Friday, June 27, 2014

India: India’s Sikh Separatist ‘Problem’

Source: ISN
India’s Sikh Separatist ‘Problem’

It’s been 30 years since the Indian Army conducted its raid on the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar. In today’s question and answer session, the CSS’ Prem Mahadevan outlines how the Sikh separatist movement has fared since then and traces the political support it has received from Pakistan. 

By Prem Mahadevan for ISN 

ISN: What are the origins of the Sikh separatist movement in India? Is it right to assume that it was born out the 1947 partition?
Prem Mahadevan: No. The movement did not even originate among the Sikh population of the Indian subcontinent, but much farther afield, among the Sikh diaspora in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. India’s Punjab province, which has a Sikh majority of roughly 60%, has long been a source of migrants to the West. In the 1970s, some of these migrants began agitating for an independent Sikh nation-state, largely because of covert funding provided to them by the Pakistani intelligence service.
The separatist movement actually began in 1971, when the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau, a civilian agency, made contact with the Sikh diaspora in an attempt to encourage secessionist politics in India. In 1978, operational control of these diaspora radicals was transferred from the Pakistan IB to the more powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which could draw upon the resources of the Pakistani army to launch covert paramilitary operations. From 1980, the ISI provided weapon training and target portfolios to small assassin squads, who crossed the border into India and began killing political leaders in a bid to incite fratricidal violence among the Sikh leadership.

Around this point, India’s own fractious domestic politics come into play. In 1978, the same year that the ISI took over sponsorship of Sikh separatism, the Indian Congress Party had begun funding ultra-orthodox Sikh groups in Punjab. By doing so, it hoped to capture a larger share of the conservative Sikh vote, but inadvertently provided the ISI with a platform to introduce separatism as an idea among the Sikh population of India. Before the Congress had fully recognized what was happening, the ultra-orthodox Sikh groups had switched from advocating purely local issues (such as agricultural and employment grievances) to advocating secession from the Indian Republic. The shift took place over three years, from 1981-84, and was punctuated by growing violence.

What, exactly, are Sikh separatists demanding from New Delhi?
First, it is important to understand that there is no point in using the present tense, because in ideological terms, the Sikh separatist movement collapsed in 1984-85. This implosion was due to two factors. First, in 1984, the Indian Army carried out a raid on the city of Amritsar (which lies practically on the border with Pakistan). The city was where the most vocal supporters of the separatist movement chose to base themselves. It is important to note, that during exploratory talks with the Indian government even these ‘ideologues’ of Sikh separatism never explicitly demanded an independent Sikh state. Rather, their willingness to kill off moderate Sikh politicians, as well as police officials trying to serve arrest warrants for past crimes, led the Indian government to send in the military. With this action, the leadership structure of the Sikh separatist movement disintegrated.

The following year, the Indian government concluded a political deal with Sikh leaders, which conceded all the major demands that had been put forward by the ultra-orthodox Sikh leaders prior to the military action in 1984. Over the next seven years, Sikh separatist violence took on an increasingly criminal nature, with extortion and kidnappings for ransom becoming the primary motive of violence. The annual number of criminal incidents peaked in 1991, when the Indian Army was once again sent into Punjab to restore order (it had been withdrawn from the province after 1984). Working alongside the civilian authorities, the Army reduced levels of violence within a matter of months. By mid-1993, the Sikh separatist movement had collapsed in operational terms as well, having lost its political hue many years previously.

Where does Sikh separatism fit in with India’s other separatist or revolutionary movements? Are there links, for example, with the Naxalite movement? 

Interestingly, the Naxalites opposed the Sikh separatists, because their left-wing ideas clashed with the right-wing agenda of the latter. The Naxalites worked as police informers and also set up rural defense squads in order to ensure that separatists could not find refuge in the Punjab countryside. However, there was a concerted effort by the Pakistani ISI to establish fraternal linkages between Sikh and Kashmiri militants. This effort dated back to 1990-91, when the ISI drew up plans for large-scale urban paramilitary attacks on India, using deniable assets. The Sikhs and Kashmiris were supposed to cooperate in launching suicidal attacks on ‘soft’ targets in India’s financial capital, Mumbai. However, in July 1992, Indian counterintelligence busted a key node in the network that was responsible for enacting this plan.

Since then, the Sikh separatist movement has been limited to a handful of aging ideologues, enjoying Pakistani hospitality at ISI safe-houses in and around Lahore. Beyond issuing sporadic statements calling for the breakup of the Indian Republic, which nobody aside from Indian security officials even bother to read or listen to, these ideologues do little. That said, it also needs to be mentioned that concerns have been raised that the ISI is encouraging Sikh separatist ideologues living in Pakistan to endorse terrorist attacks against India, as a way of taking the heat off the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment for having been caught out in supporting the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. The ISI reasons that if Sikhs were found to be involved in a major act of terrorism against India, it would somehow deflect international attention from the agency’s ties to jihadist terrorists that were so blatantly exposed at Mumbai.

And what about links with Pakistan or India’s other great rival, China?
China has had no role in supporting Sikh separatism. As I have already made clear, Pakistan has led the way in providing moral and material support to the separatists. To understand why, we need to look beyond the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Kashmir and consider the history of ISI operations in the Indian province of Punjab.

It was in 1987 that the ISI really upped the ante in Punjab, by supplying the Sikh separatists with large quantities of Kalashnikov assault rifles. Until that point in time, such firearms had only been handed out sparingly, to maintain plausible deniability and hedge against Indian accusations of cross-border interference. However, once Pakistan felt confident that its nuclear weapon program (which had secretly been underway for many years) had sufficiently developed as a deterrent to Indian conventional military reprisals it began escalating its support to Sikh separatists. Most of the people killed during the 13-year separatist conflict (whose violent phase stretched from 1980-1993) died after 1987 at the hands of Kalashnikov-wielding Sikh youths who were merely out to make a quick buck through violent crime.
Since the violence level came down substantially in 1993, the ISI has been actively seeking to resuscitate the separatist movement. With Indian police being highly vigilant against any cross-border movement, the ISI’s preference is, once again, to stir up emotions among members of the Sikh diaspora. However, so far these efforts have met with rather dismal results and the Pakistani agency is looking for a window of attack to appear in India.

How has India’s response to Sikh separatism evolved over the years? Has New Delhi preferred force over dialogue?
Successive Indian heads of government tried talking with separatists, only to realize that none of their interlocutors had any influence over the conflict dynamic in Punjab. The string-pullers were all in Pakistan. In fact, we now know that the ISI regarded its covert support of terrorism in Punjab as a rehearsal for the larger offensive it was planning in Kashmir, which actually did begin in 1988. So, despite repeated efforts at dialogue, the Indian government got nowhere.

Only once a whole-of-government consensus emerged that what India faced was not a popular political rebellion, but rather a cross-border covert operation driven by purely criminal motives at the local level, did India opt to use force against the armed groups in Punjab. By the time this realization had hit home (around 1991-92), international support had coalesced behind New Delhi because the American, British and Canadian governments (who took a keen interest in the conflict) had come to realize that separatism lacked a popular support base.

Another, less publicly known factor was that the intelligence services of all these countries provided varying degrees of information about ISI support for Sikh separatist terrorism. This international intelligence sharing was a crucial factor in ensuring that India’s counterterrorist operations in Punjab became quite sophisticated by the early 1990s, and in fact, they continue to be studied today by Western security communities.

Ultimately, what are the prospects for an independent Sikh state? What could this mean for the rest of India and, crucially, South Asia in general? 

Sikh intellectuals have themselves noted that even the most optimistic of the separatist leaders should have known during the period 1980-1993 that there was no prospect for an independent Sikh state to exist. Even Pakistan’s support for the movement was entirely opportunistic – an exercise in bleeding India and satisfying the ISI’s sanguinary urge to see Indian civilians getting killed. As early as the 1980s, most Sikhs understood that, with the province of Punjab being small and surrounded on three sides by India, any independent Sikh state would not be economically viable or militarily defensible. It is important to note that the bulk of the counterterrorist effort in the province was led by the civilian police, many of whom hailed from the same communities as the Kalashnikov-wielding men who claimed to be fighting for separatism. So beyond the purely delusional, or the utterly cynical (among the ISI’s operations cells), nobody can have any notions about an independent Sikh state. Pakistan itself would not welcome such a hypothetical scenario, because an independent Sikh homeland would have large territorial claims on areas that are currently part of Pakistan, but which were once ruled by Sikh monarchs before British colonization.

So is it really a case of the Indian government having to deal with the occasional outbreaks of social unrest akin to recent events at Amritsar’s Golden Temple? 

To a large extent. Even this unrest is not so much ‘social’. Rather, it is a manifestation of infighting that permeates Indian politics to varying degrees in different provincial contexts. Regarding prospects for trouble, I see two possibilities. First, the ISI is very keen on strategic destabilization through targeted assassination conducted by local proxies. This is a tactic that has worked in the past, and they would like to use it again, if provided an opportunity. So, there could be a sensational murder (or a series of murders) at some point, orchestrated by Pakistani handlers but carried out by hired guns to ensure deniability. Another scenario would be for major attacks on soft targets, similar in style to those carried out by the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Mumbai. In both scenarios, the ISI would want international attention to focus heavily on Sikh separatism as a political movement or phenomenon, and thereby slowly erase from public memory the fact that Pakistani officials have been caught out supporting specific terrorist attacks. In this regard, it is especially important to watch for ‘false-flag’ operations, carried out by Pakistani citizens but claimed by spokesmen for some non-existent Sikh separatist group. The ISI had tried this method in Mumbai, by getting LeT terrorists to claim that they were from the ‘Deccan Mujahideen’ - a group that no-one had ever heard of before. So, I would not put it past the Pakistani agency to carry out another major act of international terrorism and then have this claimed by some fictitious Sikh separatist group.

Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). He specializes in the study of intelligence systems and sub-state conflict, and is responsible at the CSS for tracking geopolitical trends and jihadist terrorism in the Indo-Pacific region.