Chandigarh: Thirty-five years after it was reportedly created, the Government of India last week virtually erased the secret blacklist of Sikh foreign nationals considered to be involved in anti-India activities, a majority of whom were fighting for a separate Sikh state of Khalistan.
It is not publicly known as to how many people were on the list, or who they are. Last Friday, home ministry officials announced that 312 of the 314 names have been removed from the list, with only two non-Sikhs remaining.
Being on the list meant a ban on their entry into India, and according to top government sources, the move aims to allow former Sikh radicals to come to Punjab and “reconnect to their roots” and “revise their ideological underpinnings”. Most of those on the list are settled in the UK, Canada and the US.
“The list has been a dynamic, ever-changing document prepared by the foreigners division of the Ministry of Home Affairs in collaboration with Indian missions abroad. Those on the list are denied a visa to India and are generally closely monitored. In most cases, visas are also denied to their families,” said a senior Punjab Police intelligence officer.
Sikh bodies had widely alleged that the blacklist was a “blackmail list” misused by Indian missions because of it being “unofficial and vague”.
The move also has political significance for Narendra Modi’s NDA government ahead of the year-long worldwide celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary starting in November this year. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan is part of these celebrations.
“What better occasion than this to scrap the illegal list,” said Bikram Singh Majithia, senior leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) that is part of the BJP-led NDA.
What was the blacklist?
The Sikh blacklist originated as an unofficial listing of Sikhs who were believed to be involved in the Khalistani movement and left Punjab seeking political asylum in foreign countries after 1984. The eventful year that saw a violent separatist movement peaking in Punjab was marked by the Army-led Operation Blue Star to flush out militants from the Golden Temple, the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and the anti-Sikh riots that followed.
“Apart from full-fledged former militants who were associated with specific activities carried out while in Punjab and against whom look out circulars (LOC) were issued, there were many radicals on the list too. Over the years, many of these radicals seemed to have grown out of the intensity of the separatist fervour and were removed from the list. But it continued to be a strong deterrent for anyone indulging in anti-India activities on foreign soil,” said the intelligence officer quoted above.
“The idea behind the move (to do away with the list) is to allow these persons and their families to come back to Punjab and see the change for themselves while re-connecting with their roots. They left when Punjab was in the throes of militancy. After three and a half decades, things have changed a lot. There is no space for violence or an atmosphere for the revival of a separatist movement.”
The earliest mention of the list was made by a delegation of Canadian Sikhs when Captain Amarinder Singh, in his first stint as chief minister, visited Toronto in 2005. Then, in 2010, then CM Parkash Singh Badal raised the matter during a chief ministers’ conference in New Delhi.
An official acknowledgement of the existence of the list came in 2011 when the then home minister P. Chidambaram announced that 142 names had been deleted from the list.
“These included several former militants as well. The idea was to not stop them from coming to India but to allow them to come to India and face trials in cases, if any, pending against them,” the intelligence officer said.
In December 2014, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president and then deputy CM Sukhbir Badal wrote to then Union home minister Rajnath Singh saying the identity of 31 people on the list of 63 had been ascertained, and could be removed from the list. The next year, a delegation of British Sikhs met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urged him to do away with the list.
In 2016, ahead of the assembly polls in Punjab, the Government of India informed that 225 names had been removed from the list of 298 over the years. Officials of the home ministry had said the remaining 73 names would be struck off in phases.
While several Sikh hardliners have welcomed the latest move to scrap the list, others have questioned its timing and motive.
“The decision comes at a time when Sikh groups abroad are involved in protesting against Modi government scrapping Article 370. The Government of India wants to keep Sikhs away from joining Muslims over the Kashmir issue,” said Kanwarpal Singh, spokesperson for Dal Khalsa, a body that wants to form a sovereign Sikh Republic.
“The recent reopening of the case against Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath too is aimed at appeasing the Sikhs.”
Singh labelled the blacklist a “blackmail list”, in which Indian missions abroad added and deleted names on the whims and fancies of officers. “It was pick and choose, and since no criteria were followed, anyone could be put on the list. The vagueness was exploited and hundreds of Sikh families harassed for years,” he said.
Emaan Singh Mann of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) said the Government of India had a “psychotic” attitude towards Sikhs. “Frankly, it does not know what to do with them. When it feels that other countries are treating Sikhs with dignity, it puts forth such gestures, otherwise it continues to dehumanise Sikhs,” he said.
‘Make names public’
Senior advocate H.S. Phoolka, who fought against the list for several years, said it was a “wholly unnecessary list and should have been done away with much earlier”. He said, “Now it is important that the names on the list be made public.”
Peer Mohammad, patron of the All India Sikh Students Federation, a body which played a dominant role during Sikh militancy, said the scrapping of the list will remain an eyewash till the names are revealed. “Who are the two who remain on the list? Announcements of names being removed from the list come after regular intervals, and are politically motivated to show sympathy with the Sikhs,” he said.
However, the Akalis disagree. “The move is purely a humanitarian gesture on the occasion of Guru Nanak Dev ji’s birth anniversary,” said Majithia.
“The NDA’s attitude towards Sikhs is diagonally opposed to the Congress. It is the NDA government which created the Kartarpur Corridor. It jailed Sajjan Kumar and ordered a fast trial of Jagdish Tytler in the 1984 genocide cases, and even the reopening of the case against Kamal Nath.”