Interview with the head of Waris Punjab De.
Before he became Amritpal Singh Khalsa and took over Waris Punjab De, Amritpal Singh Sandhu, 30, used to dress in T-shirts and jeans, was clean shaven, and had short hair. A Sandhu Jat Sikh, a land-owning caste in Punjab, Amritpal looked after his family’s transport business in Dubai. After a decade abroad, he returned to his native village in Amritsar’s Jallupur Khera last September and within days got himself baptised in an ‘Amrit Sanchar’ ceremony, a practice started by Guru Gobind Singh, at Anandpur Sahib gurdwara and started imitating Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Always surrounded by bodyguards brandishing guns and swords, he travels in fancy cars and gives aggressive and fiery speeches over thorny issues such as Centre-State relations and expansion of Deras as alternative spiritual sites for at least 39 oppressed castes in Punjab.
Amritpal does not believe in the Constitution of India, arguing that it does not recognise Sikhism as a separate religion. Excerpts from an interview:
When Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister and Montek Singh Ahluwalia the Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, was it not an approximation of the slogan, ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’ (the Sikhs will rule)? Then why do you claim in your speeches that Sikhs are slaves?
Under Mughal rule, Sikhs and Hindus also enjoyed high positions. During the British era, there used to be an elected Prime Minister of Punjab. Modern slavery is very different. It is less a physical enslavement than mental. Blacks have all the rights on paper [in the US]. But are ‘blacks’ not slaves any more? I may drive any car, Sikhs can become Prime Ministers and President… but the same President will be attacked by the [majoritarian] mob.
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How is your Khalistan movement going to be different from the Maoists and Kashmiri separatism or other militant groups who like you do not believe in the Indian Constitution?
Whether it’s going to be peaceful or violent depends on the behaviour of the state as to how they let you express your identity. Until some group becomes establishment, they will be called terrorists. But when they become establishment, their violence will be called “law of the land”. The state relies on weapons. Taliban was a terrorist group like any other for India. Now the same India has been negotiating with them and recognising them. Our movement is different in the sense that we are not just fighting for our freedom, we have a solution to the problem of this entire subcontinent.
Your idea of Khalistan, a unified Punjab, draws inspiration from the Sikh empire built by Ranjit Singh. The world has moved on since. How does Kashmir’s separatist movement fit into your idea of Khalistan?
Kashmir was part of Punjab at that time. But that doesn’t mean in future they have to be part of Punjab. Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were also part of Punjab. Kashmiris are fighting for religious rights and a Kashmiri identity. We respect that. When it comes to Punjab, we’ll talk about Lahore [in Pakistan] and other areas of Punjab, and then Kashmir. At present, we are talking about survival issues here [in Indian Punjab].
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Why would a Muslim in western Punjab (in Pakistan) support your idea of a unified Punjab that existed before Partition?
Their linguistic crisis is severe. Whether Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs, they have a unified Punjabi identity that is an ethnic and linguistic identity. Punjabi Muslims in Pakistan are a victim of the Pakistani state that doesn’t recognise their Punjabi identity and imposes the culture of Arab people. In Dubai, people don’t recognise Punjabi Muslims as Muslims. They call them Sikhs. They say, “Punjabi Muslims can’t be pure Muslims.” We have an old saying, “A Jat can never be a Muslim.” Sikh identity has never shifted from Punjabi identity.
Are you suggesting that ultimately cultural bonds prove stronger than religious bonds?
If your religion and your culture contradict each other, the contradiction is going to damage you at one point. Punjabi Hindus are completely different from Hindus in the south. They affiliate themselves with the Indian identity but at what cost? They don’t talk about Punjab’s water rights, drug menace, unemployment… They are being used by the state against their own Punjabi identity. They haven’t gained anything. They are also victims. They are not as rich as Gujarati Hindus, who never compromised on their [regional] identity.
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During Ranjit Singh’s rule, wasn’t Persian, a foreign language, the court language?
The Persian language was used because it was the necessity of the time. Two languages were promoted under Maharaja’s rule, Punjabi in Gurmukhi and Shah Mukhi scripts, and Persian. States do not promote traditional languages. They either use a new language or a foreign language to make people feel they are ignorant. It’s the cunningness of the state. Today, the right wing is imposing on us a unified identity—‘Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan’. But the Left is also destroying our culture and imposing a unilateral identity to kill diversity in religion, language, ethnicity and historical values.
What are your views on casteism among Sikhs? In your own village there are six gurdwaras?
The Sandhuon ka Gurdwara used to be a place where our forefathers called Jatheras would worship idols before the advent of Sikhism. Everyone is welcome here. We don’t deny permission on the basis of caste. Caste crimes in Punjab are the lowest compared to Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Sikhi is eliminating caste whereas the state is imposing caste. We have the same langar (community kitchen) for everyone in gurdwaras. There are tribal identities. A farmer will prefer the daughter of a farmer. For example, Ravidasia Sikhs won’t marry into Mazhabi Sikhs, although you can put them both under the umbrella of Dalits. Kamboj Sikhs don’t marry Jat Sikhs. Similarly, Jat Sikhs don’t marry in other Sikh communities. It is not discriminatory. It is all about living standards. There is a difference of cultural practices. We have a tradition of arranged marriages. When your parents arrange your marriage, they are going to look for people who are like them.