(The following article has been reposted from The Quint's archives in the wake of Canada's allegations of the Indian government's role in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. It was originally published on 13 July 2023.)
Within a couple of months, after Khalistan radical and chief of Waris Punjab De Amritpal Singh was nabbed by the security forces, a series of ‘coincidental deaths’ of Khalistani terrorists outside India is a quite intriguing development for anyone interested in matters concerning national security.
Recently the internet was abuzz with the news of Khalistani extremist Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, the founder of Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), dying in a car accident. But he rebuked all the rumours of his death and released a video message issuing death threats to Indian diplomats.
Deaths of Nijjar, Panjwar, and Khanda
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was one of the most wanted terrorists (with a reward of Rs 10 lakh announced by the National Investigation Agency) in India. Nijjar, an active member of the extremist group Khalistan Tiger Force, was shot dead on 19 June, on the premises of Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sahib in Canada’s Surrey. Nijjar was also associated with the banned outfit SFJ, which organised a referendum on Khalistan in Brampton.
Before Nijjar, another wanted and dreaded terrorist, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, chief of the extremist outfit Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan’s Lahore in early May.
And in the mid of June, Khalistan hardliner Avtar Singh Khanda, also chief of the Khalistan Liberation Force and supporter of Amritpal Singh, died in ‘suspicious’ circumstances. Though he was suffering from blood cancer, his supporters claimed that Khanda was poisoned at a hospital in Birmingham, UK. Noteworthy, Khanda was the person responsible for removing the Indian flag from the high commission of the UK, which triggered a diplomatic row between India and the UK.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has particularly requested the Canadian government to act against the Khalistani extremists. India alleges Canada of remaining “soft” on Khalistan hardliners and indulging in Sikh appeasement politics since Sikhs make up a significant population in Canada.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Melanie Joly, has said, the threats to Indian diplomats by extremists group were “unacceptable” – and that the country remains committed to ensuring the safety of foreign diplomats, she also maintained the country’s commitment to "freedom of expression.”
Conspiracy Theories in the Absence of Facts
The question worth inquiring about these deaths is: Who might be behind these deaths? Is there a pattern in all these deaths?
Nijjar in one of his interviews just a few days before his killing hinted towards his death. In an interview with Surrey-based radio broadcaster and journalist Gurpreet Singh, he claimed that his name was on his enemy’s “hit list”. (Gurpreet’s Twitter account has been withheld in India.)
However, he did not name his enemy. Instead, he pointed toward the patterns of the killings, saying, “You see it has been just a month, and look at the killings. We (Sikhs) need to be vigilant. I am already on the enemy’s target."
Though it is very difficult to establish the role of Indian agencies in any of these killings or “cohort operations,” Sikhs groups vocal on the Khalistan issue abroad are outraged at India. Not only have been death threats issued for diplomats in the US, Australia, and the UK, but also SFJ has announced that it would “besiege” Indian missions on the upcoming Independence Day. Gurpatwant Pannu has categorically said, he would “avenge the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar” and that “India was responsible for his death.”
The proponents of accusations on Indian agencies also make a case for their argument by pointing toward right-wing social media users who have been allegedly celebrating the killings of Khalistani extremists. But, interestingly, if one at all goes by this argument, then it must fairly be asked from these proponents of conspiracy theories that, what about the alleged social media accounts operating from Pakistan which amplifies each and every Khalistan-related stuff, particularly the threats to the Indian diplomats. Is there some Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) connection? What could be Pakistan’s possible interest in the Khalistan movement gaining some momentum?
Pakistan’s interest in making trouble for India has been foundational, though, Kashmir has been their perennial focus, Pakistan’s interest in funding the Khalistan issue is unclear. A significant insight appears in Dr Jagjit Singh Chauhan, founder of the Khalistan movement’s 1993 interview, where he revealed his meeting with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in New York. Bhutto offered Chauhan, Pakistan as a base for building his movement not because he had brotherly love for the Sikhs but because Pakistan wanted revenge for Bangladesh.
While the reality of the day is that Punjab is a pertinent state to India’s defence strategy against both China and Pakistan. And, Punjab continues to make brave contributions to the Indian Army in advancing against foreign interventions, particularly Pakistan.
What I mean to say is: there could be numerous nasty conspiracy theories in the absence of facts. But yes, if these cases of suspicious killings are not resolved soon, the radical groups would use these to garner support for their separatist movement.
It is to be noted that since the death of Nijjar, a lot of his social work has been brought to light. It is said that he started langar sewa (a religious act of feeding people) for all international students irrespective of their origin, and held special prayers for indigenous children killed in Kamploons in Canada and for Muslims killed in Christchurch bombings in 2019 in New Zealand. Overall, the assessment of Nijjar in the Punjabi diaspora abroad is that he was a polite person and his death needs thorough and time-bound investigation
The Khalistan Movement is Mostly Guesswork
In the recent few years, the demand for Khalistan has mostly come from the Sikhs living abroad rather than the Sikhs in India. Interestingly, other than Khalistan being land for the Sikhs, everything is guesswork. Even SFJ, which had organised the referendum on the sovereignty of Punjab, offers no information on the character of Khalistan, rather it focuses on the right to self-determination and the Indian constitution’s denial of separate religious identity to Sikhs.
Practically speaking, pro-Khalistan supporters like the ones who pulled out the Indian flag at the Indian High Commission in the UK have a minuscule stake in Punjab. Therefore, it is easy for them to live in their world of fantasy than face Indian authorities.
The hullabaloo around Khalistan, within India, is usually mixed with communal biases of the society. There definitely are political forces attempting Sikh-Hindu divide, it has been quite evident in the cases of farmers' protests or the Amritpal saga. The divisive agenda never seems to acknowledge the genesis of the problem but only instills the fear of Khalistan or an attack on the sovereignty of India in the minds of the majority community. Interestingly, to date, we don’t have any assessment on what percent of Sikhs are buyers of the Khalistan narrative. However, the divisive agenda continues.
A lot of it also comes from major half-baked information – presumably intentional – is the relationship between Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale and Khalistan. There are no records per se, if Bhindrawale did ask for Khalistan. He told Indira Gandhi that if she wanted to give, he would never object to it. And, the second statement that can be attributed to him is: If the Indian Army attacks the Golden Temple, the foundation of Khalistan would be laid.
Otherwise, Bhindrawale never openly asked for Khalistan. He always maintained that Sikhs want to live in India as equal citizens compared to the Hindus. The Government of India records to date do not refer Bhindrawale as a ‘terrorist.’ But, sadly, Bhindrawale is used by both the parties to their convenience – be it Khalistani extremists or be it Hindutva radicals.
There is no denying fact that the 1980s in Punjab was marked with violence, human rights abuses, torture, and brutal killings. Hence, for any non-Sikh or non-Punjabi delving into the Khalistan issue, it is important to patiently hear the uncomfortable truths and narratives. Similarly, for the new generation of Sikhs, it is important to understand that their passions are channelised towards constructive dialogue rather than indulging in the prepositions spread by radicals.
In the times of post-truth, it is important to accept that always and obvious would be differences in perspectives from what Delhi articulates for rest of the India.
(Rohin Kumar is an author and independent journalist writing about humanitarian crises. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)