Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) has called for a ‘global blockade’ of Air India flights from 19 November. But we assess that the threat is probably largely rhetorical and that the group poses a negligible threat to flights and airport operations globally.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 8 November 2023
- Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a hardline secessionist group, has threatened to ‘blockade’ Air India flights globally from 19 November
- We do not anticipate that the group will be able to cause any significant disruption to flights or airport operations; similar past threats have not materialised
- Nonetheless, protests by hardline Sikh activist groups in the US and Canada are likely over the coming months, particularly outside Indian diplomatic sites
Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) has made similar threats before without following through on them. We anticipate that SFJ will make further such threats against Indian interests, including aviation, over the coming months. SFJ and other pro-Sikh secession groups are likely to carry out sporadic protests outside Indian diplomatic interests in Canada, the UK and the US into 2024.
Threat against Air India flights
The SFJ leader on 4 November released a video warning Sikhs not to fly on Air India flights globally from 19 November. He also said that the group will not allow the carrier to operate. This date coincides with the ICC Cricket World Cup final in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state. He further warned the Indian authorities to close Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on 19 November. The SFJ leader did not specify how the group plans to conduct its ‘global blockade’ or to prevent Air India flights from operating, nor did he mention any specific airports apart from the one in Delhi.
It is extremely unlikely that SFJ activists will significantly disrupt Air India flights or airport operations in India on 19 November and in the days following. The SFJ has made similar threats in recent years but not taken action. In 2020, the group’s leader urged supporters to disrupt two specific Air India flights departing from New Delhi, but we did not see any protests take place. We have not seen any calls for protests that day by hardline Sikh activists on social media this week, and the group appears to have limited mobilising power.
In the case of the international airport in Delhi, activists would in any case almost certainly struggle to overcome high security measures there. In September, SFJ said it would ‘storm’ New Delhi airport during the G20 summit in September, but it did not attempt to do so. We also highly doubt it will follow through on its violent threats, particularly in India. Nonetheless, the authorities appear to be taking precautions. The Civil Aviation Security authorities on 6 November reportedly implemented a ban on people entering airports in New Delhi and Punjab state without a ticket until 30 November.
There are several Air India flight routes that operate to cities where SFJ is most active. These include London, Melbourne, San Francisco, and Toronto. We have not seen any publicly available plans for SFJ or pro-Khalistan protests in these cities on 19 November. But were they intent on carrying out any disruptive action that day, it would most likely take place in the aforementioned cities. In any case, we doubt they have the capability to disrupt flights departing from there, as those airports seemingly have strict security measures.
SFJ and activists affiliated with the group outside of India have not shared specific plans of what they intend to do from 19 November. However, activists with different ideological objectives who have sought to disrupt aviation operations in recent years (for example the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, XR and anarchists activists in Greece) have used tactics including accessing terminal buildings to protest at check-in counters and buying flight tickets to board planes and behave disruptively. In 2019, an environmental activist refused to sit down on a flight from London City Airport, delaying take off. In our analysis, it is plausible that SFJ activists would emulate such tactics from 19 November.
Negligible terrorism threat
We assess that SFJ poses a negligible terrorism threat to civil aviation. This is even though it also urged Sikhs to not fly on Air India after 19 November as their lives ‘can be in danger’, without explaining why. And it is despite Indian media outlets drawing comparisons between the SFJ threat and when Sikh militants detonated a bomb on an Air India flight from Montreal to India (via London) in 1985, killing more than 300 people. The group responsible was already prolific in mounting attacks at that time, but the Sikh militant threat has diminished since the 1990s.
Despite their occasionally violent rhetoric, SFJ seems mainly focused on peaceful – albeit at times disruptive – protests rather than actually pursuing violent action. This is despite an apparent SFJ claim that it carried out an RPG attack in Mohali, Punjab state, in May 2022. The authorities have not confirmed who was responsible for the attack. We suspect the leader of SFJ is keen to call for and claim responsibility for violent action in order to gain publicity. The group has not followed through with previous violent threats.
Hardline Sikh protests
SFJ is likely to make further similar threats over the coming months, including against Indian aviation and its diplomatic interests globally. This appears to be an established method by the SFJ to raise its profile. Such threats are particularly likely ahead of a general election in India due in April-May 2024, which SFJ opposes. Other potential events that would prompt such threats include national holidays, such as Republic Day on 15 January, and international events in India.
Beyond SFJ, pro-Khalistan and Sikh solidarity groups are likely to call for protests outside Indian consulates in countries such as Canada, the UK and the US over the coming months. These are places where there is a large Indian Sikh diaspora. On 5 November, SFJ announced an unofficial referendum on Sikh secession from India, to be held in San Francisco on 28 January. Sikh solidarity groups will probably call for protests ahead of this vote.
Protest calls also often occur in response to specific contentious events concerning Sikhs, such as an ongoing diplomatic dispute between India and Canada over the killing of a Sikh leader in the latter earlier this year. India’s High Commissioner to Ottawa this week said it ‘shall take up the threat against Air India flights […] with the concerned Canadian authorities’; India has long-accused the Canadian authorities of not clamping down on Sikh extremism.
Image: Activists of the Dal Khalsa Sikh organisation, a pro-Khalistan group, stage a demonstration demanding justice for Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijja on September 29, 2023. Photo by Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images.