Hudson Institute

German Arrests Show Pakistani Support for Sikh Extremism in India

Research Fellow, India and South Asia
Middle East Forum
Heavy security arrangements deployed at the entrance of the Mini Secretariat on December 24, 2021 in Ludhiana, India, following a bomb attack by Sikh separatists. (Photo by Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Heavy security arrangements deployed at the entrance of the Mini Secretariat on December 24, 2021 in Ludhiana, India, following a bomb attack by Sikh separatists. (Photo by Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Plans by Sikh separatist extremists based in Europe and the US to disrupt the celebration of India’s 72nd Republic Day on January 26, 2022, were foiled.

Recent actions of these extremist groups, which have resulted in at least one high profile arrest in Germany, validate the recent Hudson Institute report warning of the threat posed by pro-Khalistan groups operating in the West and allegedly financed and supported by Pakistan’s security services.

On January 10, the US-based pro-Khalistan Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) group announced that it was dedicating $1 million to its ‘Raise Kesari Khalistan’ (Raise the Saffron Khalistan Flag) and ‘Block Modi Tiranga’ (Block Modi’s Indian Tricolor) campaigns, and campaign members announced their intention to target India’s capital, Delhi, on Republic Day.

Fortunately, these plans were thwarted, due to both the timely action taken by Indian law enforcement agencies and the lack of support for the Khalistan issue inside India. Although the Khalistan movement has no resonance within India, groups in the diaspora, especially in North America and Europe, continue attempting to resuscitate the movement.

Last year, on December 23, a bomb went off in the district court of Ludhiana in Indian Punjab, killing the attacker, a dismissed former policeman named Gagandeep, and injuring six others. Indian authorities blamed Sikh separatists based in Europe for the attack. The attack’s alleged mastermind, Jaswinder Singh Multani, was later arrested by German police, and, by December 31, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had formally charged Multani and others for the attacks

According to India’s NIA, Multani “has links to Pakistan and has been involved in smuggling of arms and ammunition from across the border into Punjab.” Indian authorities had previously accused him of “arranging and sending weapons consignments comprising explosives, hand grenades and pistols from across the border with the help of Pakistan-based operatives.”

When requesting that German Federal Police arrest Multani, Indian investigators noted that he “was planning to carry out terrorist activities in Punjab by using the smuggled consignments.” Multani also faces charges for previous terror-related incidents carried out in Punjab last year, including an alleged plot to kill Bharatiya Kisan (Indian Farmers) Union President Balbir Singh Rajewal.

Multani is reportedly a leading member of the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) movement. The SFJ’s public face, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, has apparently confirmed this fact, revealing a close relationship with Multani. Over the years, Sikhs for Justice has written public letters to the prime minister of Pakistan and the presidents of Russia and China, seeking their support against India and for the creation of an independent state of Khalistan in Indian’s Punjab State.

In August 2021, Pannun reportedly declared his organization’s intention to “approach [the Afghan] Taliban to enroll their support for the establishment of Khalistan,” ignoring the fact that Taliban fighters have attacked and killed members of all minorities inside Afghanistan, including Sikhs. The only explanation for SFJ’s willingness to consider Afghanistan’s Islamist extremist Taliban as a potential ally is the close ties SFJ and other Khalistani groups have with Pakistan’s Intelligence agency, which has been a consistent patron of the Taliban over the years.

Multani’s arrest in Germany comes amidst a recent uptick in pro-Khalistan activity, apparently encouraged by the Taliban’s assumption of control in Afghanistan.

Four of the nine Khalistani activists designated as terrorists by the Indian government in 2020 are based in Pakistan, and SFJ’s websites have been linked to Pakistani addresses. Also, SFJ spokespeople in the West have taken part in events organized by the Pakistani embassy in the United States in collaboration with groups such as Friends of Kashmir – a Houston-based organization with close links to the Pakistani regime and proscribed jihadist organizations.

The Hudson Institute report Pakistan’s Destabilization Playbook: Khalistan Separatism within the US, which was authored by a group including this article’s coauthors, emphasizes the need for law enforcement in Western countries to be vigilant with respect to Pakistan-backed extremist groups. The activities of Khalistani groups located in North America should be investigated, within the limits prescribed by law, to prevent a reoccurrence of the violence orchestrated by the Khalistan movement in the 1980s.

During that period, along with numerous attacks on civilians, the Khalistan movement was linked to the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to London, which left 329 dead, and the failed bombing of an Air India jet in Tokyo on the same day.

In the 1990s, federal agents accused a leading Khalistani activist, Bhajan Singh Bhinder, with seeking to procure explosives, rifles, rocket launchers, and Stinger missiles. In 2006, a New York federal court convicted Pakistani-Canadian Khalid Awan of providing support to the Khalistan Commando Force, “a terrorist organization responsible for thousands of deaths in India since its founding in 1986.”

The issue of Khalistan may appear to many to be a purely Indian issue. However, the recent increase in Khalistan-related anti-India activism within the US is occurring as the United States and India collaborate in confronting China’s rise, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, Pakistan, a critical Chinese ally, has a vested interest in weakening the India-US collaboration.

Pakistan’s security apparatus has for decades supported jihadi and Khalistani groups that have targeted India, and a revival of this activity should be a source of concern to American national security apparatus as well as India’s.