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SOURCE: Tribune News Service

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, in a clandestine operation code-named “Express”, is funding and promoting the “Sikh Referendum 2020” campaign. Security agencies have intercepted digital, particularly social media, chatter to make this conclusive claim.

Referendum posters were put up prominently at Pakistani gurdwaras — Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib — during the pilgrimage of Sikh jathas. A prominent Sikh radical leader based in Germany, known to be an ISI operative, is linked to these 2020 campaigners.

Another strong ally of the 2020 organisers is Paramjit Singh Pamma, involved in the murder of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat chief Rulda Singh and other terror incidents. The security agencies believe he is funded by the ISI.

“The people of Punjab have rejected those who spread hate, violence and propagate the secessionist agenda. We are keeping a close track of their activities, especially during the August 12 gathering in London, where Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) plans to make a case for secessionism. Punjab Police are capable of dealing with the fringe elements. Since a lot of the propaganda happens online, the security agencies are also monitoring social media platforms and immediate action (FIRs and arresting supporters) is being taken,” said Punjab Police chief Suresh Arora.

Though the “Sikh Referendum 2020” was conceptualised by SFJ, a US-based advocacy group, in June 2014, the ISI is learnt to have “lapped up the opportunity” in 2015, and has since been supporting the movement.

For the security agencies, the support by Kashmiri “freedom-seeking groups” to SFJ and the referendum is the biggest indicator of ISI role. Indian security agencies have now established a link between SFJ, radicals in Germany, UK and Canada, even gangsters operating in Punjab, and the ISI by tracking online activities of the prime proponents of the movement.

Sources in the security agencies say the ISI has earmarked a dedicated budget for the launch and implementation of “Operation Express”. The Pakistan agency is promoting the dissemination of information about the “referendum” and is also learnt to be identifying “agents of interest” in various countries to propagate the idea of an independent Sikh state.

Alarmed at the sequence of events, wherein posters supporting “Referendum 2020” have been put up in several parts of Punjab, activation of sleeper cells, distribution of secessionist paraphernalia at large religious congregations and radicalisation of the youth, the Punjab Police, too, are keeping a watchful eye.

But what is baffling the security agencies is the highly sophisticated online campaign. WhatsApp groups have been created to push the idea of online voting for all Sikhs residing in 20 countries in 2020. There are Facebook posts highlighting the meetings of various proponents of the movement and online retailing outlets for secessionist paraphernalia (flags, posters, t-shirts, key chains, etc). So, the security agencies are closely monitoring radical leaders in Punjab propagating this concept of online voting.

Apart from WhatsApp, social media app Telegram is being used extensively for exchanging messages between people here and their handlers abroad. These messages are highly encrypted and self-destruct after being read. The campaign is being run from foreign soil, so agencies can do little other than monitor it.

What all has happened on ground

  • ‘Referendum ’ posters in Pak gurdwaras during jatha visits
  • Hoardings of 2020 appeared in Mohali, Sangrur, Fatehgarh Sahib, Barnala, Gurdaspur, Moga, Patiala, Hoshiarpur, Tarn Taran and villages of Amritsar. Security agencies insist these were funded by ISI through SFJ
  • Paramjit Singh Pamma, involved in bomb explosions and murder of Rulda Singh, is also involved in 2020
  • Activists of SFJ and radical leaders, some accused of spreading terror in India, from US, UK and Spain visited Iraq as observers for the Kurdistan Referendum in September 2017
  • Nawanshahr police busted a group of radicals in February 2018. The three arrested men had written slogans in more than 50 places in Doaba, supporting the referendum
  • SFJ activists posted videos threatening Punjab Police officials to hurt their children studying or settled in US, Canada, Europe, UK, Australia and New Zealand
  • In May, Jails Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa threatened by SFJ
  • Online campaign asking Sikhs in police and armed forces to punish “oppressors of Sikhs”
  • After gangster Vicky Gounder’s encounter, SFJ, agencies claim, uploaded video asking other gangsters to join them