JALANDHAR, Punjab— Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh said the terror attack on November 18 in Amritsar was conducted by pro-Khalistan groups backed by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
At a press conference on Wednesday, Capt. Singh said the state police had arrested Bikramjit Singh, a resident of Dhariwal — a village not far from Amritsar city — who had named an accomplice Avtaar Singh, also a resident of Amritsar district, who is still at large.
Bikramjit Singh's family has contested the police's claims, saying that the suspect has been falsely implicated, the Tribunereported.
The two men, a press note provided by the Punjab government states, are accused of throwing a hand-grenade and opening fire at a Namdhari congregation on Sunday — killing three people and injuring another 15. The men, the press note alleged, were members of an organisation called the 'Khalistan Liberation Front', and were acting at the behest of a Pakistan-based handler, Harmeet Singh Happy, who goes by the alias of Ph.D.
Happy, the police say, provided the two men with the grenades used in the attack.
While the Chief Minister lauded his police force for moving quickly to apprehend the suspects, HuffPost India relied on interviews with villagers in border villages, policemen, intelligence officers, and a written interview with Capt. Singh to establish that the quest for a separate Sikh homeland has quietly continued even as the heydays of the Punjab militancy have faded from public memory.
In the past 18 months alone the Punjab police claims to have busted 17 terror modules, arrested 81 suspected militants, seized 77 weapons and assorted explosives, and intercepted 3 arms consignments, according to figures provided by the police.
Over the past few years, the police say, the Khalistan movement has coalesced into a loose amalgam of transnational groups operating out of countries with significant expatriate Sikh populations. The Khalistan Liberation Front, the group accused of carrying out the attack on November 18, the police say, is one such group.
Not all pro-Khalistan groups advocate violence. The most visible organisations like Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), a US-based group, insist that their struggle is peaceful, non-violent and entirely legal for a legitimate end — self determination.
The Punjab government however, appears convinced that the demand for a separate Sikh homeland points to a deep conspiracy aimed at fragmenting India's territorial integrity. SFJ has attracted the most attention — particularly after the organisation launched its "Referendum 2020" campaign for an independent Sikh homeland, and extended legal support to three Kashmiri students arrested in Jalandhar in October this year for allegedly hoarding weapons and explosives for the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, an armed group set up by former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Musa.
"There seems to be a definite attempt by forces inimical to the Indian nation to revive terrorism, especially through the revival of the Khalistani movement in Punjab," Chief Minister Singh told HuffPost India in a written reply to a questionnaire. "Many of these outfits have spread their wings to other countries, like the US, UK and Canada, and are routing terror via them. The Referendum 2020 movement is part of this conspiracy to plunge Pakistan back into the dark days of terrorism."
SFJ representatives, in the meantime, denied these allegations in an interview. In the past, the organisation has filed defamation charges against Capt. Singh for linking them with terror groups in public statements.
On 24 July 2015, a bearded man and a turbaned woman went from door to door in Karnana village in Nawanshahr district in Punjab, asking residents to identify the families that supported the banned terror outfit Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) during the insurgency period in the state.
The duo did not possess any identity cards and refused to give their contact numbers despite being asked to do so by villagers. The villagers did provide them details of their family members who had fought for the 'cause' during the insurgency, in the hope they would receive some compensation from the state government.
Similar reconnaissance, this correspondent found at the time, was also conducted in Raja Saab, Sahlo, Punya, all villages in Nawanshahr district, and other districts of Punjab. All the villages surveyed were strongholds of the Khalistan movement in the heyday of the Punjab militancy.
Three days later, on 27 July 2015, three men in military fatigues launched a devastating terror attack on a police station in Dina Nagar in Gurdaspur. The identities of the militants, all three of whom were killed, were never conclusively established, but news reports at the time suggested the three men had crossed over the border from Pakistan.
On 31 July, four days after the blast, the Indian Army's signals unit intercepted transmissions from an unlicensed Thuraya satellite phone in an open field at Karnana. It is illegal to own or operate a satellite phone in India without permission from the government. The Thuraya, intelligence agents say, has long been used by insurgents along India's long border with Pakistan.
Yet as the army and police launched a joint operation to nab the suspects in the field identified by the satellite signal, the suspects got wind of their arrival and vanished.
The bearded man and turbaned woman, the unidentified Thuraya users and the attack in Dinanagar, the Punjab police now believes, were part of a trans-national movement to revive the demand for Khalistan. The duo, it is now believed, had arrived in Karnana in the hope of recruiting people to the struggle.
Since 2015, Punjab has been shaken by 9 targeted killings including the high-profile murder of Namdhari sect matriarch Mata Chand Kaur and RSS leader Brigadier Jagdish Gagneja, a spate of low-intensity bomb attacks on a police station in Jalandhar, and the latest grenade blast at a Namdhari congregation in village Adliwal in Amritsar.
All the targeted killings were carried out by motorcycle-borne masked assailants who shot their targets in full public glare, and the blasts relied on low-intensity bombs and hand grenades. The Punjab police claim the attacks are the handiwork of Pakistan's Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) and pro-Khalistan groups based in US, UK and Canada.
"ISI footprints have invariably been found in the terror incidents which have taken place in Punjab since 2014," Chief Minister Singh told HuffPost India. "Whether it's the fidayeen attacks, the targeted killings, attack on Maqsudan Police Station in Jalandhar or the recent attack on Nirankari Satsang Bhawan in Rajasansi on 18th November. The Punjab Police has issued statements from time to time, citing evidence of ISI's signature in these incidents."
Members of the SFJ, which has attracted particular attention from security agencies, insist they are human rights defenders supporting marginalised groups fighting for self-determination. The Indian government, in contrast, claims SFJ is an intermediary between Khalistani groups and pro-azadi Kashmiri militant groups—a charge the organisation flatly denies.
SFJ and Referendum 2020
SFJ was conceived in 2007 as a pressure group after India failed to bring those responsible for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to justice, SFJ's legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun told HuffPost India.
"Instead of punishing accused Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, the Indian government gave them clean chits and awarded them Member of Parliament posts. By that time, over 150,000 Sikhs were killed in the name of counter insurgency. That is what triggered the constitution of SFJ," Pannun, who is based in the US, said over phone.
The Indian government has contested the number of Sikhs killed in the Punjab militancy.
Pannun said SFJ was a human rights advocacy group with branches in New York, London and Toronto, fighting a 'legal and peaceful' battle for a separate homeland, 'Khalistan', for Sikhs.
The group was also instrumental in getting the 1984 anti-Sikh riots declared as 'Sikh genocide' in the Connecticut General assembly in the US in June this year.
Two years from now, SFJ will hold a non-binding 'Referendum '2020' throughout the world on the issue of Sikhs' right of self-determination for the independence of Punjab—the historical homeland of Sikhism.
"In the year 2020, we hope to seek views of the Sikh community in Punjab and those settled worldwide as to whether they would like to become an independent nation or to remain part of India. On the basis of the outcome, we will pursue the case in UN general assembly," said Pannun.
On 12 August 2018, SFJ also held a 'London Declaration' rally to seek support for its 'Referendum 2020' at Trafalgar Square, where Sikhs from various countries participated and extended support to the referendum.
"Like political parties, we do not have local units to drive our campaign. Anyone who likes to support us can do it online," said Pannun, who denied any links with ISI.
"Sikh community settled abroad has made Sikh shrines worth millions of dollars each at every ten miles in their countries of residence. We do not require any financial support from an external support like ISI and are capable enough to fight our own battle," he added.
On 5 November this year, New York-based Consular General Of India Sandeep Chakravorty wrote a letter to Connecticut Senator Cathy Osten, expressing the Indian government's displeasure at her support extended to the local Sikh Community on getting the 'Sikh Genocide' issue approved in the Connecticut Assembly.
In his letter, Chakravorty said, "The fringe/radical and terrorist elements of the Sikh community in Connecticut appear to be oblivious of what has happened in the past and are carrying on their vociferous, pernicious and divisive campaign as they see money and power for themselves in this. We somehow feel that these fringe elements have taken benefit of your trust and made you support this bill".
The letter further claimed the figures mentioned in the senator's letter are exaggerated and far from the truth. Chakravorty said that these false narratives are being purveyed by "Sikh separatists/terrorists" who are demanding "Khalistan".
According to Pannun, also the plaintiff for Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, who filed a defamation suit against Chakravorty in a US court, the government since long has been targeting the peaceful campaign as a terror activity.
"This is high time that they should prove and stop defaming it or else get ready to face the consequence," said Pannu.
The US court has summoned Chakravorty on the matter.
The Zakir Musa connection
SFJ's support for the Kashmiri students arrested in Jalandhar has meant it keeps facing questions on links with Kashmir's militant groups.
The students, according to the police, allegedly belong to Ansar Ghawzat-ul-Hind, headed by Musa. Last week, following intelligence reports about the presence of Musa and 7-8 other militants in Ferozepur district, Punjab was put on high alert and the state police had even pasted pictures of him in public places and outside every police station.
Pannun said that the only difference between SFJ and Musa is that the former is fighting a legal battle and the latter an armed one.
When asked to justify his support to the Kashmiri students who were arrested — the police claims — with RDX explosives and AK 56 rifles in their hostel room at a university campus in Jalandhar, Pannun said that Punjab police should leave it to Indian courts to declare them as terrorists.
Chief Minister Singh, however, is unconvinced by Pannun's arguments.
"I am sure the Union government is already in discussion with the concerned foreign governments on the issue of involvement of SFJ in promoting violent activities in Punjab," Singh said.