Playing hide and seek: Decoding organized crime and Sikh separatism in foreign lands
Indian intelligence operations in the US and Canada have been successful in infiltrating Khalistani cells
The presence abroad of more than 2 million Sikhs has given Sikh extremism an international dimension. Nearly one-third of these expatriate Sikhs are in the UK, Canada and the US. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reporting, Sikh extremists frequently travel between these three countries and probably maintain contacts with extremists in India. Some Sikhs apprehended in the US on immigration charges have admitted plans to recruit Khalistan sympathizers and to set up safe houses for Sikh militants wanted for crimes committed in India.
According to the INS, the Bahamas, Mexico, Thailand and West Germany serve as way stations for illegal Sikh immigration to the US. The explosion that downed an Air India 747 flying from Canada to India was probably executed with the help of Canada-based Sikh extremists. They have developed an extensive overseas network. Jagjit Singh Chohan has declared himself the leader of the ‘Republic of Khalistan’. The International Sikh Youth Federation, the international wing of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation, is especially active in Canada and the UK. Press reports indicate other Sikh groups, such as the World Sikh Organization based in Washington, lobby democratic countries for support for an independent Sikh state. We believe that India faces a long-term terrorist threat from Sikh extremists that the government probably cannot eradicate. We expect resentment of New Delhi and fears of Hindu domination to linger among a majority of Sikhs, allowing the extremists to retain at least some popular support.
The enduring differences between India and Pakistan suggest Islamabad will continue to provide sanctuary and limited aid to Sikh extremists. We believe Pakistan would significantly increase its support to Sikh extremists only if hostilities were breaking out with India over other issues, such as Kashmir. In this case, Pakistan would see Sikhs as a potential fifth column that would carry out terrorist activities in India and interfere with Indian military escorts. Sikh extremists will remain capable—without outside support—of significantly increasing terrorist operations in Punjab, elsewhere in India, and overseas.
Contributions from Sikh temples, profits from narcotics trafficking, and remittances from pro-extremist Sikhs overseas will ensure enough financial support to enable the extremists to continue terrorist activity.
There was also a candid admission in the CIA report that the relationship between the USA and India could suffer because of the presence of Khalistani elements on the USA soil and their continued support to Sikh militancy in Punjab. It said: India views US policy towards Sikh extremists in the US as a major element in bilateral relations.
The presence in the US of 1.5 lakh Sikhs—some who send funds to extremist organisations in India—has made New Delhi eager to see the US act against Sikh extremist activity within its borders. Senior Indian officials—including Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—credit Washington for the arrest of several Sikhs in the US on conspiracy charges and welcome repeated US statements supporting Indian unity, according to the US embassy.
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While Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO was working on political tools to capture the hearts and minds of the younger generation in Punjab, Mohan Krishna, a R&AW field agent in Toronto, was facing a tough task. The covers of two R&AW officers who had successfully penetrated the inner sanctum of the World Sikh Organization, the International Sikh Youth Federation and the Babbar Khalsa, had accidentally been blown. An officer codenamed SKS was taken out by a hardcore Babbar Khalsa supporter and his true identity was revealed to the Sikh community through their internal publicity arm which included a newsletter. A potential recruit, the editor of a Punjabi newspaper in Toronto, compromised another R&AW officer codenamed Colonel.
Colonel’s informal meeting with his would-be source was splashed in this newspaper the next day, blowing open not only the R&AW operation inside the Sikh community, but also leaving hundreds of informers in the cold. Even to this day, almost three decades later, it is still being argued that a rivalry between the IB and the R&AW had compromised the operation and soured India’s relationship with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The two officers were declared Persona Non Grata and put on flights back to New Delhi in 1987.
(Baldev) Krishna, who was sent to Canada undercover in late 1987, said it was a battle of wits. At least two R&AW stations had been closed in Toronto after the fiasco. In Delhi, he had been briefed that the ISI had been behind the damage to the Indian spy agency’s operation, but later he learnt that a turf war between the IB and R&AW, which the ISI had taken full advantage of, was the real reason the operation failed…
Krishna was given a mandate and a blank cheque to neutralize the pro-Khalistan groups in Canada. ‘I was told to do whatever it takes to get access to every bit of information on the plans made by hardcore Sikh leaders in Canada,’ he told me.
Within months of his arrival in Canada in 1987, Krishna was running an asset linked to a gurdwara in Vancouver. He successfully harvested and shipped actionable intelligence on the Babbar Khalsa’s activities in Canada and their terror plans against India. Just days after the launch of Operation Black Thunder II in Amritsar by top cop KPS Gill on 9 May 1988 to flush out militants from the Golden Temple, Krishna dismantled a Sikh youth wing operating out of North Mississauga. Although the R&AW felt vulnerable in Canada, using its fledgling network of Indian spies against the strong separatist movement, Krishna often bypassed conventional means to gather productive intelligence.
‘There was internal criticism about R&AW effectiveness in Canada. I remember an Indian diplomat had remarked during a party at the embassy that the R&AW survives because its reports are not read by the political bosses and they are lucky because no comments are offered. It was a bit humiliating. From that day on I swore to keep a step ahead of our adversaries. That became my priority.
I successfully recruited informers in Ottawa and Winnipeg. I developed two assets deep inside Punjabi print media houses in Toronto and charmed a venom-spewing priest in a Vancouver gurdwara. I thought he might be a trickster, but that is the risk of our trade. He proved to be a great asset. We paid huge sums to keep the operation against militant groups going and it slowly took on a pace of its own,’ Krishna told me. Sometime in October 1988, the priest arranged a meeting with a potential recruit at Argo Cafe on Ontario Street.
Krishna was told that the man belonged to the International Sikh Youth Federation and had been working closely with the group’s leadership. The meeting revealed that the recruit, Tarvinder Singh, came from an affluent family in Ludhiana and since his arrival in Vancouver in 1983 for studies, he had been deeply involved in the separatist movement. But ever since the bombings executed by the Babbar Khalsa at Gurdaspur, Patiala and Hoshiarpur in February 1988, in which more than a hundred innocents were killed, he had been feeling trapped.
‘So now what do you want to do?’ Krishna asked him with a straight face. ‘I want this mindless killing to end. I can do anything,’ Tarvinder replied.
Within a month Krishna had a dossier on each of the International Sikh Youth Federation leaders with their contact addresses and photographs.
A file was also shared with Canadian intelligence.
Contributions from Sikh temples, profits from narcotics trafficking, and remittances from pro-extremist Sikhs overseas will ensure enough financial support to enable the extremists to continue terrorist activity