On February 23, a violent mob, led by Amritpal Singh, a pro-Khalistan (sovereign state for Sikhs) propagator and self-styled Sikh preacher, stormed a police station in Punjab’s Amritsar, in what he called a “show of strength”. The protesters wanted one of their own to be released from police custody. The Aam Aadmi Party government of Punjab caved in to the demand.
The 30-year-old Amritpal does not have pretensions or niceties when it comes to his core beliefs. He openly says he draws “inspiration” from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant leader who was killed in 1984. He recently said “the Khalistan movement cannot be stopped from flourishing”.
More often, he is seen wearing a navy blue turban and a white robe with a sword-sized kirpan (the sacred dagger of Sikhs), surrounded by gun-wielding guards — in a stark similarity with Bhindranwale.
He called the rally on February 23 to protest against the arrest of his close associate, Lovepreet Singh, alias Toofan Singh, in an alleged kidnapping and theft case. Scores of his supporters, carrying swords, guns and sharp-edged weapons, gathered at Ajnala in Amritsar. They alleged that the FIR was registered with a political motive; the mob clashed with police personnel and stormed the station. Eventually, Lovepreet Singh was released.
Mr. Amritpal’s rise to fame or notoriety started last year when he took over as the head of the ‘Waris Punjab De’, a social organisation established by actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu, who actively participated in the year-long farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws drafted by the Centre and raised Punjab-centric issues. He was killed in a road accident in February last year.
Rich with symbolism
Mr. Amritpal’s rise was rich with symbolism from the very beginning. The anointment as head of the ‘Waris Punjab De’ took place in Rode village in Moga district, the native village of Bhindranwale. He has been speaking about secession and separatism and evoking calls for the “freedom” of Punjab and the creation of Khalistan. His activities such as the storming of police station have triggered a sense of disquiet in the State.
Born in Jallupur Khaira in Amritsar district, he spent his early days in the village and completed his school education there. In 2012, he went to Dubai to join his family’s trucks-related business, which was started by his uncle, who had been settled in the emirate since 1994.
The Khalistan movement in Punjab may have lost popular support, but a host of incidents with Khalistan links occurred lately in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. And the rise of pro-Khalistan elements, including Mr. Amritpal, has rekindled fears of militancy, which had rocked Punjab in the 1980s.
Mr. Amritpal has been moving across Punjab, after he launched the ‘Khalsa Vaheer’, a traditional form of religious procession, which he says is aimed at bringing the youth closer to Sikhism. During public events, he preaches his radical views, glorifies the use of weapons and justifies the use of violence.
“Glorification of weapons” is not a crime, he once said. In an interview with The Hindu, Mr. Amritpal said, “...without violence, nothing can be established and this has been proved across the globe.”
“We can’t be mascots of non-violence. Right now, we don’t have a sophisticated system; the day we have that system, our activities would be justified,” he said. “Punjab is facing a crisis of identity — be it in India or in neighbouring Pakistan, we will continue our fight for our rights.”
He said nobody can stop the Khalistan movement. “Indira Gandhi tried to do it. What was the result?” he asked.