A 25-year-old from Khanna, who is a member of a little-known organisation called Sikh Youth Power, and has been vocal on the community issues for the last five years, felt a wave of panic wash over him when he got a call from the special branch of the Khanna police on Thursday. “I thought I was in big trouble,” he says. To his surprise, the police officers present there just wanted to quiz him about his social media posts.
ASI Parminder Singh, who questioned him for around five hours, said, “He is not involved in any crime. We called him here in connection with Referendum-2020. But he told us that he is opposed both to the concept and the organisers.”
This is just another day at one of the many deradicalisation cells of thePunjab police. Members of the cell keep a close watch on social media posts and track down youngsters with separatist leanings/connections who are then counseled by senior officers. The aim is to keep youngsters from being recruited by divisive forces operating overseas.
As ASI Singh said, “We first question them to learn about their mindset and associations et al. Some of them don’t know how certain Facebook posts reached them. Most of the youth have little idea of what is going on. There are very few who are intentionally getting involved in it (Referendum 2020). If we find any youth radaclised, we send him to our DSP, Investigation, Manmohan Sharma, who counsels such youngsters.”.
Recently, DGP Dinkar Gupta told a British news agency that such district-level cells have deradicalised around 400 youths.
DSP Sharma says counseling almost always yields results. “There are hardly any cases of youths getting radicalized in Khanna. They understand our point of view when we counsel them. Often, we find that they had liked a page by mistake or without going into it,” said Sharma, who was tight-lipped about the procedure used to choose people for counseling.
While admitting that such cells exist in every district, Commissioner of Police, Amritsar, Sukhchain Singh Gill said, “We can’t disclose the details, there are privacy issues. This is a highly confidential and sensitive operation.”
But the word is spreading in the city and in border villages. A 25-year-old from Amritsar, who wants to go abroad, was surprised when a cop visited his residence last month and asked him to call on the deputy superintendent of police.
“They told me not to download some apps or like or comment on separatist posts, they said I can even be booked for sedition for such activity. I promised the police not to do it again.”
The Indian Express contacted 10 such youths who were summoned by the Punjab police for counseling. Besides giving them a word of advise, the cops took their photos, fingers prints, copies of the Aadhaar card and details of their family.
Balwant Singh Gopala, Sarpanch of Gopala village in Tarn Taran district, says cops visited his house last month and sought information about a youngster who does kirtan. “They took away his his mobile with a promise to return it the next day but then they said it had been sent to the cyber crime branch. I took the youngster to their office and assured them that he was not a troublemaker. His phone was returned after after a week,” says Gopala.
While the police may claim to be counseling, khaki evokes fear and there are already murmurs of harassment.
A middle-aged man whose son studies in Canada, claimed that he was called to the police station and asked to give the number of his passport as he had liked a post related to Referendum 2020. “I assured them that my son will not indulge in any such activity and asked him to stay away from social media. But police was not ready to close the chapter until I paid some bribe to officials,” he alleged.
The 25-year-old from Khanna was upset when the police visited his house. “It is harassment. Police want me to quit activism on Sikh issues but I am not doing anything illegal. I have no connection with Referendum 2020,” he fumes.
The cell is also approaching self-professed hardliners.
Ranjit Singh Damdami Taksal (29), senior vice president of a body called Sikh Youth Federation Bhindranwala, claims the Punjab police has been harassing his family in order to make him quit activism.
“I am using the right given to us by the Indian constitution to peacefully protest and demand Khalistan for the last eight years. I am not connected to Referendum 2020. No case is registered against me as I have never violated any law or indulged in violence. But the police started raiding my house and badgering my father and brother to get me to quit this path. Now they have snapped ties with me and I am forced to live with my in-laws.”
Saying that the operation is tantamount to racial profiling”, Ranjit Singh asked, “What about those radicalised youth who openly demanded Hindu Rashtra, and opened fire at anti- CAA protesters in Delhi?”
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