While Amritpal Singh is on the run in India, the kind of angry protests by pro-Khalistani groups in the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia is a matter of grave concern. During last week’s protests, organised by Sikh Federation (UK), a protestor said, “We want to free our prisoners and reduce the amount of drug abuse and be free from a nation which is causing innocent people to die.”
London is gearing up for three days of fresh protests starting Thursday, this time organised by some group called Free Sikh Prisoners, at the Indian High Commission. These groups seem adamant to stir the pot, despite diminishing support.
Khalistan Movement of 1980s Was A Different Beast
Although the protest on 19 March caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise, possibly being a Sunday and maybe no prior red flags, they showed up in full force for the next one, not only with uniformed police but civilian-clothed personnel of the force.
When I visited the High Commission earlier this week, it was deja-vu to see Police officers guarding the premises because for some of us who have seen the ferocious pro-Khalistan movement in the 1980s and 1990s, it came as a reminder of those horrific times. I must note that the number of protestors this time round is nothing compared to what we have seen during the height of the Khalistan movement.
Regarding the protests, Jas Singh of SF (UK) claimed: "Hundreds of Sikh youth have been abducted, arrested and detained without cause or legal basis. Many have been taken to undisclosed locations for torture interrogation, all under a state-wide internet shutdown and blackout” and added that protests are being organised "to challenge this oppressive and illegal action of the Indian authorities.”
Are Khalistan Supporters Getting Desperate Because of Lack of Local Support In India?
But Dr Mukulika Banerjee, Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at London School of Economics said, “The majority of the Punjabi population in India and overseas have made it more than clear that they do not support a separatist cause. The current protests are therefore surprising and condemnable. Punjab is currently governed by a non-BJP government, and this should not be a factor in how New Delhi manages the issue.”
Last week’s protests across western countries made it clear that they were well coordinated. Though the Metropolitan Police has arrested one person, now out on bail, the inquiry is ongoing. The protests have been condemned across all political parties and they have been called ‘hooligans’. After years of calm, with pro-Khalistan supporters dwindling, is there now a new resurgence? Given the poor show of numbers, is it a temporary flash in the pan, another desperate effort to revive a movement by a few?
Update On Lieutenant General Kuldeep Singh Brar Attack In London
To jog one’s memory, the last lone incident by these pro-Khalistan groups was the attack on former Lieutenant General Kuldeep Singh Brar in central London in September 2012. Four Sikh men and a woman were arrested and imprisoned. At the time of sentencing, Mandeep Singh Sandhu, 35, of Birmingham and Dilbag Singh, 37, of no fixed abode were given 14 years imprisonment. Harjit Kaur, 39, of Hayes, Middlesex was jailed for 11 years. Another man, Barjinder Singh Sangha, 34, of Wolverhampton, had previously pleaded guilty to wounding with intent and was sentenced to 10 and a half years.
All four were found guilty in July 2013 after the jury took just an hour to convict them. The final one was in 2014, Lakhbir Singh, 26, who was given 10 years. I enquired the status of the prisoners. In response to my query, Ministry of Justice has exclusively told The Quint, confirming that “Mandeep Singh Sandhu and Harjit Kaur have now been released from prison, but we cannot find details for Dilbag Singh, Barjinder Singh Sangha or Lakhbir Singh...We will need you to provide some further information in order to try and find them—are there any other names they might be recorded under.”
Indian And British Authorities Working In Tandem
It is interesting to note that this time Delhi Police has also filed a case under UAPA in connection with the 19 March attack on the Indian High Commission. Sources say it is not simply because some may still be holding Indian passports, others could be with neither Indian nor UK passports and of ‘no fixed abode’.
There is no doubt that the coordination between senior officials of the Indian High Commission and senior leaders of both the ruling Conservative Party and Labour Party remains close. In fact, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suddenly dropped the name of Dabinderjit Singh Sidhu from peerage in 2020, when he learnt of Singh’s pro-Khalistan involvement. Singh was a member of International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) in 2008, while the UK Home Office had proscribed the outfit in 2001 along with Babbar Khalsa. However, Singh remains an adviser/spokesperson of Sikh Federation (UK) which was established in 2003 and most former members of ISYF are part of it. Is it a tactic of changing names?
Money Laundering In the Name of Khalistan?
As part of last week’s protest, Deepa Singh from Sikh Youth UK said, "We stand against the heavy-handed tactics deployed in Punjab on the Sikh youth. We have collectively worked with our senior and national Sikh Youth organisations and coordinated national protests in central London at the Indian High Commission to express our concerns, and we urge all Sikhs to come and stand with the Sikh Panth (congregation) and unite against this oppression."
Incidentally, in 2019 this same Birmingham-based Deepa Singh alias Kaldip Singh Lehal and his sister Rajbinder Kaur were arrested by West Midlands Counter Terrorism Police for the misuse of money donated to Sikh Youth UK and Ms Kaur was charged with money laundering and six counts of theft amounting to £50,000. She and Lehal were charged with knowingly or recklessly providing false or misleading information to the Charity Commission.
In this current spate of protests, it is worth looking into the possible reasons, support and financial backing of some of these groups. It is no hidden fact that pro-Khalistan groups have had the tacit support of Pakistan for years.
Pakistan Fuelling the Global Khalistan Movement
I remember even when the Khalistan movement had died down in the UK, one would often find a few dozen Sikhs be part of Pakistani anti-India protests at India House. About five or six years ago I had met US-based ‘Sikhs for Justice’ (SFJ) founder Gurpatwant Singh Pannu. Following my interview with him, I had a chilling suspicion that something was once again cooking and there was a drive to build support in UK. And what followed enhances my suspicion.
These pro-Khalistan groups were frustrated when they got no support from either the UK or Canadian governments for their so-called 2020 Punjab Referendum. It appears highly possible that these groups in the West are trying to re-calibrate and re-group, but it is also important to pay heed to the increasing Canadian pro-Khalistan groups’ involvement.
Following the failure of their Punjab 2020 Referendum, which also shows a large population of the Sikh diaspora has moved on, the recent rise of their protests shows their desperation, one that neither the western governments nor India will succumb to, despite tacit Pakistan support. By inference, it is clear that there is support from Pakistan or else why would the pro-Khalistan brigade not want to make the same demand of Pakistan’s Panjab. It is time for UK and India to revisit the proscription list and nip this initial resurgence in the bud.
The vital question is why are Sikhs on foreign land trying to provoke unrest when Sikhs in India do not wish it?
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)