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This week’s Asia Review focuses on the Indian state of Punjab which recently saw lynchings following alleged acts of sacrilege against the Sikh religion as well as a mysterious bomb explosion inside a court premise there. Punjab is preparing for regional elections next year; these incidents are likely to supercharge what is already proving to be an extremely acrimonious run-up. We look at reactions in Hindi-language newspapers to these incidents and take a quick look at another key variable complicating the state’s security and political environment: its battle with illegal drugs. And to mark the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union yesterday, we look at the extent to which U.S. intelligence services saw it coming.
DRI Asia Review
December 27,
India’s Troubled Punjab Makes Headlines
Lynchings and a failed bombing raises worrying questions
Indian public opinion split along predictable lines
Punjab's drug problem
Situating Punjab within Asia-Pacific’s narcotics headache
Intelligence and surprise: USSR edition

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s Asia Review focuses on the Indian state of Punjab which recently saw lynchings following alleged acts of sacrilege against the Sikh religion as well as a mysterious bomb explosion inside a court premise there. Punjab is preparing for regional elections next year; these incidents are likely to supercharge what is already proving to be an extremely acrimonious run-up. We look at reactions in Hindi-language newspapers to these incidents and take a quick look at another key variable complicating the state’s security and political environment: its battle with illegal drugs. And to mark the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union yesterday, we look at the extent to which U.S. intelligence services saw it coming.


Punjab: The Past Present
A Sikh man hangs on to a flagpole holding a Sikh religious flag along with a farmers’ union flag at the historic Red Fort monument during a protest in New Delhi, January 26, 2021.
— AP Photo, Dinesh Joshi, File

The Indian state of Punjab has once again come under sharp focus, capturing both national and global headlines. On December 18, a man accused of trying to commit sacrilege at the Golden Temple in Amritsar—which Sikhs consider to be their holiest shrine—was beaten to death by a mob. Just 24 hours later, another incident took place in the Kapurthula district of Punjab, where an unidentified person, accused of “disrespecting” the Sikh religious flag, was also beaten to death. These incidents come amid political churn ahead of upcoming elections, scheduled for early 2022.

Politicization of such allegedly sacrilegious acts targeting Sikhs has been a persistent feature in Punjab elections. While religion has always been a dominant force in determining Punjab’s electoral calculations, such politization has led to further alienating and “otherizing” the Sikh community—an overwhelming majority of whom are proud of their Indian identity.

Religion is an extremely emotive issue across India, and the rise of notable instances of desecration of Sikh religious symbols since 2015 has angered the community on several occasions. But it is not just religion that has galvanized the Sikhs.

Farmers’ protests against new agricultural laws (which were only recently rescinded) that the Modi government had pushed through last year— and ones which gripped India for the larger part of this year—saw Sikhs coming together in large numbers to register their voice, peacefully camping along the border of the national capital, New Delhi. Meanwhile, Sikhs around the world, from Australia to Canada, showed their support by organizing protests and rallies outside Indian embassies and missions.

During the course of the farmers’ protests, on India’s Republic Day—January 26—this year, the historic Red Fort in New Delhi became a site of chaos and frenzy. A group of protestors reportedly breached barricades at the Delhi border and clashed with the police, which led to one protestor dead and several injured. The protestors hoisted the Nishan sahib (a flag that is seen in Sikh places of worship) onto an empty flag post inside the Red Fort premise, while the traditional Indian national flag above the ramparts remained intact.

Misrepresentation of the flag as an expression of separatist sentiments, together with the rampant circulation of fake news, were used by some to project the farmers’ movement as “pro-Khalistan”–in other words, consonant to a violent secessionist movement which emerged in the 1970s and 80s that demanded a separate country for Sikhs and was behind the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Despite some pointing to the questionable legitimacy of such charged claims, an enquiry into the farmers’ protest led the Chief Justice of India asked the government to probe whether a pro-Khalistan, U.S.- based outfit “Sikhs for Justice"—which is banned in India—provided aid to the protest, as some had claimed.

Symbolic imagery and peaceful protests have long played a major role in articulation of the Sikh identity. Interestingly, the choice of Red Fort as a protest site during the farmers’ protest has historic significance.

Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it has been a symbol of Indian state power and authority, becoming the site of the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech since the country gained independence in 1947. Moreover, the invocation of Baghel Singh—an eighteenth-century Sikh general—during the protests was striking to many as he is remembered for the siege of Delhi (and for some, capturing the Red Fort) during the reign of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II.

The idea of protests is not new to Sikhism; rather it is a fundamental part of Sikh history and ideology. But if protests against perceived injustice is one core part of the Sikh identity, public service is the other. While India was gripped by the deadly COVID-19 second wave, it was the Sikh community that emerged at the forefront of the relief effort, providing much-needed medical assistance to those in desperate need. Sikh organizations like the Hemkunt Foundation, Khalsa Aid and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (some of whom have been investigated by Indian agencies for links with Khalistani secessionist elements) carried out on-ground relief work in New Delhi, one of India’s worst-hit areas.

But at the same time, the Indian government continues to have legitimate security concerns related to a possible resurgence of Sikh secessionism or, at the very least, a significance uptick in violent criminal activity in Punjab.

On December 23, a former policeman was killed inside a court in Ludhiana, Punjab, while assembling a bomb inside the premise. According to a media report, the National Security Guard (NSG), an elite Indian counterterrorism agency, believes that the bomb, which killed the policeman and injured several others after accidentally exploding, was manufactured using a “high explosive.” Pointedly, the report adds, NSG investigators have refused to rule out that the bomb contained a plastic explosive –a hypothesis, if confirmed, is likely to set alarm bells ringing within New Delhi’s security establishment. Another Indian media report notes, based on briefings from anonymous Indian officials, that the failed Ludhiana court bombing was masterminded by Khalistani terrorists based in Pakistan and Germany.

Past media reports (as late as May last year) also suggest that Indian intelligence services continue to chase Khalistani secessionists in Western Europe and Canada.  In February this year, Indian security services worried that Belgian and British members of a Khalistani terrorist outfit was plotting the assassination of a unnamed farmer-leader during the protests in the outskirt of India’s capital.

To what extent New Delhi’s worries about a resurgence of Sikh secessionism in Punjab, perhaps backed by Pakistan as it was in the past, are valid remain an open question. But to consider them unfounded would be unfair. And perhaps this is where Punjab’s tragedy lies; modern India’s geography as well as history will continue to cast a long shadow over the state and its Sikhs as multiple interests jostle for political space there using a variety of licit and illicit means.


Punjab Echoes in Hindi-Language Newspapers
The Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab, India
— Flickr, travel photography

Quite understandably, the recent events in Punjab found its way into opinion pieces in major Indian Hindi-language newspapers.

On December 25, independent journalist Patralekha Chatterjee, writing for Amar Ujala, condemned the lynching of the man who alleged committed sacrilege inside the Golden Temple. While Chatterjee was unequivocal in her criticism of “any act of sacrilege with the intention of hurting the religious sentiments of any community,” she also reiterated the need to uphold the law. Chatterjee wrote:

We have to collectively say that it is illegal to hurt anyone, let alone murder. No matter what happens, the mob cannot take the law into their own hands. Along with the political leadership, the judicial system will also have to send a strong message that such illegal acts will not be tolerated at all.

Meanwhile, the same day, Kamal Verma, writing in another leading Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, weighed in on the Ludhiana court incident, squarely blaming it on pro-Khalistani forces and pointedly raised the possibility of Pakistan’s involvement. He wrote:

It is clear that as much as there is a need to get to the bottom of the bomb blast in the Ludhiana court complex, there is also a need to be careful with Pakistan. There seems to be a big conspiracy behind the incidents of sacrilege that have taken place in Punjab. It is not surprising if foreign powers are involved in this conspiracy too.


Punjab Within India’s Illicit Drugs Landscape
Punjab’s share of total criminal cases in India registered under the Narcotics Drugs & Psychotropic Substance Act, 1985
— Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 459, July 20, 2021. Graphics: DRI


Narcotics and Conflict in the Asia-Pacific
— Flick, Cat Branchman

Home to the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent—the global hubs for narcotics manufacturing and trafficking— Asia-Pacific has a long history of production and use of opiates. But in recent years, the region has also steadily-emerged as a source of illegally-manufactured potent synthetic opioids and their precursor chemicals from where it is being trafficked globally. Throughout 2020, flow of methamphetamine along the borders between Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar continued. Along the India-Myanmar border, 190,000 methamphetamine tablets were seized in July last year, 300,000 tablets the month later and 241,900 tablets in March this year.

Another alarming trend is the emergence of Afghanistan—the world’s largest producer of opium—as a methamphetamine producer. The growth of this relatively new illicit industry—especially in Nimruz province where it has outstripped opium in terms of tonnage of produced or moving through the area—together with the well-established regular heroin trafficking routes passing through the country has raised fears of an entrenched drug problem in the region. The persistent increase in the manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs has been accompanied by an overall decrease in demand for heroin in Southeast Asia and to neighboring countries in recent years. But the region still remains one of the most lucrative illicit drugs markets, valued at $8.7 to $10.3 billion annually. The UNODC 2021 World Drug Report indicates a strong increase in seizures of new psychoactive substances from South and Southwest Asia.

Illicit drug trade is also a pertinent problem in the Indian state of Punjab, which is home to deep smuggling networks, which are not only active locally but have a strong international presence. Close to Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, traditionally Punjab has not produced notable plant-based drugs or manufactured precursor chemicals, and the demand for illicit drugs is met from outside, through a well-established supply network controlled by traffickers. Despite attempts by successive governments, the drug economy in Punjab works like a well-oiled machine, which continues to escape the scrutiny of security forces. Moreover, the well-established nexus between illegal-narcotics-related activities and politics makes the drug problem more entrenched in the state, and it is likely to re-emerge as an issue of scrutiny in the upcoming elections in Punjab next year.

DRI’s upcoming two-part monthly report, “Wages of Blood: Conflicts and Illicit Economies in the Asia-Pacific,” investigates the nexus between illicit economic activities and internal as well as transnational conflicts in Asia-Pacific. Drawing on desk research and interviews with many globally-renowned experts, it identifies existing security hotspots in Asia-Pacific, and asks if—and the extent to which—illicit economic activities, such as drug trafficking, plays a role in exacerbating violence and conflict there.


American Intelligence and the Soviet Surprise
The Kremlin, Moscow
— Flickr, Larry Koester

As the world marked 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, the question of how the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) failed to anticipate the event (as is the colloquial wisdom) was on the minds of many strategic affairs and intelligence analysts. What adds salience to what amounts to once again returning to a well-litigated question is the rapid collapse of the Ghani government and the republican military in Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban in August this year—a possibility U.S. President Joe Biden had categorically dismissed just weeks before the fact. While some claim that the blame for not anticipating what amounted to a cakewalk for the Taliban lied with the U.S. intelligence community, certain, authoritative, American media reporting suggests otherwise.

Could it also be that matters are not so simple when it came to the U.S. intelligence community ostensibly failing to warn policymakers of an impending collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago?

Since 1991, as pressure on the CIA mounted for blowing the call on the erstwhile USSR—among other issues—the Agency has periodically tried to put across what its own line of thinking was at that time. Based on declassified documents, a 1996 Intelligence Monograph published by CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence and authored by Douglas J. MacEachin, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence,  argued as its goal: “[the demonstration] that assertions that CIA got it blatantly wrong are unfounded—that charges that CIA did not see and report the economic decline, societal deterioration, and political destabilization that ultimately resulted in the breakup of the Soviet Union are contradicted by the record.” The supporting evidence marshalled by MacEachin in the monograph is impressive.

Several scholars have also since weighed in on the subject, including Bruce Berkovitz, a former U.S. intelligence official and Hoover Institution scholar. In a 2007 paper in an American Interest volume published by the Brookings Institution, Berkovitz presents a synoptic view of his research on the issue, again drawing on declassified CIA documents. He concludes, bluntly: “Only the most convoluted reasoning can turn the summaries and key judgments of the intelligence community’s analysis of the Soviet Union in the 1980s into a case that the intelligence community ‘missed’ the Soviet collapse.”

Among the most astonishing papers Berkowitz draws from is a CIA Office of Soviet Analysis paper prepared just eight months before the USSR’s dissolution, on April 25, 1991. The nine-page document’s tone is summarized by its grim first sentence (you can read it in full here): “Economic crisis, independence aspirations, and anti-communist forces are breaking down the Soviet empire and system of governance.” To be completely fair, the document does not claim to predict the fall of the USSR within a specific timeframe. However, it does present a long and extremely serious list of problems with the Soviet system, leading it to conclude that “[i]n this situation of growing chaos, explosive events have become increasingly possible.”

DRI’s Research Analysts Rushali Saha and Ankita Vinayak and Director of Research Abhijnan Rej contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translations of Hindi media articles were provided by an in-house linguist.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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