Why did the MHA designate Gurpatwant Pannun, a Khalistani with little following, a terrorist?

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the founder and legal adviser of the US-based Khalistani organisation Sikhs for Justice, at a press conference in New York in 2014. In July this year, the home ministry designated Pannun, who enjoys little support in Punjab or outside, as a terrorist. JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images
15 October, 2020

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.”

Despite Pannun’s apparent lack of support, the state and central government did not relent pursuing him or the Sikhs for Justice. The notification designating him a terrorist accused him of inciting and funding secessionist activities. The next day, the Punjab Police registered two cases against him on charges of sedition and secessionism. In August this year, the chief minister Amarinder Singh called upon the state’s youth to not get swayed by Pannun and went on to issue a public threat to the US-based Sikh radical, “You try to come to Punjab and I will teach you a lesson.” In September this year, the home ministry doubled down on Pannun with the National Investigation Agency announcing that it had attached two of his properties located in Amritsar. The NIA noted that the properties were attached as part of its investigation into a case against the SFJ and the Referendum 2020.

The central and state government do not appear to have pursued the other designated terrorists with the same aggression or expediency. In fact, among the nine Sikh radicals, the charges against Pannun were the mildest. The list of those notified as terrorists included the likes of Wadhawa Singh Babbar of the globally-banned organisation, Babbar Khalsa International, who has been accused in numerous terror attacks, including bombing an airplane, murders and political assassinations. Pannun, unlike the others, was not accused of any violent attacks.

Given that he and his organisation appear to have little following in Punjab or outside, among moderates or extremists, the home ministry’s dogged pursuit appears to have given them more power and importance than they commanded. In doing so, the ministry has treated a man who poses no threat as a genuine danger, giving him more credibility than he deserves or receives from any other quarters.

An attorney by profession, Pannun reportedly hails from Khankot, a village in Punjab’s Amritsar district. He founded the Sikhs for Justice in 2007. Cheema recalled that in 2012, Pannun had started a campaign in the United States for the Sikhs in Delhi who did not receive justice after the 1984 pogrom in which over three thousand Sikhs were killed in the national capital. According to Cheema, Pannun had collected money to hire lawyers for the Sikh victims, “but then he finally left the campaign mid-way.” Cheema said that Pannun also took up the issue of the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal, in 2016, which concerns the sharing of water from the Ravi and Beas rivers between Punjab and Haryana. But Cheema said that the SFJ leader once again abandoned the issue after holding a few protests.

Around 2014, Pannun and the SFJ started a campaign of filing cases against Indian political leaders who travelled to the United States or Canada, including the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal and the prime minister Narendra Modi. These complaints accused the leaders of offences ranging from complicity in the murder of thousands of Sikhs, personal liability for the pogrom, human-rights violations and inciting violence. In 2016, the group forced Amarinder to delay his visit to Canada by first filing a complaint accusing him of torturing an individual in Punjab, and then filing a defamation case against him for stating that the SFJ was backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

In recent years, too, Pannun has been vocal about Indian politics, consistently taking positions critical of the Indian state. For instance, following the clashes between India and China at the Galwan Valley in May this year, in which 20 soldiers including four Sikhs were killed, Pannun wrote to the Chinese premier Xi Jinping on 17 June to “empathize with people of China.” Pannun went on to express his gratitude to the “people of China for over whelming encouraging and supporting response they have given to SFJ’s recent call for non-Governmental Referendum 2020 for secession of Punjab from India.” He also condemned “India’s violent aggression causing death of several soldiers of China at Laddakh valley border.” 

Cheema believed Pannun sought the media spotlight to gain support. He said that even though all the cases filed by Pannun were ultimately dismissed, he managed to create some noise each time and, as a result, succeeded in getting a few people to follow him. “Earlier, he never spoke about Khalistan,” Cheema told me. “When his campaigns ended, he abruptly started this Sikh Referendum 2020.”

The Dal Khalsa and another Khalistani organisation, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar)—led by the Sikh politician Simranjit Singh Mann—had raised their concerns about the proposed referendum ahead of the event. In July 2018, one month ahead of the London Declaration, Mann and Cheema wrote a joint letter to Pannun calling the Referendum 2020 “vague,” and expressing their concerns about the futility of a unilateral referendum.

“We had asked him to share the procedure for conducting the referendum, how the people from Punjab would cast their votes and which agency would coordinate all this in Punjab,” Cheema said. “We asked him who was sponsoring his referendum, the Indian government or the United Nations.” When asked if the Dal Khalsa supported Pannun, Cheema was cautious. He said that they neither supported nor criticised him. “Though we agree with his idea of referendum, our style of getting a referendum conducted is completely opposite from his, which is a non-binding referendum.” The Dal Khalsa president added, “We want the referendum to be conducted either by the government of India, or by the UNO. No other referendum makes sense.”

Mann, of the SAD(A), also said that he had asked Pannun under what law he sought to hold the referendum, arguing that it could only be conducted by a sovereign country. He gave the example of the Scottish referendum to remain in or leave the United Kingdom, or referendums within the European Union. Mann, who has been seeking to establish a Khalistan through democratic means, emphasised that only the UN or the Indian state could conduct such a referendum.

Mann also raised a pertinent question about the consequences of the referendum. “What if the anti-Khalistan people keep pressing the ‘No’ button?” he asked, referring to the event that the referendum would reveal the clear lack of support for a Khalistan. “That would be an embarrassment to the Sikhs. But he is yet to answer us.”  In their July letter, too, Cheema and Mann wrote that the SJF’s talks of Referendum 2020 in November could result in a false perception among ignorant Sikhs that it is the date for the emergence of a Khalistan.

The SAD(A) chief appeared reluctant to comment on Pannun and the SJF in detail, noting that they were fighting for the same cause but had major differences. Mann emphasised that Pannun and the SFJ “do not have any presence in Punjab or India, and the agencies are unnecessarily blowing the call for the Referendum 2020 out of proportion.” When asked if he had any explanation for the state’s actions, Mann responded, “Oh te tusin Modi hor aane CM nu pucho”—That you ask Modi and your CM.

Cheema, too, told me, “I have no idea about the background of banning Sikhs for Justice, which has no office bearer in India, or declaring Gurpatwant a terrorist.” He added, “India has declared such a man a terrorist, who has never committed a terrorist act and neither does he or his organisation have any presence or activity in Punjab.” According to Cheema, the only support that Pannun enjoyed was from the youth who left Punjab after 1984 and took asylums in UK, USA, Canada or Europe. “Government is blowing it out of proportion, as if some major movement for Khalistan will be kicked off from America or Canada and would carve Khalistan in 2020,” he said.

Manjit Singh Bhoma, the president of the All India Sikh Students Federation, was surprised that Pannun did not have any association with Cheema’s Dal Khalsa or with Mann’s SAD (A). Bhoma said that Pannun did not have any relation with the Sikh movement or Sikhi, and that “his very appearance belies the demeanour of a Sikh.”

I also contacted Ranjit Singh Gill, more commonly known as Kukki, who spent nearly twenty years in prison for assassinating the Congress leader Lalit Maken and his wife, Geetanjali, in July 1985. Gill was ultimately pardoned by the Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dixit, in 2009, and is now involved in community and social-development activities in Ludhiana. In the years following his release, Gill became a prominent voice in the state on the topic of Khalistan and Sikh extremism.

Gill believed that Pannun is playing with the sentiments of ignorant Sikhs who are fooled into believing him. “Some sections of the Sikh diaspora who think that creating violence in Punjab will pave the way for any impact are highly mistaken with a poor judgement,” Gill said. “Violence of past brought nothing but suffering and brutality. The only path available is a political one but that was missed in 1985, leaving space open for Akali Dal.” Gill was referring to the Punjab assembly elections that followed the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, and the rise to power of the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Gill said that that the Indian security agencies were making Pannun out to be a much bigger threat than he actually is by attaching his properties. Gill referred to other political outfits in Punjab that openly raise secessionist demand, but their properties have never been attached. For instance, neither the SAD(A) nor the Dal Khalsa have had any of their properties attached. “He is a nobody and is not capable of conducting a referendum in a gurudwara in US or anywhere,” Gill told me. “Nobody entertains or endorses him here in Punjab or abroad. He is just a nuisance—the same way as many others with Khalistan rhetoric, like Jagjit Singh Chauhan who declared himself as the President of the Republic of Khalistan, named a cabinet, and even issued  Khalistan passports, postage stamps, and Khalistan dollars, after announcing formation of Khalistan in Britain.”

Gill also dismissed the SFJ’s proposed referendum. “How can you hold a referendum like that?” he asked. “He has been correlating this projection with the referendums in Scotland, Catalonia, Kurdistan and Quebec. However, we must remember that these referendums were conducted by the elected governments.” Gill said that it may be possible that a few thousand Sikhs might be swayed by him, but insisted that the large majority of the community, including those based in the Western countries, were least concerned by him. “Pannun should forget about influencing the Sikhs in Punjab,” he added.

The SFJ had appeared to secure a few supporters in Punjab, though it is questionable whether that was a result of their ideological inclinations or due to the organisation’s financial incentives. In August, the SFJ began circulating messages and posters offering $2,500 for raising a Khalistani flag and $5,000 for performing the ardas at the Akal Takht.

The SFJ’s offers did find some takers—two individuals were arrested in Morga for raising the Khalistani flag, and one was arrested in Amritsar for performing an ardas at the Golden Temple. Punjab has also seen an increasing number of youth arrested under the UAPA as a part of a crackdown on any potential Khalistani network, and in connection to the Referendum 2020.

Mann noted that the youth being arrested under the UAPA have nobody to follow up on their cases. Gill, too, expressed concerns about these cases, and said, “Unfortunately, those arrested and sent behind bars, don’t even understand what a referendum is.” He told me that  more troubling than the individuals hoisting Khalistani flags for money were the Punjab government’s attempts to create a fear psychosis in Punjab by taking a few young Sikhs into custody and projecting them as proponents of the Referendum 2020. Mann believed that the arrests would further strengthen the movement because of the increased “state terror.”

According to Sidhu, the Sher-e-Punjab Vikas Party chief, no Sikh in Punjab wants Khalistan and that those acting on his instructions were looking for easy money. “They don’t mind getting beaten up for Rs 5 lakh, and little do they know they won’t get anything,” Sidhu added. Similarly, Bhoma said, “Mothers are losing their sons because of such monetary offers in lieu of creating nuisance while this man wants to mint dollars by firing from others’ shoulders.” The students-federation president continued, “No hardcore or devoted Sikh came forward for doing such tasks and those going through the financial crisis came forwards to hoist the flag or perform Ardas. This man has no base in Punjab.”

Gurtej Singh, a Sikh scholar and former Indian Administrative Services officer who resigned in protest of Operation Bluestar—a military operation to eliminate militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar—in 1984, echoed Mann and Gill’s concerns. Gurtej told me that the politics over the referendum and the manner in which it was used for the detriment of the Sikh community—in order to condemn individuals as separatists—was doing more harm than the SFJ.

“This game has been going on for quite some time, since 1984, and has still not ended,” he said. “They will arrest those people who are most defenceless and then give the impression, like in Delhi massacre, they mostly killed those who were not able to defend themselves at all.” Gurtej was referring to the Sikh youth in Punjab who have been arrested under the UAPA, and comparing them to the innocent Muslims arrested by the Delhi Police for the communal violence that swept the national capital in February this year. “These victims were then used to project their victory. So, this is what they are doing in Punjab and this is not first time. They have been doing it ever since 1984.”

Emails and messages to Nitin Wakankar, a home ministry spokesperson, and Dinkar Gupta, the director general of Punjab Police, went unanswered. The story will be updated as and when they respond.