Sunday, March 09, 2008

Khalistan, via US, Britain, Canada

Khalistan, via US, Britain, Canada
An artist's drawing of the Air India trial shows (L to R) accused Ripudaman Singh Malik holding a book and co-accused Ajaib Singh Bagri in bare feet in the Vancouver Law Courts, Vancouver
This past week there have been worrisome reports about attempts to reignite separatist violence in Punjab by inciting Sikh youth to revive the demand for 'Khalistan' with the help of funds collected abroad and more than a little involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. India, more so Punjab, had to pay a terrible price on account of Khalistani terrorism during the 1980s and 1990s; countless human lives were lost, innumerable families were devastated and young minds were scarred forever.
The genesis of those years of blood-letting was the cynical ploy of the Congress to promote a rabid preacher of hate, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, as a countervailing force to the Akali Dal. Rajiv Gandhi, as a callow politician being groomed for the 'big' job by Mrs Indira Gandhi, much like his son, Rahul, is being groomed today by Ms Sonia Gandhi, had famously described Bhindranwale, responsible for the slaughter of innocent men, women and children, many of them Sikhs, as a "man of religion". Coincidentally or otherwise, reports of attempts to revive the Khalistani movement come at a time when the Congress is in power at the Centre and the Akali Dal rules Punjab.
We know the tragic consequences of that initial blunder by the Congress - Operation Blue Star was Mrs Indira Gandhi's desperate attempt to put an end to a strategy that had gone horribly wrong; it didn't quite serve that purpose. In the end, the Frankenstein's monster she had helped create devoured her, triggering the horrendous pogrom that saw Congress lynch mobs massacring 4,733 Sikhs, most of them in the streets of Delhi.
But the blood-soaked Khalistan story did not end in 1984. Next year, 'Emperor Kanishka', Air India's Flight 181/182 from Toronto to Mumbai via Montreal, London and Delhi, was blown up off the Irish coast, killing all 329 people on board. Peace continued to elude Punjab where casualties had ceased to matter. The ISI, by then in command of the Khalistanis, kept the fire of separatism alive, fuelling it with money, Kalashnikovs and explosives. It took the combined efforts of a determined Chief Minister, Beant Singh, and a tough police chief, Mr KPS Gill, to douse the blaze.
Beant Singh's assassination was perhaps the last act of terrorism before the guns began to fall silent. With the Khalistanis routed, there was jubilation in Punjab and across India. I recall spending a week travelling across Punjab, marvelling at the peace that had descended on the troubled land. Accompanied by my wife and my elder daughter, who was then a child, we travelled at night on roads that till a few months ago were known as 'death zones'.
Gurdwaras that had been taken over by extremists now wore a festive look. Our most moving encounter was with a young granthi who had deserted the Army after Operation Blue Star to join Babbar Khalsa, but later repented his decision and surrendered to the police. Dedicating his life to the Panth was his way of seeking forgiveness; it was his act of repentance. But many others like him were not so lucky - they either fell to police bullets or just disappeared, leaving behind families burdened with memories.
Strangely, those who played Dr Faust to Pakistan's ISI and instigated young men to pick up AK-47s have never been brought to justice. They continue to be ensconced in their plush homes in the US, Canada and Britain, and still dream of Khalistan. Dr Gurmit Singh Aulakh, 'President' of the 'Council of Khalistan' with offices in Washington, DC, has access to huge 'private funds' and continues to lobby with American politicians to press his case.
Among those who actively back Dr Aulakh are Mr Edolphus Towns, member of the House of Representatives from New York who wants the US to declare India a "terrorist state", former Senator Jesse Helms and, across the Atlantic, Lord Avebury in Britain. Dr Aulakh's website is indicative of his faith in terrorism, yet the US Administration has chosen not to touch him. When I met him in Washington, DC, in the fall of 1990, Dr Aulakh spent more than an hour lecturing me about the "atrocities being committed by India against Sikhs" in the "occupied nation of Khalistan". After listening to his jaundiced version of events, I retorted that he was talking gibberish. The Indian American who had set up the meeting was horrified by my feisty response; Dr Aulakh looked at me witheringly; and the tea never came. Eighteen years later, he is older but not wiser. Or else he would not still dream of Khalistan.
Jagjit Singh Chauhan, who described himself as the 'President of Khalistan', was more welcoming when we met in London at a common friend's house in Islington. Having served as Finance Minister and Deputy Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, Chauhan continued to maintain a vast network of contacts in the State even after moving to Britain in 1971. There was no dearth of funds and he even had 'Republic of Khalistan' passports, currency and postage stamps printed that he would provide in exchange of British pounds and American and Canadian dollars. If I remember correctly, one Khalistani 'dollar' was valued at one American dollar. I was tempted to purchase a Khalistani passport as a keepsake, but better sense prevailed.
By 2001, Chauhan was a decrepit man, resigned to the fact that he would not live to see Khalistan. He struck a deal with the Government of India and returned to his hometown, Tanda, in Hoshiarpur district. His Khalsa Raj Party remained a letterhead organisation and the man who had once hoisted the 'Flag of Khalistan' at Anandpur Sahib died a broken man last year. But there are many wealthy Sikhs in Britain who continue to subscribe to Chauhan's separatist ideology and ardently believe that Amritsar shall be the capital of Khalistan. Funds continue to be collected; it is anybody's guess as to how the money is spent.
If we were to look for the real instigators trying to rekindle the flames of Khalistani terror, we would find them in Canada, more specifically in British Columbia. To a certain extent, American and European authorities have realised the folly of not cracking down on Khalistanis during the 1980s and 1990s. But in Canada, the Government continues to remain as indulgent as it was in 1985 when 'Emperor Kanishka' was bombed over the Atlantic.
Just how indulgent the Canadian Government is can be gauged from the fact that neither Ripudaman Singh Malik nor Ajaib Singh Bagri, who plotted the bombing of 'Emperor Kanishka', has had to pay for his sins. They have been declared 'not guilty' by a judge who refused to accept overwhelming evidence against them as being conclusive enough to convict them. Both are now claiming damages running into millions of dollars - and possibly plotting how to revive their industry of death and destruction.

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