Govt plans to set up joint counter operation centre in Punjab for better inter-agency coordination as ISI seeks to reactivate Khalistani terror

Yatish Yadav

New Delhi: After intelligence warning about the Inter-Services Intelligence network's nefarious design to revive the pro-Khalistan elements and whip up passions for separatist movement, the Centre is planning to have a joint counter operation centre in Punjab involving National Investigation Agency (NIA), external spy agency R&AW, counter-terror unit of Intelligence Bureau and Punjab Police.

At present all these agencies work in silos and coordinate or share information on a case to case basis. Top sources in the government said the Punjab DGP and the chiefs of all the agencies have been told to prepare a blueprint for the joint counter operation centre in a timebound manner. The government documents reviewed by the Firstpost has indicated that the security and intelligence agencies in Punjab have also been asked to utilise the knowledge and experience of officers who had served in Punjab during the peak of insurgency to train young officers and also familiarise them with ways and means to neutralise pro-Khalistani elements resurgence.

According to the broader contours of the proposed move, the note suggested that joint counter operation centre will also have backroom experts for better control over foreign-based content provider's data and metadata that will help in preparing Look Out Circular (LOC) against suspected pro-Khalistani elements flying in the country from abroad.

These elements are active in the UK, Canada, the US and Germany. The government has recently reviewed its adverse list and struck down the names of 312 Sikhs, however, the monitoring of forces inimical to India has been intensified particularly in the backdrop of the development in Kashmir with the abrogation of Article 370 in August. The experts at the joint counter operation centre using the metadata will be able to trace the pug marks of suspects on the move by air or road. Every banking and other financial transactions carried out by the suspected individual or a group mentioned in the LOC will be effectively intercepted.

On top of the list are individuals linked to an outfit called Sikhs for Justice which is running a campaign 'Referendum 2020' at the behest of ISI. The group has also planned a protest rally against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Texas on 22 September. The Ministry of Home Affairs in July banned the outfit under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for anti-national and subversive activities in Punjab and elsewhere. The ministry said: "'Sikhs for Justice' is in close touch with the militant outfits and activists and is supporting a violent form of extremism and militancy in Punjab and elsewhere to carve out a sovereign Khalistan of the territory of Union of India."

The government is of the opinion that if the unlawful activities of the Sikhs for Justice are not curbed and controlled immediately, it is likely to escalate secessionist movements, supports militancy and incite violence in the country. The group is highly active on social media platforms to lure gullible youths.

Since law enforcement agencies are facing difficulties in collecting evidence from mobile phones, the government is mulling another proposal by bringing certain legal amendments for admitting evidences of phone data. The government documents pointing out modus operandi of ISI further said the Pakistani agency is exploiting resident agents, Pakistani mission in India and in third countries and use of cyberspace especially social media to propagate the anti-national activities.

There will be dedicated funds for state agencies to purchase required cyber tools and equipment and having a nodal desk for queries related to WhatsApp and other instant messaging application companies for making available relevant information to the law enforcement agencies. The central agencies are also monitoring activities of ISI-run outfits like Khalistan Tiger Force, Babbar Khalsa International and International Sikh Youth Federation. According to the documents, since 2017 more than eight terror modules have been busted and around 43 fringe radicals have been arrested.

"From their interrogation, it had come out that considerable radicalisation was happening through social media," documents said.

A senior official on the condition of anonymity said this move will help in evolving an umbrella policy for counter-terrorism and radicalisation at the national level.

"It will ensure hardening resources of agencies to effectively counter the radicalisation and terror threat since the ISI network is using diverse means of sabotage, subversion and low-cost nature of their operations. It will also address the issue of the widespread availability of radicalising material, anonymity through technology and inadequate legal provisions," the official said.

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