Khalistan Cry: Does It Hint at a New Phase of Unrest in Punjab?

To The PeopleTo The People
Khalistan Cry: Does It Hint at a New Phase of Unrest in Punjab?
Due to an obvious void in the political landscape, Amritpal Singh may suddenly become prominent in Punjab.
Even shrewd Punjab observers are baffled by the sudden rise to prominence of Amritpal Singh, the self-styled champion of an independent Sikh state. The 30-year-old mimics Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh preacher and militant leader who was slain in Operation Blue Star in 1984. He returned from Dubai in September of last year. In his talks, he has criticised the government and Union Home Minister Amit Shah in particular. While concerns were being expressed about the police's apparent tolerance of his violent activities, Punjab Police began cracking down on Amritpal Singh's Waris Punjab De (Inheritors of Punjab) on March 18. Many of his friends were taken into custody. Although Amritpal is reportedly running away, it appeared as though his arrest was about to happen when he went to submit charges. 
The police appeared to give in at Ajnala (in the Amritsar region) and allowed Amritpal and his followers to escape punishment for assaulting the police station on February 23. This was a stark contrast to the police crackdown. The day before Amritpal was scheduled to depart on the second leg of his Khalsa Wahir (caravan), the police took the most recent action against Waris Punjab De. 

Punjab Police urged the public to "maintain peace and harmony" and gave assurances that they were striving to uphold law and order as word of the crackdown spread. From March 18 at midnight to March 19 at noon, telephone services were blocked to stop misinformation from spreading on social media.

"Participants in society" were considered "likely to threaten public order by inciting to violence as well as resorting to widespread violence with an aim to stoke and cause communal tension," according to a government announcement announcing the suspension of telecom services. Additionally, it is alleged that the authorities apprehended social media influencers who were supporting the extremist beliefs of the young separatist leader. The operation was carried out in advance of the byelection to fill the Lok Sabha seat in Jalandhar, which became vacant following the January death of Congress MP Santokh Chaudhary.

Raiding the police precinct
The purpose of the dramatic takeover of the Ajnala police station was to demand the release of Lovepreet Singh, also known as Toofan, an accomplice of Amritpal who was detained on February 17 on suspicion of kidnapping and assault. Amritpal, who was also given his name in that instance, travelled from his home village of Jallupur Khera, leading a group of several men who were highly equipped with swords and firearms. Toofan was freed by the police after a violent altercation.

"The intelligence agencies have misled you, the people. You keep trying to test our power because you think we can't rally support, Amritpal said to the cops.

Following the Ajnala incident, Punjab Police Director General Gaurav Yadav informed the media that five other police officers and a superintendent of police had also been hurt. He claimed that in order to preserve the honour of "Palki Sahib," a dedicated place for the Sikh holy book that Amritpal had brought along in a specially made car, the police had shown the utmost caution. (Amritpal later justified this action at a Bhindranwale Tiger Force for Khalistan rally in Manochahal village.) The highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, the Akal Takht, has established a committee to investigate whether or not the swaroop, or physical copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, can be transported to protest locations.

Though in a less spectacular fashion, Amritpal had picketed the Patti Sadar Police Station in Taran Taran area around two weeks before the Ajnala event. When his bodyguard, Varinder Singh Johal, was taken into custody following the appearance of Johal firing in the air in a widely shared video, Amritpal arrived at the police station accompanied by around twenty gunmen. After 30 minutes, he departed, cautioning the authorities not to persecute his allies, who he said had defeated even the most infamous drug lords in Punjab. It seems that experience has made him more confident. He and his friends set fire to benches intended for senior worshippers at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha Model Town in Jalandhar in December 2022, arguing that it was improper for anybody to sit on an elevated platform when the Sikh holy book was there.

He has also imposed identical maryada (propriety) norms on other gurdwaras as part of his Khalsa Wahir. He has been speaking at rallies and hosting Amrit Sanchar rituals throughout this campaign to disseminate his extreme views.

Addiction to drugs campaign
Amritpal appears to have developed a reputation among his fans for being able to help drug addicts overcome their addiction. Visitors streamed into the Sandhuon Ka Gurdwara in Jallupur Khera hamlet while Amritpal was speaking with our reporter, bringing with them male family members who were drug users. They touched the ground with their foreheads as they bowed to him and asked for his nasihat (advice) with folded hands. There are several billboards with pictures of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Deep Sidhu, and Amritpal in Jallupur Khera, a town of 2,000 people.

One of a dozen such people this reporter encountered at the gurdwara is Baljinder Singh from the hamlet, who says he was once a heroin addict but is now motivated to change his ways by Amritpal. According to Amritpal's uncle, Harjit Singh Sandhu, "all of them became sober after heeding the advice of Pai [brother] Amritpal ji." He asserted that after being "baptised" in Amritpal's Amrit Sanchar rituals, which are ostensibly performed throughout the State as a "antidote" to addiction, individuals had begun to give up narcotics. After the Ajnala event, Baljinder informed this reporter that their "spirits are high."

Amritpal was seated on a mat outside the dormitories of the gurdwara, around by men with swords, cartridge belts, and firearms. "The actions of the state will determine whether our movement is violent or non-violent," he said. Following the Ajnala incident, his Instagram and Twitter accounts were suspended in October.

Unrest in society
Amritpal's foray into Punjabi politics comes at a time when the State's mistrust of all major political parties is rising, not just of the AAP because of its shift towards soft Hindutva. Sikh anxieties of assimilating into Hinduism have been heightened by the BJP's strong Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan rhetoric. During an interview (refer to page 12), Amritpal expressed his lack of faith in the Indian Constitution, citing its failure to acknowledge Sikhism as a distinct religion.

The prevalent feeling was made evident in June 2022 when Simranjit Singh Mann, the chairman of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and a pro-Khalistan politician, defeated chairman Minister Bhagwant Mann in the byelection. The AAP had won the Assembly election in April 2022. Just three months prior, Simranjit, a former IPS officer who had resigned in 1984 in opposition to Operation Blue Star, had lost the Amargarh seat.

Punjab, the former epicentre of the Green Revolution, has witnessed a continuous downturn in agriculture, characterised by declining yields, skyrocketing farm indebtedness, increasing soil infertility, and unhappiness among farmers. Addiction to drugs has increased in youth due to the movement of young men from rural villages to metropolitan areas and the increase in unemployment among them.

The massive debt issue that Punjab is currently facing—it just surpassed Rs. 3 lakh crore—combined with the province's low GDP and dearth of prospects for productive work to force young people to leave the country in quest of better lives and jobs overseas. Amritpal frequently brings up these sensitive topics in his lectures to the public. He also discusses the contentious subject of Centre-State ties, the Deras' expanding power, and the number of Punjabi converts to Christianity.

All of this frustration was evident in the lyrics of Sidhu Moose Wala, a well-known rapper, performer, and member of the Congress party who was shot and killed by unidentified assailants in May 2022. The Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal is a point of dispute between the governments of Punjab and Haryana, and it was mentioned in his song "SYL." The song, which was released posthumously but was soon outlawed, discusses Punjab's "anti-Delhi" feeling. The song became a major hit despite the prohibition.

When Moose Wala, whose true name was Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, lost the State Assembly election in 2022, he also responded with the song "Scapegoat." The song referred to the electorate as "traitors" for ensuring Simranjit Singh Mann and Bibi Khalra's electoral defeat. Bibi Khalra is the spouse of renowned human rights advocate Jaswant Singh Khalra, who looked into the cases of young Sikh men going missing during the early 1980s conflict. He too vanished inexplicably. (In reality, Diljit Dosanjh is starring in a biopic on Jaswant Singh Khalra.) The Khalra family approved the film and issued a statement stating, "We are aware of concerns within the community that Bollywood has in the past misrepresented Sikh Sangrah movement."

"Scapegoat" also attacked people for neglecting actor and activist Deep Sidhu, who was charged with inciting violence at Red Fort during the farmers' uprising in January 2021. The following year, he was killed in an automobile accident.

A startling change
In Dubai, Amritpal was a stylish businessman. It wasn’t until September of last year that he went back to Punjab, where he became a radical godman almost immediately. Ranjit Singh Gill, who spent eighteen years in prison for shooting Congress MP Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali at their Kirti Nagar home in New Delhi as payback for Maken's alleged role in inciting the killing of Sikhs in 1984, said, "A person changes his appearance overnight and we start believing that a prophet has descended." Gill, who works as a writer and coach now, called Amritpal's quick climb "manufactured." "A person who was unable to finish his graduation is asking us to pick up weapons," he declared. This was the mistake we made in 1984.

The media's characterization of Amritpal as Bhindranwale 2.0 is refuted by Punjab experts. Amritpal is not considered an authority on Sikh religion, in contrast to Bhindranwale, the former head of the orthodox Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal. Amritpal is viewed primarily as a member of the Sandhu Jat Sikh clan, which is a powerful landowner group in Punjab. He seized control of Waris Punjab De (Inheritors of Punjab), an organisation that was started by the late actor and activist Deep Sidhu. He started endorsing Simranjit Singh Mann's conspiracy theory—which held that the state had assassinated him—after the latter passed away in an accident. Deep Sidhu's companion at the time of the accident, Reena Roy, claimed recently that he was speeding when the collision happened, despite the fact that both Simranjit and Amritpal refer to Deep as a "Sikh martyr."

The BJP's Punjab spokeswoman, retired colonel Jaibans Singh, who was stationed in Jammu and Kashmir, called Amritpal "a new face of ISI sponsored extremism." Jaibans compared him to the head of the Kashmiri separatist movement, Yaseen Malik, saying that there were notable parallels in their statements. They contend that the Constitution permits nonviolent secession. They make similar threats, saying things like, 'If the government corners us, we will respond.'" Jaibans claim that Amritpal's social media profile has been greatly inflated by Pakistani propaganda.

Sukhwinder Singh, a custodian of the Central Sikh Museum at Sri Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) in Amritsar, where the pictures of Sikh heroes are kept, stated that it is premature to remark on Amritpal Singh. Here, the portraits of the revolutionary independence fighters Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha, and Udham Singh are displayed beside that of Bhindranwale. In addition to pictures of Sikh military commanders who have achieved distinction, there are also pictures of persons such as Balwinder Jatana, who in 1990 killed two government officials in Chandigarh in retaliation for the SYL project. Sukhwinder recalled the difficult time Punjab went through in the 1980s and early 1990s, saying, "The turmoil was a creation of the Indian state."

Rise of separatists
"If you look back at the events that preceded and succeeded 1984, they were the creation of sectarian angles in Punjab," asserts Ranjit Singh Gill. Fake political narratives are still being promoted to divert attention from the actual problems facing Punjab and to mislead the younger generation. It's interesting to note that Gill thinks Punjab has adopted a mob mentality as a result of the successful farmers' movement.

"People think they can bend the government," he remarked. We observed its mirror in Ajnala and Mohali. Protesters started to show up in large numbers at the Mohali-Haryana border in January, coming from all around Punjab. They belonged to the Quami Insaaf Morcha, which was formed to fight for the release of Bandi Sikhs, or Sikh inmates, who are detained for their involvement in militant cases even after serving their sentences. A number of police officers and media workers were hurt during the protestors' conflict with the police on February 9; several vehicles were also vandalised. The demonstrators were heavily armed with swords and lathis.

Senior writer Jagtar Singh, who chronicled Bhindranwale's ascent and the ensuing conflict, credited Amritpal's ascension to a void that was opening up in the contemporary Sikh religio-political landscape. "One cannot wish away Punjab's permanent streak of radical politics," he stated. In agreement, retired Punjab University sociology professor Manjeet Singh stated, "Once again the political space for Sikh radicalism has been created due to the alienation of parliamentary political parties, particularly the Shiromani Akali Dal. The simple reason is that there has been no closure to the militant movement of the 1980s." He gestured to Deep Sidhu, the founder of Waris Punjab De, saying, "Radical Sikh ideologues from India and abroad are desperate to fill the political void by floating young leaders." "He was presented as a leader and made every effort to give the farmer's movement a radical Sikh political bent."

Too much silence from the government?
The Home Ministry informed the Supreme Court last year in response to the mercy petitions filed on behalf of death row inmate Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was found guilty of killing former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh. The decision-making process would need to take into account the state's border with Pakistan as well as the general security situation and the threat of terrorism. However, it seems that the Home Ministry is providing self-proclaimed extremist leaders in Punjab with a long rope. Political pundits worry that the Centre and the State are taking unnecessary risks.

Getting the dirt ready?
Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, the leader of the Punjab Congress, claimed that the BJP was setting the stage for the imposition of President's rule in the State. Observers believe the BJP stands to benefit from any escalating turmoil at the national level as well. Manjeet Singh said that the blatant appeals to Sikh youth to overthrow the Indian government and incite animosity towards "outsiders" (migrant labourers) benefited the political agendas of the BJP and the RSS.

On November 4, 2022, in broad daylight, outside Gopal Mandir, in the sight of his security detail, Sudhir Suri, the leader of a Shiv Sena group in Punjab and well-known for his hate rants against minorities, notably Sikhs, was slain. There were claims that Waris Punjab De was connected to the murderer. The killer's potential motivation has not been revealed by the authorities, nor have they supported this notion.

It is noticeable that the BJP administration at the Centre is noticeably lenient towards those who publicly support Khalistan, despite its rapid efforts to criminalize political dissent and crack down on "anti-nationals." The same government that quickly imprisoned young environmentalist Disha Ravi on sedition charges has not acted with the same haste in regards to Amritpal.

During the periods when Amritpal appeared to be unrestrained by the State administration, the Punjab BJP blamed the ruling AAP. "The Ajnala incident showed a lack of firm orders from the State government to the Punjab Police," Jaibans Singh stated, acknowledging that Amritpal had been inciting trouble. Shortly after the AAP gained traction in Punjab in 2017, it was alleged that it had ties to advocates of Khalistan. According to Jaibans, the Punjab administration has received complete cooperation from the Centre, and eighteen CRPF units have been sent to the state. He used the concept of federalism to defend his inactivity, stating that "the Centre can't intervene as law and order is a State subject." 

However, a constitutional clause allows for justifiable interference. "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," noted Ashutosh Kumar, the head of the Political Science Department at Punjab University.

By the way, Governor Banwari Lal Purohit has not publicly denounced Amritpal's unlawful conduct while being engaged in a public standoff with Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann over a number of topics.

While downplaying the likelihood of any imminent threat, Ranjit Singh Gill warned that Punjab would descend into chaos if the situation was left uncontrolled. "An election for the Lok Sabha in 2024 has been planned," he stated. "Otherwise, the people have nothing to gain from the ruling BJP."