Cry for Khalistan: Does it signal a fresh phase of militancy in Punjab?

Published : Mar 23, 2023 10:55 IST - 15 MINS READ

Amritpal Singh with his associate Lovepreet Toofan, who was released from Amritsar Central Jail after the storming of the Ajnala Police Station, at Golden Temple on February 24.

Amritpal Singh with his associate Lovepreet Toofan, who was released from Amritsar Central Jail after the storming of the Ajnala Police Station, at Golden Temple on February 24. | Photo Credit: PTI

Amritpal Singh could burst on the Punjab scene because of a clear vacuum in political space.

The dramatic rise of Amritpal Singh, self-styled proponent of a sovereign Sikh state, has left even astute Punjab observers perplexed. The 30-year-old, who returned from Dubai in September last year, imitates Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh preacher and militant leader who was killed in Operation Blue Star in 1984. His public speeches have challenged the authorities, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Eyebrows were being raised at the apparent police leniency towards his aggressive campaigns, but on March 18 Punjab Police launched a crackdown on Amritpal Singh’s Waris Punjab De (Inheritors of Punjab). Several of his associates were arrested. Amritpal himself is reported to be absconding, but at the time of going to press his arrest seemed imminent. 

The crackdown was in sharp contrast to the way the police seemed to capitulate at Ajnala (in Amritsar district) and let Amritpal and his supporters get away with the storming of the police station on February 23. The latest police action against Waris Punjab De came the day before Amritpal was supposed to set out on the second leg of his Khalsa Wahir (caravan). 

As news of the crackdown spread, Punjab Police appealed to the people to “maintain peace and harmony” and assured the public that they were working to maintain law and order. To prevent rumours spreading over social media platforms, telecom services were suspended from the midnight of March 18 to noon on March 19.

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A government release announcing the suspension of telecom services said that “certain sections of society” were deemed “likely to threaten public order by incitement to violence as also resorting to widespread violence with an aim to stoke and cause communal tension...”. The police also reportedly nabbed social media influencers who were endorsing the young separatist leader’s radical views. The crackdown came ahead of the byelection to the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat, which was vacated after Congress MP Santokh Chaudhary died in January.

Storming the police station

The spectacular storming of the police station in Ajnala was undertaken to demand the release of Amritpal’s associate Lovepreet Singh alias Toofan, who had been arrested on February 17 on charges of kidnapping and assault. Amritpal, who was also named in that case, came all the way from his native village Jallupur Khera, leading a procession of scores of men heavily armed with guns and swords. Following a violent clash, the police tamely released Toofan.

“You people have been misinformed by the intelligence agencies. You believe we cannot mobilise support, which is why you are testing our strength time and again,” Amritpal told police officers.

Supporters of Amritpal Singh and his Waris Punjab De breaking barricades to enter the police station in Ajnala on February 23.

Supporters of Amritpal Singh and his Waris Punjab De breaking barricades to enter the police station in Ajnala on February 23. | Photo Credit: ANI

Director General of Punjab Police Gaurav Yadav told the media after the Ajnala incident that a Superintendent of Police and five other policemen were injured in the incident. He said the police had exercised utmost restraint to maintain the dignity of “Palki Sahib”, a consecrated seat for the Sikh holy book, which Amritpal had brought along in a modified vehicle. (Amritpal later defended this action at a rally held by the Bhindranwale Tiger Force for Khalistan in Manochahal village. The Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, has however constituted a committee to discuss if the swaroop or physical copy of the Guru Granth Sahib can be carried to protest sites.)

Roughly two weeks prior to the Ajnala incident, Amritpal had picketed the Patti Sadar Police Station in Taran Taran district, but in a less dramatic way. Following the arrest of his bodyguard, Varinder Singh Johal, after a viral video showed Johal firing in the air, Amritpal came to the police station with about two dozen gunmen. Warning the administration against harassing his comrades, who he said had taken on even the notorious drug lords of Punjab, he left after half an hour. That episode appears to have emboldened him. In December 2022, he and his supporters burnt benches meant for elderly worshippers in Jalandhar’s Gurdwara Singh Sabha Model Town, claiming that nobody could sit on a raised platform in the presence of the Sikh holy book.

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As part of his Khalsa Wahir, he has enforced similar maryada (propriety) rules on other gurdwaras as well. In this campaign, he has been holding Amrit Sanchar ceremonies and addressing rallies to spread his radical ideology.

Drug addiction campaign

Among his supporters, Amritpal seems to have acquired a reputation of being able to wean drug users off their addiction. As Amritpal spoke to this reporter at Sandhuon Ka Gurdwara in Jallupur Khera village, visitors poured in, bringing with them male family members who are drug addicts. They bowed to him, touching the ground with their foreheads, and requested him with folded hands for his nasihat (advice). Jallupur Khera, which has a population of 2,000, is dotted with billboards carrying images of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Deep Sidhu and Amritpal.

Baljinder Singh from the village claims to be a former drug addict now inspired by Amritpal to mend his ways — one among a dozen such whom this reporter met at the gurdwara. “All of them became sober after heeding the advice of Pai [brother] Amritpal ji,” said Harjit Singh Sandhu, Amritpal’s uncle. He claimed that people had started giving up drugs after being “baptised” in Amritpal’s Amrit Sanchar ceremonies, avowedly being held across the State as an “antidote” to addiction. Baljinder told this reporter that their “spirits are high” after the Ajnala incident.

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Amritpal was sitting on a carpet outside the gurdwara dormitory, surrounded by men sporting guns, cartridge belts and swords. “Whether our movement is going to be violent or non-violent depends on the state’s behaviour,” he said. His Twitter account was suspended in October and his Instagram accounts were suspended after the Ajnala incident.

Social unrest

Amritpal’s entry in Punjab politics coincides with the State’s growing disillusionment not just with the AAP and its slide towards soft Hindutva but all mainstream political parties. The BJP’s aggressive Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan narrative has fuelled Sikh fears of assimilation into the Hindu fold. In an interview (see page 12), Amritpal said he did not believe in the Constitution of India because it does not recognise Sikhism as a separate religion.

The prevailing sentiment became clear when the AAP, which swept the Assembly election in April 2022, lost Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann’s Sangrur Lok Sabha seat to Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) chief and pro-Khalistan leader Simranjit Singh Mann in the byelection held in June. Simranjit, a former IPS officer who had resigned in protest against Operation Blue Star in 1984, had lost the Amargarh seat just three months earlier.

Once the star of the Green Revolution, Punjab has seen a steady agricultural decline, marked by diminishing returns, soaring farm debts, rising soil infertility, and farmer distress. The migration of young men from agricultural communities to urban areas and rising unemployment among them have fuelled drug addiction among young people.

Punjab’s enormous debt crisis, which recently crossed Rs.3 lakh crore, coupled with a dismal GDP and lack of gainful employment opportunities, has left youngsters with no option but to go abroad in search of jobs and better lives. Amritpal’s public speeches are always peppered with these emotive issues. He also speaks about the growing influence of the Deras and conversions to Christianity in Punjab and the thorny issue of Centre-State relations.

Frustration generated by all this was also reflected in the songs of Sidhu Moose Wala, the popular singer, rapper, and Congress party member who was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in May 2022. His song “SYL” referred to the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal, a bone of contention between the Punjab and Haryana governments. Released posthumously but immediately banned, the song talks of the “Anti-Delhi” sentiment in Punjab. Notwithstanding the ban, the song became a huge hit.

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Moose Wala, whose real name was Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, had also reacted through a song, “Scapegoat”, when he lost the State Assembly election in 2022. The song called the voters “traitors” who had ensured the electoral defeat of Simranjit Singh Mann and Bibi Khalra. Bibi Khalra is the wife of noted human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, who investigated the disappearances of young Sikh men during the insurgency of the early 1980s. He, too, disappeared mysteriously. (In fact, a biopic on Jaswant Singh Khalra starring Diljit Dosanjh has been made. When it got the nod from the Khalra family, they said in a statement, “We are aware of concerns within the community that Bollywood has in past misrepresented Sikh Sangrah movement.”)

“Scapegoat” also slammed people for forgetting Deep Sidhu, actor and activist, who was accused of having instigated the violence at Red Fort in January 2021 during the farmers’ agitation. He died in a car crash the following year.

Startling transformation

Amritpal was a dapper businessman in Dubai. He returned to Punjab only in September last year, morphing almost overnight into a radical godman. “A person changes his appearance overnight and we start believing that a prophet has descended,” said Ranjit Singh Gill, who spent 18 years in jail for gunning down Congress MP Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali at their Kirti Nagar residence in New Delhi as retribution for Maken’s alleged role in instigating the killing of Sikhs in 1984. Gill, who is today a writer and coach, described the sudden rise of Amritpal as “manufactured”. He said, “A person who could not complete his graduation is asking us to pick up weapons. We committed this blunder in 1984.”

Punjab observers rubbish the media’s portrayal of Amritpal as Bhindranwale 2.0. Unlike Bhindranwale, who was head of the orthodox Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal, Amritpal is not viewed as an authority on Sikh religion. Amritpal is seen as basically a Sandhu Jat Sikh, a dominant landowning community in Punjab, who took over Waris Punjab De (Inheritors of Punjab), an outfit founded by late Punjabi actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu. After the latter’s death in an accident, he began to endorse Simranjit Singh Mann’s conspiracy theory that the state had him killed. Though both Simranjit and Amritpal call Deep a “Sikh martyr”, Reena Roy, Deep Sidhu’s partner who was with him at the time of the accident, said recently that he was over-speeding when the crash occurred.

Jaibans Singh, the BJP’s spokesperson in Punjab and a retired colonel who has served in Jammu and Kashmir, described Amritpal as “a new face of ISI sponsored extremism”. Comparing him with Yaseen Malik, the Kashmiri separatist leader, Jaibans said, “Their utterances have striking similarities. They believe peaceful secessionism is allowed under the Constitution. They issue similar threats, ‘If the government corners us, we will retaliate’.” According to Jaibans, it is Pakistan’s propaganda machinery that has been ballooning Amritpal’s social media image.

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“It is too early to comment on Amritpal Singh,” said Sukhwinder Singh, a caretaker at the Central Sikh Museum at Sri Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) in Amritsar, which houses the portraits of Sikh heroes. Here, Bhindranwale’s portrait hangs alongside Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha, and Udham Singh, revolutionary freedom fighters. Besides portraits of Sikh officers from the Indian military who won military honours, there are portraits of men like Balwinder Jatana who in 1990 shot dead two government officials in Chandigarh to protest the SYL project. Recalling the dark phase in Punjab during the 1980s and early 1990s, Sukhwinder said, “The turmoil was a creation of the Indian state.”

Separatist surge

According to Ranjit Singh Gill, “If you look back at the events that preceded and succeeded 1984, they were the creation of sectarian angles in Punjab. Even today, fake political narratives are being peddled to distract public attention from the real issues plaguing Punjab and they are misleading the local youth.” Interestingly, Gill believes that the successful farmers’ agitation has encouraged a mob mentality in Punjab.

He said, “People believe that they can bend the government. We saw its reflection in Ajnala and Mohali.” In January, protesters from across Punjab began to arrive in droves at the Mohali-Haryana border. They were part of the Quami Insaaf Morcha, set up to fight for the release of Sikh prisoners or Bandi Sikhs who remain in jail even after completing their prison terms for involvement in militancy cases. On February 9, the protesters, many of them armed with swords and lathis, clashed with police forces, leaving several policemen and media personnel injured and several vehicles vandalised.

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Jagtar Singh, a senior journalist who covered the rise of Bhindranwale and the subsequent insurgency, attributed Amritpal’s emergence to the vacuum emerging in the modern Sikh religio-political domain. He said: “Punjab has a permanent streak of radical politics, which cannot be wished away. The simple reason is that there has been no closure to the militant movement of the 1980s.” Echoing his views, Manjeet Singh, a retired sociology professor from Panjab University, said, “Once again the political space for Sikh radicalism has been created due to the alienation of parliamentary political parties, particularly the Shiromani Akali Dal. Radical Sikh ideologues both from India and abroad are desperate to fill the political void by floating young leaders.” He pointed to Deep Sidhu, who founded Waris Punjab De. “He was floated as a leader and tried his best to give a radical Sikh political turn to the farmer’s movement.”

Government silent for too long?

Reacting to the mercy petitions filed on behalf of death row prisoner Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted for the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, the Home Ministry told the Supreme Court last year that any decision would have to be taken keeping in view the overall security scenario and terrorism perspective in a State that borders Pakistan. Yet, the Home Ministry appears to be giving a long rope to self-styled radical leaders in Punjab. Political observers fear that the State and the Centre are playing with fire.

Preparing the ground?

Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring said the BJP was preparing the ground to impose President’s rule in the State. At the national level, too, observers believe the BJP is likely to gain from any growing unrest. Manjeet Singh pointed out that the open calls to Sikh youth to revolt against the Indian state and spread hatred against “outsiders” (migrant workers)’ served the politics of the RSS and the BJP.

ALSO READ: What Khalistan means for the Sikhs of Punjab

On November 4, 2022, Sudhir Suri, who headed a Shiv Sena organisation in Punjab and was known for his hate speeches against minorities including Sikhs, was murdered in broad daylight outside Gopal Mandir in the presence of his security detail. There were allegations that the killer had links to Waris Punjab De. The police have neither backed this theory nor disclosed the killer’s possible motive.

The BJP government at the Centre, which has been quick to criminalise political dissent and pounce on “anti-nationals”, is conspicuously soft on those openly advocating Khalistan. The regime that swiftly jailed young climate activist Disha Ravi on charges of sedition has not shown the same alacrity about Amritpal.

But in the weeks when the State government seemed to be doing nothing to restrain Amritpal, the Punjab BJP pointed fingers at the ruling AAP. While admitting that Amritpal had been fuelling unrest, Jaibans Singh said, “The Ajnala incident showed a lack of firm orders from the State government to the Punjab Police.” Soon after the AAP made inroads in Punjab in 2017, it was accused of having links with Khalistan supporters. Jaibans said that the Centre has fully supported the Punjab government and 18 CRPF companies have been deployed in the State. Invoking federalism to justify the inaction, he said: “The Centre can’t intervene as law and order is a State subject.” 

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But there is a constitutional provision for legitimate intervention. Ashutosh Kumar, who heads the Political Science Department in Panjab University, pointed out: “Under Article 355, it is the duty of the Union government to intervene in the law and order problems in a State to ensure that the State government works in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.”

Incidentally, Governor Banwari Lal Purohit, who is locked in a public stand-off with Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann over a range of issues, has not made any public statement against Amritpal’s unconstitutional acts.

Ranjit Singh Gill downplayed possibilities of any immediate danger but said that an unchecked situation could push Punjab into a turmoil. “A scenario has been created to be harvested for 2024 Lok Sabha election,” he said. “Otherwise, the ruling BJP has nothing to offer to people.”

  • The crackdown on Waris Punjab De on March 18, 2023, came after weeks of speculation on whether Punjab is about to witness a revival of the Khalistan movement. The speculation was set off by the storming of the Ajnala Police Station on February 23 by Amritpal and his supporters.
  • Amritpal Singh is a maverick leader whose physical appearance seems to evoke Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh preacher and militant leader who was killed in Operation Blue Star in 1984.
  • Amritpal has taken over the late Deep Sidhu’s Waris Punjab De and endorses a conspiracy theory about Deep Sidhu’s death in a car crash in 2022.
  • Amritpal Singh seems to have acquired a reputation for successfully weaning young men from drug addiction. Political observers attribute his success to pent-up frustrations over government apathy about Punjab’s economic woes.

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