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HomeIndiaBehind Golden Temple memorial to Khalistan terrorists, a bigger social-media war

Behind Golden Temple memorial to Khalistan terrorists, a bigger social-media war

A portrait of Dilawar Singh — who assassinated CM Beant Singh in 1995 — was put up at Central Sikh Museum in Golden Temple this week. It came with a tweet for the intended audience.

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New Delhi: The coin arced through the air, so the story goes, landing as Dilawar Singh had called it: Fortune had gifted him the right to die a martyr. 

Earlier this week, a portrait of Dilawar Singh — the Punjab Police constable who assassinated chief minister Beant Singh in August 1995 — joined those of the many Khalistan terrorists gracing the walls of the Central Sikh Museum in Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

Large parts of the intended audience — the estimated 12 million Punjabi diaspora in countries like Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States — will never visit this memorial to murderers. 

For them, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which runs the museum and many Sikh religious institutions, had a message on Twitter: Dilawar Singh put “an end to atrocities and gross human right violations committed against Sikhs.” 

Also Read: ‘Khalistan’ rears its head in Himachal after threat by banned outfit Sikhs for Justice

Khalistan’s social-media war

Khalistan secessionists overseas have long memorialised slain terrorists.

In 2019, for example, United States-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) issued an advertisement honouring Talwinder Singh Parmar — responsible for the bombing of an Air India flight in 1985 that killed over 300 people, most of Indian origin.

The advertisement was shared ahead of an SFJ-organised ‘Khalistan referendum’, which sought to “liberate Punjab from Indian occupation”. 

The honouring of terrorists is a “central” part of the cyber war for Khalistan, Canadian author-journalist Terry Milewski has noted

According to the Khalistan Extremism Monitor (KEM), run by the New Delhi-based think tank Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Twitter has been Khalistan propaganda’s weapon of choice. 

“Incidents like the 2020-2021 farmers’ protests, the Ludhiana court blast in December 2021 and threat warnings by SFJ and other pro-Khalistani elements,” one KEM report obtained by ThePrint records, “generated a lot of traction on the platform.”

Last month, when Khalistani flags were found tied to the gates of the Himachal Pradesh assembly, Twitter was flooded with approximately 35,000 Khalistan-related tweets. Hashtags like #Khalistan, #SFJ and #Punjab were the most popular. 

This was higher than Khalistan-related traffic in December 2021, during the farmer protests and the Ludhiana court blast, when the traffic reached about 20,000 tweets. 

KEM’s reports record that it’s hard to discern where this traffic is coming from. Twitter’s privacy policies made it impossible to geolocate 76 per cent of the tweets. However, 6.36 per cent originated in India, another 2.06 per cent from Pakistan. 

The Indian government has taken harsh action in some cases of pro-Khalistan propaganda. In spite of criticism of the Amritsar museum, though, both the state and central government have been reluctant to take action against the memorialisation of Khalistan terrorists.

Silencing online critics 

Like real-world terrorist groups, online Khalistan networks don’t just propagate their cause, but seek to silence critics, said Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the ICM. “Several complaints are issued against the posts of such a user, either as “hate speech” or “spam”, which, in some cases, can lead to that account being automatically suspended.”

Milewski described “suspension teams” that organise “mass complaints designed to overwhelm Twitter’s system”.

He gave the example of a now-suspended Mumbai-based Twitter account called “Team Real King”, which had posted proof of its “victims”. “Case No.#2748. Account has been suspended by Twitter. Category: Islamophobe. Goodbye @Puneet_Sahani,” read a tweet from the account posted last November. 

The “victim” named here is New York-based Sikh activist Puneet Sahani.

Sahani runs a small group of researchers known as Sikhs for Enlightenment Values Association (SEVA), which claims to debunk Khalistan propaganda online.

Sahani said his account was suspended by Twitter in November, then restored in January and suspended again in May. He shared with ThePrint screenshots of three tweets that were deemed “hate speech”.  The tweets included speeches by Bhindranwale, with inflammatory anti-Hindu content.

“These three tweets aren’t exactly polite but how do they amount to hate speech?” he asked. “All I’ve done is cite literary and historical materials to debunk Khalistan myths and referred to Bhindranwale as a ‘genocidal monster’, which he was,” Sahani said.

Shruti Shreya, program manager for platform regulation at tech policy think tank The Dialogue, said there is usually a grievance officer who verifies complaints but added that platforms should ensure they have an “adequate workforce” to deal with the sheer number of complaints received daily.

Sahani’s name is well-known among Sikh circles, and his team’s work has been criticised by the likes of the SGPC.

An SGPC spokesperson told ThePrint: “We have received several complaints from Sikhs across the world against individuals like Puneet Sahani who are known to demean and defame the Sikh community on social media.” The spokesperson did not offer specific examples to support his claims.

Pro-Khalistan figures like Shamsher Singh have described Sahani as a “BJP stooge” who is known to “take the Khalistan movement out of context”.  

Also Read: Religious intolerance main driver of insurgency in Punjab of 1980s. State’s watching it again

‘Khalistan soldiers’ on Twitter

Even though Twitter has ended up blocking anti-Khalistan handles, it is said to be less energetic in action against handles supportive of the cause.

KEM’s latest report lists about 10-15 significant pro-Khalistan handles, which they found account for an overwhelming proportion of original tweets on Khalistan.  

“There are typically 8-10 source accounts where most of the messaging originates. Once a message or post goes online, it is propagated by a large network of friends, connected accounts and bots who forward, retweet and share on other platforms like WhatsApp or Facebook. This is carried out in a coordinated manner,” said Sahni.

ThePrint reached some of the individuals behind the Twitter handles, such as Jasveer Singh, a resident of Muktsar Sahib in Punjab who has about 11,600 Twitter followers. Singh claims to be a reporter with UK-based Punjabi channel, KTV News, which had its broadcasting licence suspended by the UK Office of Communications in April for allegedly promoting violent action to further the Khalistani cause.

A look at Singh’s Twitter feed shows that he, too, follows a pattern of praising Sikh terrorists such as Bhindranwale. On 6 June, to mark the anniversary of Operation Blue Star, he tweeted a video of a convoy hoisting Khalistan flags with the hashtag #NeverForget1984, and described the slain militants as “martyrs”. 

On 14 June, Singh took to Instagram to celebrate the SGPC’s unveiling of Dilawar Singh’s portrait.

“In my eyes, Dilawar ji is a martyr,” Jasveer Singh told ThePrint.

Shamsher Singh, Program Director of the Khalistan Centre — an organisation that describes itself as “supporting and cultivating Gurmat-driven leadership to further the struggle for Khalistan” — was also named in KEM’s report as a “source” account.

Informed about the findings of the report, he told ThePrint: “I don’t need to ‘coordinate’ anything. A lot of the Punjabi diaspora in the UK and the US believe in the Khalistan cause.”

Asked about his tweets on the 1985 Air India bombing, in which he alleged that the Indian government was involved in the plot, Shamsher Singh said: “It is an open secret in the Sikh community that the Indian government played a role in the Air India bombing. They let it happen. It’s a theory because, of course, Sikhs do not have the means to conduct their own inquiry.” 

He added that, without armed rebellion, there is no freedom from India “because India is committed to suppressing the non-Hindu other”. 

The official Canadian commission of inquiry into the Air India bombing blamed Khalistan terrorists for the attack, and said that the country’s law enforcement agencies had failed to take adequate action on the basis of available intelligence.

The Prime Minister of Canada  later “apologised on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians for the institutional failings of 25 years ago and the treatment of the victims’ families thereafter.” 

The report has been updated for a clarification in New York-based Sikh activist Puneet Sahani’s quote.

Also Read: Patiala clash highlights Punjab’s many Shiv Senas — ‘no political weight but not to be ignored’


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