Poster boys, poster wars

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The youth of Punjab are feeding on resentment and foreign funds to revive old demands of Khalistan, reports Brijesh Pandey from Amritsar

Mobile message Youngsters are flaunting their loyalties and spreading the word that militancy is their credo
Mobile message Youngsters are flaunting their loyalties and spreading the word that militancy is their credo

A28-YEAR-OLD SIKH youth comes to Shop No. 31 owned by Dilbag Singh, one of the several located near Amritsar’s Golden Temple. They sell memorabilia, swords and other articles of the Sikh faith. This shop deals exclusively in CDs, books, posters, calendars, T-shirts and stickers of late Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh militant leader who led the Khalistan movement and was killed during Operation Blue Star.

The shop gets a steady stream of visitors. Over an hour, the two most common queries are: “84 ki CD hainga si?” (Do you have a CD of the 1984 riots?) and “Baba ka poster dena” (Give me a poster of Baba). Badges and stickers, often made in China, literally fly off the shelves.

Pawan Singh buys a poster to put up in his house — his car already has one. By way of explanation, he says, with immense pride, “Babaji hamare sant hain. Aur agar yeh aaj hotey to sikhon ni itni bekadri na hoti.” (He was our saint. If he had been around, Sikhs would not be so neglected.)

While this shop sells 450-500 Bhindranwale posters and CDs a month, Dilbag’s estimate is that around 80,000- 90,000 posters are sold all over Punjab, the biggest publisher being in Mehta Chowk, 40 km from Amritsar. Sale of CDs is lower only because the same material is available online. “Let me tell you, the rest of the country might think he is a terrorist, but for us he is a saint first and then a fighter,” he says.

If the answer given in Parliament by Minister of State for Home Ajay Maken is any indication, militancy is certainly on the rise. On 16 August, in a written reply to Parliament, Maken informed the House, “Available reports suggest that Sikh militants groups, especially those based abroad, are continuing their efforts to revive militancy in Punjab. We are maintaining a close watch on those groups…”

Statistics of arrests corroborate this picture.
• Last year, more than 15 militants were arrested in Punjab and one in Mumbai. Most of them belong to Babbar Khalsa International (BKI). This is one of the deadliest Khalistan groups, responsible for the killing of then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995 and the Kanishka bombing in 1985.
• On 28 July, five alleged militants belonging to the BKI were arrested.
• On 18 July, police arrested four BKI militants, including their Commander Harmohinder Singh, who was the mastermind behind Ludhiana’s Shingar cinema blast.
• On 26 March, three BKI members were arrested in Rajpura sector.
• On 21 February, militants Javir Singh and Harvant Singh belonging to Khalistan Liberation Force were nabbed.

WHEN THE Patiala Police arrested five BKI militants on 28 June, the nexus was clear. According to Ranbir Singh Khatra, SSP of Patiala, “The Malaysian link first came to the fore when we arrested Pargat Singh. He was a bomb expert and had stayed there for almost a year. With more intelligence inputs, we are now sure that Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are being used by both the ISI and the radical outfits in Canada and America to stoke terror in Punjab.” After the arrest of these five, the Malaysian government was informed that three suspected Sikh militants Harminder Singh, Daljeet Singh and Harpreet Singh are still in that country.

On why Southeast Asia has become a Sikh terror hub, Ranbir Singh said, “These are tourist spots with a lot of Asian population. They can enter these countries easily and from there, they can move to Pakistan without problem. After training, it is easy for these militants to follow this route back to India without raising suspicion.”

Shop talk CDs and posters glorifying Bhindranwale and depicting the 1984 events sell like hot cakes
Shop talk CDs and posters glorifying Bhindranwale and depicting the 1984 events sell like hot cakes

KPS Gill, the police chief credited with restoring peace in Punjab, concurs. “Though the revival might be at a nascent stage, extremist Sikh groups based in Canada, America and a couple of European countries are trying hard to revive militancy in Punjab. The threat is real: we can’t afford to slacken,” he says.

The question remains: Why, when there has been peace for almost a decade-and- a-half, are Punjab youth getting restive? “The real answer lies in criminal neglect of the aspirations of youths of Punjab,” says Mokham Singh, convenor of Khalsa Action Committee. “They have seen nothing but suppression of his dreams by both the state and the Centre. The state is rich but the people are very poor. So there is an extreme anger in him, which nobody is addressing. There is no employment opportunity, nothing,” he explains.

Kanwar Pal Singh, Dal Khalsa spokesperson says, “These kids are emotional and their psyche is hurt. They have seen, heard and read about what had happened to their parents and relatives and to Sikhs in general. You kill one generation, another comes up. It is much like Kashmir, where the youth have taken over from the older generation.”

A senior police officer, on condition of anonymity, agrees with this view. “These youths, with no jobs and no future, are easy targets for the recruiters. The situation is really bad along the border, where the use of drugs has wreaked havoc. All that the operator has to do is to listen to them, channelise their anger against India and give them some money and assurances.”

Ajay Maken said in Parliament that groups based abroad are trying to revive militancy in Punjab

Sources in the Punjab Police say that though there is a state of denial about revival of militancy in Punjab, the escape of Jagtar Singh Hawara and his subsequent activities were an eye-opener. Hawara, India chief of BKI, escaped from Budail jail of Chandigarh in January 2004. The interrogation report reveals that not only was he was able to source a huge quantity of weapons, including 35 kg RDX and several AK-47s, but also more than 100 sympathisers gave him shelter and helped him stock arms and explosives. Though Hawara was re-arrested 18 months later, the existence of so many modules and sleeper cells in Punjab caused alarm.

Sources in intelligence agencies also point to the influence of Pakistan’s ISI. “There has been a long silence in Punjab and the ISI is putting a lot of pressure on groups like BKI to start something. ISI is active in getting funding for groups like BKI from Canada.”

Mokham Singh sums it up by saying, “Nothing has changed since militancy was curbed in the 1990s. Close to a lakh people died but no solution emerged. Everything is still the same. We are sitting on a powder keg. All it would take is someone to ignite the fuse.”

Photos: Shailendra Pandey, Vijay Pandey

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