Early last week, an Indian man was sentenced to 9 months in prison for espionage by the German High Court. ‘Ranjit S’ as he was dubbed had been passing on information to Indian intelligence about German citizens. His case is one of the very few where a person has been arrested and convicted for spying on the Sikh community, and we must ensure that it is publicised much more widely, or continue to suffer the consequences.
‘Ranjit S’ was a failed asylum seeker and one-time smuggler who had been in Germany for more than a decade by the time he was arrested. He was accused and convicted of gathering information about individuals belonging to Sikh organisations for a contact in the Consulate General of India based in Frankfurt. It was made clear in court that this information was intentionally being procured for a domestic intelligence service in India – most likely to be the Intelligence Bureau (IB) – and so a defence plea of acting under duress was dismissed.
Espionage is commonly depicted as one of the oldest professions in human civilisation and it is not rare for cases like this one to occur. However, on many occasions nation states might negotiate a deal for clemency or provide diplomatic immunity to the accused (if they see them as important enough to protect of course) whilst the very nature of the industry itself determines that it is not something which goes reported very often by mainstream media; which makes this particular case all the more fascinating, for neither was ‘Ranjit S’ offered any protection, nor was his case kept from the media – only his identity has been protected. (The fact that the story has gone widely unreported by the Sikh and Punjabi press/media, tells a wholly different story about their ineptitude rather than suggesting they have been leaned upon to keep it quiet.)
It should come as little surprise to the Sikh community that we, like others, are being monitored by the authorities in India. It has been crucial to clamping down on activism within a community that has been struggling to assert its identity since the division of Punjab, and the creation of both India and Pakistan. Infiltration of the Sikh Diaspora and influence over the direction the community takes has only been possible because of the intelligence gleaned from within. ‘Ranjit S’ may be one of the few to have been caught and charged, but he is a mere drop in the ocean. Sometimes Sikhs, myself included, take a step back to look at our community and conclude that the notion of widespread ‘agents within the Panth’ is an exaggeration, something that we blow out of proportion. But whilst it is true that every unwise decision and misdoing in Sikhdom worldwide should not and cannot be attributed to the work of outside agencies, the impact of espionage should not be downplayed.
Following the events of 1984, the west in particular was a hot-bed of Sikh activism and in the years that followed, strong organisations and institutions that had begun to emerge were rapidly dismantled, due in no small part to the result of espionage surveillance which reported what was going on. Key figures within the Sikh community were identified and attacked, physically or otherwise, to reduce their role and influence. In California some ten years ago, I witnessed first-hand people who came to be known as intelligence agents huffing and puffing at public meetings, diverting the otherwise positive direction that youth groups were taking on issues of the day. In Toronto, activist groups have in recent years been marginalised by a small but vocal section of the regional press that is hell-bent on misrepresenting them – propaganda and vitriol that is sponsored by powerful agencies from the sub-continent. And of course here in London, I am most certainly not alone in having come up against quite inexplicable forces whose capacity to cause chaos amidst Sikh youth and activist groups points all too often at a nefarious element.
The sentencing of ‘Ranjit S’ is a timely reminder of the intimidation and monitoring that Sikh activists in the West face and how easy it is for our good intentions to be shadowed, manipulated, or halted altogether. Amongst the many concerns that our migrant community has to contend with, we need to add espionage to the list. Sadly, as a relatively infant community in the west, we lack the sophistication and skills required to combat such, or indeed to launch counter-intelligence measures of our own, but we can take solace at least from the conviction and imprisonment of one intelligence agent – and heed the warning that his very existence contends.