Khalistan leader potential flashpoint in India-UK ties

LONDON:India and Britain could be heading for a flashpoint in bilateral relations over alleged anti-India activities of a pro-Khalistan leader in the United Kingdom — Dabinderjit Singh Sidhu.

Ashis Ray

London, January 24

India and Britain could be heading for a flashpoint in bilateral relations over alleged anti-India activities of a pro-Khalistan leader in the United Kingdom — Dabinderjit Singh Sidhu.

Sidhu, an executive at the National Audit Office (NAO) — which equates to India’s C&AG — demands a separate homeland for Sikhs carved out of Punjab and was reportedly an activist with the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), which was banned by the British government until un-proscribed by Theresa May as Home Secretary last year.

The ISYF, after being outlawed, created a successor organisation called Sikh Federation UK (SFUK). London’s widely distributed Standard newspaper maintained Sidhu continued to be associated with it.

Sidhu, though, told the paper: “I was a sympathiser of the ISYF.” He also argued: “When an organisation is proscribed, it’s the organisation, not individuals, that is banned.”

However, Indian intelligence not only brands Sidhu as a hardcore member of the ISYF and now SFUK, but as one of its spearheads. Videos on the Internet reveal he delivers passionate speeches in favour of Sikh rights, which he suggests are denied in India.

A few years ago, he addressed a major rally at Trafalgar Square. Adrian Hunt, an expert on counter-terrorism law at Birmingham University, told The Tribune statements made there constituted “an offence under section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006”. In other words, he explained, “making a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all members of the public to

whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”.

At least one of the Sikh Federation UK’s calendars glorified assassins of Indira Gandhi and one of the masterminds of the 1985 mid-air bombing of an Air India flight, which killed 329 people. They are hailed as “martyrs”.

In 2000, Sidhu was conferred the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his work for the NAO. An acceptance message attributed to him said: “It is perfectly legitimate and a duty upon every Sikh to peacefully work towards the establishment of an independent Sikh state.” He wore the ISYF insignia at the investiture.

When asked about his views on violence, he told the press: “If someone has had their mother and father killed and they decide to take up arms because they feel there is no justice for them, it’s very difficult to condemn them.”

In 2008, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, appointed him as a director on the city’s board of transport. The ISYF had by this stage been banned for alleged involvement in terrorism.

The Standard story, headlined “Ken’s adviser is linked to terror group”, went on to quote a British minister, Lord Bassam, who said ISYF was a group which had carried out “assassinations, bombings and kidnappings”. The Home Office believed the body channeled money and arms to Punjab.

Historically, the ISYF or the SFUK has enjoyed limited support in the London area. Its base is really in the West Midlands of England, where it controls half a dozen or more gurdwaras.

An intelligence source disclosed, Indian security agencies have raised the matter of Sidhu several times with their British counterparts, including MI5 – which is responsible for domestic intelligence gathering in the United Kingdom. The same source said there have been no positive results.

It is a moot point whether Sidhu is protected by a technicality – that of working for the NAO. The British cabinet office said an NAO employee is an officer of the House of Commons, therefore answerable to the legislature, not the executive, and not required to observe the civil service code.

But the NAO has its own “code of conduct”. Under this code, an official is restricted from engaging in political activities pertaining to Britain and Europe, but not beyond. In effect, being part of a political movement relating to India is not restrained.

Unsurprisingly, Stephen Luxford, spokesman for the NAO, stated: “We are satisfied that Mr Sidhu has met and continues to meet the NAO’s Code of Conduct.”

Peerage for Sidhu?

The British Labour Party has always been close to the Sikh community in the UK and vice versa. Even in the 2015 general election, while other sections of Indian-origin people in Britain largely voted for the Conservative Party, Sikhs remained loyal to Labour.

The ultra-left of the Labour has, of course, tended to fish in troubled waters on Punjab. Presently, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, like Livingstone, is of this persuasion. Besides, the revelation that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offered assistance to the Indian government in respect of Operation Bluestar has veered Sikhs supportive of Khalistan further away from the Conservatives.

Amid shrinking support from the British electorate in general, Labour is desperate to retain Sikh votes. It is, therefore, susceptible to pressure – a party MP disclosed – to nominate a Sikh to the House of Lords. Indeed, there is speculation Corbyn could be considering recommending Sidhu for a peerage to appease the community. Such a move is likely to be seen by India as highly provocative.

Corbyn’s spokesperson, Sian Jones, when asked to react, did not issue a denial. She said: “We don’t comment on Labour Party nominations to public bodies or recommendations for political appointments.”

A British Foreign Office official, when asked about Sidhu, seemed to be unaware of him. A diplomatic source, however, asserted “ISYF and SFUK have been taken up” with Whitehall. The same source underlined “intelligence has also been exchanged by India with Britain about individuals”.

The Indian argument is if Britain deems India to be a friendly country, then it should be discouraging forces inimical to India on its soil. London’s defence is it cannot prevent peaceful activities. New Delhi says there is evidence of violation of Britain’s counter-terrorism laws.  

Hunt is of the view: “Membership of and directing a proscribed organisation is an offence. As is seeking support for and giving support to such an organisation.”

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