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Vijay C Roy: Punjab's militancy problem

The terrorist attack in Gurdaspur indicates that militancy might rise again in the state

In June this year, when separatists observed the 31st death anniversary of Sikh separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, it was apparent that the cult of militant Sikhism was not dead. Many of his followers regard him as Sant Ji (a saint) and proudly wear clothes bearing his photo in Amritsar and nearby areas in Punjab. Further, there were quite a few people, who raised pro-Khalistan slogans in front of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal when he visited Patiala recently.

In 2013, a memorial dedicated to Bhindran-wale and other "martyrs" of Operation Bluestar was inaugurated at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar.

According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), the total number of civilians, security forces and terrorists killed this year in Punjab is 10 - including the casualties of the Dina Nagar terrorist attack in Gurdaspur on July 27 - compared to none last year.

Intelligence agencies believe large-scale terror activity is not possible in Punjab as there is no popular support for it. Sporadic activity by terror groups is only to ensure that money continues to flow into their groups. According to intelligence sources, separatist groups receive funds largely from Germany and Spain in Europe.

According to Ludhiana Congress MP Ravneet Singh Bittu, the Gurdaspur terrorist attack was an attempt to revive the Khalistan movement in the state. "The central government is shifting terrorists lodged in jails in different parts of the country to Punjab," says Bittu. "There is no need for this. Why are terrorists from Bengaluru and Bareilly being shifted to Punjab jails?" This kind of move boosts the morale of radical groups, he adds.

The Congress leader also accuses the state government of "adopting a soft approach" towards 85-year-old Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, a civil rights and political activist, who is on a hunger strike since January this year, seeking permanent release of Sikh political prisoners.

"Acceding to pressure from Surat Singh, the state government has decided to transfer terrorists lodged in jails across the country to the state," says Bittu.

"Surat Singh demanded that the state release prisoners who have completed their jail terms. My question is: why is the state government succumbing to pressure from him." says Bittu. "Those who have completed their terms should be released only if the state is sure they would not be a threat to law and order. I fail to understand why the state is giving him so much importance."

Bittu says there are at least 43 convicts lodged in various jails across the country who have completed their term of 14 years. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal's (SAD) coalition partner in Punjab, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is opposed to the proposal for release of the convicts.

The terrorists whose release is being sought by the SAD includes Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a Khalistani terrorist who was convicted of trying to assassinate former Youth Congress President Maninderjit Singh Bitta in 1993. The Badal government recently got Bhullar shifted to Amritsar jail from Tihar jail in New Delhi.

The names of Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) operatives Jagtar Singh Hawara and Paramjit Singh Bheora also figure on the list of convicts who could be released. Hawara, Bheora and another BKI operative, Jagtar Singh Tara, had escaped from Chandigarh's high-security Burail jail in January 2004. Tara, sentenced to life for his involvement in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995, was extradited from Bangkok by a team of Punjab Police on January 16 this year.

Bittu alleges that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has joined hands with Khalistani terrorists to support the latter. He says that for the last few months, there has been increased activity from Khalistani elements, but these were not dealt with properly by the Centre and the Punjab government.

After Tara was arrested, he allegedly disclosed audacious plans to carry out targeted killings and weapons drops in Punjab. He also described how promoters in Spain and Germany planned to carry out terrorist activities in Punjab with his support. These included the use of paragliders to transport arms and ammunition from Narowal in Pakistan to India.

At a conference of chief ministers in 2013, former Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde sounded an alert against attempts by Pakistan to revive Sikh militancy and the Khalistan movement in Punjab. He had alleged that the ISI was training Sikh youth and giving them arms and explosives.

"There have been significant developments on the Sikh militancy front," Shinde had said. "Its commanders based in Pakistan are under pressure from the ISI to further its terror plans not only in Punjab but also other parts of the country. Sikh youth are being trained in ISI facilities in Pakistan. Jihadi groups in Pakistan associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohamed and Indian Mujahideen have set up channels for transfer of funds from Pakistan to India."

Experts say that in the wake of the Gurdaspur terror attack, the Punjab government and the Centre should take stock of the situation and crack down against radicals in the state.

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First Published: Sat, August 01 2015. 21:08 IST