It was around 7.45 pm on the night of May 9 when the intelligence wing headquarters of Punjab Police in scenic Mohali was suddenly rocked by a mini blast and the sound of shattered window panes. The attack, using an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), happened when most of the sleuths had left for the day, so there were no casualties. But it again raised a security agencies bogey—the long shadow of the Khalistan movement hasn’t faded away as yet.
Soon after the attack, a voice note landed at Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur’s office claiming to be from New York-based Gurpatwant Pannun, founder of the banned Khalistani outfit Sikhs for Justice. It claimed credit for the attack in Mohali and left a threat that the Shimla Police HQ could be next. But investigators soon revealed that it was a bogus claim; the Mohali attack was apparently engineered by gangster-turned-militant Harvinder Singh Sandhu, a.k.a. Rinda Sandhu.
More than the blast itself, it was the timing that added insult to injury for the state police. Punjab Police has been criticised for its overzealousness in registering police cases against the political rivals of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, allegedly for making defamatory remarks against party chief Arvind Kejriwal. The attempt to arrest controversial BJP youth wing leader Tajinder Bagga from his Delhi residence, violating laid-down norms, had gone south after the police departments of two other states, Delhi and Haryana, got involved. They not only had to release Bagga but the courts stayed his arrest till July 5. Similarly, the attempt to book poet and ex-AAP member Kumar Vishwas and Congress leader Alka Lamba also backfired. Vishwas had called Kejriwal a “Khalistan supporter”.
So Khalistan is in the news again, thanks to a sequence of mysterious incidents that lack any resemblance to the terrorist violence of the separatist movement in its heyday. In the last week of April, a so-called ‘Khalistan-murdabad’ march of a nebulous fringe Hindutva outfit, the ‘Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray)’ turned violent in Patiala after it was attacked by Nihangs and other Sikh groups. According to news reports, the ‘Shiv Sena’ leader Harsh Singla was also attacked by local Hindu groups angered by his provocation of Sikh sentiments. Curfew was imposed to restore order, but there was no loss of life.
Punjab Police is investigating the Mohali blast. Those who conspire to disrupt peace and harmony in the state will not be spared
– Bhagwant Mann, Chief Minister, Punjab
The Hindutva outfit, for its part, maintained that it was protesting an alleged call by Pannun for a ‘Khalistan sthapna diwas (Khalistan foundation day)’ on April 29. Singla was arrested and only after protests from other Hindutva organisations did the cops also book the chief of the radical Sikh outfit Damdami Taksal Jatha, Barjinder Parwana, for his outfit’s part in the violence.
Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann has given reassurances after the Patiala and Mohali incidents that the state police will crack down on all elements creating trouble in the state. “The police are investigating the Mohali blast. Those who conspire to disrupt the peace and harmony in the state will not be spared,” said Mann, who also heads the home ministry. However, the opposition BJP is not convinced. “The police and security agencies are pointing fingers at the Khalistanis, but the CM refuses to criticise them,” says Subhash Sharma, the BJP state unit general secretary.
Meanwhile, in Himachal Pradesh, a Special Investigation Team is probing a curious case from the night of May 7 when Khalistani flags were found tied to the gates of the state (winter) assembly building in Dharamshala. The police again see the hand of SFJ’s Pannun in instigating local elements.
The response of state governments to such incidents suggests a growing focus on the involvement of criminal gangs in the name of ‘Khalistan’. The new AAP government led by Mann has constituted an anti-gangster squad in the Punjab police under ADGP Pramod Ban, but it’s early days yet. Police sources say there are 70 organised gangs with over 500 known members active in the state. Some 300 gangsters are lodged in different jails. The number of gangs has risen three times in the preceding 5-7 years. One of them, led by Rinda, has extended the gangster network in north India to pro-Khalistani militant outfits run from Pakistan, say security agencies. These cross-border outfits apparently include the Wadhawa Singh Babbar-led Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), the Lakhbir Singh Rode—nephew of slain terrorist Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale—led Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), Ranjeet Singh Neeta-led Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) and Paramjit Panjwar’s Khalistan Commando Force (KCF). All these outfits are reportedly busy these days pushing counterfeit currency, drugs and arms into India along with ordering targeted killings and attacks. Rinda is suspected to have fled to Pakistan via Nepal in 2019 on a fake passport and joined Babbar’s outfit. He apparently organised the blasts in Ludhiana, Nawanshahr and at a police station in Ropar earlier this year to create a name for himself.
Early last year, Punjab Police successfully extradited another gangster, Sukh Bhikhariwal, from Dubai. His gang is suspected to have executed anti-Khalistan activist and Shaurya Chakra winner Balwinder Sandhu in Tarn Taran district on the instruction of KLF’s Rode. In January this year, in a joint operation, police in the Ramdas area of Amritsar and Dinanagar area of Gurdaspur cracked a clique of gangsters apparently working as couriers for Rode and KCF’s Panjwar.
Former Punjab DGP Shashikant says Khalistani outfits are trying again to destabilise the peaceful atmosphere in the state by targeting social and religious leaders. Retired Punjab Police IG Jagdish Mittal pulls out state police data to suggest that in the past decade, these groups may have executed more than 100 people, including RSS leaders, Hindu leaders of outfits linked to the Congress, leaders of fringe Hindutva outfits, Christian pastors etc.
Sikh protesters gather at Fountain Chowk in Patiala after the clash with the ‘Shiv Sena (BT)’, Apr. 29; (Photo: Harmeet Sodhi)
Rinda was also allegedly using his network to ship arms consignments to terror groups in Punjab and Kashmir, and Maoists in central and east India. On May 5, after inputs from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Punjab Police’s intelligence wing, the Haryana police nabbed four gangsters—Gurpreet Singh, Amandeep Singh, Parminder Singh and Bhupinder Singh—who were suspected to be carriers hired by Rinda to deliver explosives at Adilabad in Telangana. Border Security Force (BSF) teams, along with police teams from Maharashtra and Telangana, are currently camping in Haryana’s Karnal for their interrogation. The Haryana police recovered improvised explosive devices (IEDs), 7.5 kg of RDX, 30 live cartridges, a pistol and Rs 1.3 lakh in cash from them at a toll plaza in Karnal. Security agencies believe the four have already delivered two consignments in Nanded, Maharashtra, and suspect that the plan was to execute serial blasts in Mumbai. The police are yet to ascertain the exact destination for the seized explosives. Rinda apparently used to send them locations on an app, guiding them on where and when to make deliveries, Karnal SP Ganga Ram Punia told india today.
Born in Tarn Taran district, Rinda grew up in Nanded before coming back to attend Panjab University in 2015. But he continued to run his gang there while extending his operations to Punjab. A proclaimed offender (PO), the Nanded police have charged him in two murder cases along with cases of extortion going as far back as February 2016.
Author and commentator Jagtar Sandhu says this is a new trend seen in the past few years where Khalistani groups have started using criminals and gangsters, and not ideologically committed people, to get their work done. Jagdish Mittal says most of those involved in terror incidents are not even Sikhs. They are from poor families, mostly unemployed and were promised money or a future abroad.
Top officials at the Indian security agencies say the Pakistani intelligence service ISI has floated a new platform, the Lashkar-e-Khalsa, with Pakistan-based Khalistani outfits to train and provide logistics to these criminal elements. The Indian agencies believe Taliban mercenaries too are part of the group to provide weapons training. Incidentally, the Mohali attack on the Intelligence HQ used a Chinese-made RPG. The weapon has been a favourite of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Syrian rebels. In India, Naxal outfits in Chhattisgarh are said to have access to it, but this is a first for Khalistani outfits. In January this year, the Gurdaspur police had recovered an under-barrel grenade launcher (UBGL) from the Dinanagar area of the city. It was apparently air-dropped using drones by Rode. Indian officials say the ISI has been helping these outfits in using drones since 2019 to offload weapons and drugs in the border districts of Punjab and J&K. Then chief minister Amarinder Singh had prepared a dossier linking the air-dropping of weapons and drugs with Khalistani terror outfits, but nothing much came of it.
Keeping the pot of Khalistani sentiment boiling does help the outfits sitting in Pakistan, UK, USA, EU, Australia and Canada. The movement’s second avatar now has a far more influential Sikh diaspora extending it logistical support. Organisations like the SFJ and the Canada-based Poetic Justice Foundation are part of a conventional Khalistan network whose propaganda is carried out through the gurdwaras in their countries.
The protests against the contentious farm laws became one more excuse to whip up anti-government sentiments among the Sikh diaspora. Security agencies are now carefully analysing the tweets and statements of Sikh politicians in UK and Canada. In mid-April, the BJP had criticised Mann for hosting British Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who routinely amplifies rights violations by Indian security agencies in Kashmir. In December 2020, at a protest Dhesi organised in London opposite the Indian High Commission, pro-Khalistan slogans too were raised. The attendees included Khalistan Tiger Force’s Paramjit Pamma. Dhesi, however, denies any links to Khalistani outfits. In the past, Mann’s predecessors like Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder remained extra cautious while meeting controversial Sikh politicians from the West. In fact, Amarinder had refused to meet Canadian minister Harjit Singh Sajjan in 2017 saying his family had links with pro-Khalistan outfits.
Meanwhile, Jagtar Sandhu believes the Khalistan movement may have died but the idea has not. The weapons seizures, scattered violence and recalcitrant elements raising the Khalistan issue at public forums are all incidents in continuity. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game. The government of the day will have to crack down while these elements will continue with their bench job.” For now, he says, it’s a law and order problem but a solution will have to be political. Meanwhile, the police in Punjab are embarrassed with the attack on their intelligence HQ and the citizens anxious. Mann is assuring action, but mere words won’t suffice this time.