Manufacturing “Sikh Terrorism”
A timely excerpt from "Who Speaks for Khalistan: Narrating Sikh Liberation" which helps us understand the role of manufactured media coverage in India's violent counter-insurgency operations.
As Indian security forces continue their "mega crackdown" operations, we have seen repressive tactics being used by the state to control and manufacture false narratives. From censoring online voices from the diaspora, to targeting grassroots journalists on the ground in Punjab, it is clear that India's tactics have not changed since the 1980s. Instead, state agencies have only sharpened their tools to repress critical voices in order to amplify their own manufactured narrative and justify violence against Sikh activists. By understanding this dynamic, it becomes abundantly clear that Indian media has always been a clear partner and participant in violent counter-insurgency operations against resistance movements.
The role of India-based media in manufacturing news coverage during the armed struggle, and its global circulation is key to understanding popular depictions of the Sikh sangarsh today.
Not only did Indian media uncritically convey the official accounts of security forces without question, media outlets often operated as active participants in the Indian counter-insurgency by manufacturing and distorting facts to villainize Sikh political mobilization and the jujharoo lehar (movement).
Leading up to the invasion of Darbar sahib in June 1984, the image of Sant Jarnail Singh jee was conflated with the “Punjab problem” in the Indian mainstream while the Sikh panth was collectively projected as an “enemy within.”1 Indian MP, Subramaniam Swami, explicitly stated on the record that the government had intentionally spread mass disinformation to create a pretence for the invasion, portraying Darbar Sahib as the “citadel of the nation’s dismemberment conspiracy.”2
Analyzing the global circulation of this coverage, Ram Narayan Kumar notes how these media narratives legitimized state repression and violence. Looking at the coverage of the conflict in foreign outlets specifically, he notes how foreign correspondents’ reliance on local experts enabled the government to “manipulate the thrust of international reporting, to sell their perception and convert them into deliverable news.”3 He goes on:
It is my contention that the vast majority of international media practitioners who covered Punjab in the conflict period fell to the spin and hype of the Indian establishment and indirectly contributed to legitimization of state violence... [and] suppression of knowledge about the plight of those under atrocities... They also abdicated their responsibilities of their watchdog functions of neutral international reporters by investigating reports of official wrongdoing...4
Jaspal Singh Sidhu, a journalist who retired after thirty years with the United News of India (UNI) news agency, describes Indian media’s role in Punjab as an ideological state apparatus to help implement the state’s political agenda.5 The press aggressively pushed the discourse of terrorism in such a way that the word terrorist and Sikh became “synonymous in the public mind, so that people are not very interested in knowing if the Sikhs killed in the encounters are in fact terrorists.”6 With regards to “fake encounters”:
The news usually given after each such ‘encounter’ is that a police or paramilitary team was fired at by ‘terrorists,’ and on returning the fire in self-defence, a number of them were killed. The correspondents file such stories, the editors accept them, and the newspapers feature them prominently. Seldom, if ever, do national dailies launch their own detailed investigation of such encounters.7
Sidhu reiterates this assessment of reporting at the time, noting how the young Sikhs being killed by security forces were turned into lifeless statistics whose murders were robotically portrayed as encounters by the press.8 This remains an ongoing pattern today.9
A similar approach was taken with regards to allegations of violent excesses committed by Sikh jujharoos. Kumar, investigating allegations of militant violence in the media—particularly egregious allegations of a wave of rapes in late 1992, discovered that the source of these allegations were limitedsolely to briefings by police officials. Digging into a report supposedly published by a Sikh religious organization which alleged 55 cases of rape and murder, Kumar eventually traced the manufactured origins of the allegations back to the office of Vijay Chopra, the head of a right-wing Hindu paper, Hind Samachar.10
Further, as an official part of the state’s counter-insurgency policy into the 1990s, all unrelated crimes in the state—including vindictive murders, robberies and rapes were officially declared and reported as crimes committed by jujharoos.11 Through this politicization of government statistics, state agencies effectively transformed everyday crimes into “terrorist violence”—consciously contributing to the portrayal of the Sikh jujharoo as an apolitical violent criminal.
Going even further, security forces eventually mobilized death squads—police personnel and auxiliary officers trained and paid to masquerade as jujharoos—carrying out “massacres of innocent people and other activities intentionally displaying vicious violence.”12
In a cable sent on December 19, 2005, Robert O’Blake, deputy chief of the US mission in New Delhi stated:
With regard to former senior superintendent of police (Jalandhar) Mohammad Izhar Alam, we can confirm that he now [as of 2005] holds the position of additional director general (administration), a senior police posting. During the insurgency, he assembled a large, personal paramilitary force of approximately 150 men known as the “Black Cats” or ‘Alam Sena’... The group had reach throughout the Punjab and is alleged to have had carte blanche in carrying out possibly thousands of staged ‘encounter killings’.13
Ram Narayan Kumar, a human rights activist with considerable work experience in Punjab, provides remarkable insights into the workings of the state that sought to discredit the jujharoos:
My own research on Punjab...suggested that the state agencies were creating vigilante outfits in order to infiltrate the Sikh radical movement and generate a climate of moral revulsion by engineering heinous crimes which they then attributed to armed Sikh groups.14
This was further compounded by state attempts to plant news stories by “feeding disinformation on letterheads of militant organizations.”15
Overall, the evidence points to a concerning process in which Indian media consciously manufactured false news stories; parroted the official version of encounters without further investigation; promoted the demonization of Sikh jujharoos and the wider Sikh panth, while state agencies intentionally manufactured misleading data, and security agencies intentionally spread disinformation to the media and mobilized death squads to discredit Sikh jujharoos. With the support of unquestioning foreign correspondents, these images were circulated around the world and successfully established a hegemonic narrative of “Sikh terrorism.”
Khalistan Centre The Khalistan Centre is dedicated to supporting and cultivating Gurmat-driven leadership to further the struggle for Khalistan. You can find them online @KhalistanCentre. The full publication summarized above can be found here.
Arvind-pal Mandair, Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality and the Politics of Translation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009) at 303.
Kumar et al, “Ashes”, supra note 2 at 34.
Ram Narayan Kumar, “The International Media in Punjab: A Study” in Jaspal Singh Sidhu and Anil Chamadia, eds, Embedded Journalism (Delhi: Media Studies Group, 2014) [“International Media”] at 115.
Ibid at 117.
Jaspal Singh Sidhu, “Embedded Media Builds Hegemonic Narrative for Nation- State” in Jaspal Singh Sidhu & Anil Chamadia, eds, Embedded Journalism (Delhi: Media Studies Group, 2014) 15.
Patwant Singh, “Journalism of a Third Kind” in Jaspal Singh Sidhu & Anil Chamadia, eds, Embedded Journalism (Delhi: Media Studies Group, 2014) at 90.
Ibid at 91.
Jaspal Singh Sidhu, Sant Bhindranwale de Ru-B-Ru:June 84 di Patarkari (Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 2016) at 51.
Analyzing a spike in human rights violations in the summer of 2005, Ensaaf noted that: “Out of over 90 media articles printed since June 2005 discussing the capture and plans of alleged Punjabi militants, all but a handful have failed to question government accounts of the events... By misinforming the public about threats to national security, Indian security forces have so far successfully masked an escalation in human rights violations” (Jaskaran Kaur, Punjab Police: Fabricating Terrorism thorugh Illegal Detention and Torture (Santa Clara: Ensaaf, 2005) at 4).
Kumar, “International Media”, supra note 58 at 119.
Satnam Deol, “Militancy and Counter- Militancy Operations: Changing Patterns and Dynamics of Violence in Punjab, 1978 to 1993” (2015) 22:1 Journal of Punjab Studies at 79.
Deol, supra note 66 at 85; Vipul Mudgal, “Special Report: The Underground Army”, India Today (15 September 1988); Patricia Gossman, “India’s Secret Armies” in B Campbell and A Brenner, eds, Death Squads in Global Perspective (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000) 261.
IP Singh, “Alam Sena staged encounter killings”, Times of India (September 11, 2011).
Kumar et al, “Ashes”, supra note 2 at 42-43.
Dinesh Kumar, “Dispatches from the Edge”, Times of India (11 August 1991) cited in Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale, Struggle for Justice: Speeches and conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale, translated by Ranbir Singh Sandhu (Dublin: Sikh Educational and Religious Foundation, 1999).