Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an article that has previously appeared on Firstpost.
“Khalistan terror finds haven abroad,” reads the headline in the Hindustan Times article on the recent attack on Let. Gen. (retd.) KS Brar by Sikh extremists. The “foreign hand” has always been part of the Khalistan narrative, where NRI groups in Canada, Britain and the US played a key role in fuelling and funding a domestic insurgency. Twenty eight years after Operation Bluestar, we seem to be back where we started.
Senior Indian government officials say there is enough intelligence to show that attacks from pro-Khalistan separatists are planned and coordinated from Canada and Germany-based radicals with funds and encouragement from UK.
“We have been receiving reports of BKI [Babbar Khalsa International] activity for three months and have been in touch with our Western counterparts through liaison meetings…It is possible the attack on General Brar was sponsored by radicals based across the English Channel,” said a senior official.
But why blame the foreign hand when Khalistan sympathisers rule the roost closer to home. Brar rightly connected the dots between the assassination attempt with the shameful politics practised by the Akali Dal. “The Akalis are playing with fire. They are honouring terrorists to get extremist votes. They are encouraging radical elements to gain popularity”, he told Headline News, pointing to the proposed Golden Temple Bluetsar memorial which he said “will revive the Khalistani movement in the region.”
The recent 28th anniversary of Operation Bluestar looked more like Celebrate-A-Terrorist day in Punjab, and the initiation of kar sewa for the memorial last month also confirmed the resurrection of King of Terror, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Writing in Open Magazine, Hartosh Singh Bal noted:
The karseva was started by Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh and the head of the Damdami Taksal, Baba Harnam Singh Khalsa. For those who have forgotten Punjab’s recent history, the Damdami Taksal is the seminary once headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. For good measure, Ishar Singh, Bhindranwale’s son, also spoke on the occasion. No one will say this upfront but by its very nature, the memorial, whether we like it or not, will also be a tribute to Bhindranwale.
The evergreen appeal of Bhindranwale is not merely a matter of nostalgia, a fond remembrance of a radical past for ageing Sikhs. A 2010 Tehelka report from Amritsar noted the rise of Bhindranwale as the “poster boy” of a new generation who flock to dedicated memorabilia shops to buy CDs, books, posters, calendars, T-shirts and stickers celebrating ‘Baba.’
“Babaji hamare sant hain. Aur agar yeh aaj hotey to sikhon ni itni bekadri na hoti.” (He was our saint. If he had been around, Sikhs would not be so neglected.),” a young man tells Tehelka. As Bal brilliantly puts it, Bhindranwale has become the new Che Guevara:
Much as the Left has never really bothered with the truth of Che Guevara, a lunatic who enjoyed shooting his opponents in cold blood, for many young Sikhs in Punjab, Canada, the UK and US, Bhindranwale has emerged as a symbol of self-assertion, and they accept the iconography around his name without question, without an understanding of the absurdity that this often represents. Today, in west Delhi, it is possible to find Afghani Sikhs, who have been given a home in India after fleeing the Taliban’s oppression, wearing Bhindranwale T-shirts.
Bal doesn’t get into the reasons for his appeal, but the Tehelka story raises some possibilities: a generational passing of the insurgency baton, much as in Kashmir; unemployment; and, of course, the foreign hand. “These youths, with no jobs and no future, are easy targets for the recruiters. The situation is really bad along the border, where the use of drugs has wreaked havoc. All that the operator has to do is to listen to them, channelise their anger against India and give them some money and assurances,” warns a senior police officer.
Two years later, the drug epidemic in Punjab has reached gargantuan proportions: one in three college students are addicts, and up to 75 percent of the population has been exposed to drugs. The result is a time-bomb in search of trigger: unemployed youth, filled with rage and discontent, with easy access to drugs and weapons.
“Nothing has changed since militancy was curbed in the 1990s. Close to a lakh people died but no solution emerged . Everything is still the same. We are sitting on a powder keg. All it would take is someone to ignite the fuse,” says Khalsa Action Committee’s Mokham Singh.
The attack on Brar is a reflection of a far more alarming reality closer to home, and yet media outlets like NDTV have framed it as a failure in Brar’s personal security. This narrow interpretation has been echoed by a number of former security officials, rushing to downplay the incident.
“Sikh terrorist activity was always prevalent in England, so the incident does not come as a surprise,” former Punjab DGP KPS Gill told Times of India, preferring to underline the “foreign shores” angle: “Where the Indian government has failed is that it has always tried to make its policy Pakistan centric, rather than impressing upon countries that terrorism was a threat to civilization. Recently, India had a pact with Canada, whereby Canada had pledged that it would strictly curb anti-India activity on its soil.”
Yes, let’s ask Britain for a pledge that our very own leaders in Punjab are unlikely to make.