Praveen Swami

New facts emerge on the Chandra Shekhar government’s covert peace negotiations with Khalistan terror groups.

New facts have begun to emerge on top-secret negotiations held by the Indian Government and Khalistan terror groups in 1991 — a dialogue that its architects say came within a hair’s breadth of success, but was ultimately sabotaged by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

According to two key participants in the dialogue — the former Khalistan Liberation Front deputy chief, Manjinder Singh Issi, and the former Intelligence Bureau Joint Director, Maloy Krishna Dhar — the deal would have involved the rehabilitation of terrorists and the formation of a government which included their leadership. Had the deal succeeded, thousands of lives could have been saved.

Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar’s secret search for peace began within weeks of his taking office in 1991. D.S. Pannu, a long-standing confidante of the Prime Minister who went on to serve as India’s Ambassador to Burkina Faso, was among the key proponents of the talks.

Union Minister of State for Home Subodh Kant Sahay was ordered to open contact with key leaders of Khalistan terror groups.

Mr. Dhar, who had made a name for himself operating against Naga and Mizo terror groups in the north-east as well as the United Liberation Front of Asom, was recruited as a Special Assistant to the Union Home Minister. He focussed his attentions on Sohan Singh, the head of a Pakistan-based coalition of terror groups called the Second Panthic Committee. The ageing Mr. Singh, Mr. Dhar knew from his informants, believed that terrorism had outlived its utility.

IB agents helped Mr. Singh cross the India-Pakistan border near Jammu, and make his way to Ludhiana for a series of meetings with terror commanders active in the State. Elements of Gurbachan Singh Manochahal’s Bhindranwale Tiger Force and Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala’s KLF joined in the dialogue, as did another top Pakistan-based terror commander, Pritam Singh Sekhon. Pakistan-based leaders of the Dal Khalsa, using fake passports, also made their way across the Wagah border in Punjab.

Held in IB-run safe-houses in Ludhiana and Amritsar, Mr. Sahay’s meetings with the terror commanders went better than anyone had expected. “We were soon very close to a deal,” recalls Mr. Issi, “but as we tried to get other groups on board, we began to sense that something was going wrong.” Wadhawa Singh of the Babbar Khalsa International, Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the Khalistan Commando Force, and Daljit Singh Bittu of the Sikh Students Federation — all then based in Pakistan — dug in their heels and refused to go along with the deal.

Politics had not a little to do with their rejection of the dialogue process. Pakistan-based commanders such as Mr. Wadhawa Singh feared Mr. Budhsinghwala and Mr. Manochahal would seize power, and thus leave them out in the cold. The Damdami Taksal, a neoconservative religious order that gave birth to the BKI, also felt it would be marginalised by its clerical rivals in Punjab — and that the peace deal would eventually lead to pro-Khalistan radicals rejoining the ranks of the mainstream Shiromani Akali Dal.

But, Mr. Dhar argues, Pakistan’s opposition to peace was the key factor in undermining the dialogue. “Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her ISI advisers,” he says, “were determined not to let peace succeed. Pakistan’s covert war in Jammu and Kashmir had exploded in 1990, and its establishment understood that the Punjab conflict tied down our troops, and threatened our logistical lines into Jammu and Kashmir.”

India’s covert services attempted to strengthen the pro-dialogue groups by pumping in funds to help them buy the support of their rank-and-file. Efforts were also made to bring pressure to bear on leaders through kinship and clan networks in Punjab. However, with much of the Khalistan leadership on Pakistani soil, and with terror groups dependent on its patronage for weapons and ammunition, the ISI proved to have greater leverage. “The ISI defeated us, plain and simple,” Mr. Dhar says.

Bloody fallout

After the rejectionists made a near-successful attempt to assassinate Mr. Sahay, the negotiations finally fell apart.

“There was no trust left,” recalls Mr. Issi, “and since it became clear that the pro-dialogue groups could not deliver an end to violence, New Delhi lost interest.” A total of 5,265 people — 2,591 civilians, 2,177 terrorists and 497 security force personnel — were killed in what turned out to be the worst-ever year of Khalistan violence. Mr. Wadhawa Singh’s BKI, which had emerged as the most feared terror group in Punjab, was responsible for much of the carnage.

Fatalities fell to 3,883 the following year, as increasingly-aggressive Indian counter-terrorism strategies kicked in, declining further to 871 in 1993 and just 78 in 1994. The former Punjab Director-General of Police, K.P.S. Gill, who had been removed from office as a goodwill gesture to the terrorist groups which had joined the dialogue, spearheaded this successful offensive.

Some key figures in the dialogue lived to see the peace. Mr. Singh, whose son Swaran Singh Boparai is now Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University, was arrested in 1993. Both Mr. Issi and Mr. Bittu remain active in Sikh neoconservative politics, albeit in two bitterly-opposed factions which charge each other with betraying the Khalistan movement. Earlier this year, Mr. Bittu was charged with sedition after making inflammatory pro-Khalistan statements.

Others were less fortunate. In 1992, Mr. Budhsinghwala was killed in a shootout in Ludhiana’s Model Town, the same neighbourhood where some of the peace negotiations were held. A year later, Mr. Manochahal was also shot dead. Mr. Sekhon is thought to have died of natural causes in Lahore eight years ago, while Mr. Panjwar, Mr. Wadhawa Singh, his brother Mehal Singh, and the International Sikh Youth Federation’s Lakhbir Singh are still in Pakistan. Barring Mr. Mehal Singh, the others figure on the list of top 20 terrorists whose extradition India has unsuccessfully demanded from Pakistan.

As New Delhi ponders the prospects of opening negotiations with Kashmir terror groups such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the lessons of the 1991 dialogue weigh heavy on the minds of Indian strategists.

“Negotiating with some factions of terrorists,” says the Institute of Conflict Management’s Director, Ajai Sahni, “encourages other groups to raise the stakes by escalating violence. Moreover, the fact is that Pakistan holds a veto over the process.” However, officials involved in the 1991 dialogue note that even in its failure, it helped sharpen divisions between Khalistan terror groups and precipitated murderous factional infighting which helped the Punjab Police’s final, decisive offensive.

“We need to bring the full facts about 1991 out in the open,” Mr. Dhar says, “and to discuss its lessons — or we are doomed to make the same mistakes again and again.”