At the Threshold of War: Sikh Organizing and Liberation in an era of Political Assassinations
Actively working to “protect the weak, destroy the tyrants” and striving for halemi raj, Khalistan, Bhai Hardeep Singh dedicated each and every breath to the Guru Panth and roamed this world as a marjeevara (one who conquers death while alive)... Bhai Sahib’s shaheedi is not something to be mourned by the sangat of the Guru or the warriors of the Khalsa, nor is it an occasion to offer “condolences”. Instead, we honour his spilled blood by taking inspiration to walk on the path he lived by.
-collective letter by panthic jathebandiyan and institutions around the world
Over the past several weeks, the Guru Khalsa Panth has been celebrating the sangarsh and shahadat of Bhai Hardeep Singh, a towering figure of the maujuda sangarsh (contemporary/ongoing struggle). Bhai Sahib committed his life to reinvigorate this struggle for halemi raj, Khalistan and accomplished massive feats–transcending borders in multiple domains of panthic seva.
Bhai Hardeep Singh was the embodiment of gareeb di rakhiya, jarvanay di bhakhiya (protection of the weak, destruction of the tyrants) and commitment to Guru Granth-Panth. He confronted countless personal obstacles in the course of his seva, but he never faltered, hesitated, or backed down. He relished these kashatt (tortures) and challenges as the fruits of truly living gursikhi and the blessings of continuing down the path of his shaheed (martyred) comrades. After the stagnation of the Khalistan struggle in the mid-1990s, Bhai Hardeep Singh poured every drop of his blood and sweat into rejuvenating this struggle by building and strengthening sovereign panthic institutions across multiple domains. His seva was dynamic and cannot be reduced to one realm or one organization alone. As a result of his relentless drive, he became one of the most pivotal panthic figures of our era–ultimately joining the pantheon of Sikh shaheeds and others who have given their all to continue the sangarsh started by Sant Baba Jarnail Singh jee.
Deeply impacted by the sangat of numerous jujharoo Singhs throughout his life, Bhai Hardeep Singh fulfilled his promise that he would never forget their sacrifice and would continue their struggle. Bhai Hardeep Singh was pivotal to countless feats achieved by the Khalsa across multiple battlefields in recent years. He committed himself to boldly advocating for Khalistan, building institutions which would increase our collective capacity and prepare future generations of gurmukhs, prachariks, and jujharoos. He was a central figure in establishing collective platforms that would spearhead numerous panthic initiatives and political advocacy for Khalistan, while developing sutantar (sovereign/autonomous) panthic institutions which could directly manifest the Khalsa’s patshahi. Rather than relying on external powers for “justice” or “freedom”, Bhai Hardeep Singh’s approach to the sangarsh manifested the principle of appan hathhi apna, as he empowered the Khalsa to enact these principles based on its own sovereign authority.
While we reflect on and celebrate his sacrifice, his brazen assassination also raises a number of questions for panthic naujawan who aspire to fulfil their responsibility and carry the torch of the sangarsh into the next generation.
Decoding the politics of assassination
It is imperative that we use this moment to seriously reflect on the fact that the Guru Khalsa Panth is a major stakeholder in the geopolitics of the world today, and that although this situation opens up a number of opportunities for us, it also means we are looking at a period of serious instability and conflict in the immediate foreseeable future.
Particularly since the massive mobilization of the Panth and Punjab during the Kisaan Morcha (Farmers’ Movement), the Indian state has been committed to neutralizing the potent threat that the Guru Khalsa Panth continues to pose to the stability and survival of India’s imperial project. Amidst geopolitical churning in the region and domestic tension internally, Indian political, intelligence and military brass raised the alarm about the renewed security threat we pose to the Indian state and urged Modi to repeal the so-called farm reform bills. There are a couple of interrelated reasons why the Indian establishment is so keen to avoid head-on conflict with Sikhs in today’s climate:
Punjab is strategically located in the subcontinent in terms of being the only land-based trade route into Central Asia, housing Indian air defence missile systems, as well as being a central node in military supply lines to disputed areas like Jammu, Kashmir, and Aksai Chin. Unrest in the region could disrupt and ultimately compromise India’s ability to defend its borders.
As demonstrated through Sikh resistance to the Emergency in the 1970s, the Dharam Yudh Morcha, and the Kisaan Morcha, Sikh mass mobilization contains explosive potential to challenge and overturn Indian state power, while simultaneously galvanizing other oppressed peoples throughout the subcontinent to do the same.
As the BJP embarks on the next phase of its Hindutva project to establish a Hindu rashtra (nation) and project India as a world power, the combined threat of both of these factors could indefinitely halt this dream in its tracks and potentially deal a fatal blow to the Indian project itself. Former BJP spokesperson, Ram Madhav, published an editorial in the Indian Express earlier this year, outlining India’s global aspirations in significant detail while also noting that border conflict with China and the “aggravation of religious and political fault lines” in the domestic arena have the potential to jeopardize India’s ability to “rise in global stature”. As a result, policy-makers and security officials are on the same page about this threat and how to deal with Sikh dissent in Punjab–and around the world. In an ominous statement following Bhai Hardeep Singh's assassination, Indian External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, threatened that “if there are activities which are permitted from Canada that impinge on our sovereignty, territorial integrity and security, then we will have to respond."
India's modes of containing dissent today however, are not limited to straightforward direct repression alone–although this is not ruled out either. Instead, violent repression is increasingly being used with surgical precision along with psyops (psychological operations), co-optation and appeasement, as well as coordinated chaos within opposition ranks. Comments made by National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, clearly indicate a shift into this direction to militarize every realm of social existence as civil society itself is being redefined as the “new frontier of warfare”.
This range of tactics includes: sowing the seeds of confusion amongst the public, fueling fragmentation and internal conflict amongst opposition groups in a form of controlled chaos, appeasing and co-opting some factions through negotiated settlement, publicly discrediting the leadership of opposition groups (spanning the political spectrum from “moderate” to radical, and even militant leadership), and ultimately eliminating those who remain a threat. We’ve seen a similar strategy being used successfully in Kashmir–a former bastion of resistance to the imperial Indian project. By fomenting internal conflict and discrediting every shade of Kashmiri political leadership, the Indian state was able to effectively paralyze Kashmiri groups and neutralize their ability to oppose any of the Indian state’s devastating measures to downgrade the political status and autonomy of the region in 2019. This was a shocking contrast to the Kashmiri struggle that previously featured effective armed resistance alongside widespread mass mobilization for decades. We saw a similarly concerning situation in Punjab in March of this year. As media outlets and social media were used to bombard the public with sensationalist messaging that elicited panic and confusion, every shade of Panthic and Punjabi leadership was simultaneously attacked or discredited, resulting in a widespread collective paralysis which inhibited our ability to effectively respond to the onslaught. As a result, the Indian establishment was able to secure its strategic objectives with minimal effort or force and virtually no resistance.
The recent string of assassinations of Sikh figures, is the result of this ongoing strategy being deployed in Punjab to repress, contain, and ultimately–gain unhindered control over panthic leadership in Punjab and beyond. The targeted figures unequivocally represent that jujharoo (warrior) dhir (faction) who represent a mortal threat to the Indian state’s designs; they stoutly refuse numerous advances of appeasement, maintain their well-organized dissent and diligently undermine India’s authority in the region in the pursuit of Khalistan.
Targeting militant leadership
Bhai Hardeep Singh faced multiple threats from professional assassins and was formally warned by Canadian intelligence and security agencies. In the summer of 2022, an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET)–a multi-agency team led by the RCMP–warned Bhai Hardeep Singh and a number of other panthic leaders that they were facing an “imminent threat of assassination”. INSETs intertwine intelligence and security agencies across the country for the express purpose of addressing “national security” threats–clearly demonstrating this was not the result of a simple “local feud” as some racist news stories are trying to suggest. Bhai Hardeep Singh had recently been approached by CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) agents to inform him about this threat further and they had been scheduled to meet on June 20–two days after he was assassinated.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had been making a number of unsubstantiated allegations against Bhai Hardeep Singh for several years and even announced a one million rupees award for him last year after his property in Punjab was seized. He was aggressively maligned simultaneously by Indian media and diplomats using India’s problematic counter-terrorism legislation to unsuccessfully seek his extradition from Canada.
Over the past several years, a number of individuals allegedly involved in anti-India armed opposition groups have been targeted for covert assassination by Indian intelligence. These individuals have similarly been targeted with charges under UAPA and then consistently highlighted and maligned in Indian media before they were ultimately assassinated by unidentified assailants. Shaheed Bhai Harmeet Singh, jathedar of the Khalistan Liberation Force, was attacked and killed in this kind of covert action near Lahore in January 2020. In June 2021, a bomb blast in Lahore’s Johar Town killed three and injured several others in what was reported as an attack on Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the alleged founder of an anti-India armed group. In March 2022, Zahoor Mistry, who had allegedly engaged in militant actions against Indian airlines, was attacked by two motorcycle-borne assailants and killed by gunfire.
In February of this year, Bashir Ahmad Peer, allegedly a member of an anti-India armed group, was killed by unidentified gunmen in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Several days later, Syed Khalid Raza, was killed in a similar manner in Karachi, Pakistan. On May 6, 2023, Jathedar Parmjit Singh Panjwar, mukh sewadar of the Khalistan Commando Force, was also killed by unidentified gunmen in Lahore’s Johar Town. Days before Bhai Hardeep Singh's assassination, Bhai Avtar Singh Khanda, a prominent UK-based Sikh activist with alleged ties to the KLF, suddenly passed away in highly suspicious circumstances.
This stream of attacks clearly demonstrates an obvious pattern pointing towards Indian intelligence attempts to neutralize and eliminate committed Sikh leadership.
Jabai Baan Laagyo, Tabhai Roas Jaagyo
Things will never be the same for panthic naujawan who were fortunate to have experienced the shade of Bhai Hardeep Singh’s mentorship and sangat.
These events mark a qualitative shift in the ongoing conflict with the Indian state and our collective responses must reflect the gravity of this shift. Our tactics and rhetoric cannot simply retreat back to the same performative routines we have gotten comfortable with as though the targeted shooting of Bhai Hardeep Singh and other Sikh jujharoos carries no significance. As thousands looked upon the shaheedi saroop of Bhai Hardeep Singh in Surrey, BC last week, these moments manifested a fundamental turning point in our generation’s interaction with the sangarsh.
As Sikhs travelled to Bhai Hardeep Singh’s antam sanskar from around the world, the countless anecdotes and tributes to his life and seva were literally only the “tip of the iceberg”. The sanjeedgi (sincerity) and gehraee (depth) of his seva meant that he literally contributed every single thing he possibly could to this sangarsh, and did so quietly without fanfare or attention. As a result, only a tiny portion of his massive contributions will ever be visible while tonnes of his work continued to operate quietly and unseen beneath the surface. So many layers of his seva will remain unsaid for people to read between the lines or for those who walked on the path alongside him to share: supporting shaheed parivaars (families) and Sikh political prisoners, as well as every panthic morcha and mobilization, and countless other projects he humbly contributed towards with every means he could.
In light of the current offensive, it is clear that panthic naujawan need to steel themselves for the next phase of our sangarsh. As the Indian state continues to rob us of our heeray (diamonds), we must take concrete steps to build our individual and collective capacity to lay foundations for an effective movement–we can no longer satisfy our conscience by simply “raising awareness”. This means meaningful work to strengthen our internal organizational structures across multiple spheres, engage in dialogue and discussion to move towards consensus-building, and set the strategic vision for our next steps. The talking points of our sangarsh cannot remain limited to the past or mired in trying to “convince” those fully imbued in maya (illusion) to join this path with their heads on their palms. We are at the threshold of another generational conflict, whether we like it or not, and our values and beliefs will have to be demonstrated by concrete, lived action. There is no longer time for empty rhetoric, circular arguments, or procrastination and excuses.
Let this be a poignant moment for reflection and sijda (act of reverence) to our fallen brother who lights our path into the future as we commit to following in his footsteps. This starts with ardaas in Sache Patshah’s charan for the strength that we can embark on this thorn-filled path of sangarsh with the grace, fortitude and dridta (commitment/steadfastness) exemplified in the life and shahadat of Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh jee Nijjar. Root this transformative moment in gursikhi and let the sakhiyan (tales/lessons) and darshan (vision/sight) of a shaheed who walked among us fundamentally change how we live our lives and exist in the world today.
Throughout the Khalsa’s history, shahadat (martyrdom) has always brought the blossom of Spring to the panth’s vehra (courtyard). These are not counted as damage or loss, but victorious steps advancing to our ultimate fateh (victory). The Khalsa reveres this spilled blood and does ardaas to be blessed with seva and the pinnacle of this marag (path) of gursikhi.
Prabjot Singh is a writer and panthic activist who has been involved in Sikh student organizations, panthic jathebandiyan and grassroots political movements for over fifteen years. He has an MA in South Asian Studies where he focussed on the intellectual history of the Khalistan movement. His ongoing work on Sikh political theory and criminal law has been published in a number of platforms based in Punjab as well as the diaspora, including Sikh Shahadat, Panth-Punjab Project, Bibekgarh Parkashan and the Manitoba Law Journal.