Anil Kumar (name changed), a 62-year-old cloth merchant in Ajnala in western Punjab, was anguished. Having lived through the tumultuous period of the 1980s, when there was a decade-long insurgency in Punjab over the demand for ‘Khalistan’, or a sovereign state for Sikhs, he instantly knows when there is trouble brewing. Sitting in the main market of Ajnala, Anil recalled some of the incidents of last year in the border State which sent a chill down his spine: the murder of rapper and songwriter Sidhu Moosewala in Mansa district, the explosion at the Punjab Police’s Intelligence Wing headquarters in Mohali, and the killing of a Dera Sacha Sauda follower in Kotkapura in a shoot-out. The latest incident which has left him worried took place near his shop.
It happened on Thursday, February 23. Led by the self-styled Sikh preacher and pro-Khalistan propagator Amritpal Singh, a mob armed with swords, guns and sharp weapons barged into the Ajnala police station, a few kilometres from the International Border with Pakistan. They protested against the arrest of Amritpal’s close associate, Lovepreet Singh alias Toofan Singh, in an alleged kidnapping and theft case. Amritpal demanded that the First Information Report (FIR) filed against Lovepreet and him be cancelled, and his aide be released. Calling the FIR “politically motivated,” Amritpal issued a threat: if his demands were not met, “the administration would be responsible for whatever happens,” he said. He even warned the police about registering an FIR in the case surrounding the incident at Ajnala.
The stunned police gave in to his demand. Senior Superintendent of Police (Amritsar Rural) Satinder Singh said, “According to the evidence given by Lovepreet’s supporters, he was not present at the spot where the alleged incident (assault and kidnapping) occurred. So, the police submitted the evidence before the court for his discharge. We have set up a Special Investigation Team to probe the matter (FIR) based on which Lovepreet was arrested. Once its report is out, a decision will be taken.” Lovepreet was released after a local court issued the order.
Days after the incident, the Punjab government transferred 18 police officers, including Amritsar Commissioner of Police Jaskaran Singh. But despite six policemen getting injured in the violence at the station, the police are yet to register any FIR in the Ajnala matter. Punjab Director General of Police (DGP) Gaurav Yadav said “action will be taken against those who attacked the police” after “analysing the video footage.”
Anil said seeing the mob carrying weapons at Ajnala reminded him of the days when youngsters would walk the streets of Punjab, some four decades ago, flaunting guns and swords. “If a group of people can attack a police station, if a police station is not safe, then how can the people feel secure,” he asked. “Right now, I am as scared as I used to be during that period of terrorism. It’s not just me, many feel the same way.”
‘Fear is bound to creep in’
Three days after the incident, there was an uneasy calm in Ajnala. It was the last Sunday of the month. While the local market is usually closed on this day, it was open that Sunday as traders and shopkeepers were hoping to make up for the lost business of the previous three days.
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Bittu, 50, a taxi driver, hardly had any business in the days following the mob incident in Ajnala. “There were barricades installed on the main road and at our taxi stand. Taxi operators did not come here because there was tension. Now, things seem to have settled down, but most people don’t seem to want to venture out unnecessarily,” he said.
Close to the police station complex, several police personnel, including the anti-riots force, were still deployed. The local police, however, asserted that the “situation was under control.”
Anil begged to differ. “Several instances of gangster-related incidents have taken place in the State. All these indicate that the incumbent government is weak,” he said. While he did not deny that there were crimes before the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to power, now “there is no fear of the law,” Anil said. “If the situation is not brought under control immediately, it could become worse.”
The AAP government in Punjab, which came to power nearly a year ago, has largely been on the back foot over the breakdown of law and order. Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has been downplaying the situation by asserting that no one will be allowed to disturb the hard-earned peace of the State and the government is committed to maintaining law and order. Days after the incident, he said ‘Khalistan’ supporters were receiving aid from Pakistan and other countries. Only a handful of people supported the pro-Khalistan movement, and the Punjab police is fully capable of handling the situation, he said.
But the people are not convinced. Parvez, a 32-year-old vegetable vendor, sits a few metres from the Ajnala police station. While attending to customers, he said, “What happened that day cannot be justified. An armed group of people laid siege to a police station. If the government is really strong, not even a leaf can move.”
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Another shop owner said such incidents will cease to take place only if there is political will. “The government needs to tackle fringe elements who are vitiating the atmosphere. It needs to take immediate action against them. There is a strong bond between all the communities here. The majority of the people don’t support the pro-Khalistan narrative. But if violent incidents take place, fear is bound to creep in,” he said.
Narinder Bhamra, a Ludhiana-based industrialist and president of the Fastener Manufacturers Association of India, pointed out that the incident took place on the same day that the Punjab government held the Progressive Punjab Investors Summit at Mohali. “This leaves the impression that government is not in control of the situation on the ground. How can a few hundred anti-social elements attack a police station and get their demands accepted? And no FIR has been registered against those involved. What does this indicate? If this is the situation, let alone a new industry coming to the State, even the existing industry will think of moving out,” he said.
Increasing militant activity
Amritpal, 30, is known to speak the language of separatism and secession. The radical preacher, who was born in 1993, hails from Amritsar district. He left India to work in his family’s truck-related business in Dubai in 2012. In 2022, he returned to take over as the head of Waris Punjab De, which was set up by actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu, who died in a road accident in February last year. Amritpal’s anointment ceremony was held at Rode village in Moga district, which is the native village of the slain militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and reverberated with pro-Khalistan slogans. According to Sidhu, who rose to prominence during the agitation against the three farm laws, Waris Punjab De’s mission is to protect the rights and culture of Punjab and raise social issues.
Amritpal is a self-confessed follower of Bhindranwale and even dresses like him. Sporting a navy blue turban, a white robe, and a sword-sized ‘kirpan,’ the sacred dagger of the Sikhs, he is always surrounded by weapon-wielding guards. He has said that “glorification of weapons is not a crime.” Referring to the Khalistan movement, he said, “Has the Prime Minister or Home Minister ever said that they will stop people who talk about a ‘Hindu Rashtra’? It means there’s discrimination... Sikhs have their aspirations and Hindus have theirs, while they [Hindus] can freely talk about theirs, we [Sikhs] can’t. I firmly believe that it [the Khalistan movement] can’t be stopped from flourishing.”
The concern over Amritpal’s statements and activities is palpable beyond Ajnala, especially since there have been a series of incidents with Khalistan links in Punjab, which have rekindled fears of an armed militancy.
Last year, on April 29, a curfew was imposed in Patiala soon after a group that calls itself Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) clashed with pro-Khalistani activists. The Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) had sought permission to hold a march against the backdrop of the announcement by the banned Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) outfit to mark the foundation day of Khalistan. The following month, a few ‘Khalistan’ flags were found hung on the main gate and separatist slogans were found scribbled on the boundary walls of the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly premises in Dharamshala. Both these incidents took place following an appeal by the SFJ leader.
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In May, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the headquarters of the Punjab Police Intelligence Wing in Mohali. The police indicated that the Babbar Khalsa International, a terror organisation striving for a separate Sikh state, and a nexus of gangsters and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence were behind the attack.
On December 8, the National Investigation Agency arrested alleged terrorist and pro-Khalistan operative Bikramjit Singh, who was wanted in connection with the Tarn Taran bomb blast in Punjab in September 2019, after his extradition from Austria. Two people were killed in the blast. And on December 16, the Punjab police claimed that it had solved the rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Sarhali police station in Tarn Taran, by busting a foreign-controlled terror module.
Despite these incidents, it would be wrong to assume that there is a revival of a pro-Khalistan movement, said Kamaljot Singh, 25, from Ajnala. “I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t want it to happen. I believe that if everyone is united, only then will we prosper. While I appreciate Amritpal’s initiative against the drug menace, violence cannot be justified,” Kamaljot said.
‘Failure of intelligence’
Incidents such as the one at Ajnala and the lack of action taken against the mob will only “embolden radical elements,” said Shashi Kant, a former Punjab DGP, who has served in numerous intelligence agencies. “It equally raises questions about police Intelligence,” he said. “If the protesters were carrying the Guru Granth Sahib, what was the Intelligence doing? It was a total collapse of the Intelligence machinery.”
But Kant was also quick to praise the police. “When the protesters attacked the police while carrying the Guru Granth Sahib, the police exercised restraint. That is commendable,” he said.
Kant seemed nonplussed by the lack of action against Amritpal. He said, “This is a total failure on the part of the government, and it’s demoralising for the police. While I don’t see any revival of the Khalistan movement in the absence of popular support, concerns over the activeness of Khalistan sympathisers or pro-militant elements across Punjab and other States can’t be ignored.”
Since Punjab is a border state, law and order has always been a delicate domain and the government needs to handle such sensitive situations carefully, others said. “The State has been vulnerable to the machinations of inimical, and not necessarily all foreign, forces,” said Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhaghat Singh Chair Professor of Political Science at Panjab University.
The Waris Punjab De has been making headlines ever since Amritpal took over as its head, Ram said. “The Ajnala incident needs to be located within the broader context of various public utterances by its current president and the responses to those by the State government. It seems like the law enforcement agencies took precautionary measures to prevent this from swelling into another issue of communal conflict. This is especially important at a time when the long-drawn-out  ‘Bargari sacrilege’ case still remains under investigation. The line of action taken by the current regime is politically correct; a contrary stance could easily have led to an inflammatory situation. However, there is another equally important, but often neglected, dimension that needs to be boldly underlined, which is to figure out how to preempt such a situation from arising at all. There is a dire need to apply the lessons learned in the past.”
Ram also demanded to know why both the State government and prominent Sikh institutional bodies have been restrained in their statements after the events led by Amritpal. “This could lead to accusations of complicity, for political goals or other considerations,” he said.
While many are asking questions of the administration, Gurpinder, who runs a roadside dhaba at Rayya town on the busy Delhi-Amritsar National Highway, had a more immediate worry. “I usually get a handsome number of customers at the weekend. But this week hardly anyone has stepped in,” he said.
Anil was clear that if the situation worsens, he would leave Punjab. “It would be terrible if Punjab saw those dark days again,” he said.