The Indian government has provided the US government considerable evidence of links between US-based Khalistan groups and militants and terrorists operating in India. The likelihood of Khalistan groups receiving funding, support, and military training from Pakistan is also significant. India is now a critical US ally in the Indo-Pacific. India deserves to be heard and supported by the US on a wide range of issues, including its concerns regarding movements supported by Pakistan.
Pakistan’s desire to revive the Khalistan insurgency and its alleged support of illicit drug trafficking and cross-border money laundering, constitute major security concerns for India. “Indian law enforcement has identified several prominent Khalistan activists who have coordinated with Pakistan-based militants and leaders. The groups agitating for Khalistan have the potential to disrupt or damage India-US relations and also to become a vehicle for recruitment of terrorists and extremist agitators,” said an official working with the security establishment.
To disseminate anti-India propaganda, the focus of pro-Khalistani organizations is advocating the Khalistan cause, and to secure support they target local politicians, US think tanks, and human rights activists. Khalistan activists also use Sikh places of worship, gurudwaras, to attract followers and organize special events to commemorate the “martyrdom” of terrorists in Punjab.
They also commemorate Operation Blue Star and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to make the younger Sikhs believe that there is a religious conflict between Sikhs and other Indians. The aid organizations formed in support of Khalistani movement serve as a front for terrorist groups.
The Khalistan activists have established a strong presence in ethnic electronic and print media. Their seminars, conferences, and online campaigns praising the former Sikh militants have helped to advance a hardline ideology and the notion of revenge for brutality against Sikhs.
The history of the Khalistan movement precedes the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947. Following independence, Sikhs demanded a state in which they were a majority, a call that the Indian government rejected, as it was an explicitly communal demand. In 1966, following a significant change in Sikh political leadership, the Punjab Subah was created from the larger East Punjab state, with Sikhs constituting the majority of its population.
Those wanting an independent Sikh state were not appeased by the creation of India’s new Sikh- majority state, leading to an armed insurrection by militants seeking such an independent state. The ISI’s role in sustaining the insurgency is widely accepted within the scholarly community.
Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war is one popularly held explanation for Pakistan’s interest in prolonging the Sikh insurrection. Within two weeks of entering the war, Pakistan’s military surrendered, and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Since then, Pakistan has sought revenge by “bleeding India with a thousand cuts”.
Pakistan’s strategy thereafter has been to damage India by exploiting its religious, political, and ethnic fault lines and by supporting violent, extremist, and separatist movements across various parts of India.
Internal politics in the Indian state of Punjab and Pakistan’s ambitions coincided to create the social environment from which the Khalistan movement later emerged. Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia ul- Haq, recognized the Khalistan movement as “an opportunity to weaken and distract the Indian government by miring it in yet another insurgent war ‘of a thousand cuts’”. ISI’s position improved partly due to Sikh factionalism, which the Pakistanis deliberately aggravated in order to gain control.
In July 2020, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs banned the organization Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) and designated nine individuals linked to separatist Khalistani organizations as terrorists, including four based in Pakistan. Several of these individuals belong to known terrorist organizations: Babbar Khalsa International, International Sikh Youth Federation, Khalistan Zindabad Force and Khalistan Commando Force. Each of these four groups has been implicated in specific acts of terror in India while their designated leaders are reportedly based in Pakistan.
Six months later, India’s National Investigation Agency filed terrorism-related charges against ten people, including SFJ leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, before a special court in Mohali, Punjab. Pannun and others were alleged to have been involved in a series of acts of violence, including firebombing in Punjab, during the year 2017–18. They were also charged with “carrying out propaganda activities both online and on ground” in support of Sikhs for Justice and Referendum 2020, an unofficial poll of Sikhs living outside India that Khalistan advocates were planning to conduct in 2020 to show support for Khalistan’s independence.
Despite the little support for the Khalistani movement in the Indian state of Punjab, Pannun continues to seek external support, focusing on countries that possibly have an issue with India. He also announced the establishment of a permanent office of SFJ in Lahore, Pakistan, to coordinate the registration of referendum votes, which would also be an information center for the Sikhs. Among US pro-Khalistan groups, Sikhs for Justice stands out for its brazenness in openly seeking the support of China, Russia, and Pakistan for its separatist cause.