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Amritpal’s rise and fall expose a vulnerable Punjab. Minority bashing will boost radicalism

Centre must write off the debt of Punjab, which has been carried forward from the days of militancy. It also needs to make investments to industrialise it.

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Amritpal Singh Sandhu, the ‘born again’ Sikh radical and fugitive, has been on the run for 13 days. Amritpal entered Punjab like a storm but seems to have faded away with a whimper. His cowardly acts of using the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield for his violent attack on the Ajnala police station in February — for which he has been discredited and shamed — and running away from the law in March have reiterated his status as a petty criminal.

His meteoric rise—in a mere seven-month span—from a symbolically non-adherent Sikh social media activist working for his family transport business in Dubai to “Bhindranwale 2.0” (as christened by the media) and leading the revival of a dying Khalistan movement smacks of political and intelligence machinations. The spectre of the socio-religious violent unrest from the late 1970 to the mid-1990s loomed large on the nation.

I analyse Amritpal’s meteoric rise and fall and recommend how to resolve Punjab’s problems.

Rise and fall of Amritpal Singh

The media created a larger-than-life image of Amritpal instead of nipping it in the bud. Rather than exposing the hollowness of this charlatan through investigative journalism, the media readily provided him with a platform to enhance his stature. News organisations helped him garner support by bringing the focus back to Punjab’s long-standing grievances. These include issues such as the sharing of river waters, agriculture distress, drug addiction, the need for the resurrection of Sikhism, prevention of conversion and the release or pardon of “Bandi Sikhs” (Sikhs serving long sentences of prison for terrorist acts). Amritpal then proceeded to link the Khalistan movement to the Hindutva ideology, using the analogy that if there can be a Hindu Rashtra, why can’t there be a Sikh Rashtra?

He does not possess the charisma and mesmeric personality of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale—the 14th Jathedar (chief) of the Damdami Taksal. Amritpal only has rudimentary knowledge of the Sikh religious scriptures and is not a product of a well-established religious institution like the Damdami Taksal. He also did not have the time to create a mass following based on political, economic, social and religious grievances as Bhindranwale did from 1977 to 1982. To sum up, he is a radical actor exploiting the cult of “Quami Shaheed” (community martyr) Bhindranwale.

The rise of Deep Sidhu and Amritpal Singh emanated from  the farmers’ agitation, which lasted from 26 November 2020 to 9 December 2021. Deep, also symbolically a non-adherent Sikh and a former supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came into the limelight through his speeches, which addressed not just the draconian farm laws but also wider problems that plagued Punjab. In reality, Deep was a radical rightly disowned by genuine farmers. But he was quickly adopted by radicalised diaspora elements who are forever looking for a Bhindranwale 2.0. On the other hand, a concerted political campaign linking the farmers movement to the revival of Khalistan was being run, which further created schisms.

Hoodwinking the farmers and the police, Deep organised the hoisting of the Khalsa flag (Nishan Sahib) at the Red Fort on 26 January 2021. He was arrested and released on bail and then rearrested and re-released on bail. Surprisingly, he was not charged under the National Security Act (NSA). Deep Sidhus popularity soared sky high and suspicions about who was backing him, became all the more controversial.

He formed Warris Panj-aab De, popularly called Waris Punjab De (WPD) in September 2021 to highlight and resolve the state’s social, political and economic problems. The organisation was registered in December 2022 and was cover for getting donations.

Deep, before his death in a road accident in February 2022, had also announced his support for Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar (SAD-A), known for its pro-Khalistan ideology. As a result, SAD-A won the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypolls last year, its first electoral win since 1999. Deep’s death took away an emerging anchor from the radicals, prompting the search for a successor—and Amritpal became the chosen one.

Before he became WPD chief, Amritpal was based in Dubai and actively supported the farmers and radicals on social media. He also physically joined the farmers’ agitation but was allegedly shunned by Deep because of his ultra-radical views and also due to his perceived rival status, post which he returned to Dubai. He was identified by the radical diaspora, Punjab radicals and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a potential leader of the Khalistan movement. As early as March 2022, SAD-A allegedly declared Amritpal as the new head of WPD, and he was reportedly sent to Georgia for orientation by the ISI.

Amritpal arrived in India in August 2022 and was baptised as an Amritdhari Sikh in Anandpur Sahib. In September, he was formally anointed as WPD chief in Bhindranwale’s village of Rode. Soon, he began imitating the latter’s style, creating and consolidating a mass base for radicalism. He also registered a similar worded organisation as that of Deep Sidhu’s Warris Punj-aab De (controlled by Deep’s family) in July 2022. Known as Waris Punjab De, Amritpal’s organisation called for donations.

With the support of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), he also carried out an Amrit Parchar Yatra. Here, he baptised Sikhs as Amritdaharis and urged them to follow Sikh tenets in absolute terms. His speeches became fiercer by the day, and the media spared no effort to build up his image.

The popular perception in Punjab was that Amritpal Singh “agency da banda hai (literally – a man sponsored by an agency)”. The word “agency” in Punjab loosely implies the government and its intelligence agencies.

Also read: Hindu Rashtra doesn’t sanctify Amritpal’s Sikh separatism. Breaking India won’t fix problems

Why was Amritpal not apprehended?

Logically, Amritpal should have been on the country’s intelligence radar and booked under NSA the day he stepped foot in India—or certainly held after he openly advocated the creation of Khalistan.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had carried out several raids in Punjab in 2022 and 2023 to investigate terrorist organisations and gangsters. Why was Amritpal Singh spared when the media was clearly highlighting a Bhindranwale 2.0 in the making?

The public perception is that short term political gain appeared to drive policy, as allowing radicalism/Khalistan movement to fester in Punjab would embarrass the state government and translate to electoral gains for others. The inexperienced AAP government was paralysed into inaction, fearing a backlash given the Bhindranwale backdrop and the 2015 Bargari beadbi (Guru Granth Sahib desecration) case. The opposition, too, watched the proceedings with glee. The discredited Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its virtual religious arm, the SGPC, extended tacit support to Amritpal.

There should be no doubt that Amritpal was, as yet, only a work in progress. His mentors—the ISI, the radical diaspora, and politically, the SAD-A—focused on creating a mass base. Given the recovery of only 10-15 licensed ordinary firearms, raising a militia was more of a bogey of fantasies for the future. Beyond money, the ISI does not appear to have extended any tangible support to him.

On the face of it, the storming of Ajnala police station, which was the turning point in this saga, was an impulsive action that displayed Amritpal’s power and clout. However, my view is that it was a planned action to force disproportionate police response and create a situation similar to the incident on 13 April 1978, where 13 followers of Bhindranwale were killed in a clash with Nirankaris in Amritsar. This was the benchmark incident that triggered the unrest in Punjab and catapulted Bhindranwale to fame; a violent attack that became a historical tipping point.

Also read: Why does the ghost of Khalistan still haunt Punjab? Story of this father & son has answers

The way forward

At the onset, let me reiterate that there are no takers for Khalistan in Punjab. At the cost of derision, I must state that even Bhindranwale’s demands for Khalistan are controversial, in terms of the legitimacy of when they were raised and if at all. Even in the worst of times, the majority believed in the Constitution. However, the gory history of Punjab, from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is etched in the nation’s collective conscience.

Every agitation or criminal act is perceived as the handiwork of radicals rooting for Khalistan. A case in point is BJP’s bid to label the peaceful farm laws protest as agitation for Khalistan—a view widely circulated by mainstream media and the party’s supporters. The same was repeated after the unfortunate lapse in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security in December 2021 in Ferozepur. The TV media has been most irresponsible in sensationalising the events in Punjab. Very few journalists have objectively investigated the Khalistan movement in Punjab. The emergence of Deep Sidhu and Amritpal was the direct result of the othering of the Sikhs.

Punjab is a border state that has all the ingredients for socioeconomic unrest. Othering of Sikhs by the media and neo-nationalists, and their exploitation by a radicalised diaspora, hardliners at home and the ISI—can easily give impetus to the Khalistan movement in Punjab. An agricultural state with limited industrialisation but relative prosperity from the 1970s to 1990s is now facing acute economic distress. Land holdings have shrunk, and farming has become uneconomical. Unemployment is rampant, with poor education and drug/alcohol addiction compounding the problem. Each family sells land to send at least one person abroad and survives on remissions, in turn becoming vulnerable to the influence of radicals abroad.

The community perceives a threat to its identity from errant youth who do not follow the tenets, from the Deras and their self-styled Gurus, and from religious conversions. Beadabi or sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib (which is considered a living Guru), manifests in display of extreme emotions and violence. Remission of jail sentences  of Bandi Sikhs is considered unjust when rapists are being granted the same. Minority bashing in the rest of India is met with a “we could be next” argument. SGPC, the supreme religiosity body, has become a mere political arm of the SAD and has abdicated its spiritual guidance responsibility. The void it has created has been seized by radicals. The state is reeling under a debt of Rs 3.3 lakh crore, which is only increasing by the year. Debt servicing and a large subsidy bill leave little or no money for development.

Punjab is a national security vulnerability, and all parties must rise above electoral politics to cooperate and address its problems. Political parties must feel the pulse of the people and not allow radicals to seize control of protests and agitations. SGPC must assert itself to control the religious space and resurrect Sikhism, and stop playing politics.

Law and order must not be politicised. Perceived denial of justice fuels radicalism. The Amritpal saga must be closed by quickly apprehending him and ensuring model transparent investigation and prosecution. Any extra judicial methods and application of draconian laws will only bring forth a feeling of persecution in the community.

The central government must seriously evaluate writing off the debt of Punjab, which is being carried forward from the days of the militancy. It also needs to make a massive investment to industrialise Punjab and also invest into agrarian reforms. Last but not the least, the BJP must fall back on its committed ideology of harmony between Hindus and Sikhs, which it remained fully committed to during the heyday of militancy in Punjab. The time is for a pluralist agenda and not minority bashing. This is the true test of nationalism, with everything else being faux.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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