Khalistan movement: Experts say concern over ‘sleeper cells’ can’t be ignored

Experts feel that with the change of guard at the helm in Punjab, the radical elements are attempting to measure the strength of the new system.

Experts feel that with the change of guard at the helm in Punjab, the radical elements are attempting to measure the strength of the new system.

In view of the recent spate of incidents surrounding the ‘Khalistan’ connection in Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, debate over the revival of the ‘Khalistan’ movement has gained momentum even as experts dismiss the movement’s revival at this point in the absence of ‘popular support’. However, the concern over the presence of ‘sleeper cells’ or the pro-militant elements spread across Punjab and other states cannot be ignored. 

They feel that with the change of guard at the helm in Punjab, the radical elements are attempting to measure the strength of the new system.

Punjab has seen an era of militancy between the mid-1980s to early-1990s over the demand for ‘Khalistan’ (sovereign state for Sikhs). The movement has lost popular support but sporadic incidents have occurred lately in an apparent attempt to revive the movement from fringe groups, though these have failed. 

Mohali: Sign of separatist forces

On May 9, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack at the headquarters of the Punjab Police Intelligence Wing in Punjab’s Mohali is being seen as a sign suggesting that forces promoting separatism are active enough to create trouble.

Punjab Director General of Police V. K. Bhawra on Friday indicated the role of Babbar Khalsa International – a terror organisation striving for a separate Sikh state, besides the nexus of gangsters and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) behind the Mohali attack.

A day before this attack, Punjab police arrested two people after recovering an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) equipped with RDX from village Naushehra Pannuan in district Tarn Taran. The development came three days after four persons were arrested with the recovery of three IEDs and one pistol from Karnal by the Haryana Police, on inputs from Punjab police as they claimed to bust a Pakistan-based terror module run by Harvinder Singh alias Rinda. These explosives were supplied to the accused by Rinda through drones from across the border from Pakistan; they had to deliver the explosives to Adilabad in Telangana. Rinda, according to the Police, had joined hands with Babbar Khalsa and also had a role behind the Mohali attack.

On May 8, a few ‘Khalistan’ flags were found hung on the main gate and boundary walls of the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly premises in Dharamshala. On April 29, in Punjab’s Patiala, a clash broke out between different groups of people amid a confrontation surrounding the holding of a march against the backdrop of the announcement by banned separatist outfit – Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) – to mark the foundation day of ‘Khalistan’. Both these incidents took place following an appeal by the SFJ leader.

Sleeper cells

This chain of events, experts feel gives a clear indication that ‘sleeper cells’ of ‘Khalistan’ sympathisers are in place and active and with the change of government in Punjab, these radical elements are attempting to measure the strength of the new system.


“Whenever there’s a change of guard and government in the State, there’s a tendency for these radicals to get activated as they want to access and measure the strength of the new system and I see the recent spate of events and incidents as an exercise in that direction”S.S. VirkFormer DGP, Punjab

“The sleeper cells have always been there; peace has been restored in Punjab but to say that the Khalistan movement is dead would not be correct. There are people who have an interest in Khalistan and they are still active. They are waiting for an opportune moment to create trouble. Whenever there’s a change of guard and government in the State, there’s a tendency for these radicals to get activated as they want to access and measure the strength of the new system and I see the recent spate of events and incidents as an exercise in that direction,” S.S. Virk, former Director-General of Police (DGP), Punjab, told The Hindu.

Pointing out that it is a phase that needs to be seriously watched by the government and not let its guard down, Mr. Virk said the use of rocket-propelled grenade to attack the police building at Mohali is a very serious development and can not be ignored at all. “The radical elements have conveyed a message that they are alive. Now, the government has to show its preparedness by catching the attackers soon,” he said.

‘SFJ not to be taken lightly’

Asserting that the recent events do not hint at the revival of militancy in Punjab as the ‘Khalistan’ narrative doesn’t have any ‘popular support’ in the State or even abroad as it had in 1980s, Mr. Shashi Kant, former Punjab Police chief, said “For all practical purposes Khalistan is dead, but now the question is who all are doing these acts? Unfortunately, we had been taking the SFJ a bit lightly. What happened in Patiala on April 29, shows the participants at the Khalistan day event were influenced by SFJ. Pannu has been appealing to unfurl Khalistani flags, which happened in Dharamshala.”

“Also, it has been seen that drones, drugs, money and explosives are being pushed from Pakistan. They will not stop, but the concern here is the persons who are the recipients of these drugs, money, explosives, arms, and drones. It clearly shows the presence of sleeper cells all over Punjab, and I would say in Delhi as well because whatever happened at Red Fort on January 26 last year, I’ll attribute it to sleeper cells. The arrests at Karnal with explosives and that the explosive was going from Ferozpur to Telangana indicates that there are certain recipients in these places. In the Mohali attack, the use of RPG is serious. Even during militancy in Punjab, I don’t recall any RPG having been utilised anywhere. The police should go for a broader investigation,” said Mr. Kant, Punjab’s former Director-General of Police. 

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