Centre told Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann to take action on Amritpal Singh: officials

Though the Punjab government was wary of an agitation leading to civilian deaths, the Ajnala incident acted as a trigger, with Central officials convincing the State that failure to act would be more dangerous

March 26, 2023 08:52 pm | Updated March 27, 2023 08:28 am IST - NEW DELHI

Security personnel deployed at Baba Bakala court, where seven associates of ‘Waris Punjab De’ chief Amritpal Singh were brought, near Amritsar, on March 23, 2023.

Security personnel deployed at Baba Bakala court, where seven associates of ‘Waris Punjab De’ chief Amritpal Singh were brought, near Amritsar, on March 23, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

Days before the Punjab police launched a coordinated crackdown against pro-Khalistan propagator Amritpal Singh, the Central government convinced Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann to initiate action against the fugitive, according to senior Central officials.

After a violent mob of Mr. Singh’s supporters mobbed a police station in late February, Central government officials briefed the Punjab CM, warning him that the self-styled Sikh preacher was trying to cause a communal stir in Punjab by giving provocative speeches against Christian and Hindu communities, and would become more dangerous if he was not stopped, a Central official said. The Punjab government then set itself a deadline of March 31 to implement the crackdown plan. 

Also read: Amritpal Singh promoted gun culture in Punjab, had links with drug dealers, say officials

Amritpal speeches monitored

Ten days before the police operation began on March 18, Central security agencies tracked five events in Amritsar, Mukhtsar, Tarn Taran, Mansa and Kapurthala districts where Mr. Singh addressed locals. Each meeting had a gathering of around 800-1000 people, a Central official said.

In one of the meetings, the radical preacher reportedly said that Sikh policemen should take a stand for the Panth (Sikh faith) whenever there was an incident of sacrilege against Guru Granth Sahib. He added that in the 1980s, several policemen had left their jobs to serve the faith and were still celebrated. At one of the events, he said that the Punjab government planned to disarm the Sikhs by revoking their arms licenses. The Central official said that Singh attempted to create mischief by deliberately crossing Christian majority areas.

Since 2022, the Punjab government has cancelled hundreds of arms licenses in a bid to end the gun culture in Punjab. 

Wary of violence

Though the Punjab police had kept a watch on Mr. Singh’s activities since last year, the State government was wary of any hasty action that could provoke the eruption of an agitation to support the preacher, leading to civilian deaths or injuries.

Also read: As Amritpal remains elusive, Akal Takht chief priest raises question over Punjab Police ability

On February 23, however, a violent mob led by Mr. Singh stormed a police station in Punjab’s Ajnala demanding that one of the preacher’s aides be released from police custody. The protestors carried a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, as a shield. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government of Punjab caved into the demand, but the incident acted as a trigger, ultimately leading to the police crackdown.

“The Punjab administration was already on the backfoot after the sacrilege incidents post-2015. The State government feared a public outrage and any harm to the public in case of a police action after the Ajnala incident. But since a police station was attacked and six policemen were injured, a case was quietly registered against Singh, the news kept under wraps,” a senior Central government official said.

Also read: Punjab Police looking into the ISI’s role, and foreign funding, in Amritpal Singh case

Central support

On March 2, Mr. Mann met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi, following which additional Central forces were sent to Punjab on the pretext that they were needed for the Holla Mohalla festival. On March 18, when the police initiated action, Mr. Singh managed to give them a slip and is still on the run.

The Central official added that Mr. Singh, 30, was radicalised after the 2015 sacrilege incident that singed parts of Punjab, though he was in Dubai at the time. He returned to Punjab in September 2022 and took over the affairs of the Waris Punjab De (WPD) — which means the Heirs of Punjab — pushing away the immediate family members of the group’s founder Deep Sidhu, who was killed in a road accident in early 2022. As of Sunday, there were at least half-a dozen cases registered against Mr. Singh and other members of the WPD. 

‘No mass following’

“Our assessment showed that Singh does not have a mass following, but is a threat to peace and stability in the State. A timeline of March 31 was set for the crackdown,” said a Punjab government official. “Maybe he is being used by elements who want to show Punjab in poor light and question the capability of the State government. The operation began on March 18, a day before he was to begin Khalsa Vahir, a religious procession from Muktsar,” the official added.

The coordination between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government and the AAP-led Punjab government was further highlighted when a few of Mr. Singh’s aides were booked under the National Security Act (NSA) and moved to the Dibrugarh prison in Assam. A Central government official said that the suspects were moved to Assam as they could have broken out of jail in Punjab or planned terrorist activities from Punjab prisons. 

Lessons from history

Brigadier Israr Rahim Khan (retd), a retired brigadier who led Operation Blue Star at Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984 when Sikh extremism was its peak, said that lessons must be learnt from history, urging that the activities of Amritpal Singh should be nipped in the bud as there are few open followers of Khalistan today. 

“The present situation is not comparable to the conditions in 1984 and Amritpal is nowhere near the stature of the cult figure [Jarnail Singh] Bhindranwale, who had become a demigod. I am amazed the criminal has not yet been caught by a huge police force, when there were ample opportunities to do it as soon as he came back from Dubai almost a year back,” Brigadier Khan said.

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