The Nirankari congregation at Adliwal village outside Amritsar was at its peak given that it was a particularly pleasant Sunday morning on November 18. Then, just before noon, two young men, cotton scarves masking their faces, rode up on a motorcycle. One pointed a pistol at the two women volunteers on security duty at the gate of the satsang bhavan (prayer hall), while the second, who had been riding pillion, rushed inside and lobbed a grenade. The deafening explosion indoors killed three worshippers. Some 21 others sustained shrapnel injuries.
Police said Nirankari congregations, which have been off most terrorist hit lists since the late 1980s, was a deliberately selected ‘soft target’.
While the Punjab police moved swiftly and have already arrested one attacker, Bikramjit Singh, and identified the second as Avtar Singh, the bombing in Amritsar comes in the wake of a rather chilling warning by India’s army chief, Bipin Rawat. At a gathering of army officers and senior civil servants in New Delhi on November 3, he said that attempts were being made to revive the insurgency in Punjab. “We can’t close our eyes to what is happening in Punjab. If we do not take early action now, it will be too late,” he said. Clearly on to something, Rawat reiterated his warning two days later while addressing the annual founders’ day function at the Punjab Public School in Nabha. Acknowledging the possibility of a terror strike anywhere in the country, he said that “Punjab is more vulnerable in view of its past history and the continuing exposure of terror modules in the recent past”. And although he scaled down the urgency for action at a subsequent interaction at Jammu’s Mamun Cantonment, the chief emphasised the need to stay alert to emerging threats from overseas Khalistani separatists. He specifically cited the New York-based separatist outfit, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), and its call for a worldwide referendum in 2020, on an independent Sikh state or Khalistan.
Back in Punjab, the state police and intelligence establishment has long been aware of the SFJ’s dubious designs. Currently headed by US-based lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, who describes himself as the group’s ‘legal advisor’, the SFJ launched its campaign for the referendum from New York in June 2014. The outfit aims to conduct what its functionaries call a “non-binding referendum” online in November 2020. After gaining enough “positive votes” for Khalistan, they plan to approach the United Nations for a “binding referendum”.
Although an apparently pointless endeavour, the SFJ and its cohorts are deviously employing the 2020 campaign to radicalise young Sikhs in Punjab as well as within the diaspora.
An SFJ website offers 2020 banners, decals, tellingly alongside T-shirts bearing images of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Khalistan flags. A virulent social media campaign invites Sikhs in 20 countries to support the demand for separate nationhood, while claiming that “if the number of positive votes crosses three million, then Punjab would become a separate nation like Pakistan”. Both state and central security officials have also taken note of Pannu’s attempts to validate the SFJ plebiscite call by publicising online his visits to meet separatists in Catalonia (Spain), Venezuela and Iraq.
SFJ’s associates are also running a parallel, underground campaign across Punjab. There have been a number of surreptitious conclaves, including one in January 2016 at the privately-run Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar. Referendum 2020 hoardings or slogans simply spray-painted on walls have come up in Mohali, Sangrur, Fatehgarh, Barnala, Gurdaspur, Patiala, Moga, Amritsar, Hoshiarpur and Tarn Taran. Attempts to organise a statewide cycle rally to promote the ‘referendum’ and distribute militant memorabilia were thwarted after police got wind of the plans in October 2017.
SFJ has also been hosting public gatherings to promote the plebiscite in New York, London and Toronto. For one such event at London’s Trafalgar Square on August 12, the outfit even offered to pay airfares for Sikh youth willing to fly down from Punjab.
Pannu and his friends maintain their demand for plebiscite “has no room for violence”. But consider the evidence: this May, police arrested former Territorial Army (TA) soldiers Dharminder Singh and Kirpal Singh for attacking two liquor vends in Batala district with Molotov cocktails. During interrogation, the two confessed to Pannu and his associates in the US, UK and Malaysia instructing and funding them. They said they were “instructed to torch licensed liquor shops and other government properties in Punjab”.
Pannu himself has not shied away from venting his ire. This April, when police arrested four Sikh youth who were allegedly planning to unfurl 2020 banners at Indian Premier League matches in Mohali, he is said to have openly threatened Punjab police officers, including DGP Suresh Arora and state intelligence chief Dinkar Gupta. He reportedly threatened retribution against children of police officers studying in the US, Canada, UK, EU, Australia and New Zealand.
On September 6, he appeared in a YouTube video describing Union home minister Rajnath Singh as a “dehshatgard (terrorist)”. This was after Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter handles associated with Pannu and Referendum 2020 were blocked. Pannu claimed this was done at New Delhi’s behest. Twenty days later, when Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh criticised 2020 and the SFJ, Pannu publicly dared him “to remove his security detail for two days and see what happens”. According to state intelligence dossiers, the SFJ chief went on to ask police personnel on the ministerial security detail to back the 2020 referendum.
Security officials say SFJ’s activities caught the attention of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in early 2015. According to them, the ISI initiated ‘Operation Express’ to help finance and expand SFJ’s efforts to force a referendum on Punjab. This included the promotion of Referendum 2020 through an ISI front organisation, the Dyal Singh Research & Cultural Forum (DSRCF), which has been installing massive hoardings and posters at gurudwaras in Pakistan during visits by Sikh jathas (pilgrim groups) from India. DSRCF agents are also known to be working closely with the SFJ in countries with a sizeable Sikh population. Says a senior Punjab Police officer, “By connecting with the SFJ, the ISI has gained access to a ready resource base of radicalised Sikh youth willing to do its bidding.” This is something ISI handlers had sorely lacked ever since Khalistani terrorism was emphatically beaten back in the mid-90s. Since then, Punjab’s 80,000-strong, battle-hardened police force had kept things well below a simmer. Officers say that a robust human intelligence network with moles in just about every Khalistani outfit relegated to havens in Pakistan or the West, worked well to scuttle most terrorist plans.
Things began changing in the summer of 2015, when the Punjab countryside erupted with rage over the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Faridkot’s Bargari village and the subsequent police firing which killed two Sikh protesters at Behbal Kalan in October 2015. This added to the raging indignation over the Akal Takht decision to pardon Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh for his 2007 ‘transgression’ of trying to imitate Guru Gobind Singh.
Police officers say the continuing incidents of desecration of the Granth Sahib have been fuelling radicalisation. “The recent report of the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission which has held [former chief minister] Parkash Singh Badal responsible for the police firing in Behbal Kalan has only added to the mix,” says a police officer who has been tracking attempts to revive the Khalistan campaign.
Consider the following: since March 2017, as many as 17 Khalistani terror modules have been exposed and neutralised in Punjab, resulting in the arrest of 81 terrorists. Among those arrested, several are rank newcomers with no record of any sympathy for the Khalistan cause. Most were self-radicalised in the wake of the desecrations and then cultivated by the ISI and SFJ via social media.
This is not to say the Khalistani ‘old guard’ has been idle. This February, CM Amarinder handed Canadian premier Justin Trudeau a dossier with the names and details of nine Canada-based Sikhs involved in abetting terrorist activity in Punjab. Among those listed, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Malkiat Singh Fauji, Gurjeet Singh Cheema, Gurpreet Singh Lande and Gurjinder Singh Pannu are charged with being involved in recruiting terrorists, terror-funding, procuring and supplying weapons and explosives and arranging weapons training for recruits.
Unsurprisingly, Pannu and the SFJ have direct links with the nine Canadian Sikhs as well as Khalistani operatives in the UK, Germany and Australia. Intelligence officials say Nijjar and the UK-based Khalistani Paramjit Singh Pamma have been seen onstage at SFJ events to promote Referendum 2020 in Toronto, New York and London. Nijjar also flew down to Toronto to provide legal assistance to Jagtar Singh Tara (convicted this year for the assassination of ex-Punjab CM Beant Singh in 1995), who was detained in Thailand in January 2015. And when the authorities in Portugal later detained Pamma, Pannu stepped in to contest the case on his behalf.
The SFJ has also been cultivating armed gangsters in Punjab. In a YouTube video, Pannu promised wanted gangsters “justice” if they support Referendum 2020. An intelligence dossier also describes a trip Pannu made to Hong Kong this March to offer legal support to dreaded gangster Ramanjit Singh Romy, detained in response to an Interpol Red Corner Notice at the behest of the Punjab police.
With the ISI now in overall command in Pakistan, the Indian security establishment may have to contend with ‘Operation Express’ re-operationalising Pakistan’s erstwhile K2 (Kashmir-Khalistan) Plan.
Earlier this month, Shahid Qayoom, Fazil Bashir, Mir Rouf Ahmad and Mir Umar Ramzan-four Kashmiri students enrolled at Jalandhar’s Saint Soldier College of Engineering and Technology-were charged with lobbing grenades at the Maksudan police station in Jalandhar on September 14. All four were recently recruited by the Zakir Musa-led Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Gazwat-ul-Hind (AGH).
Police officers say Musa, who was marginalised within Kashmir’s terror hierarchy after he questioned Pakistan’s role and threatened to behead the Hurriyat separatists in 2017, has since mended fences with the ISI. He is now believed to be heading a new Jaish-e-Mohammed-backed offensive aimed at spreading terror outside the Valley-to Punjab and even Delhi. The Punjab police has arrested nearly a dozen Kashmiri students in possession of weapons that include Kalashnikov rifles and grenades. One such student was detained this August in Jammu with a bag containing seven hand grenades meant for random attacks on crowds in Delhi.
Police officers probing the Adliwal incident now know that both Bikramjit and Avtar Singh are local rural youth recruited by the Pakistan-based Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) terrorist Harmeet Singh aka ‘Happy’ or ‘PhD’. As suspected, both were initially recruited via social media and later instructed on VoIP calls.
Now, they are investigating another troubling aspect-whether the Pakistan ordnance factory-issued HG-84 grenade used in the attack was sourced from Kashmiri AGH and JeM elements now known to be present in Punjab. The Nirankari Bhavan attack came within days of an intelligence alert of Musa being spotted in Amritsar.