At 5ft 9in, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is hardly tall by Punjabi standards. Nor does he have any stature in Punjab—the people there, including Sikh hardliners, rejected his call for a Khalistan referendum in 2020. He drew attention when he stood on a Canadian street threatening all and sundry during the G20 summit in New Delhi in September.
Pannun, 55, was not a recognisable face anywhere until a few years ago. In the late 1990s, his parents found his name on a proclaimed criminal offenders list, and the law graduate from Panjab University was packed off to the US to pursue a master’s in law in New York.
In the US, he found support of a criminal-terror nexus that stretched beyond New York and Washington and into Canada. As per National Investigation Agency records, his rise as a terror ideologue came about during his travels from the Empire State Building in New York, where he runs a law firm on the 59th floor, to the streets of Surrey and Ottawa. India declared him a terrorist in 2020.
Pannun has allegedly been building a pro-Khalistan network using dual passports to remain safe. He has chanted separatist slogans and incited attacks on Indian consulates in Canada and the US, desecrating the Indian flag.
Top security brass in New Delhi and Punjab, who have been tracking his trajectory for two decades, are frustrated and upset. They had sent piles of intelligence records, technical evidence, recordings and call intercepts to US and Canadian security agencies. These lay unattended, and crisis blew up with India accusing Canada of harbouring terrorists.
The outcome was nasty. It has led to western and Indian intelligence agencies accusing each other, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claiming that Indian agents were possibly involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force. India has slammed the allegation as absurd. India and Canada expelled a diplomat each, and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan expressed concern.
The closed roads outside the Indian diplomatic missions in San Francisco, Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto reflect the terror created by the pro-Khalistan network run by Pannun and his banned outfit, the Sikhs for Justice. Intelligence reports say Pannun has been in touch with Nijjar as well as a UK-based terrorist, Paramjit Singh alias Pamma of the Babbar Khalsa International, and Malkit Singh Fauji of the International Sikh Youth Federation.
“Canadian authorities have underestimated the Indian concern and overestimated freedom of speech,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director of foreign affairs, national security and defence at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa. “The threat from pro-Khalistani extremists [has been] a worry for India since the 1985 Air India bombing. So it is not just under the watch of the Trudeau government, but concerns have been raised earlier with Canadian authorities at the highest level, including with the Canadian intelligence and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They should have paid more attention.”
Said Yashovardhan Azad, former special director in the Intelligence Bureau: “The dark reality is Khalistani separatism is being run from foreign shores. A transnational terror-criminal network is openly threatening the integrity of the Indian state, besides indulging in terror, targeted killings and extortions in Punjab.”
A senior security official said Pannun turned radical after he came into contact with a pro-Khalistani radical organisation in Washington. Its chief, Amarjit, became his mentor. Soon, Pannun opened a law firm and started helping asylum seekers from Punjab who had arrived after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He then set up the Sikhs for Justice ostensibly to work for the victims of the 1984 riots. It attracted many pro-Khalistanis. By 2017-18, he was plugging Referendum 2020.
Senior security officials said they had alerted the US and Interpol several times about his activities and whenever he crossed over to Canada. But consensus is missing.
Common people in Canada seem to have no love lost for Pannun. “He has done nothing for Canadians. Most of them won’t be able to tell you who he is,’’ said Terry Milewski, veteran Canadian journalist. “I believe he has dual American and Canadian citizenship. Since he started this referendum, he has been engaged in fomenting hatred against India and Indians, particularly Hindus, on the internet.”
It was while searching for more foot soldiers and supporters for the referendum that Pannun met Nijjar in Canada in 2018, according to Indian agencies. Unlike the suave Pannun, Nijjar was a little educated gangster-terrorist from Punjab who was feared on the ground. Apparently they met each other thanks to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, which runs a separate K2 desk (Kashmir-Khalistan desk) for reviving the Khalistan ghost.
With Nijjar’s support, the Sikhs for Justice could reach out to more people in Canada, said intelligence reports. The reports document how pro-Khalistan footprints started growing larger also in the UK, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and even the Middle East and Malaysia. A dossier on Pannun mentions how he travelled to Spain for studying the referendum on self-determination held in Catalonia in 2017.
Pannun had already amassed notoriety filing court cases against Indian political leaders visiting the US and Canada. He became all the more acceptable among the pro-Khalistani outfits when he challenged the deportation of Jagtar Singh Tara, who was arrested in Bangkok in 2015 for his role in the assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995. When Paramjit Singh Pamma of the Babbar Khalsa was arrested in Portugal in December 2015, Pannun represented him in court and frustrated India’s extradition plea.
Sleuths say Pannun has released a video warning police officers against targeting youth who supported Referendum 2020. Intelligence agencies had also monitored a polling campaign he ran on his social media handle for disallowing former Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat’s visit to the US. His social media outreach would be limited but for the assistance of people like Nijjar. An NIA officer said Nijjar took a number of youth from Punjab to Canada for use as foot soldiers of pro-Khalistanis.
It is not easy for everyone to get a Canadian visa, so Nijjar and other pro-Khalistanis exploited the demand and supply matrix. They sponsored visa for youth from Punjab for semi-skilled jobs such as plumber or truck driver or for religious work. The youth were sponsored in lieu of carrying out activities in Canada—for participating in anti-India protests and conducting radical religious congregations, said reports with the Union home ministry.
This operation has allegedly stretched into a nexus with the gangs of Punjab, such as the Davinder Bambiha gang, Arsh Dalla gang, and Lakhbir Landa gang. The gangs also served the dual purpose of providing foot soldiers as well as carrying out terror attacks in Punjab, like the rocket-propelled grenade attack on intelligence headquarters in Mohali in 2022.
Gurmeer Chauhan, senior superintendent of police in Tarn Taran district of Punjab, said that a couple of months ago another wanted criminal, Satbir Singh alias Satta, had entered Canada on a fake passport from Portugal. Satta is an associate of a most wanted gangster, Lakhbir Landa, who is allegedly hiding in Canada. “Satta fled India in 2019 and went to Portugal. We have reports that he entered Canada almost two months back,’’ Chauhan said.
The big question that Indian agencies ask is: how could extremists and criminals enter Canada, whether or not on fake passports or visas, despite their having a criminal record in their home country?
Indian agencies have shared with Canada the voice recordings and VOIP calls of several gangsters with extremist links who have entered Canada and are making extortion and terror calls to people in Punjab. “The voice calls are easily identifiable,” said Chauhan. “Moreover, DNA samples of the wanted criminals in Canada and their families here can be matched. They can then be deported with the cooperation of the Canadian agencies.”
Nijjar himself fled to Canada in 1997 using a fake passport and identifying himself as ‘Ravi Sharma’, as per Punjab Police records. Arrested at Toronto airport, he filed for asylum, claiming he was a victim of police harassment in India. When his plea was rejected, he married a British Columbian woman who sponsored his immigration. Though the application was rejected once, he was subsequently awarded Canadian citizenship.
Police records claim that Nijjar visited Pakistan in 2013 and met Jagtar Singh Tara of the Khalistan Tiger Force there. By 2015, the ISI had roped in Nijjar and helped him organise secret training camps for extremist groups associated with the Khalistan movement in Mission Hills, British Columbia, according to police records.
In fact, when Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh met Trudeau in 2018, Nijjar’s name figured on the most wanted list. Incidentally, it was in the same year that Pannun contacted Nijjar. Since Canadian agencies did not start any investigation, Nijjar and his friends like Dalla and Landa started operating with impunity.
“Canada failed not once but twice earlier,” said Terry Milewski. “It failed to stop the Air India bombing by not taking the threat seriously. And again because of an antiquated legal system which bent over backwards to exclude evidence and disbelieve witnesses.’’
According to him, Canada became a place where terrorism cases went to die. “So that is where I see the immediate problem going now and that is the reason why I say things are on a knife’s edge.’’ A problem the Trudeau government may like to address soon.