Many Sikh and Hindu groups, as well as organizations not affiliated with any religion, have attempted to establish peace between the Khalistan proponents and the Government of India. Akalis continued to witness the radicalization of Sikh politics, fearing disastrous consequences. In response, President Harchand Singh Longowal reinstated the head of the Akali Dal and pushed for a peace initiative that reiterated the importance of Hindu-Sikh amity, condemning Sikh extremist violence, therefore declaring that the Akali Dal was not in favor of Khalistan.
In 1985, The Government of India attempted to seek a political solution to the grievances of the Sikhs through the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, which took place between Longowal and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Accord – recognizing the religious, territorial, and economic demands of the Sikhs that were thought to be non-negotiable under Indira Gandhi’s tenure – agreed to establish commissions and independent tribunals in order to resolve the Chandigarh issue and the river dispute, laying the basis for Akali Dal’s victory in the coming elections.
Though providing a basis for a return to normality, Chandigarh evidently remained an issue and the agreement was denounced by Sikh militants who refused to give up the demand for an independent Khalistan. These extremists, who were left unappeased, would react by assassinating Longowal. Such behavior would lead to the dismissal of negotiations, whereby both Congress and the Akali parties accused each other of aiding terrorism.
The Indian Government pointed to the involvement of a “foreign hand,” referring to Pakistan’s abetting of the movement. Punjab noted to the Indian Government that militants were able to obtain sophisticated arms through sources outside the country and by developing links with sources within the country. As such, the Government believed that large illegal flows of arms were flowing through the borders of India, with Pakistan being responsible for trafficking arms. India claimed that Pakistan provided sanctuary, arms, money, and moral support to the militants, though most of the accusations were based on circumstantial evidence.
After India’s independence from British rule in 1947, the province of Punjab was split into two, with parts of it being allotted to Pakistan and India. Published reports mention that after the Indian independence, a group of Sikhs demanded a separate Punjabi-speaking state (the native language of Sikhs) and a special place in the constitution of India. They reportedly felt that the Indian government was not treating them fairly by denying them a separate state. This was followed by the formation of an organization known as Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) which had a Sikh majority. PEPSU, allegedly, encouraged the Sikhs to demand an independent Sikh state within India.
However, the Indian government formed a larger state with a population consisting of both Hindus and Sikhs—a move that is thought to further dissatisfy the Sikhs. Eventually, in 1966, a separate state of Punjab was formed with Punjabi as the official language of the state. However, it has been reported that various fundamentalist Sikh groups were disgruntled as many regions that they claimed were rightfully theirs were allotted to the neighboring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
News and media agencies report that during the early 1980s, with an intention of winning over the Hindu voters of northern states, the reigning Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, allegedly used the differences between the Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab to their political advantage. Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, the leader of Akali Dal (ruling Sikh political party of Punjab at that time) allegedly started the Dharma Yudh (Religious War) in August 1982, and all the Akali Dal members resigned from the Legislative Assembly and the Parliament.
The tension reached its peak during 1983–1984 when the government of India, as alleged by various Sikh organizations, did not pay attention to the grievances of the Sikhs and their supporting political parties. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a radical Sikh leader, gained huge popularity during this period. He and his armed followers, allegedly, carried out various terrorist activities in the state to drive out the Hindu population from India. It is thought that most of the militant groups can trace their origins to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In 1984, Bhindranwale and his supporters occupied the Golden Temple, a holy place of the Sikhs at Amritsar (in Punjab), and established their headquarters on the temple premises. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, launched the “Operation Blue Star” to flush out the terrorists from the besieged temple. This attack on the Sikh religious shrine that reportedly killed hundreds is thought by most experts to have infuriated the ardent Sikhism followers, subsequently leading to increased extremist activities. Eventually, in October 1984, the central government laid down the President’s Rule in the state of Punjab.
The Indian government claims that the intention behind Operation Blue Star was not to attack the religious identity of the Sikhs but to get hold of the armed Sikh Militants. However, the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, by her Sikh bodyguards reportedly ignited anti-Sikh riots and claimed the lives of thousands of Sikhs. After the 1984 carnage, the number of militant groups operating in Punjab, allegedly, multiplied.
Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) is considered by the Indian authorities as one of the oldest and most prominent organizations that, as of 2005, continue to spread the ideology of Khalistan.
Babbar Khalsa International was reportedly founded in Canada by Sukhdev Singh Babbar and Talwinder Singh Parmar in the early 1980s. The BKI claims that its objective is to have an independent Sikh state Khalistan. In 1992, the group seemingly split because of ideological differences among the leaders, and Talwinder Singh Parmar became the leader of the Babbar Khalsa Parmar faction. As of 2005, intelligence reports state that BKI is a part of a Germany-based terrorist organization and also has established close links with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, accused by the Indian government of encouraging terrorism activities in Indian-administered Punjab. Authorities blamed the BKI for the 1985 Air India plane bombing that took place near the Ireland coast and reportedly claimed more than 300 lives.
Babbar Khalsa members are also accused by the Indian government of masterminding and executing the assassination of the Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, in 1995. As though by most analysts, as of 2005, even though the terrorist activities of Babbar Khalsa are not as prominent as they were in the 1980s, the movement still allegedly garners the support of Sikh communities all over the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Babbar Khalsa is, as of 2005, listed as a terrorist organization by India, the United States, and Canada.
After Operation Blue Star was carried out by the Indian army, in 1984, against the Sikh militants occupying the Sikh shrine Golden Temple, the Indira Gandhi government bore severe criticism from staunch Sikhs all over the world. The International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) was allegedly founded by Amrik Singh and Jasbir Singh Road in the United Kingdom after the Golden Temple crisis.
Soon after it was founded, the group is thought to have undergone a series of splits. Several splinter groups emerged with offices reportedly in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Germany. The organization was allegedly involved in several terrorist activities in Punjab, including the assassination attempt on the Chief Minister of Punjab in 1997. The British government declared the ISYF as a proscribed organization, which was followed by a ban on the organization by the Indian government. The group was declared disbanded by one of the representatives of the ISYF in 2002. Amrik Singh proclaimed, in 2002, that the group had been disbanded as it was categorized as a terrorist organization. On April 30, 2004, the United States included ISYF in its Terrorist Exclusion List.
Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) was allegedly founded with the help of Sikhs based in Jammu, India. There is limited information about the strength and organization of this group. Reports suggest that Ranjit Singh Neeta, allegedly based in Pakistan, is the self-proclaimed leader of this terrorist outfit.
The group is thought to operate mainly in Punjab, Delhi, and Jammu, but there are reports citing the operations of the group in Nepal as well. Law enforcement officials in Punjab have claimed, on several occasions, that KZF has links with Pakistan’s ISI, along with several terrorist groups active in Jammu and Kashmir, including the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
About Operation Shivalik
In what has been billed as a pre-emptive counter-terrorist measure, the Uttar Pradesh Government has ordered the police to conduct a door-to-door census of some 6.5 lakh Sikhs who now inhabit a seven-district region in the Terai, involving house-to-house searches, questioning of the heads of families about the names, ages, and addresses of relatives, as well as surveillance of pilgrims who visit the 300-odd gurudwaras in the area.
The action has galvanized the mostly affluent Sikh farming community – comprising about 40 percent of the region’s population – into resistance through large organized meetings to protest what they refer to as their “second-class citizenship”.
Says Lakhminder Singh Dhillon, 55, publicity secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Sikh Pratinidhi Board: “Our backs are now against the wall. The Government has thrown the Sikhs at the mercy of the police and we are determined to fight this.”
The State Government’s justification for this drastic headcount, which threatens to alienate a hitherto peaceful Sikh community more eager to protect its prosperity than support demands for Khalistan in a far-off place, is based on 10 months of intelligence reports. The reports allege that the Terai is fast becoming a hotbed of terrorist activities like gun-running from across the Nepal border and illegal manufacture of lethal weapons.
Filed by local intelligence units and the State Intelligence Bureau (IB), the reports are a follow-up to Operation Shivalik, a massive police campaign launched in January 1985 to flush out terrorists possibly lying low in the Himalayan foothills. But by the police’s own admission, the operation fizzled out and resulted in only one case under the Anti-terrorist Act. Still, intelligence reports continued to paint an alarming picture of terrorists holed up in posh and near inaccessible farm-houses in the Terai.
Sikh farmers of the Terai with the Punjab extremists have spared off charges from the community of second-class treatment.
The Sikh community, it appears, has a reason for complaint. When the police began to move into action on August 8, 1986, on the basis of the information in the reports, they found that much of it was either concocted or based on rumors. Raids on suspected terrorist hide-outs including 31 gurudwaras and 137 farmhouses – close to the Indo-Nepal border and touching the districts of Lakhimpur Kheri, Pilibhit, and Naini Tal – produced no incriminating evidence.
IB reports had identified nearly 38 Sikhs arrested during Operation Shivalik as terrorists or criminals having links with terrorists. Police records, however, name only one Balraj Singh alias Balli arrested on August 16 in Bajpur is a known extremist and a member of the Jinda gang. Five other cases of local criminals suspected of having links with terrorists are still under verification.
Says Naini Tal’s Additional Police Superintendent N.R. Srivastava: “Only Balraj Singh fits into the terrorist category as he along with Nirmal Singh and Sukhdev Singh had looted the State Bank branch of Kashipur on July 21. We are trying to get Nirmal Singh and Sukhdev Singh to Naini Tal so that they can be confronted with Balraj Singh.”
The case of Sardar Mastan Singh is but one example of the dubious credibility of the alarmist state intelligence reports. He was detained on April 12 at his farm in the Singhvi police circle and interrogated about the whereabouts of one of his seven sons, truck driver Kala Singh, 28, who was not traceable. It later turned out to be a case of a runaway son and the police released Mastan Singh. But he is still listed in intelligence records as an extremist.
The Lakhimpur Kheri police also came up red-faced following an investigation of the Hemkund Transport Agency in Nepal, which was alleged to be smuggling foreign-made arms from Nepal to the Terai area through Lakhimpur Kheri, Pilibhit, and Naini Tal – and there on to Punjab. The reports claimed that the agency carried out the operation on buses, trucks, taxi cars, and jeeps which plied their way to Pallia, about 35 km inside the border. The owners were identified as Kuldeep Singh, Gurdeep Singh, and Pritam Singh, all Sikhs now settled in Nepal.
But the police investigation revealed that the report was baseless. There is only one road link from Nepal to the Lakhimpur district. India’s last railhead,
Gauri Phanta touches the border of Dhangarhi in Nepal’s Kailali district. There is only one road that links Dhangarhi to Gauri Phanta which has three barricades on the Indian side: customs, sales tax, and police.
According to the Pallia police, no commercial vehicles owned by Hemkund or any other transport agency are allowed beyond Gauri Phanta without crossing the three barricades. The second contradiction was that the transport agency, operating for over 30 years now, does not run taxis, cars, or jeeps.
According to another intelligence report Sewa Singh, a notorious Punjab terrorist who was the bodyguard of dismissed Punjab SSP Simranjit Singh Mann, had a hide-out in Pallia and that he conducted a training camp for extremists in the Hatha Soth area on the Pauri-Bijnor border. This report, in fact, was the prime factor behind the launching of Operation Shivalik.
But a senior police officer in the area admits: “We did not find even a shred of evidence in this connection.” Similarly, in Pilibhit which has a population of over 96,000 Sikhs, the police have recovered illicit but sophisticated firearms on a couple of occasions but have not been able to establish terrorist links among the arrested Sikhs.
Intelligence records, however, indicate the arrest of nine suspected terrorists in this district in the past year. “The only arrest we can qualify in this category is that of Sukhdeo Singh alias Sukha, the Uttar Pradesh treasurer of the All-India Sikh Students Federation,” Brij Lal, SP, said.
The arrest of Kaghuvir Singh, 50, a retired tank driver with the army’s armored corps and a maternal uncle of terrorist Harjinder Singh alias Jinda on September 25, is perhaps the only catch by the Pilibhit police so far in which another terrorist link may be established. Owner of a 150-acre farm in Madho Tanda, 5 km from the Nepal border, Raghuvir Singh was arrested for possessing a Pakistan-made self-loading rifle. The police dug out the rifle, buried near his house, following his interrogation.
Interviewed in the police lock-up, Raghuvir claimed that Jinda had come to his farmhouse in January 1985. “He stayed in my house for four or five days and was mona. He had come to participate in the marriage of one of my sons and since then I have never heard from him or his family.” But he emphatically denies knowing about Jinda’s terrorist connections.
He claims he purchased the rifle in 1975 in Rajasthan from a Punjabi Sikh along with 50 cartridges for Rs 5,000, but the police believe there may be more to it than this simple explanation. Raghuvir says that he buried the rifle due to increased police activity in the area and his known relationship with Jinda.
The seizure of caches of arms in Ramnagar, Kashipur, and Bajpur have been treated as cases connected with terrorism in intelligence records. But Srivastava says most of the cases involve not terrorists but the rank and file Sikhs. Srivastava, Pilibhit SP Brij Lal, and Lakhimpur Kheri SP Padman Singh believe that the region’s Sikhs have been purchasing arms largely in anticipation of possible attacks on them or their properties by the majority community.
But Sikhs living in this once densely-forested area, have traditionally kept arms and ammunition to meet the threat of wild animals and even bandits. “In the change of perspective now, especially after the Hindu-Sikh riots, the Sikhs have started further strengthening their arsenals and due to a blanket ban on issue of new licenses in the state, they seem to have resorted to large-scale purchase of dangerous weapons like Sten guns or self-loading rifles or revolvers of prohibited caliber like the .455 mm,” says Pushkar Sen, a senior IB official who is co-ordinating the intelligence operations. The police agree but do not have any idea about where these deadly weapons come from.
But the silver lining in this situation has been the refreshing candor displayed by senior police officers who, while stressing the need to maintain constant vigilance against terrorism, have refused to succumb to the temptation of sensationalizing the issue and have been willing to publicly criticize the credibility of their own government’s intelligence information and reports.