Three deaths, Khalistani narrative & its chilling effect on diaspora

It is within this context of violent mobilisation and criminal association that the recent deaths of Khalistani activists in widely dispersed locations abroad need to be assessed.

Published: 02nd July 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st July 2023 04:34 PM   |  A+A-

The Khalistani discourse, particularly in the diaspora, is dominated by relentless grievance peddling and falsification, on one hand, and an obdurate neglect of the excesses of the terrorists that they have iconised, on the other. With no traction in Punjab and diminishing support in the larger Sikh diaspora community, the Khalistanis have formed alliances with gangsters and drug runners, both to ensure ongoing flows of revenues, as well as to secure the logistics and manpower support they need for the occasional operations they are able to orchestrate. Virtually all the prominent terrorist strikes in Punjab over recent years reflect this Khalistani-gangster nexus. 

It is within this context of violent mobilisation and criminal association that the recent deaths of Khalistani activists in widely dispersed locations abroad need to be assessed. This includes the June 19, 2023, shooting of the Canada-based chief of the Khalistan Tiger Force, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, by two unidentified youth outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, in the British Columbia Province. In the UK, Avtar Singh Khanda, ‘chief’ of the banned Khalistan Liberation Force, a radical mobiliser and activist closely tied to the presently incarcerated Amritpal Singh, died in a hospital in Birmingham on June 14 reportedly of cancer. In Pakistan, the wanted ‘chief’ of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), Paramjit Singh Panjwar, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Lahore on May 6. 

While the deaths of prominent elements in the Khalistani diaspora are reported from time to time, the ‘clustering’ of these three incidents over 45 days has provoked significant scrutiny. Both the Khalistanis and radical Hindu nationalists have sought to project these deaths as conspiracies by India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, but far more credible explanations can be found within the background of rivalries within, and criminalisation of the Khalistani diaspora.

There was some initial clarity around Khanda’s death, despite imaginative parallels with the assassination of Russian dissidents by radioactive or nerve agents. Indeed, an early Sikh Federation UK (a Khalistani advocacy group) tweet confirmed that he died after being diagnosed with ‘blood cancer’. The Khalistani Diaspora, however, eager to promote a narrative of ‘martyrdom’, seized upon the propaganda potential of the death and initiated a campaign alleging assassination by Indian agencies.

The case has been referred to a Coroner, and this campaign can be expected to continue for up to six months, till the Inquest report is made public. As for Panjawar, he was involved in the smuggling of heroin, weapons, and fake Indian currency notes from Pakistan, but was struggling to keep the KCF alive, as younger and more aggressive players swamped the field. Other Khalistani terrorists in Pakistan have been involved in similar activities, and at least some of them have met a similar end. There is, yet, no clarity on who killed Panjwar, and the case is unlikely to be ‘solved’ in Pakistan, where his existence is not even acknowledged, and where his death was reported as the killing of ‘Malik Sardar Singh’, the identity he had been given by Pakistan’s ISI.

Nijjar, who has been linked by Indian investigators to a number of targeted killings and attacks in Punjab, had long been involved with an often-violent gurdwara politics in Canada, including a protracted conflict with Ripudaman Singh Malik, the principal architect of the IC-182 Kanishka bombing of 1985—the deadliest terrorist incident in Canada’s history. Malik, however, had recently abandoned his Khalistani posture and began criticising “anti-India elements”, including Nijjar, who he accused of “obviously working at the behest of some agencies of a foreign government”. On January 23, 2022, at the Surrey Gurdwara, Nijjar ranted against Malik for over an hour, describing him as “qaum da gaddaar” (traitor to the nation), adding that he should be “taught a lesson.” Malik was killed in a gang-style hit—similar to Nijjar’s subsequent killing—on June 22, 2022. Investigation into the Nijjar killing is likely to head into a dead-end, as did the probe into the Ripudaman hit.

Nijjar was also embroiled with the Punjabi gangs that dominate the Canadian organised crime scenario, particularly with Arshdeep Singh Dalla, whose networks he had used to execute  a number of terrorist incidents in Punjab. Gang rivalries have resulted in frequent killings in Canada, and Canadian authorities have repeatedly warned that proximity to such gangs and their leaders is fraught with risk. 
Whatever the causes of the three deaths in question—and these are unlikely to be authoritatively uncovered, except in Khanda’s case—one thing is certain: the narrative that has been woven by the Khalistanis, as well as by their ‘nationalist’ adversaries, will certainly have a chilling effect on the Khalistani diaspora, which has long operated within an environment of complete impunity. 

Ajai Sahni

Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal

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