Shamsher Singh: The Long History Of UK-India Collusion Targeting Sikh Activists
"[K]nowing the reality of UK-India collusion has been 'a big part of our lives' and there are pivotal moments in our resistance’s history that attest to this reality."
September 1, 2022 | 10 min. read | Opinion
The only interview we have with Jagtar Singh Johal (“Jaggi”) was captured hurriedly by journalist Jasveer Singh Muktsar in July 2018 as Jaggi’ and other Sikh political prisoners sat in a police bus outside of an Indian court. Jasveer Singh asks a cheerful Jaggi if he has hope for justice, to which he responds, “What justice is there for Sikhs here [in India], you know this”.
The reality of questions about ‘justice’ and the relation between Sikhs and the state was captured succinctly by Meerat Kaur when news broke about the direct involvement of the British establishment in having Jaggi arrested whilst he was in Punjab for his wedding in November 2017.
On August 22, 2022, as headlines broke in the UK across the mainstream national press, many were shocked and outraged at the allegation that UK intelligence agencies gave information that led to Jaggi’s arrest. It is important to unpack the reaction because many of us were not shocked. As Meerat Kaur points out - knowing the reality of UK-India collusion has been “a big part of our lives” and there are pivotal moments in our resistance’s history that attest to this reality.
If we look closer at the headlines, the repeated language of an ‘intelligence tip-off’ does not convey shock. If anything, it points to a degree of guilt. Perhaps, the shocking part is that the ‘tip-off’ led to torture.
Yet, those that know anything about India’s governance, since the transfer of power in 1947, understand that state violence, exchange of surveillance and criminalization are key features of the so-called Indian democracy. The Indian State has launched multiple genocide-as-counter-insurgency campaigns against dissenting peoples who demand their sovereignty, which has left a legacy of human rights violations and state impunity.
Perhaps the revelations regarding Jaggi are shocking for a British public who have been fed an innocuous image of India - a public who are more likely to associate India with yoga and hot summers than routine custodial torture, multiple genocides, and dissenting peoples who reject the Indian project. In part, this innocuous image is maintained by the British establishment; in its Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, the UK government does not list India as one of its 31 ‘“priority countries” where there is concern about human rights violations.
The dichotomy between Sikh knowing and what is fed into mainstream public consciousness in the UK and beyond remains a source of tension; a tension that is most visible in conversations around ‘1984’, genocide, Khalistan, and political prisoners. Most recently, this tension can be seen through the narrative about Jagtar Singh Johal’s arrest, criminalization and activism.
The tensions that underpin the long-standing UK-India collusion can be understood in relation to ‘1984’, which shows exactly how and why this relationship exists and its implications in relation to ongoing state violence.
In 2014, top secret government files were accidentally released into the National Archives. Based on these, Phil Miller, an investigative journalist, wrote a report in 2017, titled Sacrificing Sikhs, which details the extent of the collusion between the UK and India. At the core of this collusion was the British desire to bolster trade relations, specifically to secure the sale of military equipment to India. The report is essential reading for those that want to understand the scope and implications of UK-India collusion as it relates to Sikhs. Such work is necessary to understand the larger macro economic forces that have not only led to Jaggi’s arrest, but also his continuous imprisonment.
The motive for Britain's collusion with India today, like in the 1980s, is to secure trade deals.
Miller notes that the sale of military equipment was of “paramount importance” and that “India was one of Britain's top three purchasers of military equipment from 1981-1990, at times buying more British weapons than Saudi Arabia.” Miller goes on to say that “the UK was well aware of India’s human rights violations and repressive policing and paramilitary tactics - with it being highly likely that these tactics were a part of British training. However, this was overlooked and ignored in the interests of progressing lucrative arms deals”.
In Jaggi’s case, the reality of UK-India collusion comes into sharp focus as an ongoing practice that has its roots in the repression of Sikh resistance and dissent since the 1980s.
Not only did UK intelligence agencies alert India to arrest Jaggi, but they covered this up by playing into Sikh representation politics by keeping up a charade of “democratic process” and “diplomatic pressure”.
Whilst India was running interference, tarnishing perceptions against Jaggi in the media, engaging in torture, and continuing to arbitarily detain Jaggi with drawn out legal proceedings with 80 trial hearings and 187 pre-trial hearings to date. Jaggi’s arrest and the arrests such as that of Jasveer Kaur and her son Jagmeet Singh offer a cautionary tale about what is to come for those who are outspoken about Sikh sovereignty and India’s genocidal tendencies.
Beyond Sikh political prisoners in India, there are numerous examples of the repressive measures taken in the UK since the 1980s that further India’s agenda - from the mid 90s when West Midlands police went to Punjab “to exchange information with security forces about Sikh terrorists and their supporters” at the height of systemic state violence against Sikhs to most recently, in 2020, the failed attempted extradition of 3 Sikh activists in the UK based on intelligence provided by India. It is important to note that the Home Office was prepared to aggressively act on intelligence which was proven to be dubious in a UK court. This demonstrates that the extradition attempt was politically motivated.
The recent revelations in Jaggi’s case of the role of UK intelligence highlights the pattern of UK-India collusion that targets Sikhs in order to extend Indian repression. REDRESS provides a detailed breakdown that links the anonymised case study published in the 2018 Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) annual report to Jaggi. In this investigation, REDRESS also highlights how the 2018 counter terrorism raids on UK Sikh activists and the 2020 failed extradtion of the West Midlands 3 show links between the Indian state’s investigation of Jaggi and police action in the UK. Despite West Midlands Police repeatedly denying any links.
“The raids were the result of diplomatic pressure created by India on the UK…said an official, adding, “It would be interesting to see if UK allows extradition...” - Hindustan Times, Sep 23, 2018
“The searches conducted by West Midlands counter terrorism unit on the premises of Sikh activists in the UK last week was apparently an outcome of the “sharing of information between the governments of India and the UK” - The Tribune, Sep 25, 2018
Jaggi’s case not only follows the pattern of repression but his case itself shows how UK-India collusion continues to occur to maintain the marginalisation of Sikh dissent. This marginalisation takes different forms, inside India we see impunity, arrest, and torture, as well as restricting information through censorhsip and disinformation. Outside India, in the UK, laws such as Schedule 7, RIPA, and government programs such as Prevent are used to target Sikhs. In relation to this we can plot how Sikh responses such as the banning of police entering Gurdware lead to the police working to find alternatives to make inroads into the Sikh community.
Today, recruitment of Sikh police officers, in the name of diversity and inclusion, have resulted in internal spying of Sikh activist spaces, Gurdware and other hubs where sangat congregate. Recently, National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF) and Sikh Youth UK hosted a Twitter Space to map the timeline about UK-India collusion in the aftermath of Jaggi’s arrest in which Sikh activists in the UK were primary targets of surveillance, raids and police action. The National Sikh Police Association (NSPA), a recently formed police union consisting of Sikh officers, secretly listened into the conversation; the following day, the NSPA, which had previously never spoken about Jaggi’s arbitrary attention, released a statement that was derided publicly by Sikh organisations and the FreeJaggiNow campaign.
The state’s recent attempts to recruit Sikhs in Gurdware, form “Sikh” policing unions and normalise police presence at Nagar Kirtans and Mele raises questions about how surveillance seeps into the everyday lives of Sikhs that results in this exchange of intelligence amongst recruited Sikh informants, local and national policing units that is then exchanged with the Indian state - as exemplified in Jaggi’s case and its aftermath.
Meanwhile, India persistently frames the Sikh liberation struggle for Khalistan as a “law and order problem” and uses state violence to deny Sikhs space outside the machinery of the state to articulate and organise for freedom.
Britain has played along by upholding the terms imposed by India - confining the Sikh struggle to the “terrorist” activity of a few “radicals/extremists”. The game of representation politics rings hollow with its calls for “justice” going nowhere; Sikhs, themselves, strip away the link between Khalistan, political prisoners, and human rights violations.
Additionally, they fail to ask why human rights violations continuously occur and the purpose that they serve. This question is poignant when we look at what is reported about political prisoners in the mainstream. In Jaggi’s case, The Tribune India alleged his crimes as “influencing youths through social media” and producing educational literature by translating the speeches of Sant Jarnail Singh Jee into English.
Whereas the UK benefits from UK-India collusion by securing trade deals, India benefits by whitewashing its image on the international stage and the denial of space to Sikh resistance for Khalistan. This dynamic continues beyond the UK into all countries where Sikhs are displaced to.
For example, in Canada, a 2018 public safety report upheld Indian state discourse by listing “Sikh (Khalistani) Extremism” as a public safety threat, following much backlash the wording was removed after Gurdwara Dashmesh Darbar banned MPs from the Surrey Nagar Kirtan stage.
Canada’s targeting of Sikh activists follows the same pattern, ranging from government designations, no fly lists (Dulai, Brar Vs Canada), India recruiting spies, and using every opportunity to push a narrative of ‘Sikh radicalisation’, as seen in the killing of Malik. In Canada, India tries more broadly to curtail space. During the Farmers’ Protest, the Indian consulate interfered in a local school in an attempt to disrupt content critical of India being discussed.
From Canada to Germany and Australia, similar patterns of surveillance, criminalization and imprisonment emerge across borders including interference, spying, collusion, and the normalisation of India as “the world's largest democracy. Nations allied with India maintain the status quo and make space for India's opposition to Sikh sovereignty and armed struggle. The entire security infrastructure of India’s allies produces the same repressive dynamics that deny space, allow for arbitrary arrests and investigations, and criminalise Sikh organising that refuses to conform to the assimilatory politics of Sikhs as a law abiding model minority.
We should accept that the trajectory of the relation between India and its allies is predicated on India erasing Sikh resistance and continually criminalising any uprising, and its allies assisting and whitewashing its image. We should also accept that Sikhs have been actively resisting brutal conditions and our duty to those who resist goes beyond campaigning. Only when we confront the reality of the conditions as gulaami will we be able to formulate responses that uplift our struggle for liberation and move beyond reactionary discourse.
For me, a recent interview from Punjab struck at the heart of the question of Sikh political prisoners, justice, and liberation, addressing the limitations of representation politics:
“The question of Sikh political prisoners and Punjab will not be resolved, because this fight is for a political ideology, for the uniqueness of Sikhs to establish Halemi Raj. Political prisoners will continue to emerge, to rotate…The section of the Panth that still fights for Khalistan their aim isn't to just release prisoners, their aim is to address the conditions that produced political prisoners, to attain sovereignty. Those that tread the path of Sant Jarnail Singh, who said the foundation of Khalistan will be laid when the military enters Darbar Sahib, those that struggle on this path should be recognised as the core of the 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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