It was a cold autumn morning in September 1983 when Malay Krishna Dhar landed in Ottawa with his wife and two young sons. When the Dhars emerged from the airport building, they zipped up their warm mackintoshes and jackets to ward off the chill. An Indian diplomatic staff car drove up to the Dhars. The chauffeur bundled their luggage in the car boot as Dhar took the seat next to the driver. The family was tired. It was, after all, a long flight from New Delhi.
The next morning, he reached his Spartan but comfortable office space at the Indian high commission. He got down to business—sifting through files marked secret, and other fragments of valuable information on the close links between Khalistani operatives and their Pakistani handlers. His diplomatic cover was that of a cultural attache.
Then an assistant director in India’s counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism organisation, the Intelligence Bureau, this was Dhar’s first posting abroad. In the four years that he helmed the Ottawa station, he could identify some of the key Khalistani local networks, their international linkages, support structures and financial sources. These and more information that he could gather, following the tragic events surrounding Operation Blue Star in 1984, formed part of the rich and vast array of intelligence that was transmitted to headquarters in Delhi, and was also shared with the IB’s ‘external’ cousin, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
Long-retired IB and R&AW officials recall that even in the turbulent days of the Khalistani movement and the corresponding terror years in Punjab, the “synergies” between Indian operatives in Canada and the “host” organisation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which worked closely with the CIA and the MI6, among other “friendly” Western security agencies, was “excellent”. “The liaison relationship between us and the RCMP produced high-grade intelligence that was among the chief reasons for the neutralisation of the Khalistani separatist movement that was shaped by the ISI,” a retired IB officer says.
During his heydays in the IB, the current National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, himself was an integral part of the intelligence gathering machinery on Punjab terrorism. The arc of the Khalistani movement on the globe was pretty wide—stretching from Canada and the UK in the West to Thailand in the East. It was also in the late 1980s that an Indian intelligence officer posted in Bangkok under diplomatic cover was literally an arm’s way of eliminating the then top Khalistani leader Jagjit Singh Chouhan in the Thai capital, but pulled back at the last minute since he did not have headquarter’s clearance.
In 1992, the scars of Operation Blue Star at Amritsar’s Golden Temple remained etched on the pockmarked walls of the revered monument and on the collective psyche of the people of Punjab. The Khalistan separatist movement, however, with strong overseas links, especially in Canada, was not quite over. “Those were turbulent times and we would receive huge volumes of intelligence from the ground—the districts of Punjab—and much of these would be a rash of information. What we would be left with was only about 20-30 percent of reliable (HUMINT) inputs, which also included intelligence generated by the IB,” a former R&AW joint secretary who handled the Khalistani movement in 1996 at headquarters, says.
There was a qualitative difference between the intelligence that its consumers at RAW—so it could in turn verify the information with its own sources in Canada, the UK and even Thailand—received from the IB and those that emanated from Punjab which went through several sieves before they were deemed actionable or discarded. While SIGINT helped considerably to intercept phone calls and other means of communication transmissions among targeted individuals, “most of the intercontinental linkages threw up routine but valuable chatter surrounding conspiracies hatched in gurdwaras in India and Canada,” the former RAW officer says.
It was not an easy task to collect and collate information, the officer says, and it often took weeks to work out “quality products” (read credible intelligence) based on which action—largely “neutralisation”—could be taken either in Canada and some other foreign countries or in Punjab. “Those were not the times when operations could be launched easily on foreign soil as there were too many fetters,” he says.
Former Punjab Police DGP SS Virk, who, years ago served in the districts, through the Khalistani separatist movement and the more recent phase involving Canada and UK-based mercenaries, smugglers, gun-runners, drug peddlers, crime lords and ideologues, says, “The intercontinental links were as obvious then as they are now. Only today, they use electronic and digital means to keep in touch and disseminate disinformation.”
The linchpin of intelligence operations abroad and especially in countries (primarily Canada and Britain but also some Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand) with significant population of pro-Khalistani elements was careful and coordinated action on running sources—mainly centred on HUMINT earlier—but with the advancement of technology in digital surveillance, the thrust was on SIGINT, TECHINT and ELINT.
A new breed of officers, both in IB and RAW, who were proficient in SIGINT, ELINT and TECHINT, were also posted under-cover in Canada. “The quality of intelligence continued to be good, if not very high-grade, but the steady flow and the actionable nature of the information held us in good stead,” says a retired IB officer, who could rise to become special director.
Virk served as SSP and DIG under the leadership of Julio Ribeiro and KPS Gill in Jalandhar and Amritsar in the immediate aftermath of Operation Bluestar. “Once, during the interrogation of some militants it was found that they had undergone mercenary training with the clandestine Campers Group that operated out of British Columbia,” Virk said, adding that there were “organic links between Khalistani ideologues living in Canada, the UK, Germany and the US with militant groups in Punjab”.
He recalled the rich trough of intelligence that the Punjab Police as well as the IB could obtain on the “networks in Canada that would send money to the militants groups operating in Punjab”. He recalled how Canada-based “ideologues”, way back in the post Operation Blue Star phase, had successfully mounted a disinformation campaign that had provoked a group of about a dozen Canadian MPs to visit India to see firsthand instances of alleged human rights violations, enforced disappearances and other so-called atrocities and abnormalities in Punjab.
“We took them around on a tour of Amritsar where I was serving as an SSP then. They visited a number of places—from markets to the Golden Temple. They met a wide cross-section of people, and found, to their utter consternation that all the information that they were fed at the time by the Khalistani ideologues was patently false,” Virk says, as he narrates the coordination that the Punjab Police—then led by some effective officers drafted from Maharashtra and elsewhere—put in place to take on the militancy. “The Canadian MPs ended the tour with a good lunch and chilled beer,” Virk said with a chuckle.
Some former intelligence officers agree that the “great relationship” that Indian intelligence had with the RCMP—and by extension with the security agencies of other Western countries—“has now come in for a major injury that will take years to heal”. In fact, before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “blew it all up in parliament”, senior RCMP officers reached Delhi to meet their counterparts in RAW to impress upon them the gravity of the situation and especially to give them hints that they were in possession of irrefutable evidence of an Indian hand in the operation that led to the elimination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. “Officers of the two intelligence agencies had meetings over the week that came to nought,” an Indian official says, adding that it will take years for “this fracture” to heal.