Painting the big picture: what’s luring poor, jobless youth into spraying pro-Khalistan graffiti

Intelligence-gathering and arrests reveal a network that recruits desperate youngsters to spread the message of separatists by giving promises of money and jobs abroad

Updated - February 12, 2024 06:50 pm IST

Published - February 12, 2024 02:18 am IST - New Delhi

A pro-Khalistan slogan painted on the wall of a metro station in New Delhi ahead of the G-20 summit last year.

A pro-Khalistan slogan painted on the wall of a metro station in New Delhi ahead of the G-20 summit last year. | Photo Credit: ANI

In early 2023, pro-Khalistan graffiti surfaced on public walls and pillars across several States — Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and even Delhi. What triggered this was a bit of a mystery for the police. Considerable intelligence-gathering and the arrest of two unemployed men revealed a network that lures desperate youth looking to make some money to spread the message of separatists.

While the Khalistan movement — demanding a separate nation for Sikhs came into prominence in the 1980s — may have lost popular support in the State, intelligence officials say some people abroad and in India for long have kept fanning its embers.

In the past couple of years, there has been an uptick in Khalistan-linked incidents in Punjab and neighbouring States. They paralleled the rise of pro-Khalistan preacher Amritpal Singh, who was eventually arrested in April 2023 under the National Security Act.

Delhi Police officers with a man arrested for allegedly painting slogans like ‘Delhi Banega Khalistan’.

Delhi Police officers with a man arrested for allegedly painting slogans like ‘Delhi Banega Khalistan’. | Photo Credit: ANI

Link to banned outfit

According to intelligence officials, banned outfit Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) is known for “raising false narratives to make separatist demands”. Ahead of the G-20 summit in New Delhi last year, graffiti of pro-Khalistan slogans came up on the walls of metro stations and public threats were issued to dignitaries. Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrested two persons in connection with the case. Investigations revealed the accused were paid by SFJ chief Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who has been running a separatist campaign from the U.S.

According to police officers investigating several such incidents, young men from lower-income families are often offered ₹2,000-₹8,000, or a job in the U.S. or Canada, or both. However, more often than not, they never get the money or the job, and land in the police net.

The first graffiti appeared in January 2023 before Republic Day at several locations in Delhi — Vikaspuri, Janakpuri, Paschim Vihar, Peeragarhi, Meera Bagh. Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrested two men — Vikram Singh, 29, a resident of Tilak Nagar; and Balram Singh, 34, a resident of Bharatpur in Rajasthan. They painted slogans such as ‘Khalistan Zindabad’, ‘Referendum 2020’, ‘SJF’, ‘Vote for Khalistan’, and ‘1984’.

The arrested duo, the police said, was promised ₹2 lakh each by their handlers. “They took great risk — Balbir Singh travelled all the way from his village in Rajasthan — but were paid only ₹2,000 each,” the officer said.

A pro-Khalistan slogan painted on the wall of a metro station in New Delhi ahead of the G-20 summit last year.

A pro-Khalistan slogan painted on the wall of a metro station in New Delhi ahead of the G-20 summit last year. | Photo Credit: ANI

Zeroing in on targets

Explaining how the handlers zero in on their targets, the officer said the Internet has helped the SFJ thrive. “Pro-Khalistan content is being regularly uploaded on social media channels like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. This helps zero in on like-minded people. There are men working day and night to trace digital footprint. These men track how certain youth behave. In most cases, targets are from lower- or middle-income groups,” he said.

In some cases, the officer said, neighbours or family members who have moved to the U.S. or Canada often connect people in their villages to get the job done using lucrative offers.

In December 2023, two SFJ operatives were arrested for painting pro-Khalistan graffiti and ‘Boycott Air India’ slogans in parts of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

An officer from the Punjab police said the operatives were paid around ₹1.25 lakh in various instalments through banks.

“We found that they conduct surveys on social media to identify potential recruits. They not only build a network but also ensure that gullible youngsters believe their promise of money and jobs abroad,” he said.

Once the work is done, the police said, it is rare for handlers to contact the men who painted the graffiti. “In some cases, they were even promised asylum in the U.S. or Canada,” another officer said.

Promises that turned out too good to be true.

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