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India's anti-terror agency files case against Sikh separatist for Air India threat

Air India passenger aircraft are seen on the tarmac at Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport in Mumbai

By Shivam Patel

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India's anti-terrorism agency has filed a case against a Sikh separatist leader for warning Air India passengers that their lives were in danger and threatening not to let the flag carrier operate anywhere in the world.

The agency said security forces were on alert after the threats by Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who acts as general counsel of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a group campaigning to establish an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan carved out of India.

The case against Pannun has been registered under provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 and sections of the Indian Penal Code, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) said in a statement on Monday.

"Pannun threatened that Air India would not be allowed to operate in the world ... in his video messages, released on Nov. 4," it said, adding that he had urged Sikhs not to travel on Air India flights from Sunday, "claiming a threat to their lives".

Reuters has not independently verified the video messages, which were widely shared on social media this month.

Pannun told Reuters in an emailed response that his message was to "boycott Air India not bomb" and that the Indian government was engaging in a disinformation tactic to "crush freedom of expression".

He added that the "government can not stop SFJ from running secessionist Khalistan referendum, which is the real motive why NIA filed frivolous terror case."

Air India declined to comment on the matter. The NIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The demand for Khalistan has resurfaced many times, although it now has little support in India, which sees the movement as a security threat.

A violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s by Sikh militants paralysed the northern state of Punjab, where Sikhs are a majority, for more than a decade.

India banned the SFJ as an "unlawful association" in 2019, citing that it was involved in "anti-national and subversive" activities.

It listed Pannun as an "individual terrorist" in 2020, stating that he was issuing appeals to "Punjab-based gangsters and youth" to fight for Khalistan.

The interior ministry said that year that Pannun, originally from a village in Punjab, was residing in the United States. Media said he has citizenship of U.S. and Canada.

Interpol has rejected two requests by India to issue a red corner notice against him, The Indian Express newspaper said in October last year. The SFJ says it has offices in Britain, Canada and U.S.

The threats come as Canadian agencies investigate allegations linking India's agents to the killing of a Sikh separatist leader there, which has frayed ties between the two countries. India has rejected Canada's suspicions.

In the wake of the threats, investigations have been launched in Canada, India and some other countries where the airline owned by the Tata Group conglomerate operates, the NIA said.

Air India has previously been targeted by Sikh militants, who were blamed for a bombing in 1985 of its Boeing 747 aircraft flying from Canada to India that killed all 329 people aboard off the Irish coast.

Pannun has also previously threatened to disrupt railways and thermal power plants in India, the agency said.

(Reporting by Shivam Patel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and David Gregorio)