Where is Amritpal Singh? Drama unravels in Punjab around missing preacher

But serious questions remain: How did he escape the police dragnet? Is a scare around his persona being built to polarise Punjab?

Published : Apr 19, 2023 13:06 IST - 10 MINS READ

The police stick a wanted poster of Amritpal Singh at a railway station in Amritsar on April 13.

The police stick a wanted poster of Amritpal Singh at a railway station in Amritsar on April 13. | Photo Credit: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Even as the media and commentators noted the seeming lenience with which Amritpal Singh Sandhu, the radical preacher who advocates Khalistan, was being handled by Punjab’s police force and the Centre’s Home Ministry, a crackdown was suddenly declared in March and dozens of Amritpal’s associates from the Waris Punjab De outfit were arrested. Amritpal himself, to nobody’s surprise, escaped the police dragnet in Jalandhar with apparent ease on March 18. He was then declared a fugitive. Amritpal, the police said, fled on a motorised cart from Jalandhar after changing his clothes and appearance.

The Granthi of a gurdwara in Nangal Ambian village filed a complaint that Amritpal had held him at gunpoint and taken his son’s clothes. An FIR was promptly filed.

Soon, the Punjab police released a set of pictures that showed Amritpal inseven possible appearances, and asked people to help them trace him. Thereafter, Amritpal’s presence was reported from places outside Punjab in almost every direction. The man, however, was nowhere to be found.

Even as this real-life Don film unravels, exactly where is Amritpal?

Also Read | Amritpal Singh Sandhu: ‘Whether it’s going to be peaceful or violent depends on the state’

On April 13, a search operation was carried out at Hanumangarh in Rajasthan, a State which shares a border with Punjab, after his presence was reported there. A red alert was sounded in Sriganganagar, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, and Barmer, teams of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) and Emergency Response Team (ERT) of the Rajasthan police were roped in, and everyone rushed in to nab the fugitive. To no effect.

In Punjab, meanwhile, posters declaring Amritpal a “wanted man” have been put up, with an award announced for informers.

Evading the security net

According to official sources, the 30-year-old rebel preacher has been constantly changing locations and switching vehicles and appearances. Either he is very clever, or the security forces are incompetent, or he is getting active help from sources in the villages. Whatever the reason, he has evaded the security net so far.

The Uttarakhand Police has also sounded a public alert in Dehradun, Haridwar, and Udham Singh Nagar districts after Amritpal’s presence was suspected in the State. The police made announcements from loudspeakers fitted atop their vehicles. The Uttarakhand angle came up after a woman was arrested on charges of harbouring Amritpal Singh and his associate at her home in Haryana and she indicated this location to the Haryana and Punjab police.

Meanwhile, multiple media sources quoted anonymous intelligence and police officials to claim that Amritpal may have fled to Nanded in Maharashtra, while others “disclosed” that Pakistani spy agency ISI had helped him sneak into Nepal.

Some TV channels reported that he might be trying to enter Pakistan. Lok Sabha MP Simranjit Singh Mann, from the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) party, the pro-Khalistan political party that is a splinter group of the Shiromani Akali Dal, said, “Sikhs don’t surrender. He should cross the river Ravi and go to Western Punjab in Pakistan. We went to Pakistan in 1984 too, didn’t we?”

The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu wrote to the Nepal Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Amritpal Singh was believed to be in Nepal. The letter, as reported by Kathmandu Post on March 27, said that the absconder could escape to a third country, and requested Nepali authorities to inform immigration officials if he was apprehended.

But at that time, chances are Amritpal was in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district. On April 10, Punjab police arrested two brothers for allegedly providing food and shelter to the fugitive on the night of March 28, in Hoshiarpur. While the brothers’ mother refuted the charges, on the same day the police launched a massive search operation in the district after some suspects abandoned a car that the police were chasing.

Also Read | Amritpal Singh: The story so far

A report in The Tribune claimed that Amritpal and his close aide Papalpreet Singh spent time at Gurdwara Janam Asthan Sant Baba Nidhan Singh in Nadalon village of Hoshiarpur on March 27.

On April 10, the Punjab police also arrested Papalpreet Singh from Kathunangal in Amritsar district under the National Security Act (NSA). But unlike the other persons arrested in the ongoing crackdown, he was allowed to talk to the media. As a team of the Punjab police brought him to Guru Ramdas International Airport in Amritsar, he responded to a media query asking when he was arrested. “Whatever it is, it is absolutely correct,” he said. “As per police accounts, I was arrested yesterday.”

Papalpreet was taken to Dibrugarh jail in Assam, where seven associates of the radical preacher have already been lodged. All of them have been booked under NSA. On reaching Dibrugarh, Papalpreet told reporters: “I got separated from Amritpal Singh on the night of March 28. I have lost contact with him after then.”

On March 29, Amritpal Singh released a video, his first after absconding. There was a subsequent audio clip also. In the video, he slams the Punjab Police for arresting Sikh youths in the guise of a crackdown on him. Amritpal can be heard saying “If the state government had the intention of making an arrest, the police could have come to my house, and I would have given up.”

Wearing a black turban and shawl, the fiery speaker who copied Bhindranwale and urged Sikh youth to fight for the rights of Punjab, looked subdued as he said: “The almighty saved us from the attempts of lakhs of cops who were sent to make an arrest.”

Amritpal, in another video appearance later, said that he was not in police custody. This statement along with Papalpreet’s media statement appear to endorse the official version that the radical preacher went missing after the long police chase that was launched on March 18.

  • The Centre’s Home Ministry suddenly declared a crackdown in March and dozens of Amritpal Singh’s associates from the Waris Punjab De outfit were arrested.
  • A manhunt for Amritpal Singh was also launched.
  • On April 10, Papalpreet Singh, a close aide of Amritpal Singh, was arrested.
  • Opposition parties and members of civil society have also expressed doubts over police claims that the preacher escaped the police dragnet on March 18.

Botched operation

This, however, has not been enough to quell the strong undercurrents of suspicion about the botched police operation. A massive crackdown was conducted simultaneously across the State amid an internet blackout and traffic restrictions. Following Amritpal’s reported escape on May 18, the Ministry of Home Affairs put security forces on high alert along the international borders with Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. On March 21, Punjab and Haryana High Court, that has been hearing habeas corpus petitions which allege that Amritpal is in illegal police detention, admonished the Punjab government and asked how he could give police a slip despite the heavy deployment of personnel. The High Court has declared that it will hear the case without further adjournments from April 24 onwards.

Papalpreet Singh, a close aide of the radical preacher Amritpal Singh, being taken to Dibrugarh prison on April 11.

Papalpreet Singh, a close aide of the radical preacher Amritpal Singh, being taken to Dibrugarh prison on April 11. | Photo Credit: PTI

Meanwhile, scores of CCTV grabs and clips are flooding the Internet. They purportedly show Amritpal in different appearances in different parts of Punjab and adjoining states such as Haryana, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh. These have been shared by the police on social media. A few days ago, a selfie showing Amritpal with Papalpreet Singh was circulated. It showed Amritpal wearing a tracksuit jacket and sunglasses, holding a beverage can. Previously, a viral picture showed Amritpal and Papalpreet sitting on a motorised cart next to a motorcycle, items which were later recovered by the police.

After Papalpreet Singh’s arrest, the Punjab police tweeted a 14-second video reel with before and after visuals, stating, “You can run, but you can’t hide from the long arm of the law.” The video reel received serious backlash online, with many Twitter users accusing the Punjab police of sensationalising a farcical chase which they likened to a cat and mouse game. Others said that it reminded them of the interviews that Lawrence Bishnoi was mysteriously able to give a private TV channel from inside the high security jail where he is lodged.

Doubts over police claim

Opposition parties and members of civil society have also expressed doubts over police claims that the preacher escaped the police dragnet on March 18. “If Amritpal is out [of police detention], then he should present himself [before police] and cooperate with the investigation,” Giani Harpreet Singh, the Akal Takht Jathedar, has said in his media interviews and public addresses.

The doubts about Amritpal’s escape have their roots in Punjab’s troubled past of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the period of insurgency, thousands of men went missing in forced disappearances and extra-constitutional killings. Jaswant Singh Khalra, who was documenting these cases, himself disappeared in 1992. About 14 years later, in 2007, four officials of the Punjab police were given life imprisonment for abducting and killing the human rights activist.

A few days ago, Amritpal’s uncle Harjit Singh Sandhu courted arrest along with his driver Harpreet Singh at a check post in Jalandhar’s Mehatpur. He spoke to the media. He claimed that he had been driving the car in which Amritpal was travelling the day he disappeared. “Realising that they [the police] are chasing us, I stopped the car and walked up to the cops sitting inside. When I asked them why they were chasing us, they didn’t reply. When I returned after 4-5 minutes, I found Amritpal and his two guards missing from the car,” said Harjit Singh, who is presently lodged in the high-security Dibrugarh jail in Assam.

The Punjab police is under fire for using disproportionate force during the crackdown, and it is also facing a backlash for booking people such as Bhagwant Singh alias “Pradhan Mantri Bajeke”, a resident of Bajeke village in Punjab’s Moga district under NSA and sending him to Dibrugarh jail. Bhagwant was arrested while working in his fields on March 18. “The police are after me. They have arrived in my fields. They have surrounded me,” he had posted on Facebook.

Also Read | What Khalistan means for the Sikhs of Punjab

Bhagwant came under the police scanner reportedly for supporting Amritpal’s call for a march to Ajnala police station and participating in the mob that attacked the station in February. Last year, he was booked for flaunting a weapon on social media. But many observers point out that he is not a big enough threat to attract the draconian NSA.

Since his supposed escape, Amritpal has become a media sensation. Many believe that although there are not many takers for Khalistan in Punjab today, the way Operation Amritpal has unfolded and is being reported by TV channels, it could deepen the mistrust between Sikhs and Hindus. There is a growing unease in Punjab’s social and political circles that Amritpal could be a pawn being used to polarise Punjab.

The Akal Takht Jathedar, who has taken on a central role in Sikh politics in the wake of the build-up, has said that the Sikh youths who have been arrested have not committed big crimes as is being projected. On his orders, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has taken up the legal cases of the men charged under NSA.

The Jathedar has described the ongoing drama as an attempt to inflate the scare around Amritpal. “The biggest question in everybody’s mind is how Amritpal was not arrested despite the heavy police deployment,” he said, adding, “It raises a question over the functioning of the police. And if he has already been arrested, then the police must disclose it.”

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