The news first: in Rome, someone painted the slogan ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ on the facade of the local Indian embassy and put up several pro-Khalistan flags and banners at the gate, just ahead of India’s Republic Day on 26 January 2021. Pages of the Indian Constitution were torn and thrown onto the streets. The vandals filmed the incident, and the video was widely circulated on social media.
However, the incident has barely been reported by the Italian press. Italy, at the moment, is much too busy with the COVID-19 pandemic, the umpteenth crisis in the government and preparations for Holocaust Memorial Day, to pay heed to such ‘small’ incidents. Without thinking of course, that these sorts of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg (to a greater problem).
Sikhs Largely Well-Respected In Italy, But Sikh Extremism On The Rise
A similar incident happened in Vancouver, Canada, and India lodged formal protests with the governments of the two countries. Italy, like Canada, has a large Sikh community — in fact, the biggest in Europe after the UK: about 150,000 people, of which almost half are supposed to be illegal immigrants. Many, especially in the past few years, have been asylum seekers: a thin but constant stream of people arriving in Naples or other ports, not on random boats but in style and with all their papers in place, including the request for political asylum already filled and compiled by a lawyer.
There is no official data yet about the number of requests being actually accepted by Italian authorities, but it is likely that they will accept almost all requests mainly because in Italy, the concept of ‘Sikh extremism’ is not well known.
The Sikh community in Italy is perceived as, and largely is, a peaceful, well-integrated community of hard working and well-respected people.
The 2009 Vienna Gurdwara Massacre
There are more than thirty gurdwaras in Italy, the biggest one (the second largest in Europe) being built in Novellara, near Reggio Emilia, financed by a loan from the local Banca Agricola Mantovana. But something has changed in the past few years. It started when, on 24 May 2009, a visiting Indian Sikh guru, Sant Ramanand, was killed in Vienna at the Guru Ravidass Gurdwara by men wielding knives and guns. His killer, according to sources close to the Italian intelligence, had made a pitstop in Italy, before his trip to Vienna.
And, according to the same sources, in Italy there are many members of the Sikh community still close to the Babbar Khalsa, a group listed as a ‘terrorist group’ by the European Union (EU).
Their activities, however, went largely undetected. Again, for the majority of Italians, the Sikh community is, unlike other minority communities, largely perceived in a positive light. This, despite the fact that some members of the community started to join not-so-peaceful demonstrations by Pakistanis in Italy a few years ago.
The protesters always took great care not to show their true faces. They would sloganeer in Urdu and Punjabi, while yelling in English “We want peace!”.
Meanwhile, over the past two years, Italy has become a very active centre for propaganda of an organisation called ‘Sikhs for Justice’.
Avtar Singh Pannu, coordinator of the group, has been in touch with heads of gurdwaras in Italy, and used the functions organised in the various gurdwaras during the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak, to undertake this political task. Pannu has urged gurdwaras to raise volunteers who could distribute voter registration forms, organise sessions to promote a separatist referendum, popularise the map of Khalistan, and started fund-raising.
Khalistani Fund-Raising & Recruitment Channels: The Pakistani Connect
Moreover, committee members of Gurdwara Shree Hargobind Sahib in Leno, Brescia have been actively promoting the campaign. In fact some of these members are even visiting Sikh families living in the areas of Bergamo and Brescia to 'educate ' them about the referendum and to collect funds for the exercise. Another gurdwara in Cremona (Gurdwara Shaheed Baba Deep Singh) has also been campaigning for the organisation.
The channels and the transferring networks used for fund-raising and recruiting people for project Khalistan are the same as those used by various jihadi organisations linked to Pakistan.
Interestingly enough, the same networks appeared in the investigations of the death of six Hindu leaders in Punjab in 2018.
According to Italian sources, apart from random citizens of Indian and Pakistani origin, Pakistani Consulates in Italy have been also actively working on this.
This last incident should ring more than a bell in Italy.
The Pakistani army and intelligence agencies have, for years, been particularly active in infiltrating agents, creating pressure groups and lobbying at both the institutional and academic levels throughout Europe and the rest of the world. In Italy, jihadi groups are thriving due to the connivance of local mafia, despite the alarms occasionally raised by intelligence agencies. How long will it take before Italy becomes not only an economic and recruiting hub but also a battlefield for Pakistan, to fund and support terrorist groups?
(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. Her latest book is ‘Balochistan — Bruised, Battered and Bloodied’. She tweets at @francescam63. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)