A day after the Punjab Police’s Intelligence Wing HQ was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, an audio message, purportedly of Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, the US-based founder of the banned Sikh for Justice (SFJ), did the rounds in which he is heard sending out a warning to Himachal CM Jai Ram Thakur that the attack in Mohali could as well have been on the Shimla Police headquarters. The audio message also has Pannu allegedly claiming responsibility for installing ‘Khalistani flags’ on the gates of the Assembly building in Dharamshala.
Pannu has been at the centre of some of the most vexing cases for the Punjab Police, those that have served to bring back memories of the state’s turbulent past – from holding ‘Punjab Referendum 2020’ to running a campaign seeking the release of Jagtar Singh Hawara, who is serving a life sentence in the Beant Singh assassination case.
Originally from Khankot village on the outskirts of Amritsar, Pannu is a law graduate from Panjab University. One of the three children of Mahinder Singh, a former employee with the Punjab State Agricultural Marketing Board, Pannu is now an attorney at law in the US.
He was among the founders of the US-based SFJ, which claims to be “an international advocacy and human rights group set up in 2007 with the express intent of achieving self-determination for the Sikh people in their historic homeland in the region of Indian held Punjab and establishing a sovereign state, popularly known as Khalistan.”
Pannu’s professional skills as a practising lawyer helped him run the SFJ’s campaign against Indian leaders allegedly linked to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. SFJ even moved the US courts seeking to prosecute Congress leaders Kamal Nath, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
In September 2013, during Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US, a federal court in Washington had issued summons to the then PM acting on a plea by the SFJ that accused him of “funding crimes against humanity perpetrated upon the Sikh community in India”.
In 2016, then Punjab CM Amarinder Singh had to cancel a visit to Canada following a case filed by the SFJ.
In August 2018, he was in the midst of another headline-grabbing exercise: the SFJ made a declaration in London for a ‘Referendum 2020’ “to liberate Punjab that’s currently occupied by India”. The ‘referendum’, however, fizzled out.
In 2019, Pannu and the SFJ received a jolt when the outfit was banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Home Ministry noted: “In the garb of the so-called referendum for Sikhs, SFJ is actually espousing secessionism and militant ideology in Punjab, while operating from safe havens on foreign soils and actively supported by inimical forces in other countries.”
Pannu was in the news during the agitation against the farm bills when, in January 2021, the National Investigation Agency registered an FIR against Pannu and issued summons to various farmer leaders and activists to probe their source of funding.
Despite his openly secessionist calls, like-minded pro-Khalistan groups in India such as the Dal Khalsa and Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) have reservations about Pannu and his activism. They accuse him of luring youngsters in Punjab into carrying out his activities by paying them money while himself enjoying diplomatic immunity from arrest as he is a US citizen.
Pannu’s critics point to how over 10 youngsters were arrested in 2018 alone in cases allegedly instigated by Pannu, yet the man himself roams free – he was once even spotted at a White House event when Donald Trump was US President.
Pannu is known to often announce rewards for hoisting the Khalistan flag on government buildings. SFJ had also promised visas to youngsters to lure them to attend its ‘London declaration’.
Pannu is known to be relentless about bombarding social media with his audio and video messages, delivered in highly accented Punjabi. The latest was after the Mohali blast, when he sent out a chilling warning to the Himachal CM.