South Asian Insider
Panth And A Foreign Hand
A new real threat of Khalistani terror, fuelled and funded by foreign gurudwaras patronised by liberal white politicians, has revived memories of a blood-drenched era of Punjab’s history 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? 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. Punjab Police have found links between two terror modules busted in 2017 and four Sikhs currently living in Canada. 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. 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.
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