Unravelling The Enigma Of Bhai Avtar Singh Khanda's Death
"From the outset, the community was suspicious of his sudden symptoms and death."
December 21, 2023 | 7 min. read | Analysis
The untimely demise of Bhai Avtar Singh Khanda has left an indelible mark on the tapestry of the Sikh struggle.
A report of the investigation into his death was jointly released on December 16, 2023, by panthic jathebandiyan that were involved in the investigation. The full event can be watched here. The report endeavours to illuminate the wider context and circumstances surrounding the passing of a prominent figure in the Sikh community, a man whose life was woven into the intricate threads of Sikh resistance and sacrifice.
The report begins with a background into Bhai Avtar Singh, looking in particular at his upbringing. Avtar Singh was born in May 1988 in Rode, Punjab, the ancestral village of Sant Jarnail Singh Ji. From an early age Avtar Singh was surrounded by Sikh figures involved in the struggle for Khalistan, including his father, Shaheed Bhai Kulwant Singh, and his father’s older brother, Shaheed Bhai Balwant Singh.
Avtar Singh’s father was involved in student organising, and like many in his generation, Bhai Kulwant Singh met Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and became committed to the cause of the Sikh revolutionary struggle. Bhai Kulwant Singh was imprisoned following the invasion of Sri Darbar Sahib in June 1984. Following his release from prison, Bhai Kulwant Singh faced continued police harassment.
On May 7, 1986, the Indian police carried out a raid on Avtar Singh’s parents' wedding. After three weeks of marriage, Bhai Kulwant Singh went underground. Avtar Singh’s grandfather, Sardar Pala Singh, was arrested to add pressure on Bhai Kulwant Singh and Bhai Balwant Singh to surrender. Sardar Pala Singh’s release was eventually secured by the village panchayat but the family went into hiding, forced to move between different villages and safe houses.
Avtar Singh was born into these repressive conditions shortly after.
After his birth, Bhai Kulwant Singh came to Rode and spent two days with his son before returning underground. Bhai Kulwant Singh was dedicated and engrossed in the Sikh struggle. The life of a Sikh guerrilla, being hunted by Indian forces meant he was unable to spend much time with his family. Avtar Singh and his younger sister experienced the realities of the arduous path of sangarsh immediately upon birth.
Bhai Kulwant Singh’s daughter was born in February 1991, only weeks before Bhai Kulwant Singh embraced martyrdom on March 31, 1991.
Like his father, Avtar Singh was actively involved in the movement that surrounded him, participating in Sikh organising in the face of displacement, government targeting, surveillance, and continual harassment against his family. Avtar Singh’s family has endured decades of multi-generational harassment, imprisonment, and surveillance, including his surviving mother, Bibi Charanjit Kaur, and his sister.
For those who knew him, the parallels between Avtar Singh’s life and that of his father are clear to see.
In 2010, aged just 22, Avtar Singh had to leave Punjab, following the concerns his family had for his safety. In the UK, Avtar Singh became a much-loved figure in panthic circles and the wider Punjabi community. He was politically active on matters related to Khalistan and regularly spoke and wrote on the Sikh struggle. He bridged the gaps between Punjab and the diaspora on what Khalistan and the continual struggle for self-determination means to Sikhs.
When Avtar Singh was admitted into the hospital on June 11, 2023, no one thought he would be dead four days later. Avtar Singh’s death shocked the Sikh community in the UK, Punjab, and the wider diaspora. From the outset, the community was suspicious of his sudden symptoms and death.
That suspicion rested on three main factors:
he was in great health and taken ill so suddenly;
the insistent demonisation led by the Indian media in the months leading up to his death; and,
the timing of Indian social media activity in announcing and overtly celebrating his death as a victory for Indian intelligence agencies prior to any public announcement of his death.
Avtar Singh was initially targeted in 2015 when Indian media ran a high profile campaign claiming that Avtar Singh was named in a dossier handed by Modi to the UK government. The UK would apparently deny that such a dossier was handed over, yet this messaging would be rehashed with more venom in March 2023.
Avtar Singh became entwined in the wave of repression in Punjab that saw mass arrests and internet shutdowns in the weeks following March18, 2023.
On March 19, 2023, there was a protest outside the Indian high commission in London, where the official Indian flag was taken down. Avtar Singh became the target for India when he was falsely accused of removing the Indian flag. Indian media went as far as saying he was arrested, however UK police clarified this was patently false.
The flag incident triggered a relentless widespread demonisation campaign against Avtar Singh across all sections of Indian media (detailed in the report) and resulted in the arrests of multiple family members in Punjab. In a video, posted to his facebook, Avtar Singh outlines the police harassment and names the ADCP of Ludhiana, Rupinder Kaur Bhatti, as a lead figure.
This strategy of manufacturing the threat of so-called “terrorism” in order to justify state violence is core to how the Indian state has approached Sikh political mobilisation for decades.
Prominent nationalist figures also added to the manufactured outrage, such as commentator Gaurav Arya, a retired Indian Army Major and consultant for notorious jingoist outlet, Republic TV. Guarav publicly threatened Avtar Singh on his YouTube channel, saying: “Khanda, son, you are finished,” and that “the NIA (National Investigation Agency) will eliminate him.”
The flag incident became a catalyst for a web of unsubstantiated claims about Avtar Singh, clearly manufactured by Indian intelligence, and propagated by the media. At its core, Avtar Singh was painted as a legitimate target and threat to the Indian state.
One outlet claimed “Khanda is on the list of “most-wanted” terrorists who have been allegedly giving training on explosives to Sikh youths in UK-based religious institutions”. This blatantly false claim was referring to the false dossier claims of 2015.
The intense demonisation of Avtar Singh rested on a few key points:
Criminalising Avtar Singh’s advocacy for Khalistan as “terrorist activity”,
Making a false claim linking him to jujahroo jathebandia (Sikh insurgent formations)
Claiming he was involved in providing support and guidance to Bhai Deep Sidhu and Bhai Amritpal Singh. This in particular would be considered a major threat by India as a narrative of “outside agitators” has long been a cornerstone of Indian state propaganda to delegitimize and target support for Khalistan within Punjab. Indian policy is to criminalise any activity, even social media posts, that can be seen as galvanising public campaigns and support for Khalistan in Punjab.
At one point, the NIA even dispatched a team of five individuals to ‘probe’ the ‘flag incident’ at the Indian Embassy. According to Indian reports, the NIA team met with Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police around May 24, 2023.
It is in this environment that Avtar Singh was suddenly taken ill, despite his good health, and died just four days later. The details on how Avtar Singh was targeted by the Indian state were clearly communicated to the West Midlands Police (WMP).
It is worth noting that WMP carried out “counter terror raids” in 2018, on the homes of Sikhs activists in the UK at the behest of the Indian government, and would then release names to the Indian media, a violation of their own guidelines.
WMP would publicly claim that they carried out a “thorough review” only to backtrack when questioned as to the nature of their investigation. The report highlights key procedural failures that display clear negligence or complicity on behalf of WMP. More shockingly, the senior coroner for Birmingham and Solihull would refuse to conduct a postmortem, further raising suspicions of potential negligence or complicity.
The clearest indication of Indian involvement however, comes from Indian social media activity. Before it was public knowledge that Avtar Singh had died during the early hours of June 15, Indian bot accounts with clear links to coordinated Indian intelligence operations began running their messaging. One example is a tweet by a bot account at 5:58am on June 15 that stated:
“Khalistani Terrorist Avatar [sic] Singh Khanda,a associate of arrested Khalistan Terrorist #AmritpalSingh , is Died [sic] in London, a news report said. There are speculations that he has been poisoned. Khanda is the head of the #London unit of Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) and an expert in bomb-making.”
There were no such news reports at the time as the information was not public knowledge.
The report also sheds light on the larger context of poisonings used by governments to induce death. The gravity of this reality is further heightened in an environment of transnational repression and coordinated assassinations against Sikh leadership between May-June. The report outlines why India may have employed covert methods to assassinate Avtar Singh, and highlights that poisoning has been used to target Sikh resistance figures in the past, such as Shaheed Jathedar Baba Gurbachan Singh Manochahal and Shaheed Bibi Bimal Kaur.
After leaving home at the age of 22, only Avtar Singh's ashes would return back to Punjab in 2023. His mother and sister were not allowed to attend his funeral services in the UK. They were left to grieve their beloved son and brother through his ashes while having to endure continual state surveillance and decades-long repression.
It is testament of the respect the Sikh community has for the resilience and commitment of those on the path of Sikh struggle, and a reflection of the Sikh spirit of chardikala, that on August 12, 2023, at his funeral programme, Bhai Avtar Singh was declared a Shaheed of the Khalsa Panth.
Shamsher Singh writes from Southall, UK, and is the co-founder of the National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF). He is an influential Sikh activist and his work centres on Sikh being and Khalistan. Shamsher is currently undertaking an MA at Birkbeck in Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicity. As a naujawan Panthic jathebandie NSYFs work has featured in national and international media, documentary films, books, and academic papers. Shamsher Singh works to build solidarity with racialised communities, and to create space for Sikh expression centring on Sikh sovereignty, and Sikh resistance, pushing back against the erasure of Khalistan and it’s martyrs. He currently works as program director for the newly established Khalistan Centre, which is dedicated to supporting and cultivating Gurmat-driven leadership to further the struggle for Khalistan. You can find him on Twitter at @anandpur_exile.
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