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New brand of Sikh militancy: Suave, tech-savvy pro-Khalistan youth radicalised on social media

Many youngsters in the state are being influenced by Khalistani groups active abroad and recruited to kill specific targets, including RSS members and Dera followers

india Updated: Jan 09, 2018 11:35 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva
Police officials inspecting seized weapons at Ferozepur.
Police officials inspecting seized weapons at Ferozepur. (HT File Photo)

A new brand of Sikh militancy has surfaced in Punjab — educated, suave, clean shaven and mostly millennial young men and women from families with no links to the pro-Khalistan movement, according to police.

Radicalised through social media by Khalistani groups active abroad, these young Sikhs are recruited to kill specific targets set by their handlers, said police after busting several modules behind “targeted killings” in Punjab last year.

“It’s a new way of spreading terrorism. Pro-Khalistani forces are radicalising people using cyber space… That’s why we handed the probe into all such cases to the National Investigation Agency (NIA),” state director general of police Suresh Arora said. “You never know how many such modules they have prepared for anti-national activities.”

The alarm rang after police arrested five men who are said to be part of a module that had shot dead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members in Ludhiana, Dera Sacha Sauda followers and a Christian pastor between October 31 and November 7, 2017.

These new-age militants have no trace of any Khalistani activity in at least three generations of their families. None of them is from households that suffered the worst during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. They also have no links to “victims” of Punjab’s violent insurgency in the 1980s and early 1990s.

These militants weren’t even born when the riots happened after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. About 3,000 people were killed in the violence, mostly in New Delhi.

In one module busted this August, police found an 18-year-old Ludhiana girl allegedly brainwashed through Facebook by fundamentalists in Canada and incited to kill Hindu leaders.

Of the 45 suspects arrested so far from different modules, at least 20 are below 35. They are tech and social media savvy. The men have short hair and are clean shaven, though keeping a beard and growing long hair are among the basic tenets of Sikhism.

Read more | Pakistan supporting Sikh militants, say fresh intelligence inputs

Heavy police crackdown in the 1990s may have wiped out an armed campaign in Punjab by several Sikh groups for an independent country, Khalistan. But the Khalistani ideology has continued to fester among several fundamentalist Sikhs settled abroad.

These people have limited appeal and support in Punjab, but intelligence agencies periodically warn of attempts to revive militancy in the state.

Among the five suspects arrested on November 4, 2017, was Jagtar Singh aka Jaggi Johal, from the United Kingdom. He told police the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), a militant group with Harminder Singh Mintoo and Harmeet Singh ‘PhD’ as its top leaders, is doing the bidding of Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to recruit young Sikhs for anti-India activities. Police said the “targeted killing” approach was conceived in 2014 by the ISI. The four other arrested men — Jammu resident Jimmy Singh, Ramandeep, Hardeep Shera and Dharmendra Gugni — corroborated Jagtar’s statement.

THE INFAMOUS FIVE
JAGTAR SINGH aka JAGGI JOHAL
The 30-year-old hails from a family of Glasgow-based restaurateurs, with their roots in Jalandhar. Police say he used to work for a Khalistani website, run the Sikh Soorme magazine, and was part of a group that made a film on militants Jinda-Sukha, who killed former army chief General AS Vaidya
JIMMY SINGH
The Jammu resident, 31, who was overstaying his student visa in Glasgow, helped militants illegally buy guns, say police
RAMANDEEP
The 29-year-old hails from Ludhiana in Punjab. Radicalised by fundamentalists settled in Canada, he used to operate with Shera, taking the shooter on his bike on missions assigned by their handler
HARDEEP SHERA
This 21-year-old resident of Fatehgarh Sahib went to Italy when he was 18 and met KLF chief Mintoo at his uncle’s home, according to police. Shera was allegedly radicalised and trained by Gursharan, a Babbar Khalsa leader. Police say he can shoot with both hands simultaneously
DHARMINDRA GUGNI
A Ludhiana gangster, Gugni is 32 and currently lodged in Nabha jail. Police say he was befriended by arrested KLF chief Mintoo in prison. He is accused of providing weapons to the militants.

The 50-year-old Mintoo was arrested in November 2014 at the New Delhi airport after he was deported from Thailand. But Harmeet with the help of Babbar Khalsa International member Gursharan Bir Singh, who is also from the UK , continued recruiting youngsters to murder select targets. “PhD introduced me to Gursharan who ran a website called neverforget1984.com. I translated Punjabi material about Khalistan into English for the website. At his behest, I was given the responsibility of contacting young people for the cause,” Jagtar said in a statement to the police.

According to the police, Jagtar is from a family of restaurateurs and was in India for his wedding when he was arrested in Jalandhar on November 4. He and his gang were busted after police caught Laddi, a cousin of Jimmy, for arms trading. The cousin named Jimmy and the police then traced all others in the network, one by one, according to a police officer.

Jimmy met Jagtar in Glasgow, where the Jammu resident was working as a restaurant chef after his student visa expired. They became friends and Jagtar pressed him in 2015 to buy weapons from Jammu for “one of his friends in India who is a competitive shooter”, police said.

Jimmy contacted Laddi, who apparently knew arms smugglers. Jagtar transferred £4,000 through Western Union to Laddi, a few days before he was arrested with a pistol procured illegally.

Punjab Police then issued a “red corner notice” against Jimmy who was caught when he returned to India. Jimmy’s association with the module is through Jagtar while two other members — Shera and Ramandeep — were influenced directly by Gursharan. A police officer said Shera, a resident of Majri Kishnewali in Fatehgarh Sahib district, met KLF chief Mintoo during a holiday in Italy in 2013.

“Shera knew nothing about Khalistan before that … After Mintoo’s arrest, Gursharan interacted with Shera via Skype and trained him too.” Shera is an ambidextrous sharpshooter who killed “targets” assigned to him by the KLF chief and would flee to Italy after every hit, according to the police.

Read more | War heroes to share space with Sikh militants at Golden Temple museum

When he was arrested at a gym in Sirhind, his family wasn’t aware he was back in India. Police said his accomplice was Ramandeep, a Moga resident, who would drive a motorcycle, and Shera, riding pillion, would shoot pistols with both hands.

Ramandeep, known among his friends as Canadian, was allegedly motivated by a KLF faction active in Canada. Gursharan brought the duo together in December 2015.

According to investigators, the initial targets for these shooters were RSS members in Ludhiana, including retired Brigadier Jagdish Gagneja, the organisation’s Punjab unit vice president.

“Gagneja’s killing was meticulously planned. Shera and Ramandeep visited the RSS leader’s house 13 times,” a DGP-rank officer said.

Another target was the Dera Sacha Sauda, whose controversial chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh triggered outrage in 2007 when he appeared before a congregation attired as the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

The militants killed a father and his son, both Dera followers, in Khanna.

Pastor Sultan Masih in Salem Tabri of Ludhiana was shot dead following the handlers’ weird, hate-filled message to kill “a man in white clothes with a cross around his neck”.