Tunnel to 'Khalistan'

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Jagtar Singh Hawara. -

Jagtar Singh Hawara. -

The escape of a suspected assassin of Chief Minister Beant Singh from a Chandigarh jail points to the damage potential of Khalistan terrorist groups, which were believed to be defunct.

SOMETHING was not right; of that the Chandigarh station chief of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) was sure. In early August 2003, she wrote a terse letter to the Punjab government, warning of potential terrorist activity involving Jagtar Singh Hawara, the terrorist charged with the assassination of Chief Minister Beant Singh. The problem was that the senior I.B. officer was not sure of what exactly was up. To know just what was moving deep inside the woodwork of the Khalistan movement needs surveillance, questioning and arrests. Meeting followed missive, concern was voiced - and absolutely no action was taken. "It was a little like asking," a Punjab Police officer connected with the case recalls, "to conduct a murder investigation on a century-old corpse. Everyone had better things to do".

No longer; last month, Hawara tunnelled his way out of Chandigarh's Burail Jail, a spectacular escape which investigators now believe was enabled by the systematic, cash-down subversion of top prison functionaries. Two terrorists, Jagtar Singh Tara and Paramjit Singh Bheora, charged with having aided Hawara organise the Beant Singh assassination, escaped along with Hawara. Investigators soon discovered that the jail staff had given a fascinating new interpretation to the term maximum security. Hawara and his co-accused had television sets, mobile phones and even a personal valet and servant - fellow prisoner Dev Singh. Not only were the terrorists allowed to stay in a common cell, a move that defies common sense, but they regularly met others charged with terrorist activity and espionage, including Pakistani spy Abid Mehmood. Visits from family and friends were generally unmonitored.

Even as the corruption within Burail Jail unravels, it is becoming clear that Khalistan terrorist groups, believed to be long defunct, continue to have well-structured networks operating inside Punjab. Someone, it is clear, made payoffs to the jail staff that enabled them to dig a tunnel without interference; others arranged a getaway vehicle outside the jail, their transit to safehouses outside Punjab, and, possibly, transportation across India's borders. Narayan Singh Chaura, arrested in late January for his alleged role in the jailbreak, is a former Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) operative. His services, the Punjab Police now say, were instrumental in setting up Hawara's escape. Of other elements of the apparatus the BKI had in place to execute the jailbreak, however, little is known. It is possible that criminal networks could have been used. In 1998, for example, the cash-strapped Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF) had planned kidnappings along with the Uttar Pradesh gangster Om Prakash `Babloo' Shrivastava.

What is clear is that Khalistan terrorist groups continue to have adequate infrastructure to inflict considerable violence in Punjab. On January 5, terrorists set off a massive bomb blast on the railway line at Goraya near Jalandhar, ripping off a portion of the track. Passengers on the Howrah Express had a miraculous escape when the train passed over the ripped-off track without incident. Investigators believe that the explosion was carried out by the Paramjit Singh Panjwar-led faction of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF). Panjwar, who has been living for several years in Pakistan, has in recent years been involved in smuggling activity across the frontier in northern Punjab and southern Jammu. The Goraya bomb was housed in a cast-iron container of a type sometimes used in Jammu and Kashmir, a possible sign of emerging KCF links with the Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) of Ranjit Singh Neeta.

Several other signs of Khalistan terrorist activity have been evident in Punjab in recent years. In the summer of 2001, police in Gurdaspur discovered a cache of 20 kg of Research Department Explosive (RDX), seven Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades. Interestingly, a high-powered surgical anaesthetic was also discovered amidst the cache, a sign that a kidnap plot may have been considered. Five people were arrested in connection with the recoveries, but little has become known of just what the explosives were intended for. In January 2001, the Punjab Police arrested BKI operative Narinderpal Singh, who had harboured a consignment of 15 kg of RDX. Six months earlier, another BKI agent, Darshan Singh, was arrested with 2.9 kg of RDX, which is alleged to have been intended for the assassination of former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal. The year 2003 saw the arrests of 17 terrorists and the recovery of seven rockets, six high-explosive grenades, two Kalashnikovs, and over 8 kg of explosives - an arsenal and army large enough to cause havoc.

FEW have taken these incidents with any seriousness mainly because little actual killing has taken place in Punjab. As important, much of the actual organising of Khalistan terrorism is taking place far away from Punjab. Darshan Singh, for example, was recruited by the BKI while working as a cleric at Gurudwaras in the United Kingdom and the United States. All that the Punjab Police has on the BKI operative who recruited him is that he uses the name Pyare Singh, and uses the alias Buzurg, or elder. Courts abroad are not always cooperative either. Mukhtiar Singh and Paramjit Singh, International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) activists India claims were involved in the 2001 bomb plots, had their appeals against deportation upheld by a tribunal in the U.K. recently. In October 2003, following the legal proscription of the ISYF, pro-Khalistan activists set up a National Council of Gurudwaras in the U.K., committed to creating a Sikh state and to motivating their co-religionists in Punjab to fight for the same purpose.

It is at least possible that the Khalistan movement in the U.S. and U.K. had something to do with the Burail jailbreak as well. In May 1998, several kg of RDX and PETN (Pentaerythritoltetranitrate) were recovered from the cell shared by Beant Singh's suspected assassin. The recoveries came after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) passed on information on telephone calls made from Chandigarh to suspects under surveillance in the U.S. It turned out that Hawara had a mobile phone, which he used not only to arrange the explosives drop, delivered concealed in boxes of sweets, but also to order fast food from a pizza outlet. It was delivered to the Prison Superintendent's office! The bulk of the 124 telephone calls Hawara made from his cellphone were to four U.S. numbers, now identified as belonging to overseas supporters of the BKI. On that occasion, as now, prison staff were charged with corruption and prosecuted along with Hawara. Interestingly, all the accused in the 1998 case were subsequently acquitted last year - while the Beant Singh case itself has dragged on interminably.

More disturbing, though, is the revival of overground activity by the Sikh far-Right within Punjab. In December 2003, former Member of Parliament Atinderpal Singh and Khalistan ideologue Jagjit Singh Chauhan called for the creation of Khalistan through democratic means. Religious commemorations of the assassins of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were held in Amritsar, presided over by the jathedar of the Akal Takht, Joginder Singh. In November, the Dal Khalsa released a book by their Pakistan-based leader Gajinder Singh, calling for the creation of a separate Sikh nation. Such activity is generally low grade and attracts negligible popular support. The fact remains, however, that the backing of individuals like Joginder Singh vests the far-Right with considerable religious legitimacy, and provides a political context within which terrorist activity can seek to recruit new cadre. "Hawara's escape," notes a police official, "has given the BKI enormous prestige, from which all pro-Khalistan groups will draw inspiration."

For the BKI, Hawara's escape could not have come at a better time. Two years ago, hard-hit by declining remittances from its diminished constituency among overseas Sikhs, the BKI's top leadership split. Mehal Singh, the brother of slain BKI top-gun Sukhdev Singh Babbar, left Lahore for Paris, breaking ranks with his long-time comrade in ranks Wadhawa Singh. He is now battling efforts by the Government of India to have him extradited. Last year, records of Mehal Singh's 14-year employment were sent to French authorities, and Indian officials hope this will prove adequate to prove his identity.

The one-time terrorist is believed to be staying with his son, Devinder Singh. His wife, however, has chosen to stay on in Punjab. She works as a low-level functionary at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. If Hawara also makes his way to Pakistan, the ageing Wadhawa Singh will have a second-in-command who has proved resourceful in battle. The strengthening of the BKI's ranks will come even as the KCF cements its alliance with the KZF, which draws its cadre from Jammu and has easy access to weapons and explosives in that State.

Where do events go from here? The last time Khalistan terrorist groups made a major effort to revive their networks was in 1997, with Prakash Singh Badal in power. In 1997, the bombing of a train at Bhatinda left 38 passengers dead. Badal was moved to demand that Prime Minister I.K. Gujral should speak to Pakistan in clear and unequivocal terms about its attempts to disturb peace in Punjab.

The BKI was also believed to be responsible for several other bombings of trains that took place that year, around Ambala and New Delhi. Although the KLF's efforts to raise funds through kidnapping did not succeed, other terrorist groups made a considerable impact through 1998. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Harbhajan Singh, for example, was killed along with two others in Saharanpur that March, a revenge action by the KCF to punish his long-standing opposition to Khalistan terror. History, then, could be repeating itself - and certainly not as a farce.

On the BKI trail

THE activities of the Babbar Khalsa International from 2000 up to the Burail jailbreak:

April 29, 2002: Police thwart a major conspiracy of the BKI to attack surrendered terrorist leader, Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, and top politicians with the arrest of five BKI terrorists in Gurdaspur, Punjab.

August 31, 2001: Arrested BKI terrorist tells the Punjab Police that he planned to set off explosions at public places. He also reveals to his interrogators that terrorist leaders based in the United Kingdom and Germany were involved in the planning.

May 22, 2001: With the arrest of four terrorists and seizure of 3 kg of RDX and some arms and ammunition from Harchowal village, Batala district, the Punjab Police foils a bomb plot. Manjit Singh, a close associate of BKI's Mahal Singh, had allegedly trained the terrorists to target a local religious procession.

February 28, 2001: The British government proscribes Babbar Khalsa, as per the provisions of the new U.K. Terrorism Act 2000, which became operational in July 2000.

October 27, 2000: Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, BKI terrorists arrested by the Canadian police for their involvement in the mid-air explosion of Air India Flight-182 Kanishka, off the Irish Coast.

October 14, 2000: The Central Bureau of Investigation and the Delhi Police seize a huge quantity of arms, ammunition and 30 kg of RDX in Libaspur, New Delhi. Official sources believe that they were stored there to be passed on to a Babbar Khalsa terrorist in Punjab.

August 30, 2000: BKI terrorist arrested in Jalandhar district, Punjab, and a cache of 3.9 kg of PETN high explosives and timers is seized. Official sources say they had been tasked by Wadhawa Sigh to target VIPs in Punjab.

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