Amritpal Singh, the hardline Sikh separatist campaigner, disappeared from public sight in Punjab’s Jalandhar district on March 18 following a 25-km police chase, a part of which was livestreamed on Facebook from Amritpal’s SUV. Since then, the 30-year-old head of Waris Punjab De (heirs of Punjab) has travelled across several districts, switching vehicles and changing appearances, before he reportedly crossed over to adjoining Haryana, according to the police.
Declaring Amritpal one of the most wanted criminals in the country, Uttarakhand Police have sounded a public alert in Dehradun, Haridwar, and Udham Singh Nagar districts. On March 19, the Punjab police arrested Amritpal Singh’s alleged financier Daljeet Singh Kalsi, a Punjabi film actor, from Gurugram.
As the countrywide crackdown launched by the State and Central governments against Amritpal and his supporters continues, the Punjab Police claimed that the self-styled Sikh separatist leader was raising a nascent militia called Anandpur Khalsa Fauj (AKF) for the creation of Khalistan, a sovereign Sikh state.
The administration has restored Internet services in Moga, Sangrur, Ajnala sub-division in Amritsar, and a few areas in Mohali five days after a Statewide Internet blackout on March 18, but several Twitter accounts of journalists and activists remain withheld while mobile Internet services remain suspended in Taran Taran and Ferozepur districts.
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Although the State government has suppressed protests in support of Amritpal for the time being, some prominent political and religious organisations, including the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Akal Takht, besides civil society, have protested against a surge in hateful propaganda against Sikhs on social media following action against Amritpal.
Opposition slams AAP
Opposition parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress, slammed the AAP-led State government for the botched operation.
Pratap Singh Bajwa, Congress leader and leader of the opposition, said: “Amritpal Singh could have been arrested from his village in Amritsar but the operation was done in the Jalandhar area in view of the Jalandhar (Lok Sabha) byelection. All this happened under a strategy.”
He added: “Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has acted as a pawn in the hands of the Central government. An attempt is being made to take the entire community back to the 1980s and 1990s.”
Even as manhunt is ongoing, it is also widely believed that Amritpal is already in police detention. Iman Singh, the legal advisor of Waris Punjab De, has filed a habeas corpus petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, demanding that he be produced before the court.
On March 21, the court asked the Punjab government a question that has been making rounds in the State’s political and media circles: “How is everyone arrested, except Amritpal Singh? You have 80,000 police. How has he not been arrested?”
A Bench of Justice N.S. Shekhawat told Advocate General Vinod Ghai: “If he escaped, this is an intelligence failure.”
In another petition, the lawyer Jagdeep Singh Bains prayed before the High Court that the “Sikh preacher” be brought before the judicial courts. Referring to the Ajnala incident on February 23, wherein Amritpal Singh and his supporters stormed a police station, Jagdeep submitted that the State government was “pressured by the Centre” and that on the conclusion of a G20 meeting in Amritsar, Amritpal Singh was arrested by the Jalandhar Police on March 18. He said: “Till now, he has not been produced in any trial court; probably there is an acute apprehension that Amritpal is soon going to be killed in a false police encounter.”
Amritpal’s parents have also rubbished the police’s claims, saying that their son is in police custody. “We are not sure as to how they [police] will show him to the public….in what appearance. They must not tarnish his image,” his mother Baljinder Kaur told mediapersons from their Amritsar home recently.
Even if such doubts regarding secret police detention of Amritpal are misplaced, Amritpal’s escape is a bad reflection on the functioning of the Punjab Police, which has also been struggling to explain how televised interviews of the gangster Lawrence Bishnoi surfaced from jail recently.
The making of Amritpal
Amritpal Singh started his separatist campaign in Punjab in September 2022. But he had already become politically active when he was in Dubai. He would participate in online discussions on the farmers’ protest against the now-withdrawn farm laws.
A regular presence in exclusive ‘audio rooms’ set up by the founder of Waris Punjab De, the late actor Deep Sidhu, on social media app ClubHouse, Amritpal emerged on the Punjab scene against the backdrop of a Khalistan referendum campaign in some western countries and reports of pro-Khalistan supporters attacking Hindu religious places and festivals.
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In October 2022, Interpol returned India’s request seeking a ‘red notice’ on Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a designated terrorist and US-based leader of the banned Sikhs for Justice. Pannun was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) after ‘Khalistan’ flags came up outside the Himachal Pradesh Assembly complex in May 2022.
Although the Narendra Modi government has been wary of Khalistani separatists in the UK, Canada, and Australia, it allegedly gave a long rope to Amritpal, who took over Waris Punjab De following Deep Sidhu’s death in a road accident.
There are some striking similarities between Deep and Amritpal. Neither sported long hair or a beard or even the Sikh turban when they first started propagating separatism. After his death, Deep Sidhu, who was booked for instigating violence at Red Fort during the farmers’ agitation, is being projected as a martyr. His paintings show him as a traditional Sikh warrior.
Amritpal, however, got himself baptised after having grown a beard and hair and then started propagating the idea of Khalistan in Punjab. Both of them are believed to have been launched by pro-Khalistan supporters overseas. According to Punjab observers, the growing disillusionment with the traditional parties, especially the SAD, has also contributed to the emergence of Amritpal as an alternative in the unoccupied political space.
Cases against Amritpal
So far, the police have registered seven cases against Amritpal Singh for offences such as spreading hatred and disharmony among classes, murder attempt and assault on police officials, threats and robbery.
Besides several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the police have invoked the National Security Act (NSA) against Amritpal and his five associates who have been arrested and sent to Dibrugarh jail in Assam. The first police case was filed against him at Ajnala police station in Amritsar after Varinder Singh, a resident of Chamkaur Sahib in Ropar, filed a complaint of kidnapping and assault on February 16.
On March 21, the police registered a case against Amritpal’s uncle Harjit Singh and their driver Harpreet Singh for trespass and wrongful confinement on the complaint of Udhowal village sarpanch Manpreet Singh, who alleged that Harjit and Harpreet held him and his family hostage for 35 hours at gunpoint following the crackdown on Amritpal and his supporters.
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Harjit Singh, who has also been booked under the NSA, was sent to Dibrugarh jail in Assam after he appeared before the police along with Harpreet at Mehatpur police check post. On the night of March 19, just before he courted arrest, Harjit stated that at the time of the police chase, he was driving the Mercedes car in which Amritpal was travelling.
“On realising that they [police] were chasing us, I stopped the car and walked up to the cops sitting inside their cars. When I asked them why they were chasing us, they did not reply. On my return in 4-5 minutes, I found Amritpal and his two guards were not in the car anymore,” he said in media interviews.
With the arrest of Tejinder Gill alias Gorkha Baba, said to be a close associate of Amritpal Singh, the police have claimed that Amritpal had set up a nascent militia called AKF that had been imparting “weapons and martial” training to youths.
Speaking to mediapersons on March 24, Khanna SSP Amneet Kondal said: “He was entrusted with the security of Amritpal and was also a member of the AKF, which was raised to wage an armed struggle for the formation of Khalistan.”
According to him, the police analysed Tejinder Gill’s phone and found pictures of the emblem, logo, and currency bills of the proposed Khalistan state, and a hologram logo of AKF and its members with weapons.
“The members comprised youngsters who came for de-addiction (like Tejinder) and were later indoctrinated and given weapons training,” Kondal said. He also claimed to have discovered the videos from a makeshift firing range created along a canal in Amritpal’s native village of Jallupur Khera.
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So far the police have seized guns including 12-bore double-barrel guns, 0.315-bore rifles and 0.32-bore revolvers, ammunition, and vehicles as part of its crackdown on Amritpal and his supporters. “Regular firing practice and military drill were conducted at a firing range,” the police claimed, adding that the trained youth were later recruited into the AKF and paid salaries.
Besides the immigration authorities at international airports, the Union Home Ministry has directed the directors-general of the BSF and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) to ask their field formations to be on high alert in view of any possible escape attempt by Amritpal.
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal lauded the “tough steps” taken by the Punjab government to maintain law and order. He said: “We are patriots. We love Bharat mata and no one will be spared if they take steps against the country or tries to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere.” The Punjab Police claimed to have arrested 207 persons during the crackdown on Amritpal and his supporters. Of them, as many as 30 face criminal cases. The SAD has offered legal assistance to the arrested Sikh youths.
Describing the arrests as extra-constitutional, the party chief Sukhbir Badal said in a statement: “It was shocking that scores of youth were being arrested indiscriminately merely on suspicion.”
He said on Twitter: “Unity and integrity of India is non-negotiable. Akali Dal strongly condemns divisive forces attempting to create communal disharmony and destabilise Punjab.”
Some pro-Khalistan supporters held demonstrations in the UK, the US, and Australia. The protest in the UK resulted in a diplomatic row, prompting the Ministry of External Affairs to summon the senior-most UK diplomat in New Delhi as the Ministry strongly disapproved of “separatist and extremist elements” replacing the tricolour at the Indian High Commission in London with their flag.
Also, the security agencies removed the barricades around the British High Commission in Chanakyapuri in New Delhi and the residence of UK High Commissioner Alex Ellis. Similarly, a group of pro-Khalistan protesters damaged the Indian Consulate in San Francisco and another group staged a demonstration outside the Australian parliament in Canberra.