Journeys into terrorism

Published : Sep 06, 1997 00:00 IST

Immigrants to the West are being drafted in the effort to revive Punjab's terrorist groups.

PRADEEP SINGH SAINI, who reached London as a stowaway in the wheelbay of a British Airways Boeing 747 from New Delhi in October 1996, surviving for 10 hours temperatures of -60C, may just be an emblem of the troubled present of the Doaba region of Punjab. Situated between the Ravi and the Beas rivers, the region's prosperity has been driven by remittances from its people who migrated to Western countries. Although Punjab's first emigrants reached California a century ago, the 1960s saw a massive spurt in immigration to the United Kingdom. In time, their remittances to relatives in Punjab made the video cassette recorder, the washing machine and the improbable opulent Baroque manor icons of Doaba's transfigured rural landscape.

Yet the trail has its sordid side. Restrictive immigration laws have forced many fortune-seekers to resort to underhand means to reach their destinations and the pressure to 'do well' has led families to sponsor their sons at huge cost to make the passage. On Christmas Day 1996, hundreds of young Punjabis drowned in the Ionian Sea when the ship taking them to Europe illegally went under (Frontline, March 7, 1997). Some of those who escaped death now languish in Eastern Europe, waiting for agents to push them across Europe's borders.

NOW the process of migration is acquiring a more disturbing dimension. A recent attempt to assassinate top Punjab Police official Sumedh Singh Saini and emerging links between terrorist attacks in India and European groups suggest a new pattern in Punjab terrorism. Frontline has acquired case studies prepared by Punjab Police intelligence which show that growing numbers of illegal immigrants are being recruited by pro-Khalistan organisations in Europe. Its central purpose is to expand the thin ranks of Khalistan terrorist groups based in Europe and Pakistan.

Continued terrorist activity in Punjab is central to the survival of affluent immigrant-funded Khalistan groups in Europe. Such groups feed and inform the anxieties of Punjabi immigrant communities, to whom ethnic chauvinism provides a sense of identity and a cultural reference point in an often hostile environment. Claims of opposition to the Indian state bring obvious benefits: fittingly, young Pradeep Saini, with no whiff of a criminal record, said that political persecution prompted him to make his incredible journey, and sought political asylum. (In mid-August, after five months of legal proceedings, the British authorities ruled that he could not be given asylum in the country, although the Immigration Minister indicated that he was prepared to consider the case on compassionate grounds.)

The case of Kuldeep Singh, a top activist of Paramjit Singh Panjwar's Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), which recently tied up with Lakhbir Singh Rode's International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), illustrates the mechanics of the new recruitment methods. A resident of Chak Bamu village in Hoshiarpur district, Kuldeep Singh was one of many young people from the area who went abroad through illegal means in the early 1980s. He had no previous record of terrorist sympathies; indeed, many Doaba youth distanced themselves from the Khalistan movement to avoid police records that could jeopardise their prospects of emigrating legally, through marriage or through the sponsorship of relatives.

The 'travel agent' who took Kuldeep Singh abroad, however, did not take him far. Like over 10,000 others estimated to be living in Belgium, the young son of a farmer ended up doing odd jobs on pathetically poor pay. It was at this point that he, through another illegal emigrant, Pala Singh from Talwandi Dadiyan, met the ISYF's president in Belgium, Parsan Singh. Parsan Singh convinced the two young men that their sole chance of redemption lay in working for the Sikh panth (community).

On June 10, 1996, Kuldeep Singh landed in Pakistan, using a fake passport in the name of Inder Singh, possibly acquired from the flourishing underground immigration trade market in travel documents. Sukhwinder Singh from Phagwara and Surjeet Singh Behlaa, also from a village in Hoshiarpur district, flew with him to Pakistan, and all three were received at the airport by KCF operative Nishan Singh. Pala Singh had arrived at the camp in Lahore three months earlier. Eventually, a group of seven recruits, three from the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) and five from the KCF, were sent to a camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they were trained in the use of assault rifles and automatic weapons as well as the fabrication of improvised explosive devices.

In early 1996, Panjwar finally instructed Kuldeep Singh to make his way to India, carrying over 10 kg of RDX, the explosive material, in addition to timer switches and detonators. Kuldeep Singh is now among Punjab's most wanted KCF terrorists. In the same league are Kuljeet Singh Bhullar and Rana Mota, both of whom are believed to have entered India in September 1995.

STATISTICS suggest that Kuldeep Singh's extremist career is unlikely to be any more successful than his abortive attempt to make a fortune abroad: of the 13 KCF terrorists who are known to have entered India since early 1995, one has been killed and nine have been arrested. One of those arrested, Ludhiana resident Navtej Singh, who survived an encounter on the Rajasthan border which took the life of his fellow KCF operative Kanwaljit Singh, told journalists that he joined the organisation only to try and find a way to return to India without figuring in police records or facing humiliation.

From the point of view of terrorist groups, such recruitment makes sense. The KCF (Panjwar) is believed to have just seven permanent members attached to its Lahore camp. Of these, Ranjeet Singh 'Rajasthani', the telephone operator, has weak eyesight, and the U.K.-based Malkiat Chhaheru is over 50 and spends little time with the group itself. According to the Intelligence dossier on Chhaheru, he visited Pakistan last in February 1996. The Babbar Khalsa, numerically the strongest group and responsible for Chief Minister Beant Singh's assassination, has only 20 regular operatives, led by Wadhawa and Mahal Singh Babbar, while the Dal Khalsa has just two. The Khalistan Liberation Front's (KLF) Pritam Singh Sekhon, once a blue-eyed boy of the Inter-Services Intelligence, is now believed to be a general without an army, whose camp at Sialkot is devoid of recruits.

Perhaps as significant as the recruitment of Doaba immigrant youths is the direct involvement of British Sikh immigrants in terrorist activity in India. The arrest of British citizen Gurnam Singh early in August 1997 in Ludhiana, and the recovery of 15 kg of RDX and high-technology 'A,B,C,D' electronic detonators from the car he was travelling in, illustrates the influence of revanchist groups abroad.

Born in September 1948, Gurnam Singh was one of the many Jalandhar Sikhs who immigrated to Britain in the 1960s. His brother, Santokh Singh, works in a food factory, and sister Iqbal Kaur is married to a foundry worker. Two of Gurnam Singh's sons, Narinder Singh and Harjinder Singh, are employed, but a third, 25-year-old Jatinder Singh, is on social security. Gurnam Singh, though an Amritdhari (baptised) Sikh, did not have any significant history of political activity in India as a young person, nor any sustained contact with the country afterwards. He was introduced to the Khalistan movement in 1991 when Harmail Singh, the chief of the marginal Talwinder Singh group of the BKI, visited the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in England and gave lectures about "atrocities" against Sikhs in India.

Shortly after this encounter with religious chauvinism, Gurnam Singh visited India for the marriage of his second son, Harjinder Singh. Like most conservative immigrant Indian families, this one too evidently valued its traditional values and kinship networks. At the marriage, held while the struggle between the Punjab Police and the Khalistan insurgent groups was at its bloodiest, Gurnam Singh again heard stories of atrocities and torture. He began to interact with pro-Khalistan organisations, making contact with Jagjit Singh Chauhan. Several visits to India later, Gurnam Singh finally made his way to Pakistan, having organised meetings with Panjwar, Surinder Singh Sekhon, Amrik Gill and other prominent figures in the Khalistan hierarchy.

At the end of this 1996 visit, Gurnam Singh underwent a seven-day course in fabricating explosives and was instructed to return to Britain. Just three days after his training ended, the new operative received his first instructions. He flew into New Delhi on September 21, 1996, carrying 4,000. Indian currency of Rs. 50,000 was also given to him by a hawala agent operating from his premises opposite the Jalandhar bus station, such agents being common in Doaba. Gurnam Singh's task was to carry out a series of bomb blasts.

Gurnam Singh's first operational visit to India proved unsuccessful. The explosives that he was supposed to receive through a Jodhpur-based truck operator did not arrive. The KCF operative went back disappointed to England on January 22, 1997, and started work at a retailing business selling double glazing owned by BKI activist Jasbir Singh Ghuman.

Seven months later, he received a phone call from his employer. The explosives had finally reached the Pakistan border, Ghuman said. On July 29, 1997, Gurnam Singh bought a ticket to New Delhi on a Kuwait Airways flight for 500. While he could have got tickets for lower rates, this was one available at short notice. He had instructions to pick up the explosives and target top politicians and police officials, but he was arrested shortly after he took delivery of the explosives in Ludhiana.

"It was the result of a long, painstaking operation," says Ludhiana Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Dinkar Gupta. "We'd been watching him for over a year. If he had managed to execute his job, there could have been a series of disastrous incidents in Punjab ahead of Independence Day."

SOME intelligence officials believe that Gurnam Singh's arrest saved the life of top Punjab Police officer Sumedh Singh Saini. Now a Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Saini earned a reputation as one of Punjab's most ruthless anti-terrorist officers as an SSP, and only narrowly survived a 1992 bomb explosion. The latest attempt on his life was exposed on August 18, when Ghuman, Gurnam Singh's employer, and Jagroop Singh Batth were arrested by Scotland Yard in London. Both were found to be in possession of illegal firearms and were charged with conspiracy to murder. Although investigators initially believed that their target had been Punjab Finance Minister Kanwaljit Singh, investigation of the activities of Batth and Ghuman led to the discovery that they were waiting at one of the terminals of the Heathrow airport on April 2. Since Kanwaljit Singh was not in the area then, checks were made of other targets who might have been, and Saini was found to have been present at the airport. The BKI terrorists were keeping a watch on the Air-India flight counter, but Saini had booked himself on a flight through Paris, departing from a different terminal.

Ghuman Singh's proximity to Jasbir Singh Ghuman has led to the suspicion that the real reason for his hasty return to India, and for his purchase of an expensive ticket, may have been to act as a 'back-up' in New Delhi for the Heathrow assassination attempt. In the event, the affair has also led to speculation of attempted subversion of Punjab Police intelligence. Details of senior officers' movements usually remain secret, and Saini's dates of travel would have been known to very few of his superiors. He would, sources told Frontline, have been travelling under an assumed name and would have avoided frequenting areas where he might have been recognised. Punjab Kesri front-paged a report from London on August 27 suggesting that Scotland Yard investigators believed that the BKI had obtained Saini's itinerary from moles placed at the highest levels of Punjab's counter-terrorist apparatus. The matter clearly deserves serious investigation. The fact that this has not been done so far illustrates the organisational chaos in the Punjab Police.

THE presence of terrorist support groups and operatives among the Sikh diaspora is not in itself new: figures such as Talwinder Singh Parmar, responsible for the bombing of Air-India's Kanishka aircraft which crashed into the Atlantic in June 1985, played a key role in the insurgency of 1984-1992. What is disturbing, however, is the ascendancy of communal and revanchist forces among the Sikh immigrant community at a time when Punjab is struggling to sustain the peace it fought for. Khalistan groups in the U.K., in particular, have featured prominently in several recent terrorist attacks in India. The preliminary interrogation of Bhupinder Singh Binda, arrested on August 10 in connection with the recent killing of three people at Bagha Purana, threw up evidence that false passports, funding and support for the terrorist had been provided by sympathisers in the U.K. The Punjab Police has identified a person living in the U.K. and another in the U.S. as having a hand in the Bagha Purana and Lehra Khana explosions.

Tragically, as in the past, Western governments do not extend notions of "ethical foreign policy" to shutting down right-wing terrorist operations on their soil. Neither, it would appear, would the politicians and religious figures who survive by feeding the insecurities of Doaba abroad.

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