Saturday, May 21, 2022

Terror In The Wings

L'affaire Dera Sacha Sauda only highlights the terrorist calculus in Punjab: that at some stage, a convergence of political incompetence, an emotive public issue, and public discontent will abruptly catalyse a resurgence of terror.

Terror In The Wings

Nearly a decade and a half after the comprehensive defeat of terrorism in Punjab in 1993, the forgotten slogans for 'Khalistan' are once again being revived on the lunatic fringes of the state's politics. This time around, the opportunity has been created in the constantly re-orchestrated campaign against the Dera Sacha Sauda--a group regarded as 'heretic' by orthodox Sikhs--and its head, Baba Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, who the radicals accuse of 'blasphemy' and of 'hurting Sikh sentiments'. The Dera had published advertisements with Ram Rahim Singh dressed as the Tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh. The controversy has also dovetailed into party political conflicts, since the Dera had supported the Congress Party in the Assembly Elections in February 2007, helping the Congress secure 37 of 65 seats in the Malwa belt, where the Dera boasts hundreds of thousands of followers. The Congress was, nonetheless, trounced in the elections, but the victorious Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a party that secures its mandate from its claim to represent Sikh interests, was left with a bone to pick with the Dera.

The current protests and demonstrations on the Dera issue have very limited potential for disruption within Punjab. The Khalistani cause has lost whatever little support it ever had among the larger population of the state and is periodically revived only by a handful of externally supported extremist leaders. Radical recruiters have found it nigh impossible to secure new volunteers to the cause, and much 'terrorist' activity over the past years has, in fact, been executed by mercenaries, often non-Sikh criminal elements. It is, nevertheless, useful to recall that the early Khalistani terrorism emerged in the end 1970s out of a protracted campaign against another allegedly 'heretic' group, the Nirankaris, by radical Sikhs, including the Damdami Taksal under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale led the terrorists till his death in Operation Blue Star in 1984, and his rise reflected a familiar pattern of opportunism and manipulation of cynical party politics that is even today visible in Punjab.

Crucially, the external support base of the Khalistan movement remains intact, well supported and funded, and relentlessly active. Indeed, the barest scratch beneath the surface reveals the realities of sustained external support and machinations behind the violent protests and the progressive radicalisation of the current campaign against the Dera Sacha Sauda. Intelligence sources confirm that the present troubles started from the Gurudwara at Talwandi Sabo after a significant amount of 'chatter' between priests there and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) handlers as well as Wadhawa Singh, the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) 'chief', who is being retained in comfort--with a small surviving rump of cadres--at Karachi.

This pattern is not new. Indeed, several surviving Khalistani leaders and their remaining cadres are currently hosted by the ISI in Pakistan, and there is a constant effort to revive recruitment and terrorism in Punjab, as well as a continuous vigil for opportunities that may help provoke a favourable mobilisation. The most significant of these was the campaign against the Hindi film Jo Bole So Nihal, in May 2005, which a faction of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC, the administrative body that manages Sikh shrines) claimed 'hurt Sikh sentiments. As the protests gathered a measure of momentum, a series of bomb blasts were orchestrated in cinema halls in Delhi in the expectation that these may provoke a wider reaction in Punjab. Once again, the executing agency was the BKI. However, crucially, other than the principal executor of this serial bombing, Jagtar Singh Hawara, none of the other conspirators in the case fit the profile of traditional conservative BKI activists. All those subsequently arrested had entirely mercenary reasons for joining the conspiracy, and two of them were Hindus who planted the bombs for money.

Efforts at the revival of the Khalistani terrorist have been continuous, though the rate of 'success' remains poor, with little sympathy for the cause on the ground. Thus, just over the period 2006-07, several incidents reflecting Pakistan backed or based activities to revive the movement have come to light:

June 15, 2007: Punjab Police claimed to have foiled an attempt to reorganise the terrorist base in Punjab by killing some high profile religious and political leaders. The General Secretary of the Shiromani Akali Dal's youth wing in Rupnagar district, Swaranjeet Singh alias Bobby of Bahadarpur, and a Bhindranwale Tigers Force (BTF) militant Gurcharan Singh alias Kala of Bawani village were arrested. Bobby and Kala had planned to assassinate religious leader Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarawale and had formed the Khalsa Action Committee, to recruit 'like-minded persons'.

April 14, 2007: Balbir Singh alias Beera, a Pakistan-trained terrorist, was arrested from his native Chak Thaliwal village in Ferozepore district. He was wanted in a case under the Explosives Act registered against him and others in December 2006. Cases of terrorism, murder and kidnapping for ransom are also pending against him. He was part of the gang of Paramjit Singh Dhadi.

December 24, 2006: Three unidentified terrorists belonging to the Rode faction of ISYF are arrested from Jalandhar. Police recovered 11 kilograms of RDX, 11 detonators, four hand grenades, 11 timer devices, two pistols with four magazines, 100 live cartridges, along with a walkie-talkie set from their possession. The explosives recovered were reportedly meant for disrupting 2007 Assembly elections in Punjab

December 23, 2006: The Jalandhar Police arrested Paramjit Singh Dhadi and Amolak Singh of the ISYF. Dhadi was on a visit to his ancestral village Gakhal, when he was arrested. Amolak Singh was arrested from an unspecified location, with three kilograms of RDX, a hand grenade, three detonators and 50 cartridges.

October 18, 2006: Nishan Singh, a terrorist belonging to the Khalistan Liberation Force, was arrested from Batala Road at Kalanaur in the Gurdaspur district. He had provided shelter to Jagtar Singh Hawara and Paramjeet Singh Bheora, two of the accused in the Beant Singh assassination case after their escape from Burail jail in Chandigarh. Police also claimed that the three had hatched a conspiracy to revive terrorism in Punjab and that Nishan Singh was a member of various terrorist outfits having their base abroad, including in Pakistan.

April 28, 2006: At least eight persons are wounded in a bomb blast that occurred inside a bus carrying 45 passengers in the Jalandhar bus terminus. Subsequently, on June 18, 2006, Satnam Singh alias Satta, a terrorist of the Pakistan-based Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), confessed during interrogation that he carried out the bomb blasts, on the instructions of the outfit's chief, Ranjit Singh Neeta.

March 21, 2006: Four BKI terrorists are arrested from Chandigarh, and one kilogram of RDX, arms and ammunition are seized from their possession. The four, Sukhwinder Singh alias Sukhi alias Bullet, Dilbagh Singh, Ranjit Singh, all residents of Ropar district in Punjab and Balbir Singh alias Nepali, a resident of Solan district in Himachal Pradesh, were in contact with other BKI activists and were one of the several modules raised by the outfit for the revival of terrorism.

March 20, 2006: Paramjeet Singh Bheora, 'head of operations' of the BKI in India, and two of his accomplices, while planning to set up base in Delhi, are arrested by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police near G T Karnal road. Four kilograms of RDX, three detonators, one remote control device along with a wireless set, one timer, three pistols, 39 live cartridges and three fired cartridges are recovered from them.

Such incidents have a continuous history since 1993, with repeated attempt to revive the terror in Punjab. Between 1995 and 2005, at least 100 civilians were killed in terrorist violence in Punjab--overwhelmingly in bomb attacks on soft targets. Well over a thousand kilograms and a large arsenal of small weapons has been recovered over this period, as Pakistan-backed Khalistani terrorists continue to be arrested on a regular basis.

The principal base of active Khalistani terrorist organisations remains in Pakistan, with several groups enjoying the active patronage of the ISI, which has also assisted in the coordination of their activities with Islamist terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as well as with organised crime operators, and drug and weapons' smugglers who have assisted in the movement of men and materials across the border into Punjab. The principal groups currently hosted by Pakistan include:

BKI: Wadhawa Singh Babbar, Chief of Babbar Khalsa continues to operate from Pakistan. A large number of youth associated with Babbar Khalsa and its religious wing Akhand Kirtani Jatha have under gone training from time to time in Pakistan, with the objective of using them as reserve force at appropriate time. The BKI been most active in executing terrorist strikes in Punjab over the past decade.

Khalistan Commando Force (KCF)-Panjwar: Headed by Paramjit Singh Panjwar who has been camping in Pakistan for over 13 years. This group currently has limited striking potential. Nevertheless its alliance with ISYF, Sikh Youth of America and Sikh Youth of Belgium makes it a numerically large group, adding to its influence. KCF-Panjwar has a number of sympathisers in U.K., Germany, Belgium, USA and Canada. About 100 youth in small batches belonging to these countries have undergone training in the handling of weapons and explosives from time to time. Panjwar's links with smugglers and Islamist terrorist groups are old and well-known. Panjwar has failed to muster dependable support within India.

ISYF-Rode: Lakhbir Singh Rode, the nephew of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, is the coordinator of this group, and has links with Islamist terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Rode played a major role in shaping the Khalistan-Kashmir International, a joint platform for strikes by Sikh and Islamist extremist in the aftermath of the setback received by terrorists on the K2M (Khalistan-Kashmir-Muslim militancy) front, which was the pioneer platform for joint strikes by Punjab militants, J&K militants and Islamist terrorist elements in the early 1990s. ISYF under Lakhbir Singh Rode has its branches spread over a dozen countries in western Europe and Canada.

Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF): Ranjit Singh Neeta, hailing from Poonch area in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), is the head of this outfit, which had an operational alliance with ISYF & BKI in the past, is now operating independently. Neeta's associates were responsible for a series of explosions in running trains and buses in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana & J&K. Neeta emerged as a leading terrorist not only in the context of Punjab militancy but developed operational alliances with splinter groups of J&K militants. Neeta is presently very active and transferred a number of consignments of explosives, small weapons, ammunition and fake currency to his associates in Punjab over the years. With an estimated dozen-odd active associates in Punjab, he retains some striking potential, and has executed a number of strikes in the state, including the Jalandhar bus terminus blasts in April 2006 and the Goraya railway track explosions near Goraya in January 2004.

Dal Khalsa International: Headed by Gajinder Singh 'Hijacker', tried to float a joint group with J&K militants, indications of which surfaced in 1997-98. This group is one of the most active, with substantial funding available through Khalistani elements abroad. Kanwarpal Singh Bittu remains Dal Khalsa's principal point man in Punjab with excellent contacts with disruptive and subversive elements in the state and beyond.

The Council of Khalistan, represented by Balbir Singh Sandhu, has probably the longest stay in Pakistan.

The ISI also supports and coordinates its activities with a number of active diaspora groups across the world, using its embassies and consulates and points of contact, coordination and recruitment. The principal diaspora groups include 

  • the Council of Khalistan, headed by Gurmeet Singh Aulakh, based in the USA; 
  • the Khalistan Affairs Centre, based in Washington DC, headed by Amarjit Singh, a close associate of ISYF elements in Canada and Europe; 
  • the Sikh Youth of America, with a strong presence in California, with J.S. Kang, John Gill, and Jasjit Singh Fauji among its active coordinators; 
  • the American Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, headed by Pritpal Singh, who was involved in a number of terrorist incidents, including the Ludhiana bank robbery; 
  • the Dal Khalsa International, USA, with Ajit Singh Pannu as its main coordinator; the Nankana Sahib Foundation Trust, headed by Ganga Singh Dhillon; 
  • the World Sikh Organisation; the Kamagata Maru Dal of Khalistan; the Sikh Youth of Belgium. A number a smaller splinters are also active across Europe, including the BKI in Germany, UK, France, Norway, Belgium and Switzerland; 
  • the ISYF in Germany and UK; 
  • and the Kamagata Maru Dal in Germany. 

Significantly, Canada deported a BKI terrorist, Bachan Singh Sogi, in July 2006, and in early June 2007, the Punjab Police traced the main conspirators of the May 22, 2005, Delhi cinema hall blasts, to Germany; the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate at New Delhi subsequently issued letters rogatory seeking information from German authorities relating to Satnaam Singh, the son-in-law of BKI chief Wadhawa Singh, his wife, Sukhwinder Kaur, and another woman, indentified as Kanwaljit Kaur.

The activities of these various diaspora organisations have been sustained and continuous. Among the most prominent of recent manifestations were large meetings and demonstrations at Frankfurt and in Birmingham. On May 6, 2007, a meeting organised by the Council of Khalistan at Birmingham, UK, was attended by the habitual India-baiter in the UK Parliament, Lord Nazir Ahmed, and by 'representatives' or a number of other groups including the obscure 'Tehrik-e-Kashmir' represented by Muhammad Ghalib.

On June 6, 2007, similarly, a rally was successfully organised at Frankfurt (part of a series planned on that date for Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, Surrey, Frankfurt, Sydney and London--the other rallies made little impression) by a combination of diaspora groups under the banner of the "German Sikh Community", which sought, among other things, strong action against the Dera Sacha Sauda and its "criminal Baba" Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh.

Such 'events' are regularly stage managed by extremist diaspora groups in close coordination with the ISI, which uses Pakistani embassies and consulates in various countries as contact points with anti-India extremist elements, not only for propaganda activities and fund generation, but, crucially, for recruitment. A trickle of volunteers continues to be diverted by these radical diaspora organisations into Pakistani training camps, building the 'reserves' that are to be activated when conditions become 'favourable'.

Such conditions remain, at the present juncture, a remote possibility in Punjab. Nevertheless, the Pakistani and Khalistani calculus is essentially long term and gambles on continuing political mismanagement to eventually create the conditions for a revival of terrorism in Punjab over the coming decade or more. The unfortunate reality is that the succession of governments in the state, since 1993, has continued Punjab's disastrous traditions of misgovernance, ineptitude, partisan polarisation and corruption. In February 2007, the outgoing Director General of Police, S.S. Virk, warned that crime rates in the state, particularly with regard to murder, rape and kidnapping, were rising due to increasing unemployment and the spread of urbanisation. The extremist calculus is that, at some stage, a convergence of political incompetence, an emotive public issue, and public discontent will abruptly catalyse a resurgence of terror. That, precisely, is what enforcement agencies and the Indian state need to shield against.

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal