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March 12, 1999


Pakistan sabotaged Khalistan movement: Manjinder Issi

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Neena Chaudhry in Sangrur

Once a dreaded operative of one of the most organised pro-secession militant outfits, the Khalistan Liberation Force, Manjinder Singh Issi is today a completely disillusioned man. He prays that terrorism should never return to Punjab and that peace should prevail till eternity. Wanted by the police in a number of sensational terrorism-related crimes, Issi, known for his grit and fortitude, once again hit the headlines, when on March 2, he resorted to a tame surrender before the SSP of Sangrur district, Arpit Shukla.

Though the Punjab police is yet to come to terms with its disbelief at having landed such a prize catch, the surrender would not be well taken by leaders of the various militants groups and their patrons abroad. Issi, who was part of the KLF think-tank, figures in about two dozen cases. He confesses to his involvement in the daring daylight kidnapping of the Romanian diplomat, Liviu Radu, in October 1991, to barter the release of two top militants, Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhjinder Singh Sukha, who were later hanged for assassinating former chief of army staff, General A S Vaidya.

Issi still ranks as a proclaimed offender in cases related to the assassination of former Punjab finance minister Balwant Singh, in 1990, an attempt on the life of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee president Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and a bomb attack on the then Punjab police chief, D S Mangat, in February 1991.

In an interview with Rediff On The NeT, Issi disclosed that the Khalistan movement started losing steam once the top militant leaders felt disillusioned with Pakistan's attitude. By the late 1980s, the militants began to realise that Pakistan was more interested in scaling up the extent of violence in Punjab rather than actually supporting the "fight for Khalistan for which Sikh youth were being killed in hundreds by the Indian security forces".

Issi finally chose a tame surrender before the Sangrur police which led by Shukla along with his deputy Gurpreet Singh, was successful in weaving a dragnet around him. He accepts that had the Sangrur police not zeroed in on him, he would have taken more time to surrender. Now at least, he was "sure" of not being eliminated in an encounter.

After carrying out a few terrorist assignments in Punjab in 1991, Issi had fled along with his mother, brother, wife and children to Jabalpur. His father, Sardar Rajbachan Singh, a owner of 70 bighas of fertile land in village Issi under Dhuri police station of Sangrur, did not favour his son's activities, and had left the family earlier. His whereabouts are still not known. In Jabalpur, the family successfully disguised themselves as transporters and managed a successful business with two trucks. Issi made it a point to ply his vehicles on remote routes, and never crossed the borders of states where he could run into police checkposts.

In January, when his mother came to visit her only daughter, police sleuths picked his scent. They traced the trucks, one of which met with an accident in Rajasthan, and simultaneously carried out raids to pressurise Issi's relatives to persuade him to surrender. Surprisingly, Issi complied without much resistance.

On coming face to face with him, it is hard to believe that behind such a humble countenance lay a dreaded terrorist who put sophisticated weapons and explosives at his disposal to lethal use. He swears to have never handled the notorious AK-47. "In the cities where I was assigned such weapons were useless, I could only with manage a pistol." He volunteers "no information" about the various codes of conduct issued by the militants and gives a blank look when asked about his concept of Khalistan. "Those were policy decisions taken by the top leaders and I must have been in hiding in Bombay. I am not aware of what happened," he says.

However, he recalls attending the meeting of top militant leaders in Ludhiana in 1991, when the channel for a settlement had been opened by the government when Chandra Shekhar was prime minister. Only top-ranking operatives of various outfits had attended the meeting, which was presided over by Dr Sohan Singh, who then led the Panthic Committee. Gurjant Singh Buddhsinghwala, Dr Pritam Singh Sekhon, Dr Hari Singh, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, and Daljit Singh Bittu were among those who attended the meeting.

Serious differences among the militants emerged when Dr Sohan Singh proposed that the militants join the mainstream and contest the 1991 general election to form a government in Punjab, as Pakistan was only exploiting them for its vested interests.

According to Issi, Dr Singh was disillusioned with Pakistan. At this, Panjwar and his sympathisers threatened to kill Dr Singh and even accused him of being a traitor to the Sikh cause. Issi says this was the turning point in his life and he thought of quitting the "movement", as there was no place for dissent or a counter-argument. "Had that settlement with the government materialised, a lot could have been saved and major tragedies averted," he added.

While recalling the Radu kidnapping he even exhibits a sense of being cheated by his companions, with whom he had to struggle for his share of the booty. He said after receiving Rs 200,000 he left for Jabalpur and severed all contacts with the KLF and any other militant organisation. During his stay in Jabalpur, he claims to have never come across any militant. He said he and his brother personally drove the trucks, with the cargo varying from lime to mangoes. The usual routes were between Jabalpur, Katni, Raigarh and Vijaynagar. Sometimes they ventured into Rajasthan, Gujarat and even went north up to Dehradun and Aligarh. But he made it a point to never enter Punjab.

Recalling his initiation into militancy, Issi scoffs at the contention that most youth joined the militant ranks "for fun's sake". "Who would like to get killed for fun?" He recalls going to the Golden Temple as part of a jatha in support of the then chief minister, Surjeet Singh Barnala, who was confronting the radicals. There he met a militant in the langar building, who was later arrested by the police.

The security forces took Issi into custody as his name had figured in the militant's diary. In the Ludhiana jail he befriended another dreaded militant, Jagroop Singh Kalakh and his accomplice Gurmit Singh Ghawaddi. After being released, he later attended Kalakh's wedding, where he came across yet another militant, Jarnail Singh Ghawaddi, who stayed a night with him. The police intercepted Jarnail's wife, who disclosed Issi's name to her interrogators, who arrested him once again.

On being released for the second time, he joined Jagroop Singh Kalakh and later became a confidant of KLF chief Gurjant Singh Buddhsinghwala, who impressed him much. After the police killed Jagroop Kalakh, Issi married his widow and took her along to Jabalpur, where she bore him a son. She had two children from Kalakh, whom Issi has been looking after. Regarding his political inclinations, Issi recalls he was just like any average Punjabi village youth. "We were more interested in our drink of local brew."

Even Operation Bluestar and the massacre of the Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination did not make any impression. "The day she was killed we were celebrating the sale of a paddy consignment. Unaware of the development, a few friends finished off five bottles of liquor," he adds.

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