India’s Sikh Militants Forming Ties with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Pakistani Intelligence

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 1

Sikh defenders guard Amritsar’s Golden Temple from Indian soldiers. In 1984, India attempted to drive Sikh separatists from the site under Operation Blue Star. During this struggle several Sikh separatist groups came onto the scene, including the ISYF.

The recent Mumbai attacks have once again embittered relations between the two nuclear-armed rivals of South Asia – Pakistan and India. India has given Pakistan a list of "handlers" who are believed to be based in Pakistan and were in touch with the terrorists during the attacks in Mumbai in November last year. The names (or aliases), like Wasi Zarar, Jundal, Buzurg and Kafa, were specified in the dossier that India gave to Pakistan on January 5 (India Today [New Delhi], January 6). After evidence emerged of the involvement of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), India has brought up the list again, making it a test case for the Pakistan establishment to prove its much-vaunted anti-terror credentials. The list carries the names of 20 individuals India wants Pakistan to extradite. Apart from some known leaders of LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the list also carries the names of five Indian Sikhs belonging to the separatist Khalistani movement (the name Khalistan, “Land of the Pure,” refers to the would-be independent Sikh state). At the top of the list is Lakhbir Singh Rode, who heads the pro-Khalistan International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and is wanted in relation to cases of arms smuggling and conspiracy to attack government and political leaders in Delhi, as well as inciting religious hatred in Punjab. The Sikh militant leader lives in and operates out of Lahore, Pakistan (BBC; December 2, 2008; India Today, December 2, 2008). There are indications that the ISYF has developed strong links with LeT and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) over the last two decades.
With the partition and independence of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, India went to the Hindu majority and Pakistan to the Muslim minority. Until 1984, Sikhs remained mostly peaceful in India, though they felt a degree of deprivation of their rights. It was after “Operation Blue Star,” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ill-fated 1984 attempt to drive Sikh separatists from Amritsar’s Golden Temple, that an active struggle for an independent Punjab, or Khalistan, began. It was, no doubt, the Indian military operation inside this most sacred of Sikh sites that triggered a violent Sikh reaction, culminating in the October 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. During this struggle several Sikh separatist groups came onto the scene, including the ISYF (The Asian Age, Mumbai, December 17, 2004).
The ISYF aims to promote Sikh philosophy and the establishment of an independent Sikh nation. Since the Amritsar attack in 1984, its members have been engaged in violent attacks, assassinations, and bombings, mostly targeting Indian political figures (The Economic Times [New Delhi], February 13, 2004). Leaders of the ISYF believe India’s mainstream politicians are responsible for the plight of the Sikh nation. Sikh terrorism has been sponsored by expatriate and Indian Sikh groups who want to carve out an independent Sikh state from Indian territory.
Following a decade of violence, the Sikh separatist movement grew calm after 1993. That may be changing – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who himself belongs to the Sikh community, recently suggested that Sikh separatists based outside India are trying to revive militancy in the state of Punjab. Prime Minister Singh has said that there is "credible information" to show that the remnants of separatist groups in Canada, the UK, Germany, and Pakistan are regrouping (BBC, New Delhi, March 6, 2008). In recent years, active groups included the ISYF, the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Dal Khalsa, and the Bhindranwala Tiger Force.
Pakistani Intelligence and the Sikh Separatist Movement
India has accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the leaders of various Sikh militant groups. Besides Lakhbir Singh Rode of the ISYF, these include Wadhawan Singh Babbar (Chief of the BKI), Ranjith Singh Neeta (Chief of the Khalistan Zindabad Force), Paramjeet Singh Panjawar (Chief of the Khalistan Commando force) and Gajinder Singh (leader of Dal Khalsa) (Rediff India Abroad, October 15, 2007).
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has long been accused by Delhi of supporting armed separatists in Indian-administered Kashmir and the country’s north-east. The ISI has also been concentrating on India’s Punjab region, especially after the terrorism inspired by Golden Temple militant Jamail Singh Bhindaranwale was quashed by the head of the Punjab police, KPS Gill, and his band of “supercops,” as they became known in India. The ISI was tasked with doing what Pakistan’s army could not – under Operation Topac, conceived by Pakistan’s President Zia-ul-Haq, the ISI was given the task of balkanizing India to avenge the defeat of 1971 (The Pioneer [New Delhi], June 30, 1999). Since then, the ISI has promoted various militant groups like Lakhbir Singh Rode’s ISYF, the Khalistan Commando Force, Babbar Khalsa International, and the Khalistan Liberation Force of Pritam Singh Sekhon.
The ISYF, banned in India under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on March 22, 2002, is believed to be the most active Sikh militant group based in Pakistan. It was founded in the United Kingdom in 1984 after Operation Blue Star by Amrik Singh and Jasbir Singh Rode, Lakhbir’s brother. The movement has offices at various places in the UK, Germany, Canada, and the United States. The head of the movement has resided in Pakistan’s main city of Lahore since 1991. The ISYF and Babbar Khalsa International were designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department in 2004 (Chandigarh Tribune, May 1, 2004).
The ISI has supported the ISYF by providing training camps, funds, arms, and ammunition to its members as well as to other Khalistani separatist groups. In 2005, India’s Intelligence Bureau released a report that warned of the revival of Sikh militancy in Punjab (Rediff India Abroad, October 15, 2007). The report shows that the LeT and five other groups were chosen by the ISI and entrusted with the job of training men from the ISYF and Babbar Khalsa International. Training was imparted in the use of weapons and methods of infiltration into India through the Jammu and Kashmir valley. The first signs of the revival of Sikh militancy came to light in 2001, when they underwent a month-long training program in Pakistan (Rediff India Abroad, October 15, 2007).
The ISI has been looking to rebuild their network in the state and now they are trying to instigate Punjab’s unemployed youth. According to an Indian intelligence report, the ISI is planning to target sensitive areas like religious places as well as residential areas in the state. The report also concluded that firearms and ammunitions seized in the state hint that the militants are planning an attack (Zee TV [New Delhi], December 16, 2008).
ISYF Linkages with Pan-Islamist Groups
The Pakistan-based Chief of the ISYF, Lakhbir Singh Rode, is regarded as the leading Punjab militant. India believes that the ISI has given him responsibility for conducting militant acts inside India. The ISI also wants to create a common front between the Khalistani militants and Kashmiri jihadi groups. The ISYF’s links with pan-Islamist militant groups, and more prominently with the LeT, date back to the mid-1990s. The ISYF was reportedly the first Sikh militant group to have interacted with ideologues of the Markaze-Dawat-Wal-Irshad, the Salafist parent body of the LeT. The LeT has now set up a common office with the ISYF outside Nankana Sahib, a small town in the West Punjab region of Pakistan. There are reports that the ISI provided the militant groups with bungalows and plenty of space to undertake training activities (Zee TV News, October 8, 2006). The ISYF was allowed to hold a meeting-cum-photo exhibition in Lahore on June 6, 1999, to mark the 15th anniversary of Operation Blue Star. Among those allowed by the Pakistan government to attend the function was Satnam Singh of the ISYF’s Germany Chapter. Satnam Singh is the son-in-law of Wadhava Singh, one of the five Pakistan-based Sikh militants wanted by India (South Asian Analysis Group, South Asia Terrorism Portal, New Delhi, September 2, 1999).
The ISI’s Control over Sikh Temples in Pakistan
The Sikh population in Pakistan is about 200,000, though the exact figure is unknown. The size of the Sikh community grew as a result of the large influx from Afghanistan during the long civil war. The majority of Pakistan’s Sikhs are natives who decided to stay on the Pakistani side of the border during the partition of British India. Sikhs were attracted to Pakistan for two reasons: 1) Pakistan was the birth place of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikh faith, and 2) Pakistan supported the Khalistan issue.
There are around 150 Sikh temples and historical sites under the supervision of the Pakistan Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (PGPC), formed in 1999 to administer Sikh shrines and festivals in Pakistan. The appointment of Lieutenant General (retired) Javed Nasir, a former Director-General of the ISI, as the chief of the newly formed PGPC, was a significant move on the part of Pakistan’s government. Under the new set up, it was made a rule that only a Pakistani Sikh could become the leader of PGPC, whereas previously the chief administrator of Pakistan’s Gurdwara (Sikh temples) could be an Indian Sikh. With the formation of the PGPC, the former ISI commander aimed to stop Indian Sikhs from exerting any sort of influence inside Pakistan. This was seen as a subtle move by the ISI to achieve a long term goal. Since the formation of the PSGPC, the interaction between pro-Khalistani Sikhs and Pakistan has substantially increased and the Pakistan government has also liberalized visas for such persons (The Asian Age, December 27, 2002). The former ISI chief claimed he enjoyed a "Sikh friendly" reputation, saying the community gave him a "next-to-Guru" status (The Hindu [New Delhi], December 26, 2002).
ISYF’s Militancy in India
The ISYF is believed to have engaged in terrorist acts, including murders, bombings, and abductions in India. Referring to the 2007 bombings in two cinema halls in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana, India’s National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan, noted that “There has been a manifest attempt in Pakistan to build up a radical Sikh environment” (Dawn [Karachi], October 18, 2007). Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also pointed towards Pakistan: “The two people who planned [the attack] were induced to carry out the attack on a visit to Pakistan with funding from extremist elements in the U.S." (BBC, March 6, 2008).

Preliminary investigations into the deadly Ludhiana blasts show that the act of terror could have been carried out by Pakistan-based militants with the help of Sikh militants. The Jalandhar Police arrested Paramjith Singh Dhadi and Amolak Singh of the ISYF. The explosives recovered were reportedly meant for disrupting the 2007 Assembly elections in Punjab (Rediff India Abroad, October 15, 2007).
Apart from Pakistan, some of ISYF’s militant activities have been planned from the United States, Canada, and European countries. The ISYF, the LeT, and the BKI met in 2007 in Berlin, where it was decided that financial support would be extended to the LeT and logistical support to the other Sikh groups to carry out attacks in India (Rediff India Abroad, June 24, 2008; India News Online [New Delhi] March 17, 2008).
There are reports further attacks are being planned all across India for which a huge number of terrorists of the so-called "Khalistan Army" will be travelling to India through river routes. The Khalistan Army has been reinitiated by the ISI, and the operatives are living in bunkers situated close the Indo-Pak border with the full support of the Pakistan government (Zee TV News, October 3, 2008).
The evidence reveals signs of the revival of the Khalistan secessionist movement, which was subdued in 1993 and once considered to be a spent force. The movement, to some extent, has lost its base support in the Indian Punjab, but it still maintains support in the Sikh diaspora, where it has been aided by the collusion of Pakistan’s ISI and encouragement from multiple militant groups active in violence-afflicted South Asia.