Shamsher Singh: Condemning Khalistan In An Age Of Disinformation

The Centre for Information Resilience report, ‘Analysis of the #RealSikhs Influence Operation’, validates what Sikhs have known for some time.

Shamsher Singh
November 24, 2021 | 6.5 min. read | Opinion

The Centre for Information Resilience published a report today which has garnered attention from Sikh Twitter, journalists, and commentators on India. 

The report, ‘Analysis of the #RealSikhs Influence Operation’, validates what Sikhs have known for some time and identifies a “core network” of 80 fake accounts that built fake personas across multiple platforms in order to push targeted messages to infiltrate online discussions against Khalistan, Sikh sovereignty, and the Farmers' Protest. 

In the age of disinformation, we must contextualize the fake accounts and such reports within the larger political context and structures that continually work to condemn Khalistan. This raises a fundamental question: who speaks (or can speak) for Khalistan in an age of disinformation? 

The fake accounts reveal the levels of state repression and attempts to control the discourse about Khalistan especially with the ongoing Farmers’ Protest in which the masses are thinking about the long-term political and economic well-being of Punjab

Although this report reveals important findings about the online attempts to infiltrate discourse about Khalistan, it simultaneously invisibilizes the struggle for Khalistan. Instead, the report is concerned with India’s political and social cohesion and how this may “[increase] social divisions that could undermine the stability of one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies”.

The accounts target their content at numerous issues, but primarily use the Khalistan movement to claim any notion of Sikh independence is extremist and terrorist related, that Pakistan is fuelling Sikh independence movements in India, and that western countries (namely the UK, US and Canada) are harbouring Sikh terrorist groups. The network uses hashtags related to Khalistan and terrorism when commenting on significant issues in India and abroad to target Sikh independence, farmers’ protests, activists and more.

The author of the report, Benjamin Strick, makes some key observations about the shared characteristics of these fake accounts. These “fake accounts do not show signs of automation, but rather appear to be human-operated, acting as ‘sock puppet’ accounts with the same personas replicated over multiple platforms and repeating the same content.” 

All the accounts use Sikh names “in order to be seen as Sikh and as part of the community”, with 18 of the 33 identified Twitter accounts using the last name Kaur. 

One significant pattern identified by Strick is “all of the accounts used repetitive hashtags with the word ‘Khalistani’ in them, for example #Khalistanis, #RealSikhsAgainstKhalistan, #SikhsRejectKhalistan and #ShameOnKhalistanis.

In addition to the core network the report finds that these targeted messages are being amplified by a “large network of authentic accounts which primarily identify as Hindu nationalists”.

From the findings of the report it is clear there is significant coordination, and one consistently obsessive message: “real” Sikhs support India and “fake” Sikhs support Khalistan.

The fake accounts claim to be both “Real Sikhs” and “proud Indians”. They use profile pictures stolen from celebrity social media accounts, use names common in Sikh communities to appear as legitimate members of the Sikh community, and are brazen in their calling out of whether someone is a “Real Sikh” or a “fake Sikh”.

Strick goes further and makes observations about Khalistan which he expands upon through his Twitter thread

The core network of fake accounts promotes content that labels the Khalistan movement as extremist”, “what we know is that their aims were to label Sikh political interests as extremist…and promote the Indian gov”, “we can glean some obvious details from the content the accounts post…it shows a strong focus on countering Sikh independence”. 

However, the report inadvertently upholds the very logic that it is dedicated to exposing and the analysis lacks a deeper understanding on how India’s propaganda machine operates. 

Although the report is dedicated to exposing “a coordinated influence operation that uses fake personas” and does not claim a political argument, it cites academic literature that contains epistemologically violent understandings of Khalistan and India that uphold the narratives of Indian state propaganda that the report successfully identifies as being vocalised by self proclaimed “proud Indians” and “real Sikhs”. 

To provide context the author links a paper written by Rajshree Jetly, titled ‘The Khalistan Movement in India: the Interplay of Politics and State Power’

Jetly locates Sikh militancy solely after 1980s, and tied to a distortion of Sikhi in which economic disputes were manipulated by “religious overtones”, and a “rise in Sikh fundamentalism” which is tied to Sant Jarnail Singh who “propagated his brand of Sikhism”. This narrative that “congress cultivated the religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as an alternative power base”, and “Bhindranwale was initially Congress’s master stroke” is a deep rooted lie that erases Sikh agency, intelligence, and the continuity of Sikh sovereignty that pre-dates the arrival of colonisers and informs Sikh liberation since Guru Nanak Sahib.

In typical fashion Jetly moves on to call the Sikh genocide in November 1984 “riots”, which Sikhs themselves are responsible for, that “extremist leaders” like “Bimal Khalsa” capitalised on by gaining electoral victories. In true Milewski-esque fashion Jetly completely erases the violence of the state and instead credits India for brining back “normalcy”, reenforcing the idea that Sikh liberation was the aberration.

“The stern measures employed by Gill were supported by the army, which provided invaluable help to the Punjab Police…to assist in anti-terroist operations and create conditions for a free and fair election”

“Atrocities committed by the militants in terms of murder, rape, and extortion had alienated many of the ordinary people who, after a while, were not prepared to tolerate such actions in the name of Khalistan”

Jetly also brings in the mainstay narrative “Pakistan was also a crucial external player in the Khalistan crisis” favoured by the Hindutva shill and seen in the hashtags used by the fake accounts: #PakistanBehindKhalistan, #KhalistanIsPakAgenda #PakBehindKhalistan.

“The Sikh issue is in reality the issue of the freedom of Punjab. If the issue is viewed and fought for as the issue of our freedom, then the path is clear and victory can be attained.” 

- Shaheed Bibi Bimal Kaur Khalsa Interview in Paigam Magazine Nov 1989 

Reports such as these write about Sikhs as racialized objects, to be interpreted, without deeply reckoning with the violent political structures of India, the very structure that confines Jaggi Johal and other political prisoners without an actual trial. 

Calling India a democracy is a political statement. 

The struggle for Sikh liberation is central to the narratives of these fake accounts. Even when the report is committed to exposing a highly politicised, orchestrated, and coordinated network that is mobilising against Sikhs to reenforce the boundaries of Indian nationalism on social media. There are layers to this violence that exist before and extend beyond social media. 

In reaction to this report Sikhs have hailed it as vindicating what Sikh already knew, all without celebrating or even centring Khalistan.

“The combination of force and conciliation gradually put into place new political alignments in the state paving the way for normalcy” - Jetly

This combination is still prevalent today enforcing the “normalcy” of the status quo: the loyal citizen the “real Sikh” vs the religious extremist the “fake Sikh”, its seen in the victory of the “indian farmer” and the marginalisation of the Khalistani deformity. Rhetoric which Sikhs themselves have been upholding. 

The subsidiary problem with the circulation of India’s targeted messaging is that it traps many well-meaning Sikh organizations and individuals. Internalizing myths of the “model minority,” some Sikh organizations engage in self-censorship in response to this. These approaches often narrow the Sikh sangarsh into depoliticized monikers like “human rights advocacy”, and erase the ongoing context of political objectives and struggle altogether. 

Rather than active agents in a political movement, they circumscribe Sikhs to the sphere of a powerless victim. 

Disinformation isn’t just the coordination of a narrative online it is the underlying nationalist rhetoric that continually demonises Khalistan and Sikh resistance, it permeates the machinery of the indian state. 

The fake accounts are a symptom of the propaganda of the indian state, and are emboldened by the “silence of the graveyard” - genocidal violence. 

The logic seen in the disinformation campaign is the law on the ground in india. It leads to arrest, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, censorship, and ongoing criminalisation. This process makes it life threatening for people to claim Khalistan, because of how the psychological machinery of the Indian state is working. 

The report illuminates the type of discursive warfare that goes on; disinformation is an unearthing of the influences on way people function in their every day.

Overall, the CIR seeks to investigate threats to democracy, but it does not dissect the failings or disillusions of democracy itself. The report frames its findings about the 80 fake accounts as a threat to India's political and social cohesion, and it fails to locate the root of the issue -- India. 

By framing the fake accounts in relation to a threat to the "largest and most diverse democracy," the CIR not only validates the nation state (and its violence against minorities in this so-called democracy) but also undermines the right to Khalistan. Khalistan is still viewed as a threat to social and political cohesion instead of (problematizing) the structure of the India itself. 

India is seriously committed to erasing Khalistan, the question for us is how committed are we as Sikhs to liberation.

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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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