On Wednesday, the Centre banned a separatist group, Sikhs for Justice, on grounds of secessionism. Operating out of the United States, the group has been trying to build a campaign for secession of Punjab.
Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), formed in 2007, is a US-based group seeking a separate homeland for Sikhs — a “Khalistan” in Punjab. Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a law graduate from Panjab University and currently an attorney at law in the US, is the face of SFJ and its legal adviser. The secessionist campaign, called ‘Referendum 2020’, seeks to “liberate Punjab from Indian occupation”. In Pannun’s words, “SFJ in its London Declaration [in August 2018] has announced to hold the first ever non-binding referendum among the global Sikh community on the question of secession from India and re-establishing Punjab as an independent country. SFJ has announced to hold polling for referendum in November 2020 which it has planned to hold in Punjab along with major cities of North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Kenya and the Middle Eastern Countries.”
‘Referendum 2020’ has a dedicated website, which notes: “Once there is a consensus within the Punjabi people that independence from India is desired, we will then approach the UN and other international forms and bodies with the goal of re-establishing Punjab as a nation state.”
While banning SFJ under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Home Ministry noted: “In the garb of the so-called referendum for Sikhs, SFJ is actually espousing secessionism and militant ideology in Punjab, while operating from safe havens on foreign soils and actively supported by inimical forces in other countries.”
A dossier prepared by Punjab Police lists various secessionist posts on social media by SFJ over the years, from asserting that the Pulwama attack “cannot be termed as an act of terrorism” to backing Kashmiri separatists; from extending legal help to stall extradition of fugitives wanted by India including UK resident Paramjit Singh Pamma from Portugal and Nabha jailbreak mastermind Ramanjit Singh Romi from Hong Kong. In the World Cup semifinal, pro-Khalistani supporters with ‘Referendum 2020’ T-shirts in Manchester may have been another flashpoint leading to the ban.
Nearly a dozen cases are registered against SFJ and Pannun, including three sedition cases in Punjab.
The Pakistan link
Punjab Police have said SFJ and ‘Referendum 2020’ are supported by Pakistan. Intelligence officials said the websites of SFJ share their domain with and source content from a Karachi-based website. Pannun himself had issued a statement, which is a part of the Punjab Police dossier, where he had called upon Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to politically support ‘Referendum 2020’, citing the “fall of Dhaka in December 1971 with the intervention of Indian army” and urging Pakistan to “undo its failure to support Sikhs” during the events of 1984.
The man behind SFJ
Pannun claims ‘Referendum 2020’ is “a peaceful and democratic movement”. In a letter to the US Ambassador to India last year, Pannun wrote, “There is strong and growing apprehension that India’s unfounded negative propaganda against Referendum2020 campaign based on concocted factual predicates; illegal detention and torture of Referendum activists and charging them with sedition/terrorism is a prelude to India’s preparation for violently crushing the peaceful and democratic movement for independence of Indian occupied Punjab”.
Over the years, the law graduate and MBA has made headlines for initiating lawsuits in various against Indian politicians. In the US, he filed cases against visiting Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi on the issues of 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 Gujarat riots, respectively. He has also sued actor Amitabh Bachchan. In 2016, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had to cancel a visit to Canada following a case filed by SFJ.
After the ban
Amarinder Singh has hailed the ban, describing it as the “first step towards protecting the nation from the anti-India / secessionist designs of the ISI-backed organisation”. Punjab Jails Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, whom Pannun once threatened, said, “We should demand extradition of Pannun as he is named in FIRs.”
Pannun has reacted by uploading a video in which he is seen setting the Indian flag on fire, with a message to India that “you cannot stop Referendum”.