Will Pakistan’s New ‘Khalistan Avatar’ Find Support In India?

Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir isn’t working out, thus, its need to reignite the Khalistan Movement in India.

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
Illustration of Khalistanis and the Pakistan flag used for representational purposes.
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The Delhi Police Special Cell, on 27 June 2020, busted a module of the Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF), by arresting three ‘hardcore supporters of the Khalistan movement’ who were planning to execute targeted killings in several states of Northern India.

On the KLF radar were several activists, politicians and religious leaders, particularly from Punjab. During the interrogation of the three accused and further investigation, it was revealed that they were in contact with Pakistan ISI-sponsored Khalistan leader Gopal Singh Chawla, and leaders of the banned Khalistan group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), based in Pakistan and the US respectively.

The dossier New Delhi shared with Islamabad in August 2019, about Khalistani anti-India propaganda led by Gopal Singh Chawla.
The dossier New Delhi shared with Islamabad in August 2019, about Khalistani anti-India propaganda led by Gopal Singh Chawla.
(Photo: Accessed by Aditya Raj Kaul)

Gopal Singh Chawla is the Former General Secretary of Pakistan Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee and President of Punjabi Sikh Sangat. Chawla is a well-known Khalistan element, who often spews venom against India in his speeches, and supports terrorism in Punjab.

Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) is a lesser-known Khalistan group based in the US, which was banned by the Indian government in July 2019.

SFJ has been involved in several recent anti-India protests in the US, UK and Canada, which have been indirectly sponsored by Pakistani agencies.

Pakistan’s Failure to Garner Global Diplomatic Support Against India Has Made it Bitter

In October 2018, Gopal Singh Chawla, in a telephonic interview, had confessed to having knowledge of the role of Khalistanis in the killing of RSS leaders in Punjab. “The killing of the RSS leaders will continue in Punjab. RSS leaders are our very first target. We don’t want any interference of RSS in our gurdwaras or in Punjab. The Indian government may do whatever it wants, but we won’t tolerate interference in Punjab in any way,” he had told this journalist.

On being asked about the support of globally-designated terrorist and chief of terror group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hafiz Saeed, Chawla said:

“I have had relations with Hafiz Saeed and continue even now. Doesn’t mean we operate together. Hafiz Saeed is my ideal person. (sic).”
Gopal Singh Chawla to journalist Aditya Raj Kaul for The Quint

While several ISI chiefs in the past have been vocal supporters of the Khalistan movement – including former Army General General Hamid Gul – the Pakistani deep state seems to have now embarked on the K2 (Kashmir and Khalistan) strategy with newfound hate and vengeance.

A part of this hatred stems from the fact that diplomatically, Pakistan has failed to gather any global momentum against India.

This, while terror groups in Kashmir have been at their weakest in the last three decades, with Indian security forces killing about 116 terrorists in less than six months (including the top commanders of Hizbul Mujahideen who acted as the ground assets for Pakistani terrorists infiltrating India through J&K).

Snapshot
  • While several Pakistan ISI chiefs in the past have been vocal supporters of the Khalistan movement, the Pakistani deep state seems to have now embarked on the K2 (Kashmir and Khalistan) strategy with newfound hate.
  • A part of this hatred stems from the fact that diplomatically, Pakistan has failed to gather any global momentum against India.
  • Indian security agencies have recently seen increased activity along the International Border (IB) in Punjab, with the delivery of drugs and ammunition on the rise.
  • Sikhs For Justice has been making automated phone calls issuing threats to Indian journalists and commentators, asking them to ‘mend their ways or face consequences’.
  • Agencies have found that the most prominent Khalistan websites of Sikhs For Justice are being hosted from a server based in Karachi, Pakistan.

Increase In ‘Activity’ Along International Border in Punjab

Indian security agencies have, in recent months, seen increased activity along the International Border (IB) in Punjab, with the delivery of drugs and ammunition both increasing – and the use of drones to make such deliveries possible across the border. Punjab Police has also arrested several Khalistan terror groups’ over-ground workers, who have been conspiring. Earlier in June 2020, the NIA had arrested 23-year-old Pargat Singh from Tarmala in Sri Muktsar Sahib in Punjab, for being a key conspirator and recruiter of radical Sikh youth, while working under the directions of handlers located abroad, to further the activities of Sikhs For Justice. The investigation into the case had further revealed that Pargat Singh received funds from foreign handlers through various Money Transfer Service Scheme (MTSS) platforms.

Weeks ahead of the formal opening of the Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan in 2019, New Delhi had shared a 23-page dossier with Islamabad, which elaborated on ‘Anti-India activities in Pakistan perpetuated on visiting Sikh pilgrims from India’ – which violated the Bilateral Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines, 1974. The Quint has, in its possession, a copy of the dossier.

“The four annual Indian Sikh jathas – who visit important gurdwaras in Pakistan every year under the bilateral protocol to visit religious shrines (1974) – have been regularly subjected to anti-India propaganda during their visit, which is against the spirit of the Pilgrims’ Visit Act, and in complete subversion of the objective of this noble bilateral arrangement. Unfortunately, a large part of this propaganda is perpetuated during the religious functions organised by Evacuee Trust Property Board, Pakistan and the forum has been exploited to promote the agenda of Khalistan instead of focussing on religious discourse,” the Indian government alleged in the 23-page document, which gives a three-year-break-up of the Khalistan propaganda activities at the behest of ISI in Pakistan, along with photographic and video evidence.

Gopal Singh Chawla’s Open Declaration Of Support For Khalistan

The official opening ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor in Pakistan saw Gopal Singh Chawla posing with Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and Indian politician and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu.

In the Facebook post captioned ‘with sedu pa g’, Navjot Sidhu can be seen standing beside Gopal Singh Chawla (right) on the sidelines of the ceremony at Kartarpur.
In the Facebook post captioned ‘with sedu pa g’, Navjot Sidhu can be seen standing beside Gopal Singh Chawla (right) on the sidelines of the ceremony at Kartarpur.
(Photo: Facebook/Gopal Singh Chawla)

In June 2018, during the Bhog ceremony at Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, on the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Gopal Singh Chawla, in his address, openly declared his full support to the Indian Sikh community and Kashmiris, to form Khalistan and to get ‘independent Kashmir’, respectively. Pro-Khalistan posters and banners bearing slogans like ‘Sikh Referendum 2020 Khalistan’, ‘Khalistan Zindabad’, ‘Khalistan Banake Rahenge’ – were displayed on the premises of Gurdwara Nankana Sahib during the visit of the Indian Sikh Jatha.

Image from the dossier India shared with Pakistan in August 2019.
Image from the dossier India shared with Pakistan in August 2019.
(Photo: Accessed by Aditya Raj Kaul)

How Pakistan’s ISI Has Been Trying To Reignite Khalistani Flames

Chawla’s propaganda however, isn’t new. Pakistan’s ISI had already started testing waters since 2016, after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani in the Kashmir Valley. Sardar Muhammad Yousuf, Federal Minister of Religious Affairs and Harmony, in his address at the main function at Gurdwara Nankana Sahib in November 2016, eulogised Burhan Wani and alleged that the Sikhs and Kashmiris are treated like ‘slaves’ by the Indian government.

On the same occasion, Gopal Singh Chawla raised the demand for Khalistan and even advocated violent means to achieve the same.

Besides, he also interfered in the domestic issues of India by asking the Indian Sikhs to revolt against the decision of the Indian Supreme Court on the inter-state water agreement involving Punjab. During Nagar Kirtan on the same day, the pro-Khalistan groups carried banners depicting photographs of Sikh terrorists JS Bhindranwale and Subheg Singh. While pro-Khalistan literature was openly distributed, Chawla raised anti-India and pro-Khalistan slogans from the stage.

Pakistan’s Bid To Open Kartarpur Corridor Amid COVID: ‘Foul Play’?

Meanwhile, Pakistan has prepared to open the Kartarpur corridor on Monday, 29 June 2020, coinciding with the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, while making the announcement, also said that Pakistan has ‘conveyed its readiness to open Kartarpur’ to the Indian side. Cross-border travel has been temporarily suspended between India and Pakistan as part of measures to prevent and the spread of coronavirus.

The sudden announcement comes a day after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing a rally at Muzaffarabad of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), said, “Look at what they (RSS) are doing with Muslims in India. They are doing the same with Christians, but mainly targeting Muslims. Finally they will target others as well including Sikhs.”

Indian intelligence agencies have raised a red flag yet again, sensing foul play in Islamabad’s latest move.

“Pakistan is trying to create a mirage of goodwill by proposing to resume Kartarpur corridor on 29 June 29, at the short notice of two days, while the bilateral agreement provides for information to be shared by India with Pakistan, at least 7 days before the date of travel. This would need India to open up the registration process well in advance,” government sources in New Delhi revealed.

Khalistani Propaganda: Threats to Journalists, Attempt to Recruit Sikh Soldiers

“Besides, Pakistan has not built the bridge on their side across the flood plains of the Ravi river, despite having committed to it in the bilateral agreement. With the onset of monsoons, it would need to be evaluated whether pilgrim movement is possible through the corridor in a safe and secure manner,” they added.

“The desperation of the Pakistani deep state is clearly visible since they have failed to instigate Sikh community against India.” 
Ravinder Singh Robin, journalist & Sikh Affairs expert based in Amritsar, to Aditya Raj Kaul for The Quint

“How can they open the Kartarpur Corridor on Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death anniversary when coronavirus cases are only increasing both in India and Pakistan? Or, does Pakistan just not care about the safety of Sikh pilgrims,” he asks.

Image from the dossier India shared with Pakistan in August 2019.
Image from the dossier India shared with Pakistan in August 2019.
(Photo: Accessed by Aditya Raj Kaul)

Meanwhile, Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) has been making automated phone calls issuing threats to prominent Indian journalists and commentators, asking them to ‘mend their ways or face consequences’. Many similar phone calls have been made across Punjab, asking the Sikh community – and particularly Sikh soldiers in the Indian Army – to join the Khalistan movement.

The Quint has exclusively accessed audio clips threatening Indian journalists, and asking Sikh Indian Army soldiers to join the Khalistan movement.

Informed sources have revealed that SFJ, which has been luring Sikh youth to wage an armed rebellion against India, has been facing problems in recruitment within the Sikh Community, and hence, out of desperation, has resorted to these automated phone calls.

Pakistan’s Proxy War In Kashmir Isn’t Working Out – Thus, Their Backing Of Khalistan

Over the last few months, security agencies have also observed several fake profiles on social media platforms including Twitter, using false Sikh identity for posting anti-India and pro-Khalistan content.

Agencies have also found that the most prominent Khalistan websites of Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) are being hosted from a server based in Karachi, Pakistan.

As the Pakistani deep state continues to face difficulty in its ‘proxy war’ in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, it is now actively focussing its energies towards the revival of Khalistani terrorism in India, instigating the Sikh community against the political establishment in New Delhi and the majority community in India. For now, the radical ideology of Khalistan may not find any serious takers in Punjab in its new, re-modelled avatar from Pakistan.

(Aditya Raj Kaul has a decade’s worth of experience in covering conflict, internal security and foreign policy for various national media outlets. He tweets at @AdityaRajKaul. )

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