Google has recently removed an app called Sikh Referendum 2020 during a recent operation to weed out apps with malicious intent from its Play Store. The app, which quickly caught the attention of the Punjab government in India, was designed to urge people to sign up for a referendum in 2020 by which the Sikh community would call for Khalistan, or a movement to separate Sikh-majority states like Punjab from India.
Early November, Punjab’s Digital Investigation, Training and Analysis Centre (DITAC) cyber lab raised the issue with Google’s legal team in India, stating that the app “was abused for committing illegal and anti-national activities by banned association called ‘Sikhs For Justice'”.
The app, which is no longer on the Play Store, has been created by an alleged alias called ICETECH. The company was sent a notice under Section 79 (3) B of the Information Technology Act on November 8, which seeks to take down unlawful content as soon as authorities are alerted about its existence. However, the website linked to it, yes2khalistan.org, continues to exist and is creating quite a stir.
According to reports, this website and app are believed to be the brainchild of ‘Sikhs for Justice’, a US-based secessionist group that just in July was banned by the Government of India for fostering secessionism. After the app was banned, Singh released a statement saying that this was the “first step towards protecting the nation from the anti-India secessionist designs of the ISI-backed organisation”, alleging that this group was being backed by the terror group. He also stated that the timing of the app’s launch made him suspect it to be Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence’s (ISI) attempt to take advantage of the opening up of the Kartarpur Corridor to divide the Indian Sikh community’s sentiments and turn them secessionist.
Khalistan is the Sikh separatist movement that has been brewing since 1971 and seeks to unite the Sikh-majority parts of both India and Pakistan to create an entirely new state called Khalistan. This movement has turned violent in the past, especially under the leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who turned the sacred Golden Temple complex into an armed fortress, thus prompting the controversial Operation Blue Star, the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the downing of an Air India flight that left more than 300 people dead. While this movement is said to have peaked in the ’80s, it is slowly seeing a sort of resurrection under the guise of a 2020 referendum.
According to the website of Referendum 2020, this is a campaign to “liberate” Punjab, which is “currently occupied by India” and is being organised by Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), formed in 2007 to fight for a separate homeland for Sikhs. It said that this ‘referendum’ will be held in November 2020 in Punjab, along with major cities in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Kenya and the Middle Eastern countries.
In the meantime, Punjab police forces suspect that this organisation is a proxy for Pakistan. In fact, the organisation is represented by a man named Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who has filed lawsuits against Indian politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh on issues including the 2002 Gujarat riots and 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
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