Within a year of amending the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, in August 2019, to empower the central government to designate individuals as terrorists, the home ministry has notified 13 terrorists—four Muslims and nine Sikhs. On 1 July, the ministry issued a batch of notifications under the new provision, identifying nine new individuals, each associated with different Khalistani organisations, as terrorists. The designation of one among these nine, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, raises questions about the threshold for being branded a terrorist, and whether the home ministry has portrayed a man without local support or presence as a greater threat than he actually poses.
Pannun is a founder and the legal adviser of Sikhs for Justice, a United States-based Khalistani secessionist group that was declared an unlawful organisation under the UAPA in July 2019. The organisation and Pannu had both come to prominence in August 2018, when they organised a large rally of pro-Khalistan Sikhs in London’s Trafalgar Square and announced their campaign, “Referendum 2020.” The London Declaration—as the event came to be called—proclaimed that in November 2020, the SFJ would organise a non-binding referendum of Sikhs from across the world about the secession of Punjab from India, and the constitution of a sovereign Sikh state of Khalistan.
But in the two years since, it became clear that neither the organisation, nor the individual, nor the promised referendum, held any sway in Punjab or even among other Khalistani hardliners outside the state. The SFJ’s poor following in Punjab became clear over the past few months, as the organisation began offering large sums of money to locals who would hoist the Khalistani flag, or perform an ardas—a Sikh prayer—for Khalistan at a gurudwara. In fact, even by the accounts of Sikh extremists who seek to establish a Khalistan, Pannun’s commitment to the Khalistani cause—or any cause—appeared to be questionable at best. They characterised him as an individual seeking publicity, first and foremost, and one who started numerous campaigns for media attention but without the ideological commitment or determination to see it to its end.
“One can well imagine how important such a man and his referendum or the movement can be when he has to offer money and lure ignorant youth to even get an ardas performed or hoist a Khalistani flag,” Harpal Singh Cheema, the president of Dal Khalsa, said. The Dal Khalsa is an Amritsar-based radical outfit that, like the SFJ, is seeking to establish a Khalistan, but through democratic means. “Ardas of a Sikh is related to his emotions. It’s a matter of faith and not something that can be done in lieu of money,” he added. According to Cheema, Pannun’s act of offering money had been counterproductive because the Indian government had used it as an opportunity to project him as a terrorist, and “sabotage the real movement and struggle for Khalistan.”
Chanan Singh Sidhu, the president of the Sher-e-Punjab Vikas Party—a new political party in the state formed this year—echoed Cheema’s assessment that the Indian government had designated him as a terrorist for political purposes. “All nonsense!” Sidhu said, dismissing the case against Pannun. “That is the agenda of government also to start the Khalistan bogey and scare the Hindus in Punjab. And they are succeeding in that.” Sidhu believed that the Sikhs in Punjab did not want a Khalistan, but the government “wants the Khalistan bogey to be there so that the Hindus are kept away from Sikhs.” Pertinently, 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.”