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Fiery orator, ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’ — who’s Amritpal Singh, new ‘head’ of Deep Sidhu’s Waris Punjab De

Under the close watch of investigating agencies, Amritpal Singh Sandhu, newly appointed head of a faction of Deep Sidhu's Waris Punjab De, is filling a vacuum in Punjab politics.

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Amritsar: In his new avatar as a pious Sikh, dressed in a navy blue turban, a white chola, with a sword-sized kirpan (traditional Sikh dagger), Amritpal Singh Sandhu saunters in and squats on the carpeted floor of a room in his ancestral home at Amritsar’s Jallupur Khera, tired. Nine CCTV cameras keep a close watch on the lanes connecting his two homes in the village.

Sandhu was made the head of a faction of Waris Punjab De, a social organisation founded by late Punjabi actor and lawyer Deep Sidhu, at a dastarbandi (turban tying ceremony) on 29 September, the one-year anniversary of the founding of the organisation.

The mega event took place in Rode village of Moga district. Rode was chosen for the ceremony as it is the ancestral home of the patriarch of the Khalistan insurgency, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Talking to ThePrint, Sandhu says that Bhindranwale, the man who had fortified the Golden Temple, and set off Operation Blue Star in 1984, is an “inspiration”.

“We wanted to celebrate Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a youth icon. We wanted to give the state a message that no matter how evil they portray him as, he will always be our hero,” he adds.

Post the event, Sandhu was projected as a successor to the late figure by the local media, and unverified social media profiles associated with the organisation. Sandhu rejects this title.

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A controversial successor

At its launch last year, Deep Sidhu had loosely defined Waris Punjab De as a “pressure group” to talk about the issues facing Punjab. He designated Harnek Singh Uppal as the head of the organisation, but was the public face.

Sidhu, who rose to fame for his participation in the 2020 farmers’ protest, died in a car crash in February, leaving a gap in the organisation.

People close to Sidhu who were part of the founding team told ThePrint that since he had selected his close allies — Palvinder Singh Talwara and Uppal — to head the organisation, it did not require someone new.

“Soon after Sidhu’s death, a few people left Waris Punjab De and took the organisation’s registration papers,” said a founding member, not wanting to be named.

The original team of Waris Punjab De, the member further said, registered a new organisation on 4 July. But a splinter group headed by Sidhu’s close associate, Punjabi actor Daljeet Kalsi, launched Sandhu as its new head publicly at the dastarbandi.

ThePrint reached Kalsi for comment, but did not receive a response. This report will be updated when a response is received.

Advocating ‘freedom’

Back in Jallupur Khera, Sandhu’s tanned, bony face and lanky frame reflects the hectic nine weeks he’s had, giving speeches at public and private events across Punjab. He travels with his coterie of 10-15 men, in four SUVS, armed with guns and traditional weapons — sword-sized kirpans and arrows.

His sermons are not purely religious or moral. He seamlessly sways from preaching about abandoning drug addiction to the governments at the Centre and state “depriving” Sikhs of their rights.

“Sikhs have been slaves for 150 years. We have developed a slave mentality. First, we were slaves to the British, now we are slaves to the Hindus. The only way we can be totally free is when we have Sikh rule,” he said in Punjabi while addressing a gathering in Behbal Kalan village on the seventh anniversary of the Behbal Kalan ‘killings’ earlier this month.

‘Sandhu’s homecoming’

Sandhu ensured that his arrival in the political landscape of Punjab was loud and clear. The announcement of his dastarbandi resonated through Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Odisha through social media. A large crowd turned up at the event.

“I didn’t imagine this. I wasn’t prepared for this,” says the 29-year-old, who moved back to Punjab on 20 August, leaving behind his family’s transport business in Dubai and his permanent resident status in Canada.

“But I knew that eventually I will have to put my life on the line for Punjab,” he adds.

Unlike Bhindranwale, Sandhu has had no formal religious schooling. His school education lasted only till class 10, after which he enrolled in a polytechnic in Kapurthala.

He dropped out from there as well after three years, cut his hair, shaved his beard, and left for Dubai to join the family business.

He said he hasn’t ever read a book. Yet, he confidently cites tales of historical struggles and injustices against Sikhs in fluent Punjabi.

“Our family is very religious. When Amritpal drifted away from it, we didn’t like it. He told us that he and another boy, his classmate, had planned to cut their hair. While Amritpal cut his hair, that boy ran away. We are very happy that he has taken Amrit (holy water) now,” says Sandhu’s uncle Harjit Singh, who is currently with Sandhu in Punjab. Drinking Amrit, is one of the rites undertaken during a Sikh baptism.

Being back in Punjab and reconnecting with Sikhi is Sandhu’s homecoming, he adds.

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People’s leader

Two days before the dastarbandi, Sandhu made the sarpanch’s house in Rode village his base. People lined up to catch a glimpse of the new leader.

“So many people wanted to see me, we put a charpoy (woven bed) on the verandah. We received so much love from people. It was overwhelming. I didn’t sleep for two days. It was exhausting,” he recalls.

Sleep deprived and feverish on the day of the event, Sandhu roared into the microphone in fluent Punjabi, “Our waters are being stolen. Our Guru is being desecrated. Thousands of factories have encroached our land. Our groundwater has depleted. Our turbans are disrespected. The head of our nation calls us keshdhari (long-haired) Hindus. These are the signs of slavery.”

At Sandhu’s Amritsar home, crowds throng the verandah, eager to voice their issues — alcohol and drug addiction, land disputes, domestic violence and poverty.

Amritpal Singh Sandhu meeting men at his house in Amritsar on October 13 | ThePrint / Sonal Matharu
Amritpal Singh Sandhu meets men at his house in Amritsar | Sonal Matharu | ThePrint

Young boys from the neighbourhood start trickling in in the evening with their notebooks and pencils for a tutorial in Gurmukhi. This, villagers say, is a daily occurrence.

“He is asking people to taste Amrit and stay away from drugs. He talks about the problems of Punjab that have not been solved since 1984. That is why people can relate to him,” says Jaswinder Singh, who owns a chemist shop in Rode.

Comparisons to Bhindranwale

Sandhu’s traditional dress and demeanour are being compared to Bhindranwale by the local media.

His social media posts and banners at public functions also seem to allude to this — with Sandhu’s photograph next to Bhindranwale’s. He has even posed holding an arrow, appearing to imitate the slain leader.

Poster outside Rode gurdwara, built at the site where Bhindranwale was born | ThePrint / Sonal Matharu
Poster outside Rode gurdwara, built at the site where Bhindranwale was born | Sonal Matharu | ThePrint

“Amritpal has understood the psychology of Punjab’s people. Bhindranwale’s popularity has only increased after his death. Amritpal is encashing on this. He is wearing Damdami Taksal’s costume. He is trying to copy Bhindranwale. But even though he has taken the costume like Sant ji’s (Bhindranwale’s), he cannot match his character,” says Professor Sarchand Singh, former spokesperson of the Damdami Taksal and executive member of the BJP.

“He is doing this only to mislead people,” Singh adds.

The Damdami Taksal is a Sikh seminary which served as an ideological powerhouse for the Khalistan movement after 1984.

Sandhu, however, denies imitating Bhindranwale. “I respect Bhindranwale so much that I cannot match him. I don’t care if the state calls me Bhindranwale 2.0 or 3.0. If they do then it is disrespectful to Bhindranwale, and I do not want that.”

Filling a political vacuum

Sandhu’s blazing speeches calling for Khalistan — a sovereign Punjab — are turning heads.

Jasbir Singh, Bhindranwale’s nephew, and Baba Ram Singh, head of a faction of the Damdami Taksal were present at his dastarbandi.

Jasbir Singh was an accused in Indira Gandhi’s assassination case but was never charged.

Sandhu says that while Punjab has been a playground for politics, the farmers’ struggle of 2020 was a watershed moment for the state. “People gathered in large numbers for sovereignty. They were brutally against Delhi [Union government] and the pressure was building up. When it found an outlet in the farmers’ struggle, the flow was so drastic that even the state couldn’t control it.”

Hoisting a Sikh flag at Red Fort then, he adds, is a challenge to the Indian state. “The message it carried was that we [Sikhs] don’t see you [Union government] as a supreme power. The supreme power will always be Khalsa.”

“The emergence of Amritpal is a product of the same kind of politics which Punjab witnessed in the 1980s. The extremist elements were patronised and they produced a tragedy for Punjab,” says Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development and Communication, a think-tank based in Chandigarh.

He adds that the subconscious attempt by political parties to consolidate Hindu votes by mobilising Sikhs in Punjab, may lead to extremist politics asserting itself aggressively in the future.

Sandhu is portraying inaction by governments as a sign of dominance and slavery. Calling to the Sikh youth to fight for full freedom, he says it can only be obtained under Sikh rule.

“The government has asked for 1.5 months [to solve the Bargari sacrilege case]. After that, we will not hold any peaceful protests. After a month-and-a-half, we should declare Sikh rule,” he says.

Amritpal Singh Sandhu (centre) at Tibi Saheb Gurudwara, Faridkot at an event commemorating the seventh anniversary of Behbal Kalan killings linked to the 2015 Bargari sacrilege case | ThePrint / Sonal Matharu
Amritpal Singh Sandhu (centre) at an event commemorating the seventh anniversary of Behbal Kalan killings, at Tibbi Saheb Gurdwara, Faridkot | Sonal Matharu | ThePrint

While he claims that the idea of sovereignty is a very basic part of Sikhi, Professor Sarchand Singh, quoted earlier, believes that the sacrifices Sandhu is asking Sikhs to make for it can lead to a dangerous, dark path which the state has witnessed before. “I have witnessed militancy and we do not want that phase back.”

Sandhu, however, dismisses the claims that he is instigating the youth to take up arms. “There was an uneasy calm in the village when I was growing up. Nobody discussed that phase [of militancy] with us. But for how long can you pretend it never happened? We found out eventually. Every village has 10-20 young men who were killed in that period.”

“I am demanding structural changes. I am the shield between the armed struggle and the state,” he adds.

Criticism abound

Attacks on Sandhu are coming from all sides. When he questioned the conversions in the state, Christian leaders threatened to file defamation cases against him, he claims.

In Rode village, Bhindranwale’s family and the sevadars of the gurdwara run by the family do not want to be associated with Sandhu.

“His ceremony happened outside the gurdwara. They just asked us to prepare langar, which we did. Our involvement is limited just to this,” says a sevadar, not wanting to be named.

Bhindranwale’s brother, Harjit Singh, distanced himself from Sandhu’s aggressive speeches. Damdami Taksal is also not aligning itself with Sandhu’s politics, says professor Singh.

On 7 October, Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring wrote to the state’s director general of police that statements made by Sandhu “have the potential of misguiding the youth with impressionable minds”.

‘A large vision’

Sandhu lives in his sprawling house in Amritsar with his mother, his father and twin sister are abroad, and his elder brother lives in Chandigarh with his family.

Though he cannot point out the moment when he started feeling strongly about reviving the religion, he says he was always interested in stories of Sikh martyrs. Returning to Sikhi has made him calm, he adds.

“I used to be aggressive. Now I don’t hold grudges. If someone criticises me, that doesn’t depress me anymore. I have a very large vision.”

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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