For several decades, the separatist groups in Punjab have been pursuing the establishment of an independent Sikh-majority state known as ‘Khalistan’, a Sikh theocratic homeland. These groups have resorted to violent and terrorist activities, such as bombings, assassinations, and armed attacks against Indian Security Forces in the past. Among the prominent groups are Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Bhindranwale Tiger Force (BTF), Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), Khalistan Liberation Army (KLA), Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), Sikh for Justice (SFJ), and Lashkar-e-Jabbar (LeJ). The peak of the Khalistan movement was in the 1980s and early 1990s, marked by a rise in violence in the form of terrorist attacks, bombings, and assassinations. By the early 2000s, the violence had significantly decreased, and the separatist movement had lost much of its support
But despite the Indian government’s heavy-handed response to the movement, the recent surge in the activities of the pro-Khalistan groups in Punjab is alarming. The recent incidents in 2023, including the banned pro-Khalistan group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) threatening to “storm and target” Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport in New Delhi with Khalistan flags during the upcoming G20 Foreign Ministers Summit in New Delhi and supporters of pro-Khalistan propagator Amritpal Singh, ‘Chief’ of ‘Waris Punjab De’, (WPD, Heirs to Punjab), armed with swords, guns, and sharp weapons clashing with Punjab Police personnel are all indicating a clear agenda to revive Khalistani terrorism in India.
Adding to the concerns is the fact that the Kartarpur Corridor operationalized in 2019 by Pakistan, allowing Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the holy site of Gurudwara Shri Kartarpur Sahib, has been used by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies as a means to revive the Khalistan movement against India. This is exemplified by the January 2023 arrest of a female devotee in possession of live cartridges of 12 bore pistol in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed Khalistani terrorist groups, with their leaders operating out of Pakistan and abroad, persist in their efforts to revive the ‘Khalistani movement’.
And this isn’t just talk – the two subsequent Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) attacks, one on the Punjab Police intelligence headquarters in Mohali on May 9, 2022, and another on a police station complex in Sarhali village in Tarn Taran district on December 10, 2022, illustrate that the group’s increasing capability to commit serious offenses is evident, relying on a network of impulsive youth, some of whom are minors.
On September 23,2022, the Punjab Police neutralised an (ISI)-backed terror module jointly handled by Canada-based gangster Lakhbir Singh alias Landa, a key conspirator in the RPG attack in Mohali and Pakistan-based gangster Harvinder Singh alias Rinda, with the arrest of its two operatives from Ferozepur District of Punjab.
On February 17, Punjab Police arrested the key accused in Mohali RPG attack case of May 10, 2022, Gurpinder alias Pindu, in Punjab.
On December 1, 2022, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Harpreet Singh alias Happy Malaysia, from New Delhi. An associate of Lakhbir Singh Rode, the Pakistan-based self-styled Chief of International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), Happy Malaysia was a key suspect in the Ludhiana Court Building blast on December 23, 2021.
Is the threat of Khalistani terrorism evolving? Recent data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) suggests that there may be a shift in focus towards terror associates and other individuals involved in supporting terrorist activities. In 2022, 55 Khalistani terrorists were arrested, while no arrests have been made so far in 2023 (data since Feb 15, 2023). However, the number of terror associates arrested has increased from 23 in 2022 to 28 in 2023 (data since Feb 15, 2023).
These trends indicate a potential evolution in the terrorist threat, with authorities focusing on disrupting the support network that enables terrorist activities. The official crime data of the state reveals that the Internal Security wing destroyed 18 terrorist modules in 2022, resulting in the arrest of 119 individuals and the recovery of a staggering number of weapons and explosives.
The Khalistani terrorist groups have caused fatalities in the past, with the highest incidence being in 2018 when there were three reported cases. There have been six fatalities associated with Khalistani terrorist groups reported since 2023, with the highest incidence being in 2018, when there were three reported cases, followed by two in 2022 and one in 2020. However, recent years have seen a decrease in fatalities, with only one recorded fatality in 2023 (a terrorist) as of February 15, 2023.
In 2022, a growing concern for the Indian government was the connection between gangsters based in Canada and Khalistani groups. The nexus between these two groups is formed in Indian jails, where individuals from both groups meet and subsequently collaborate to carry out attacks in India and Canada. The large presence of Indo-Canadian gangs in Canada allows them to easily direct hits on their targets, making the situation more alarming.
The recent attacks in Punjab have brought attention to the issue. On November 11, 2022, Pardeep Singh, a follower of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), was shot dead by assailants in his shop in Faridkot District in Punjab. On January 15, 2023, the Punjab Police arrested Inderpreet Singh alias Parry, a close associate of Canada-based gangster Goldy Brar in this case.
On November 4, 2022, Shiv Sena (Taksali) leader Sudhir Suri, who was vocal against Khalistani terror and anti-national activities in Punjab, was killed in Amritsar District in Punjab. According to a report by The Tribune, Canada-based gangster turned terrorist Lakhbir Singh Landa claimed responsibility for the killing in a social media post.
The fight against terrorism continued, with the establishment of the Anti-Gangster Task Force (AGTF) within the Punjab Police succeeding in neutralising 111 gangster/criminal modules after arresting 428 gangsters or criminals and neutralising two, after recovering 411 weapons, 97 vehicles used in criminal activities, 44.21 kg heroin and INR 13 million cash.
On February 3, 2023, the Punjab Police conducted raids on as many as 1,490 suspected hideouts of gangsters Lawrence Bishnoi and Goldy Brar during a day-long operation. The raids were carried out by at least 200 parties of the Punjab Police and involved some 2,000 police personnel across the state.
However, the current state of affairs in the state is a complex and tumultuous one, characterized by a convergence of factors including the looming threat of Khalistani attacks from both India and abroad, rampant narcotics smuggling from Pakistan, and political actors such as the Central Government and Congress Party exacerbating the situation by criticizing the handling of the Khalistani movement by the AAP government. It also remains uncertain whether the state has the capacity to effectively address the rising attacks originating outside of Indian soil.
Khalistan Movement Outside India
In recent years, the Khalistan movement has gained momentum and has led to the growth of a large Sikh population in countries such as the UK, US, and Canada. While Canada’s multicultural policy has made it a safe haven for extremists and terrorists, the movement has also sparked violence and vandalism against Hindu temples and statues outside India.
The most recent attacks occurred in Australia, where the Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple and the BAPS Swaminarayan Temple were vandalized with anti-India and anti-Hindu graffiti in January 2023. The clashes during Referendum 2023 when Indian supporters arrived with the tricolour flag to counter the Khalistan-supporting outfit in Melbourne further escalated the issue, with at least two people injured. India has strongly protested against these incidents and urged nations to call out such activities affecting the country’s unity and integrity. However, the growing threat of Khalistani groups perpetuating terrorism and anti-India activities in Punjab and beyond has become a cause for concern. It is imperative that the government enhances its counter-terrorism infrastructure to effectively mitigate the threat. A swift and effective response is necessary to neutralize the risk posed by these pro-Khalistan groups and preserve peace and stability in the region.
The issue of Khalistan movement outside India has once again brought attention to India’s foreign policy in dealing with such crises. As the world watches, the country must ensure that its efforts to curb extremism are successful in maintaining unity and harmony among all its citizens.
Bulbul Prakash, Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management