram Rahim, and amid the sectarian heat, radical groups such as the KCF and the Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) made their presence felt with assassination attempts. The 2009 attack in Vienna by the KZF on the Ravidassia saints, Ramanand Dass and Niranjan Dass, which led to the death of the former, also eventually saw the Ravidassia order declaring themselves separate from the Sikhs.
With an aggressive Hindutva on one flank and rebellious ranks among its subaltern castes, the Sikhs have reasons to be anxious. Then there’s the history—the original issues, Blue Star, and yes, the memory of a pogrom. The Indian State has done little to restore the community’s faith in the justice delivery system. The maple syrup is exacerbating the wounds.
Wanted From Canada
Named in May 2017 FIR (Amritsar dist) for alleged gun-running and terror funding
Gurjit Singh Cheema, Brampton
In charge of gun-running module
Sulinder Singh, Brampton
Suspected Babbar Khalsa International member, frequently visits Pakistan, coordinates with chief of banned ISYF,
arranged gun-running through ISI
Gurjinder Singh, Brampton
Canadian handler who helped fund target-killing module
Gurpreet Singh, Vancouver
Handler-cum-recruiter for fresh modules