Pakistan Seeking to Revive
Despite the comprehensive defeat of Khalistani terrorism as far back as in 1993, the cinema hall blasts in Ludhiana Oct 14 were just one more reminder, in a continuous succession of such reminders, that the Khalistani misadventure has not completely ended - and that it continues to play a central role in Pakistan's machinations against India.
While the murder of innocents inevitably adds an element of drama to such reminders, it also tends to detract from the fact that there is and has been a sustained effort to engineer a revival of terrorism in Punjab from the very moment of the defeat of the Khalistani movement.
Shortly after the Ludhiana incident, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan noted that "there has been a manifest attempt in Pakistan to build up a radical Sikh environment" and that "we have also seen signs of resuscitation of militant groups in Canada, the US and Germany".
These 'signs of resuscitation' were also visible during the orchestration of the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy in June 2007. Intelligence sources confirmed at that time that the trouble started from the gurdwara at Talwandi Sabo after a significant amount of 'chatter' between priests there and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) handlers as well as Wadhawa Singh, the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) 'chief', who is being retained in comfort - with a small surviving rump of cadres - at Karachi.
A similar effort was visible in the campaign against the Hindi film "Jo Bole So Nihal" in May 2005. As the protests gathered a measure of momentum, a series of bomb blasts were orchestrated by the BKI in cinema halls in Delhi in the expectation that these may provoke a wider reaction in Punjab.
Significantly, other than the principal executor of this serial bombing, Jagtar Singh Hawara, none of the other conspirators fit the profile of traditional conservative BKI activists. All those subsequently arrested had entirely mercenary reasons for joining the conspiracy and two of them were Hindus who planted the bombs for money.
The pattern of subversion is best reflected in the continuous stream of arrests and seizures of weapons and explosives across Punjab as well as in the occasional terrorist attack - successful or otherwise.
Between 1995 and 2005, for instance, at least 100 civilians were killed in terrorist violence in Punjab - overwhelmingly in bomb attacks on soft targets. Well over 1,000 kg of explosives and a large arsenal of small weapons have been recovered over this period.
The principal base of active Khalistani terrorist organizations thus remains in Pakistan, with several groups enjoying the active patronage of ISI, which has also assisted in coordinating their activities with Islamist terrorist organizations as well as with organized crime operators who have assisted in the movement of men and materials across the border into Punjab.
It is useful to recall the transparent effort to aid the mobilization of Khalistani elements under which Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Javed Nasir, a former ISI chief, was made chairman of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 1999.
The principal Khalistani groups currently hosted by Pakistan include:
The BKI: Wadhawa Singh Babbar, chief of Babbar Khalsa, continues to operate from Pakistan, and the BKI has been most active in executing terrorist strikes in Punjab over the past decade.
The Khalistan Commando Force (KCF)-Panjwar: Headed by Paramjit Singh Panjwar who has been camping in Pakistan for over 14 years. This group currently has limited striking potential, but alliances and sympathizers in Britain, Germany, Belgium, the US and Canada give it a measure of influence. About 100 youths in small batches belonging to these countries have undergone training in the handling of weapons and explosives.
The International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF)-Rode: Lakhbir Singh Rode, the nephew of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, is the coordinator of this group and has links with Islamist terrorist groups such as the Lashker-e-Taiba. Rode played a major role in shaping the Khalistan-Kashmir International, a joint platform for strikes by Sikh and Islamist extremists in the aftermath of the setback received by terrorists on the K2M (Khalistan-Kashmir-Muslim militancy) front, which was the pioneer platform for joint strikes by Punjab militants, Jammu and Kashmir militants and Islamist terrorist elements in the early 1990s.
ISYF under Lakhbir Singh Rode has its branches spread over a dozen countries in Western Europe and Canada.
Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF): headed by Ranjit Singh Neeta, this group was responsible for a series of explosions in trains and buses in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir. Neeta developed operational alliances with splinter groups of Kashmiri militants, and has been very active in transferring consignments of explosives, small weapons, ammunition and fake currency to his associates in Punjab over the years. KZF has executed a number of attacks in the state, including the Jalandhar bus terminus blasts in April 2006 and the Goraya railway track explosions in January 2004.
Dal Khalsa International: Headed by Gajinder Singh 'Hijacker', who tried to float a joint group with Kashmiri militants, indications of which surfaced in 1997-98. This group is one of the most active, with substantial funding available through Khalistani elements abroad.
It is, however, reassuring that these efforts find little resonance or sympathy on the ground within Punjab today. Nevertheless, ISI and the surviving Khalistanis in Pakistan continue to operate on a long-term calculus, which gambles on continuing political mismanagement within the state to eventually create the conditions for a revival of terrorism over the coming decade or more. In the interim, there is a constant vigil for opportunities that may help provoke a favorable mobilization.
(Ajay Sahni edits the South Asia Intelligence Review and is an authority on sub-continental terrorism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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