In the mid-1980s Khalistanis brazenly set up a terrorist training camp in the US and cooked up an elaborate plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi and Bhajan Lal, who was then the Haryana chief minister, when they visited the country.
But in 1985 just before Gandhi’s visit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) busted the plotters, who had sought the help of a decorated former US Navy urban guerilla warfare expert.
He had tipped off the FBI, which “successfully penetrated a plan (by the group) to develop a program to train a group of Sikhs in the use of firearms and explosives”, the then FBI chief, William Webster was quoted by The Los Angeles Times.
An FBI special agent at that time, Edmund Pistey told the newspaper, “This may be the first incident of Sikh terrorism in the United States. What it shows is that we in the United States are not immune to terrorist acts happening here.”
The US put its guard on and the lesson was learned.
Since then, there have been no reports of domestic terrorism connected to Khalistanis, although there was at least one instance of funding terrorism abroad that has been uncovered by the US authorities — with a Pakistan connection.
A Pakistani Canadian, Khalid Awan, was convicted in 2006 of funneling money raised by Khalistanis in the US to the Khalistan Commando Force led by Pakistan-based Paramjit Singh Panjwar, according to the Justice Department.
Khalistanis, who operate in disparate groups, some networked, have instead been focusing on political action taking advantage of the freewheeling workings of US politics and the almost unfettered freedom of expression guaranteed by the US Constitution — unlike any even in Europe.
But despite the change in tactics a report published by the conservative think tank Hudson Institute last year warned, “Groups agitating for Khalistan have the potential to cause problems, including the following: disrupt or damage India-US relations; become a vehicle for recruitment of terrorists and extremist agitators, and violate American laws by acting on behalf of Pakistan while pretending to act independently.”
The report, “Pakistan’s Destabilization Playbook: Khalistan Separatist Activism Within the US”, prepared by a group of South Asia experts noted, “The recent increase in Khalistan-related anti-India activism within the US is occurring as the United States and India are collaborating to confront the rise of China, especially in the Indo-Pacific.”
It added, “Some Sikh radical groups are still active in the New York area and in California. In addition to disseminating anti-India propaganda, the focus of these organizations is advocating the Khalistan cause, and to secure the support they target local politicians, US think tanks, and human rights, activists.”
The Khalistani groups also have connections to Kashmiri separatist groups.
The International Terrorism Report said that “the Khalistan movement is reportedly backed by Pakistan”.
It cited the participation of a representative of the World Sikh Parliament in a webinar sponsored by a Pakistani Kashmiri outfit as an example “of Khalistan and Kashmir separatist movement advocates joining hands in ‘global solidarity’ to attack the common enemy – India”.
It said the online event was sponsored by Justice for All whose parent company Sound Vision, is an offshoot of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) that advocates Kashmiri separatism.
The SFJ has openly participated alongside Kashmiri separatists in protests against India in New York and elsewhere.
The Hudson Institute report said that there were “fifty-five interlinked Kashmiri and Khalistani groups currently operating within the United States”.
As an example of their links, it cited Stand With Kashmir organized in December 2019 along with, “the radical Sikh group Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI) and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC)” a protest against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act.
For a while, Khalistanis seemed to ride high needling India at the Congressional level with the strong support of about a dozen politicians from both parties.
But that level of backing has waned, and now they have switched to working at the local levels and trying to make a common cause with Islamic groups, Pakistani Kashmiris and radical African Americans.
The Sikh community as a whole in the US is also facing the problem of perception because of their turbans that erroneously associates them with Islamic terrorists whose leaders like Osama bin Laden were seen in the media wearing turbans, though of different types.
The mainstream Sikh organizations have run campaigns to dispel these notions and present the members of the faith as a distinct, public service-oriented, law-abiding community.
That is a further incentive for Khalistanis to lay off domestic terrorism, even if only directed at Indian targets.
Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) led by lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is now the main driver of the Khalistan movement in the US, pushing both the Khalistan “Referendum” and what are characterized as human rights-oriented campaigns.
Pannun, who operates from the New York area and travels to Europe and elsewhere for his campaigns, is a wanted man in India.
Before him, there was Gurmit Singh Aulakh, a genetics scientist who founded the Council of Khalistan and styled himself the “President”, of Khalistan.
Starting in 1985, his lobbying got the support of about a dozen members of the House of Representatives and a Senator to push legislation against India.
Most were Republicans with strong anti-communist sentiments and he played on India’s closeness at that time to the Soviet Union that was fighting the US-backed Taliban.
But Edolphus Towns, an influential Democrat, who tried to get India declared a “terrorist state” and had nominated Aulakh for the Nobel Peace Prize, was one of at least five Representatives from his party.
Their efforts got some propaganda mileage for Aulakh and needled the Indian government, which took them more seriously than they deserved given the nature of US politics where fringe campaigns can manipulate some politicians using ideology, donations and promise of electoral support and be helped by the bartering of support among legislators.
For example, The Washington Post reported that Burton’s 1966 campaign received nearly a quarter of the individual donations from the US Sikh and Kashmiri communities.
Republican Burton had referred to Khalistan as if it were an independent nation in statements in the House.
Burton was embarrassed when it was revealed in court documents in 2011 that he had received funds from Pakistani Americans, who had been charged by a federal prosecutor with being conduits for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence illegally funding the US politicians.
One of them was Ghulam Nabi Fai, the head of the Kashmir American Council, who had been seen with Khalistanis, and was sentenced to two years in prison for violations of the US laws.
A turning point in the level of Congressional support was the sound defeat in 1997 of a House resolution calling for a plebiscite in India that was opposed by 342 members, with 82 supporting.
Another marker of change was Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who had been a virulently anti-India supporter of Khalistan, beginning to soften his stand that year.
Helms, who had headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ultimately became a strong supporter of US-India ties after outreach by Indian groups like the Indian American Forum for Political Education, and realizing the strategic value of the nation to the US.
Pannun, who has a keen legal mind and political sophistication has adapted the Khalistani strategies to work at two levels: Pushing the Khalistani cause as a human rights issue while joining with other groups, and working at the local levels, where it is easier to push an agenda on less sophisticated politicians pretending to be foreign policy leaders.
For image building, he has filed cases in the US against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath — but without success.
This also shows a subtle shift in who were in the Khalistanis’ cross-hairs: While the Congress had been the prime target because of the 1984 Golden Temple army incursion and the pogroms after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, they now go mainly after the RSS and BJP, hoping to take advantage of the antipathy towards the two organizations among liberals, Muslims and some Christians.
In trying to broaden its appeal to the liberals and African Americans, the Hudson Institute report noted, for example, that pro-Khalistan activists “appropriated imagery and slogans from the Black Lives Matter movement, whose aim is to redress systemic and structural white supremacy in the United States”.
That’s an attempt at creating a common bond of victimhood.
The SFJ listed on its website African American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson as the keynote speaker at its rally in 2019 in Washington.
For expressions of solidarity with radical African Americans, some Khalistanis have made Mahatma Gandhi’s early statements about Africans in South Africa a flashpoint.
They have targeted statues of Gandhi around the US — the most visible signs of Indian influence — defacing them coast to coast.
The linkage was clearly seen in Davis, California, where Sikhs joined by some African Americans had demanded the removal of the Gandhi statue there in 2020 and a year later it was found sawed off at the neck and feet.
Khalistanis found for co-option a readymade issue that appealed to the liberals and radicals in the farmers’ agitation last year, claiming for themselves the support for the agitation by cultural, political and environmental figures, many of whom were clueless about the changes in laws and regulations opening up agricultural markets.
They are, however, silent on the similar market conditions in their own countries.
While support for Khalistan at the national level has been set back because of a number of factors, including the retirement or death of its backers in Congress, the recognition of India’s strategic value, the abhorrence of terrorism after 9/11 and the anti-communist fervor dissipating, Khalistanis have been able in some places to follow the Kashmiri separatist tactic and pick up expressions of support.
These may have some publicity value for the Khalistanis and annoy India, but have no influence beyond the town halls and state assemblies.
The Connecticut legislature offered Khalistan a recognition of sorts in April by congratulating the World Sikh Parliament on the anniversary of what is billed as the “declaration of Sikh Independence”.
Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Norwich, Connecticut, hoisted the Khalistan flag at the city halls.
Local politicians playing at being statesmen are easily beguiled into making ill-informed forays into international affairs, not just by Khalistanis, but by many other special interests.
The sponsors of these moves may not be able to find Punjab on a map, leave alone India.
Even Helms once introduced Benazir Bhutto as the Prime Minister of India on the Senate floor — either a Freudian slip or plain ignorance.
There is still a possibility that pro-Islamist members of Congress like Ilhan Omar — an advocate of the Pakistani line on Kashmir — could take up the Khalistani cause.
But as on most issues, they would remain isolated from the mainstream on this also.
In the current climate critical of Russia and China, the SFJ is also handicapped by its support for Chinese aggression and its appeal to Russia.
Pannun had written to China’s President Xi Jinping “to condemn India’s violent aggression causing the death of several soldiers of China at the Ladakh border” during the 2020 border confrontation.
He had also written to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin asking for support.
There are other Khalistani organizations that have been identified in the Hudson Institute report.
One of them is the SADA USA, the overseas branch of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), whose youth wing disrupted a celebration of BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary celebrations at the United Nations in 2018.
The report gave an insight into the intricate web around the SFJ in the US.
It said the SFJ “operates a number of spin-off groups and media outlets, including US Media International, Khabardar Punjab TV, and new campaign organizations such as the Kashmir Khalistan Referendum Front (KKRF).”
It added, “Along with the Khalistan Affairs Center (KAC), Sikhs for Justice is also closely involved with Global Sikh Affairs Media, which is controlled by the Centre’s head, Amarjit Singh, and runs the radical Khalistani news channel, TV84.”