Though the existence of demand for a separate Sikh state can be traced back to the period before Indian Independence, the violence associated with the demand had its origins only in the late 1970s, that surged through 1980s and early 1990s. The fifteen years of Khalistani violence that saw thousands of Sikhs massacred during that period could stage a return if the attempts of the foreign diaspora and foreign influence to reignite and fuel Khalistani sentiments are not curbed. According to the research conducted by the Hudson Institute, Pakistani Intelligence ISI might be involved in the funding and organization of the pro-Khalistani terrorism.
The US Department of State’s Country Report on Terrorism 2019 :Pakistan says, “Islamabad has yet to take decisive actions against Indian- and Afghanistan-focused militants who would undermine their operational capability.” It is widely believed that both the Kashmir terrorism and Khalistani terrorism represent implementation of the Pakistan’s plan for India, which is, “bleeding India with a thousand cuts”. Even when the USA and international community criticize and condemn Pakistan for its role in harbouring terrorists.
Despite the rising public opinion against Pakistan within the United States, America for some reasons never considered reshaping its foreign foreign policy to suppress terrorism and jihad in Pakistan. Instead, peddled the belief that Pakistan’s terrorism is a problem for the regional countries that does not concern the United States. However, when Mumbai was attacked in November 2008 by the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists, 174 people were killed including several Americans. After the Mumbai tragedy, the USA acted as if it had taken notice of the Pakistan’s ISI and Pakistan sponsored terrorism and started regular Congressional hearings to discuss terrorism related matters. The United States government, however, ignored the violence perpetrated by the Khalistani separatists who were active in United States, UK and Canada.
The most alarming development which seems taking place is perhaps the co-ordination between the Khalistani and the Kashmiri separatists and terrorists. This was showed in the recent protests and demonstrations held in the western countries. Some examples of this co-ordination are the August 2020 New York demonstration against India and September 2019 incident when these activists captured slogans and images from the Black Lives Matter movement . Similar demonstrations also took place in Washington DC, Houston, Ottawa, London, Brussels, Geneva and other
Therefore, proper investigation of the Khalistani separatist activities, especially in North America, under the framework of the law is of utmost importance in determining national security planning. Also, the rise of Khalistani activism in the United States must be understood in terms of the growing India-US ties to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Pakistan, which is an ally of China harbors its own ambitions to weaken India and thus damaging Indo-US relation by covertly supporting Khalistani activism would be in its agenda.
The Khalistani movement and Pakistan’s role in it
In 1947, India was divided into two countries and Islamic Republic of Pakistan was formed on religious lines. According to the 1941 census of the undivided Punjab, 53% of the population were Muslims, Hindus represented 29% while the Sikhs constituted only 15%.
After India gained independence, some Sikh separatists demanded a separate state, much on the lines of Pakistan. Though, this time they wanted a state where they formed a majority. The demand was declined by the Indian government for its communal nature. The Sikh political leadership changed considerably in the years that followed and eventually the demand was for a state based on culture and language and not religion.
This led to the Punjab Suba movement and on 1 November, 1966, Punjab and Haryana were formed. Hill regions were transferred to Himachal Pradesh. However, the separatists were not pleased and soon arms were taken up by these Sikh separatists in order to create a separate Sikh country.
Even though the local causes for the rise of Sikh militancy is debatable, Pakistan’s role in supporting the armed revolt is believed to be true and a direct consequence of 1971 break up of Pakistan, when Bangladesh was formed out of East Pakistan with the help of the Indian armed forces. Following 1971 war, the only thing Pakistan wanted was revenge, and more specifically, “bleeding India with a thousand cuts.” Thus, post 1971 Pakistan’s policy and strategical measures underwent transition and became entirely dedicated to hurt India along the religious, political and ethnic lines. In this way, the foundation of the Khalistan movement was laid.
The ethnic cleansing, forced conversions, targeted attacks on Gurudwaras have reduced the Sikhs, Hindus and the Christians into a small fraction of a community in Pakistan. Yet Pakistan assumes to be the Champion of Khalistani causes and support the Khalistan militancy.
Owen Sirrs in his 2016 book Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate: Covert Action and Internal Operations gave a description about the role of Pakistan in supporting Khalistan movement. “Pakistanis were reevaluating their UW (unconventional warfare) program” the book says as “the strategy was not achieving its objectives, namely weakening India, forcing a referendum on Kashmir’s future, and eventually incorporating all of 1947 Kashmir into Pakistan.” Special Services Group (SSG) came into existence in 1957 trained by the CIA and US Army, led by the commander Lt. Colonel Abubakar Osman Mitha. Sirrs said “SSG’s creation reflected a broad trend in Pakistani army thinking regarding insurgent warfare.”
After the Operation Gibraltar carried out by the SSG and the 1965 war, the ISI became the principal supporter of Khalistani terrorism and implemented the strategy “West Pakistan providing access to Kashmir and Punjab while East Pakistan enabled ISI and SSG to tap into active insurgencies in India’s remote Assam province”. Sirrs also mentioned that Pakistan’s General ul-Haq saw the Khalistani insurgency as “an opportunity to weaken and distract the Indian government by miring it in yet another insurgent war ‘of a thousand cuts.’”
It is believed that the ISI in Pakistan mostly cater to the Islamists but its association with the Khalistani extremists is based on “a weakened, divided, and distracted India was most certainly a desirable objective even if this required alliances with otherwise unlikely parties such as the Khalistan extremists. As an instrument of state policy, it was ISI’s mission to exploit the Sikh extremists for Pakistan’s national interests.”
Sikhs For Justice or SFJ
The Ministry of Home affairs under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) banned the UK-based secessionist group called Sikhs For Justice organization in 2019 and declared several members linked to it as terrorists. Later, terrorism-linked charges were filed by National Investigation Agency(NIA) against ten people which also had Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the leader of the Sikh For justice in the list.
It was also alleged that Pannun was involved with arson and violence in Punjab in 2017-2018. Pannun and Sikhs for Justice supporters were also accused of “carrying out of propaganda activities both online and on ground” and planning Referendum 2020 which was an unofficial poll of the Sikhs and an attempt by the SFJ to gain world wide support for Khalistan ‘independence’. Indian officials defined Sikh For Justice as “a gang of radicalized Sikh youth under the direction [of] and [with] financial assistance from SFJ handlers located abroad as part of an organized conspiracy by the accused for launching a concerted secessionist campaign for creation of Khalistan”.
A letter sent by Pannun to the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan came under heavy scrutiny of the NIA where the title of the letter claimed that “December 16 ‘Fall of Dhaka’ is the past, ‘Fall of Delhi’ is inevitable”. The letter also mentioned that “Pakistan should be prepared to recognize new neighbor Khalistan”. Unusual Pakistan’s influence and bias could be traced in the letter with shades of propaganda dialogues normally used by the Pakistani military.
Khalistani Separatism in the United States
In 2019, Islamists in the presence of Ghulam Nabi Fai, an agent from Pakistan and other so-called activists and officials from the political party headed by Imran Khan protested in Houston at the time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit. There was a demonstration featuring “Go Back Modi” in a truck rally arranged by none other than the Sikhs For Justice leader Pannun, Sikh Association of America, Friends of Kashmir’s leader Ghazala Habib, also a representative Kashmiri Hurriyat political alliance. The truck rally carried the message “call by Pro Khalistan Sikhs & Organizations Supporting People of Kashmir”.
It may be important here to note that in another event which occurred in August 2020, where Friends of Kashmir, an anti India organization with international presence supported by Pakistan, co-operated with the Pakistani Embassy in Washington D.C. In a similar manner, it was found that other Kashmiri organizations in the USA have formed alliance with the Khalistani groups. Stand With Kashmir (SWK) for example, is considered as “one of the most influential voices in America on the subject of Kashmir.” It is believed to be backed by Sikh progressivist groups such as Ruthless Collective which was allegedly a British-Canadian Sikh organization. SWK also co-ordinated with Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI) and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) to stage protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019.
Another link between Pakistan and Khalistani separatists is that in 2006, a Pakistani national Khalid Awan was found guilty by a federal bench of Brooklyn, New York, of funding the terrorist organization Khalistan Command Force (KCF). US Department of Justice stated “KCF was formed in 1986 and is comprised of Sikh militants who seek to establish a separate Sikh state in the Punjab region of India. The organization has engaged in numerous assassinations of prominent Indian government officials—including the murder of Chief Minister Beant Singh of Punjab in 1995—and hundreds of bombings, acts of sabotage, and kidnappings.”
At Awan’s trial, the US government offered the recordings of his prison telephone calls to Panjwar, Pakistan, in which Awan spoke of recruiting new members for the KCF and admitted having had sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to KCF in the past.
According to the research report, Sikhs for Justice is not the only Khalistani organization based in the United States. SFJ is also accompanied by various other groups and media organizations such as US Media International, Khabardar Punjab TV, Kashmir Khalistan Referendum Front (KKRF). Sikhs For Justice or SFJ is also found to be associating with Global Sikh Affairs Media and Khalistan Affairs Center (KAC). The Sikhs for Justice also allegedly runs a Khalistan Embassy that contains the address of an ashram in California in the website registrant address but at the same time also lists the address where it claims to be the main Sikh gurudwara in the United States on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC.
This Article is based on the research conducted by STUDY GROUP ON KASHMIR AND KHALISTAN MOVEMENTS:
DR. APARNA PANDE, HUDSON INSTITUTE; DR. CHRISTINE FAIR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY; SAM WESTROP, MIDDLE EAST FORUM;
SETH OLDMIXON, LIBERTY SOUTH ASIA; MICHAEL RUBIN, AEI; HUSAIN HAQQANI, HUDSON INSTITUTE