SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
Terror in the Wings
Nearly a decade and a half after the comprehensive defeat of terrorism in Punjab in 1993, the forgotten slogans for ‘Khalistan’ are once again being revived on the lunatic fringes of the State’s politics. This time around, the opportunity has been created in the constantly re-orchestrated campaign against the Dera Sacha Sauda – a group regarded as ‘heretic’ by orthodox Sikhs – and its head, Baba Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, who the radicals accuse of ‘blasphemy’ and of ‘hurting Sikh sentiments’. The Dera had published advertisements with Ram Rahim Singh dressed as the Tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh. The controversy has also dovetailed into party political conflicts, since the Dera had supported the Congress Party in the Assembly Elections in February 2007, helping the Congress secure 37 of 65 seats in the Malwa belt, where the Dera boasts hundreds of thousands of followers. The Congress was, nonetheless, trounced in the elections, but the victorious Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a party that secures its mandate from its claim to represent Sikh interests, was left with a bone to pick with the Dera.
The current protests and demonstrations on the Dera issue have very limited potential for disruption within Punjab. The Khalistani cause has lost whatever little support it ever had among the larger population of the State and is periodically revived only by a handful of externally supported extremist leaders. Radical recruiters have found it nigh impossible to secure new volunteers to the cause, and much ‘terrorist’ activity over the past years has, in fact, been executed by mercenaries, often non-Sikh criminal elements. It is, nevertheless, useful to recall that the early Khalistani terrorism emerged in the end 1970s out of a protracted campaign against another allegedly ‘heretic’ group, the Nirankaris, by radical Sikhs, including the Damdami Taksal under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale led the terrorists till his death in Operation Blue Star in 1984, and his rise reflected a familiar pattern of opportunism and manipulation of cynical party politics that is even today visible in Punjab.
Crucially, the external support base of the Khalistan movement remains intact, well supported and funded, and relentlessly active. Indeed, the barest scratch beneath the surface reveals the realities of sustained external support and machinations behind the violent protests and the progressive radicalisation of the current campaign against the Dera Sacha Sauda. Intelligence sources confirm that the present troubles started from the Gurudwara at Talwandi Sabo after a significant amount of ‘chatter’ between priests there and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) handlers as well as Wadhawa Singh, the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) ‘chief’, who is being retained in comfort – with a small surviving rump of cadres – at Karachi.
This pattern is not new. Indeed, several surviving Khalistani leaders and their remaining cadres are currently hosted by the ISI in Pakistan, and there is a constant effort to revive recruitment and terrorism in Punjab, as well as a continuous vigil for opportunities that may help provoke a favourable mobilisation. The most significant of these was the campaign against the Hindi film Jo Bole So Nihal, in May 2005, which a faction of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC, the administrative body that manages Sikh shrines) claimed ‘hurt Sikh sentiments. As the protests gathered a measure of momentum, a series of bomb blasts were orchestrated in cinema halls in Delhi in the expectation that these may provoke a wider reaction in Punjab. Once again, the executing agency was the BKI. However, crucially, other than the principal executor of this serial bombing, Jagtar Singh Hawara, none of the other conspirators in the case fit the profile of traditional conservative BKI activists. All those subsequently arrested had entirely mercenary reasons for joining the conspiracy, and two of them were Hindus who planted the bombs for money.
Efforts at the revival of the Khalistani terrorist have been continuous, though the rate of ‘success’ remains poor, with little sympathy for the cause on the ground. Thus, just over the period 2006-07, several incidents reflecting Pakistan backed or based activities to revive the movement have come to light:
June 15, 2007: Punjab Police claimed to have foiled an attempt to reorganise the terrorist base in Punjab by killing some high profile religious and political leaders. The General Secretary of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s youth wing in Rupnagar District, Swaranjeet Singh alias Bobby of Bahadarpur, and a Bhindranwale Tigers Force (BTF) militant Gurcharan Singh alias Kala of Bawani village were arrested. Bobby and Kala had planned to assassinate religious leader Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarawale and had formed the Khalsa Action Committee, to recruit ‘like-minded persons’.
April 14, 2007: Balbir Singh alias Beera, a Pakistan-trained terrorist, was arrested from his native Chak Thaliwal village in Ferozepore district. He was wanted in a case under the Explosives Act registered against him and others in December 2006. Cases of terrorism, murder and kidnapping for ransom are also pending against him. He was part of the gang of Paramjit Singh Dhadi.
December 24, 2006: Three unidentified terrorists belonging to the Rode faction of ISYF are arrested from Jalandhar. Police recovered 11 kilograms of RDX, 11 detonators, four hand grenades, 11 timer devices, two pistols with four magazines, 100 live cartridges, along with a walkie-talkie set from their possession. The explosives recovered were reportedly meant for disrupting 2007 Assembly elections in Punjab
December 23, 2006: The Jalandhar Police arrested Paramjit Singh Dhadi and Amolak Singh of the ISYF. Dhadi was on a visit to his ancestral village Gakhal, when he was arrested. Amolak Singh was arrested from an unspecified location, with three kilograms of RDX, a hand grenade, three detonators and 50 cartridges.
October 18, 2006: Nishan Singh, a terrorist belonging to the Khalistan Liberation Force, was arrested from Batala Road at Kalanaur in the Gurdaspur District. He had provided shelter to Jagtar Singh Hawara and Paramjeet Singh Bheora, two of the accused in the Beant Singh assassination case after their escape from Burail jail in Chandigarh. Police also claimed that the three had hatched a conspiracy to revive terrorism in Punjab and that Nishan Singh was a member of various terrorist outfits having their base abroad, including in Pakistan.
April 28, 2006: At least eight persons are wounded in a bomb blast that occurred inside a bus carrying 45 passengers in the Jalandhar bus terminus. Subsequently, on June 18, 2006, Satnam Singh alias Satta, a terrorist of the Pakistan-based Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), confessed during interrogation that he carried out the bomb blasts, on the instructions of the outfit’s chief, Ranjit Singh Neeta.
March 21, 2006: Four BKI terrorists are arrested from Chandigarh, and one kilogram of RDX, arms and ammunition are seized from their possession. The four, Sukhwinder Singh alias Sukhi alias Bullet, Dilbagh Singh, Ranjit Singh, all residents of Ropar district in Punjab and Balbir Singh alias Nepali, a resident of Solan district in Himachal Pradesh, were in contact with other BKI activists and were one of the several modules raised by the outfit for the revival of terrorism.
March 20, 2006: Paramjeet Singh Bheora, 'head of operations' of the BKI in India, and two of his accomplices, while planning to set up base in Delhi, are arrested by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police near G T Karnal road. Four kilograms of RDX, three detonators, one remote control device along with a wireless set, one timer, three pistols, 39 live cartridges and three fired cartridges are recovered from them.
Such incidents have a continuous history since 1993, with repeated attempt to revive the terror in Punjab. Between 1995 and 2005, at least 100 civilians were killed in terrorist violence in Punjab – overwhelmingly in bomb attacks on soft targets. Well over a thousand kilograms and a large arsenal of small weapons has been recovered over this period, as Pakistan-backed Khalistani terrorists continue to be arrested on a regular basis.
The principal base of active Khalistani terrorist organisations remains in Pakistan, with several groups enjoying the active patronage of the ISI, which has also assisted in the coordination of their activities with Islamist terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as well as with organised crime operators, and drug and weapons’ smugglers who have assisted in the movement of men and materials across the border into Punjab. The principal groups currently hosted by Pakistan include:
The ISI also supports and coordinates its activities with a number of active Diaspora groups across the world, using its embassies and consulates and points of contact, coordination and recruitment. The principal Diaspora groups include the Council of Khalistan, headed by Gurmeet Singh Aulakh, based in the USA; the Khalistan Affairs Centre, based in Washington DC, headed by Amarjit Singh, a close associate of ISYF elements in Canada and Europe; the Sikh Youth of America, with a strong presence in California, with J.S. Kang, John Gill, and Jasjit Singh Fauji among its active coordinators; the American Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, headed by Pritpal Singh, who was involved in a number of terrorist incidents, including the Ludhiana bank robbery; the Dal Khalsa International, USA, with Ajit Singh Pannu as its main coordinator; the Nankana Sahib Foundation Trust, headed by Ganga Singh Dhillon; the World Sikh Organisation; the Kamagata Maru Dal of Khalistan; the Sikh Youth of Belgium. A number a smaller splinters are also active across Europe, including the BKI in Germany, UK, France, Norway, Belgium and Switzerland; the ISYF in Germany and UK; and the the Kamagata Maru Dal in Germany. Significantly, Canada deported a BKI terrorist, Bachan Singh Sogi, in July 2006, and in early June 2007, the Punjab Police traced the main conspirators of the May 22, 2005, Delhi cinema hall blasts, to Germany; the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate at New Delhi subsequently issued letters rogatory seeking information from German authorities relating to Satnaam Singh, the son-in-law of BKI chief Wadhawa Singh, his wife, Sukhwinder Kaur, and another woman, indentified as Kanwaljit Kaur.
The activities of these various Diaspora organisations have been sustained and continuous. Among the most prominent of recent manifestations were large meetings and demonstrations at Frankfurt and in Birmingham. On May 6, 2007, a meeting organised by the Council of Khalistan at Birmingham, UK, was attended by the habitual India-baiter in the UK Parliament, Lord Nazir Ahmed, and by ‘representatives’ or a number of other groups including the obscure ‘Tehrik-e-Kashmir’ represented by Muhammad Ghalib.
On June 6, 2007, similarly, a rally was successfully organised at Frankfurt (part of a series planned on that date for Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, Surrey, Frankfurt, Sydney and London – the other rallies made little impression) by a combination of Diaspora groups under the banner of the "German Sikh Community", which sought, among other things, strong action against the Dera Sacha Sauda and its "criminal Baba" Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh.
Such ‘events’ are regularly stage managed by extremist Diaspora groups in close coordination with the ISI, which uses Pakistani embassies and consulates in various countries as contact points with anti-India extremist elements, not only for propaganda activities and fund generation, but, crucially, for recruitment. A trickle of volunteers continues to be diverted by these radical Diaspora organisations into Pakistani training camps, building the ‘reserves’ that are to be activated when conditions become ‘favourable’.
Such conditions remain, at the present juncture, a remote possibility in Punjab. Nevertheless, the Pakistani and Khalistani calculus is essentially long term and gambles on continuing political mismanagement to eventually create the conditions for a revival of terrorism in Punjab over the coming decade or more. The unfortunate reality is that the succession of Governments in the State, since 1993, has continued Punjab’s disastrous traditions of misgovernance, ineptitude, partisan polarisation and corruption. In February 2007, the outgoing Director General of Police, S.S. Virk, warned that crime rates in the State, particularly with regard to murder, rape and kidnapping, were rising due to increasing unemployment and the spread of urbanisation. The extremist calculus is that, at some stage, a convergence of political incompetence, an emotive public issue, and public discontent will abruptly catalyse a resurgence of terror. That, precisely, is what enforcement agencies and the Indian state need to shield against.
Hills: Sisyphean Struggle
It was a case of bargaining that went dreadfully awry. On June 4, Purnendu Langthasa and his colleague Nindu Langthasa, both politicians of the ruling Congress Party in Assam’s southern North Cachar Hills (NC Hills) District, abandoned their 16 armed guards and moved into the remote settlement of Langlai Hasnu, 65 kilometres from the District headquarters town of Haflong. Their mission was to persuade the Black Widow (BW) militants to scale down an extortion demand served on the party before the June 12 Autonomous District Council (ADC) polls. Discussions were held inside the house of the village headman. However, following altercations, in a completely unanticipated move, militants led Purnendu, the Chief Executive Member (CEM) of the outgoing ADC and Nindu, a former Executive Committee member of the Council, to a slope behind the house and shot them dead. In a separate development the same day, the dead body of Ajit Boro, Vice Chairman of the ADC, abducted a day earlier by unidentified militants, was recovered from the Kalajan area. In yet another case, hours before the Congress duo’s murder, BW militants shot at two civilians near a Congress office in Maibong town, mistaking them for political activists. Elections to the ADC have since been postponed.
Official sources in Haflong told SAIR that the killing of the Langthasa duo was a fallout of the failure to meet BW monetary demands. While the outfit had demanded INR 150 million, the slain politicians had actually carried suitcases containing currency notes amounting to INR 10 million. The BW, in a statement, on June 5, linked the killings to politics in the hilly District. While claiming responsibility for the killing of Purnendu and Nindu, and not that of Boro, BW ‘publicity secretary’ Phaiprang Dimasa indicated that both had offered money after failing to adhere to the demand for reservation of constituencies in the ADC polls. On April 26, the outfit had apparently asked the party to reserve three of the five newly created constituencies for BW representatives and had warned against making any attempt to "buy peace". The Congress had decided to ‘allot’ only two.
Spread over 4,890 square kilometres (6.24 percent of Assam’s total area) and with a population of 186,189 (seven percent of Assam’s population), this sparsely populated District is the third largest in Assam. With a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.363, NC Hills remains part of the State’s extended dark underbelly. Ranking a poor 11 on the HDI, among 23 Districts, according to the Assam Human Development Report, 2003 (Assam now has 27 Districts). Geographical remoteness (the District headquarters at Haflong is 370 kilometres away from State capital Dispur], poor communication and a lack of infra-structural facilities continue to afflict the District. The ADC, formed under Articles 244(2) and 275(1) of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which enumerates special provisions for administration of tribal areas, looks after the revenue administration of the District. However, since its creation in 1952, personal as well as political rivalries have not allowed the ADC to realise its potential as an engine for growth and development.
Six reserve forests and vast stretches of unclassified forest areas, accounting for 4,630 square kilometres, roughly 95 percent of the District’s territory, make NC Hills a veritable nightmare for the Security Forces dealing with the militants. The utter lack of policing facilities has only compounded the challenges posed by nature. While Assam has a police to population ratio of 181 per 100,000 (the corresponding national average is 122) and a police density (policemen per 100 square kilometres) of 66.4 (India: 42.4), the NC Hills District has 175 police personnel per 100,000 population but, crucially, less than seven police personnel per 100 square kilometres. Incidentally, Assam, among the eight north-eastern states, has the worst police population ratio in the region.
The entire District is administered by only four Police Stations and seven ‘non-sanctioned’ police outposts. Three of these Police Stations (Haflong, Maibong and Mahur) are located in the lower half of the District within a 53 kilometre radius. The fourth police station at Umrangso is in the north-western part, 93 kilometres from Haflong. Vast stretches of the District’s territory thus remain entirely unpoliced, serving as free hunting grounds for the militants. Village Defence Parties function in about 400 of the District’s 552 villages. However, little resistance is expected to be put up by these groups of unarmed villagers against militants brandishing an arsenal of sophisticated weapons.
Crucially, there is no police presence along NC Hills’ eastern border with both Manipur and Nagaland, allowing militants from either side several points of ingress and egress. The border outposts along the borders were withdrawn in 1994 vide a State Government order. For the militants, exiting westwards to Meghalaya and southwards to the Cachar District, are also viable options. Intelligence sources indicated that the BW chief Jewel Garlossa could be hiding with his top lieutenants in the Meghalaya capital Shillong, after the June 4 incident. Official sources indicate that the Assam Government is considering a proposal to establish at least five or six new police stations in the District.
Three battalions (about 3,000 personnel) of the Army and six companies (about 600 personnel) of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are also engaged in counter-militancy operations in the District. However, since, as a matter of practice, operations of all the three Forces are limited to the same areas where the District Police is present, and are complementary to each other, the presence of Army and CRPF, in spite of their experience and proven superior capability, adds little to the area domination capabilities across the District. Achievements in the operations, thus, remain modest. According to District Police sources, 12 militants have been killed and another 58 have been arrested this year, till mid-June.
Militancy, on the other hand, appears to suffer from no such shortcomings. The BW, formed in March 2003, is led by the erstwhile leader of the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), which entered into an official ceasefire with the Government in January 2003. With a cadre-strength of about 300 militants, 100 of whom are believed to be armed with AK series rifles and a handful of Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launchers, the BW has been responsible for a majority of the militancy related activities in the District. About 300 DHD cadres, who are lodged in four designated camps following the ceasefire, have also often been found to have moved out of the camps to engage in extortion. Among the targets of both the BW and the DHD are the gauge conversion project of the railways, the National Highway project, projects of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), a number of tea gardens, traders and Government servants.
The BW, whose strength lies in the legacy it inherited from the DHD, has been courted by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), operating in the neighbouring state of Nagaland. Reports indicate that in exchange for a share of its funds, the Naga outfit trains and arms BW cadres. NSCN-IM facilities in Nagaland have also been used by the BW cadres during security force raids in NC Hills. Apart from the flow of finances, links with the BW help the NSCN-IM maintain a crucial level of influence in the District, which forms a part of its Greater Nagaland (Nagalim) project.
The greatest advantage for militancy in NC Hills remains its localised nature. While, on several occasions, both the DHD and the BW cadres have clashed with each other and also with outfits operating in neighbouring areas, their activities have largely been restricted to the limits of three contiguous Districts of NC Hills, Karbi Anglong and Cachar. The dominant militant outfits operating in Assam, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), too, do not operate in NC Hills. As a result, counter-insurgency operations in the District, seen to be directed against few a hundred militants, in the absence of any larger repercussions on the security of Assam, are characterised by a certain measure of tedium and indifference, unless aggravated by a ‘major’ incident such as the one on June 4.
NSCN-IM’s shadow appears to hang heavy over the June 4 incident. Two NSCN-IM militants, ‘sergeant major’ Colombus alias Jangjing Newmai and ‘corporal’ Ango Lotha, who were arrested on June 5 in connection with the killing, not only provided details of the incident, but also of the linkages between the BW and the Naga outfit. In fact, both Colombus and Ango Lotha were overseeing the entire operation for which the BW had constituted a nine-member team. The NSCN-IM, however, has denied its involvement in the killing.
Following the June 4 killings, the Assam Government rushed in additional Central Para-military Force companies into the District. Such moves have become far too predictable and, given the unaltered geographical and infrastructural drawbacks that have aided militancy over the years, are not expected to deliver any significant results. Similarly, the State Government is reportedly mulling over a full-scale Army flush-out operation in the NC Hills and the neighbouring Karbi Anglong District. Opinions in the Police establishment, however, favour an increase in the Police strength and infrastructure, rather than such intermittent operations by Central Forces.
The June 4 killing, according to authoritative sources in Haflong, confirmed the nexus between the local political establishment and the militants. The Police, on the other hand, complain of an absolute lack of intelligence on the militants and the problems of operating in a vacuum. With little help, apart from the customary deployment of additional Force, coming from the powers that be, the war on militancy in this remote and neglected corner of the country, remains un-winnable.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
June 18-24, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
Six people killed in ULFA-triggered explosion in Assam: Six persons, including three children, were killed and 14 others injured, when suspected United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants triggered an explosion in front of a mosque at Machkhowa in the Guwahati city on June 23, 2007. The Acting Director-General of Police, R. N. Mathur, told reporters that the blast was caused by an Improvised Explosive Device. Meanwhile, denying its involvement in the blast, an ULFA spokesman, ‘Maj’ Raju Barua claimed, "The ULFA wants to make it clear that it has never been involved in killing innocent people and it was only a conspiracy hatched by vested interests to malign the outfit’s name." The Hindu, June 24, 2007.
Maoists and other armed groups obstructing political activity, says UN: The United Nations stated on June 22, 2007, that Maoist insurgents and other armed groups are hindering political activity in the countryside. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal said the Maoists were still preventing other political parties from functioning freely outside district capitals. Intimidation and violence by other armed groups had also led to obstacles to normal political activity, the U.N. said. In some places, the Maoists and other parties in the ruling alliance had labeled supporters of embattled King Gyanendra as "regressive forces" and disrupted their activities, it added. "This is a problem which, if not addressed, could worsen as political activities are intensified in the lead-up to the CA [Constituent Assembly] election," said Lena Sundh, OHCHR chief in Nepal, told reporters. Reuters, June 22, 2007.
Ulema Council honours Osama bin Laden: The Pakistan Ulema Council on June 21, 2007, awarded its highest honour to the al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, saying it was in reaction to Britain’s knighthood for writer Salman Rushdie. "We are pleased to award the title of Saifullah (Sword of Allah) to Osama bin Laden after the British Government’s decision to bestow the title of ‘Sir’ on blasphemer Rushdie… This is the highest title for a Muslim warrior," the council’s chairman Maulana Tahir Ashrafi stated. Pakistan Ulema Council, a leading group of Islamic scholars claims to be the biggest of its kind in the country with 2,000 scholars. Aaj Television, June 21, 2007.
34 persons killed in missile attack in North Waziristan: At least 34 people were killed when a missile hit a cluster of compounds in the Datakhel area of North Waziristan on June 19, 2007. While the exact nature of the explosion is yet to be ascertained, local people said that missiles had hit a seminary. Daily Times reported that a Madrassa (seminary) used by the Taliban as a hideout was attacked by a US-controlled drone, killing over 20 militants and wounding 15 others. The Inter-Services Public Relations Director-General, Major General Arshad Waheed, however, denied reports that the Pakistan army or coalition forces had carried out the attack. "It was an accidental blast in the area," he claimed. Further, coalition spokesperson Colonel David Accetta said in Kabul that "We checked into this and we have no indications that we have fired anything across the border into Pakistan." Daily Times; Dawn, June 20 and June 21, 2007.
70 LTTE cadres killed in Jaffna and Batticaloa: The Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) destroyed five Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) boats and severely damaged another nine in a confrontation off the Vettilaikerni coast in the Jaffna District on June 19, 2007. "Around 40 Sea Tigers are believed to have perished. The LTTE cadres in the boats are in a very desperate situation. They are calling for reinforcements," a spokesperson for the Media Centre for National Security said. Separately, troops engaged in the battle at Thoppigala in Batticaloa District captured more than 42 square kilometers of area between Akkaraththaviai and Kattuvelikulam, killing more than 30 LTTE cadres. Five security force personnel were injured due to anti-personnel mines and mortar attacks by the LTTE. Daily News, June 20, 2007.