India on Wednesday declared foreign-based, pro-Khalistan group Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) an unlawful association for supporting militancy and secessionism in Punjab.
The decision, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, was taken in a Union Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The fringe group is run by a few radical Sikhs of foreign nationality in the US, Canada and the UK, a Home Ministry statement said, adding that all the major representative bodies of the Sikh community, during consultations by the Centre, have categorically supported the government action.
The Ministry said that SFJ is a New York-based fringe group run by a few radical foreign Sikhs and doesn't have any support or traction in the Sikh community.
"It openly espouses the cause of Khalistan and has started an online secessionist campaign, the so-called 'Sikh Referendum 2020' on the social media advocating secession of Punjab and formation of Khalistan," it said.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh hailed the Union government's decision, saying the group deserved to be treated as a "terrorist organisation".
Singh termed the move as the first step towards protecting the nation from "anti-India or secessionist designs" of the ISI-backed organisation.
"Though the outfit deserved to be treated as a terrorist organisation, the government of India has at least taken a long-overdue stand against the SFJ, which had unleashed a wave of terror in Punjab in recent years," Singh said in a statement issued here.
With this step, the Centre has finally shown its much-needed intent to crack down on the organisation, which was "overtly being backed by Pakistan's ISI in its conspiratorial campaign" over 'Sikh Referendum 2020', launched in 2014, said the CM.
He, however, asserted that the central government would have to take more proactive measures to aggressively crack down on SFJ and its affiliates or operatives in the interest of national security.
"SFJ's activities went beyond being unlawful and posed a major threat to the very existence of our nation," said Singh.
The ban of the SFJ is said to be the part of Centre's "Zero Tolerance" policy against secessionist and extremist elements.
The Ministry said that the group is supporting militancy in Punjab and indulging in activities aimed at vitiating communal harmony in the border state.
The step came after the Punjab Police and National Investigation Agency (NIA) busted several modules of the SFJ indulged in various subversive activities in Punjab.
Investigations have revealed that the activists were radicalized and funded by the foreign-based SFJ handlers Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Harmeet Singh, Parmjit Singh Pamma and some other six-seven more persons attached to the group.
"Close and effective coordination between intelligence and security agencies at the Centre and the state level is being maintained. Concerted efforts are also being made to proscribe the unlawful activities of the global arms of the organization and its activists under the relevant local laws of those nations," said the Ministry.
Extremist ideology, whether based on religious, ethnic or political grounds, pose security challenges, and the government is bound to deal with them firmly, it added.
Highly-placed sources said that the group was formed in 2007 with Avtar Singh Pannun as its President and Gurpatwant Singh Pannun as its legal advisor.
Both the Pannuns, along with a few other individuals in the UK, Canada and Germany were learnt to, in the garb of the Sikh cause, conducting a pro-Khalistan campaign online and inciting disruptive and militant activities in Punjab, said a source, requesting anonymity.
In the garb of so-called referendum for Sikhs, the source said, the 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.
While relentlessly pursuing action against anti-national elements, the Ministry said, the Central government stands for "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (development for all) and Sabka Vishwas (trust of everyone)".
In this direction, the Ministry said the government has started a number of activities to celebrate 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev from November 2018 in a "befitting manner", including completing the corridor to the revered Kartarpur Sahib gurudwara in Pakistan.