Months before the Sikh farmers protesting the centre’s controversial farm laws were branded Khalistani, the Punjab Police targeted Dalit Sikhs under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act with little to show by way of evidence. In July, a group of politicians had addressed this concern to the chief minister, Amarinder Singh, noting in a letter that “more than 16 FIRs have been registered during the recent weeks across Punjab while 47 FIRs have been registered during the 3 years tenure of Congress government.” The accused in these cases are often poor Mazhabi Sikhs, individuals from the Dalit Sikh community, who were accused of involvement in Khalistani activities with little evidence to substantiate these allegations. Despite strong criticism from the Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of Sikhism—and politicians such as Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the president of the Punjabi Ekta Party, the state police has used rhetoric that creates a false narrative about the bogey of Khalistan and its prevalence in Punjab.
The rise in cases appears to be a response to the call for a Referendum 2020—a non-binding referendum of Sikhs from across the world for the constitution of an independent sovereign Sikh state of Khalistan—proposed by the secessionist group, Sikhs for Justice. As I previously reported, both the SFJ and its founder, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, have little influence in Punjab, the Sikh diaspora, or even among the Khalistani hardliners abroad. Unsurprisingly, no such referendum took place. Despite this lack of support, the Punjab government and the centre have relentlessly pursued Pannun and the SFJ, designating him a terrorist and the group a terrorist organisation. The Caravan has earlier reported that while persistently disavowing the notion of religious extremism such as Hindu terror, the home ministry has continued probing “Islamist and Sikh terrorism.” The recent UAPA cases and arrests suggest that the probes have continued despite little evidence to justify it.
I examined the cases against five individuals who were arrested during the investigation of three different first-information reports registered in June and July 2020—two by the Punjab Police, and one by the National Investigation Agency. Across these cases, the accused were predominantly Dalit Sikhs, and their arrests indicated a misuse of the UAPA and a pattern of false projections by the police. Many of them were arrested without being informed of the FIR or even knowing that they were accused of being involved in Khalistani extremism. In July, Khaira wrote to the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, that these cases clearly indicate “a well-designed conspiracy by central agencies and Punjab Police to implicate innocent Sikh/Dalit youth to tarnish the image of Sikh community as a whole as terrorists and anti-national.”