Militants Outside India
A massive majority of Sikhs living abroad in countries such as Canada, Britain and the USA had remained largely unaffected by the feud between New Delhi and the Punjab extremists. But when the Golden Temple was raided, a sudden wave of emotion overtook thousands upon thousands of overseas Sikhs. In Vancouver, for example, 25,000 Sikhs – a majority of them moderates – marched on the streets to show their disapproval over the raid on their Vatican. Their grief was understandable. They had been shocked, utterly, that an army would be needed to flush out a group of extremists from the seat of Sikhism’s soul, the Golden Temple. It was around this time that small militant groups operating overseas gained momentum and membership amongst Sikhs who had previously ignored the hue and cry in the Punjab.
It is still true, though, that membership of militant groups involves only a small minority of Sikhs who have settled in Canada, Britain and the USA. Many have been in the West for so long that they do not even care about what’s happening in a country with which they have severed their former ties. Sikhs living in the West among other citizens of those countries are enterprising people who have built a solid base for their families. They are among the best housed an employed people in their new counties.
But numerous Sikh separatist groups now operate within Canada, Britain and the USA, and monitoring their activities is costing counter-terrorist agencies a bundle of money. For example, in Canada, Sikh militants are now one of the two major areas in which the manpower of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is deployed. Incidents of beatings and intimidation of moderates – and there have been many – are not a concern of intelligence agencies. Those aspects are dealt with by regular police forces. However, another aspect of Sikh militancy is of major concern.
This is the use of the host countries as launching pads for terrorist activities in India.
Most militants interviewed by intelligence agencies in the three Western nations always insist that they will abide by the laws of the country in which they live – that crimes will not be committed within those countries. However, to the Western nations, as Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the Reagan administration have made clear, the practice of using them as safe havens from which to launch strikes against India is not acceptable either.
It is not uncommon for extremist groups to preach that no nation has been born on the conference table. It is not uncommon for various splinter groups to hold press conferences and claim responsibility for assassinations in India. The tragic downing of Air India 182 was among several incidents that have raised supreme concern within Western intelligence agencies.
For example, in a top-secret FBI operation code-named Operation Rite Cross, an FBI agent infiltrated a small radical group of Sikhs belonging to an obscure cell called Black June. The four men had approached Frank Camper, who ran a school called ‘The Mercenary School’ in Dolomite, Alabama. Camper told the FBI later that the four wanted training in the manufacture of time bombs, attacking armored vehicles, assassination techniques and even how to blow up trains.
Camper said the men made it clear that their aim was to engage in sabotage in India. But that’s what they said to Camper. The FBI knew otherwise. The four were arrested later for plotting the murder of an Indian minister, and one of them was also indicted for plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during a visit to Washington in the summer of 1985. Two of the wanted men, Lal Singh and Ammand Singh, escaped the FBI dragnet.
That is why FBI agents visited Vancouver, according to intelligence authorities in the United States. It was the FBI’s first brush with Sikh militancy. They wanted to be briefed by the CSIS, who were by now the acknowledged experts in this field. Subsequent to Operation Rite Cross, though, the FBI realized the hitherto unsuspected existence of a whole network of militant groups based in various cities in the United States. They now monitor those groups’ activities on a constant basis.
Early last year, Canadian authorities and the Scotland Yard anti-terrorist squad intercepted two men carrying an Israeli made UZI machine gun. The gun had been disassembled and its parts were being carried in two separate bags. It has never become clear why the deadly weapon was being ferried to London from Vancouver, although one of the men proclaimed later that he was ordered under threat to carry the gun – known as the perfect weapon for an assassination because of its lethal power and easy concealment – to a high official of the Khalistan movement in London.
It is not uncommon nowadays for the British Security Service to ask England-based militants about their connections with their counterparts in Canada. The BSS knows about considerable cross-traffic and visits between members of some groups in Canada and those based in England. And late last year, during a visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who must today be one of the most targeted leaders in the world, British authorities foiled an alleged plot to assassinate him by four men resident in the Birmingham area.
In London, Khalistan National Council movement chief Dr Jagjit Singh Chauhan continued preaching his cause from a building he had named Khalistan House. The former Punjab state minister often showed off letters he received from Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who died in the storming of the Golden Temple. Bhindranwale had urged Chauhan to carry on the struggle from outside the county to bolster the movement he was spearheading. Chauhan had good contacts among various groups in Canada, the USA and Germany, but his overseas travel has been curtailed since he has been barred from entering Canada and the USA. His Indian passport also had been revoked, and India raised a storm when he was allowed to enter the United States on that canceled passport. The British government had also instructed Mr. Chauhan to curtail his activities and confine them within the bounds of democracy and the laws of the land.
Among the chief groups operating in Canada, with strong ties both in the UK and the USA, was the World Sikh Organization. This was a mainstream body with representation in the thousands in the three counties where Sikhs live in massive numbers. The body was led by prominent California multimillionaire Didar Singh Bains, who traveled back and forth between cities where he had a following in a private jet appropriately marked ‘Khalistan 1’. It surely must be the envy of the US president, who is flown around in ‘Air Force 1’.
The group led by Bains included fairly large numbers of intellectuals, among them former Indian Army General Jaswant Singh Bhullar, who fled charges of sedition in India and escaped shortly before the Temple was raided. Bhullar, who then arrived in Vancouver, said he left because Bhindranwale wanted him to leave. The renegade general had been instrumental in the taking of the capital of East Pakistan when India actively supported the guerrillas of the Mukti Bahini, who wanted to separate from West Pakistan. The war that followed led to the creation of Bangladesh. The stated policy of the WSO was the creation of a separate Sikh state. The organization said it planned to do that by lobbying rather than violence. However, in many cases where Sikhs have faced charges resulting from alleged criminal offenses the WSO had rushed to offer financial aid for the defense of those accused. That was their right, of course, so they were within legal bounds.
The other major organization, much more militant than the WSO, and perhaps also the organization that had the capability to become the most powerful, was the International Sikh Youth Federation. Intelligence agencies in the West said the group was still in the organizational stage, but it was one of the primary targets of surveillance by security authorities. The group was governed by a nine-member High Command which was spread between Canada, England, the USA and India.
The ISYF regarded other less militant groups as paper tigers and had been actively taking control of major Sikh temples in Western countries in order to obtain a stage for propagating its cause. The branch in Canada was headed by a Vancouver area resident by the name of Satinderpal Gill, who made frequent trips to Pakistan, considered by many radicals to be a natural ally of the struggle to carve out Khalistan. Canadian intelligence sources knew the ISYF pumped enormous amounts of money into Pakistan and India, but little was known about what happened to it.
The Canadian branch of the ISYF had been bolstered in days leading up to the tragic events of June 23, 1985 by the arrival of Lakhbir Singh Brar, a nephew of Sant. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Brar, because of his blood-relation to Bhindranwale would soon become the chieftain of the ISYF. He came to Canada in April 1985 from Abu Dhabi where he was a well-to-do businessman. Brar fled Abu Dhabi after his brother, Jasbir, was shuttled back and forth between England and the Philippines and finally handed over to the Indians. Brar had applied for refugee status in Canada and later ordered removed for being a security threat to India. He is in Pakistan now and one of some 22 people India has asked Pakistan to repatriate.
Another new arrival was former England resident Harpal Singh Ghumman, real name Harjinderpal Singh Nagra, one of the founders of the ISYF branch in England. Ghumman, a hardline fundamentalist, had a degree in law and was one of the masterminds of the movement. Early in 1985, Ghumman married a Canadian resident and applied to stay in Vancouver. That brought another of his friends here too. His name was Pushpinder Singh, real name Mohaninder Singh Sachdeva, a man with a PhD degree who was extremely bright. Pushpinder Singh, after leaving the Philippines where he lived, entered Canada by way of Mexico and then slipped into British Columbia where he applied for refugee status on the basis that if he was sent back, he would face persecution in India. Pushpinder Singh vanished a few years later and was subsequently captured by the Indian government.
The third group of some significance was the extreme fundamentalist group called Babar Khalsa, first formed in India in 1978. The overseas unit was headed by Vancouver area Sikh Talwinder Singh Parmar, also known as Harpav Singh Parmar, who had often made his former aide Surjan Singh Gill pronounce him the leader of 14 million Sikhs. Gill said he broke away from Parmar’s group in April 1985 after a personal row. But there is no question that Gill had contacts with Parmar leading up to the time Air India was bombed. Parmar’s following was restricted to about 400 in Canada, mostly in Ontario, with some support in England and Germany. Parmar, who called himself a Jathedar, a commander who fights injustice, lived in a plush house and owned three cars. Authorities believed he was financed by his followers and a rich Vancouver area businessman. Babar Khalsa had often offered support to hijackers of Indian Airlines jets on trial in Pakistan, saying it was a symbolic gesture of defiance and did not cause a loss of life.
A publication put out by the Babar Khalsa, called ‘The Case for Khalistan’, stated: ‘The symbolic hijacking of an Indian airliner by Sikh youth is simply a message to India, and the world, that now the Sikhs mean business.’
But the Babar Khalsa could be advised, and rightly, by millions of Sikhs around the world, to speak for itself. Sikhs as a community do not endorse hijackings, symbolic or otherwise. Parmar subsequently fled Canada, spent a few years in Pakistan and then was captured and killed by Indian forces in Oct. 1992. Over the years he has come to be known as the key figure behind the Air India bombing.
The terrorist attack on Air India prompted the government of Canada to rethink its strategy for dealing with militant groups. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, during a visit to India, offered wide-ranging collaboration between the intelligence authorities of the two countries and an extradition treaty to appease the Indians. Clearly, the terrorist attack was an embarrassment to the Canadian government in view of previous warnings from India. Further, Ottawa also paved the way to deporting Sikhs whose applications for refugee status had been denied, thus lifting a moratorium that had been in effect since 1984. But Clark rightly pointed out that it would be unfair to label all Sikhs militants because of the actions of a few.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of generalization. The only reason those individuals who carried out the attack against the Air India jet are identified as Sikhs is because they themselves define themselves as members of Sikh militant groups. Further, the identification is relevant because the attack was carried out in the misguided belief that all is justified in the name of religion. But the public, in India, England, Canada and elsewhere, would be making a tragic error if it misconstrued the use of this label and concluded that all Sikhs are terrorists. Not so.
That was the error made by those unruly and mindless mobs who massacred Sikhs simply because they were Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. No, the true followers of the noble Khalsa deserve better than that. It would be the equivalent of construing the actions of the Irish Republican Army to represent the tenets of the Christian faith, or for that matter those crusaders of the past. Or of construing the actions of Shia or Sunni militants in the Middle East as the teachings of the faith of Islam.
No religion preaches violence. But a handful of people in the Christian, the Hindu, the Moslem and the Sikh faith, in their own twisted logic, believe that God has given them the license to inflict brutality on innocent people.
The downing of the jet was a joint operation between two very small groups that could claim only very limited support in Canada. Furthermore, the RCMP believed the operation was carried out by a cell-structure of no more than 12 people. Three or four men organized the scheme. Another made the bombs, somebody else booked the tickets, then another person picked them up. Two different men then delivered the deadly cargo to Vancouver International Airport.
The act caused as much grief within the Sikh community as outside. Most Skihs were so stunned that they refused to believe that any member of the Sikh faith, which preaches love and tolerance, could do a thing like that to innocent, defenseless civilians.