Separatist strains resurface in Punjab

Amritpal Singh, a 29-year-old Sikh preacher who dresses like slain militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and draws “inspiration” from him, has created an atmosphere of disquiet by raising the bogey of Khalistan, a separate state for Sikhs.

December 27, 2022 07:18 pm | Updated December 29, 2022 09:55 am IST

Amritpal Singh (centre) being presented with a portrait of slain militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at Dhunda village in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district.

Amritpal Singh (centre) being presented with a portrait of slain militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at Dhunda village in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

On a sunny winter morning in December, a few hundred people have gathered at the playground of a government school in Dhunda village in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. After camping overnight at the place, they are eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of 29-year-old self-styled Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh. Their wait ends at noon, when the chief of the radical outfit, Waris Punjab De, emerges from his caravan clad in a white robe and a navy blue turban. With a sword-sized kirpan (sacred dagger) at his side and gun-toting guards closely following him, Mr. Amritpal proceeds towards a cot laid out for him as supporters and followers rush to seek his blessings.

A staunch proponent of Khalistan (a separate state for Sikhs), the preacher is leading a month-long religious procession, Khalsa Vaheer, which began from Akal Takht Sahib — the highest Sikh temporal seat — at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar on November 23. Aimed at encouraging the youth to become baptised Sikhs and shun drugs, the procession — slated to cover the entire State — is also spreading the message of eradicating social evils such as dowry and casteism.

Mr. Amritpal, who dresses like slain militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale — one of the leading figures of the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s — and draws “inspiration” from him, has created an atmosphere of disquiet by raising the bogey of Khalistan. His claims of not being averse to violence are taking centre stage in the State’s politics, with the Opposition parties cornering the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government over his growing popularity. The hard-line leader’s rise comes amid a crackdown on pro-Khalistan elements within and outside the country by law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Amritpal was in Dubai for over 10 years and was associated with his family’s transport business. Earlier this year, he returned to Punjab and was appointed the head of Waris Punjab De on September 29.

The organisation was set up in September 2021 “to protect the rights of Punjab and raise social issues” by actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu, who had participated in the year-long farmers’ protest against the three now-withdrawn farm laws and died in a road accident on February 15 this year.

‘Getting a free run’

Former Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Captain Amarinder Singh has blamed the AAP government for giving Mr. Amritpal a free run. He says the preacher has been propagating violence and speaking the language of separatism. “How can you let someone like him go scot-free? He has been making statements against the unity and integrity of the country and exhorting the youth to take up weapons.”

followers wait to catch a glimpse of the self-styled Sikh preacher outside his caravan.

followers wait to catch a glimpse of the self-styled Sikh preacher outside his caravan. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

State Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring has written to Director General of Police (DGP) Gaurav Yadav expressing “growing concern among people over what he [Amritpal] says and does”. Seeking a strict vigil on Mr. Amritpal’s activities, Mr. Warring says “Punjab cannot afford yet another era of violence and bloodshed”, alluding to the era of militancy in the State from the mid-1980s to early 1990s over the demand for Khalistan. He says the party does not have a problem with the propagation of religion, but “instigating people to violence is unacceptable”.

According to Mr. Yadav “everybody is free to act within the ambit of the Constitution while exercising freedom of expression, but strict action will be taken against those who break the law”.

‘A fight for rights, freedom’

Mr. Amritpal, in a speech during Khalsa Vaheer, asserts that one of the objectives of the journey is to alert the quom (the Sikh community) about the atrocities committed against it and the rights that have been snatched from it. “Successive governments in Delhi [the Centre] — be it the BJP or the Congress — have worked towards the humiliation or elimination of Sikhs,” he says.

Sikhs have been victimised and they have suffered for putting up a fight, Mr. Amritpal says, adding that the members of the community have been treated as slaves and should be freed from the “shackles of slavery”. “Sikhs will have to convey firmly to the state [Delhi] that they are no longer going to silently tolerate slavery,” he says.

Elaborating on the victimisation, Mr. Amritpal tells The Hindu, “The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 were the outcome of such resistance. In the late 1980s, scores of Sikhs were killed in fake encounters.” The proliferation of drugs has been done in a planned manner and the State doesn’t want to stop it, he says, promising to free the youth from the clutches of the menace. “The State is responsible, and we shall continue to resist it,” the preacher says.

While India itself receives its share of water based on riparian law [which states that the water of a river first belongs to the State through which it flows], when it comes to Punjab, the law is not enforced,” he says, alluding to the row between Haryana and Punjab over sharing of water of the rivers Ravi and Beas and the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal.

Participating in the procession has provided an opportunity to get closer to the Sikh religion and receive clarity about the community’s rights, says Gursharan Singh, a 21-year-old follower of Mr. Amritpal. The Sikh community has been raising its voice seeking the release of political prisoners incarcerated in jails across the country over the past 30 years, but successive governments have turned a deaf ear to such pleas, he says. “It’s important for all of us to be informed about our past. If we are being wronged, then we need to stand up and fight for our rights,” he says.

To secure the quom’s rights, it is important to establish its own regime, says Simranpreet Singh, 21, another participant, who hails from Gurdaspur and discontinued his studies after Class XII. “We have suffered immensely in the past and now Amritpalji is making us aware of the ways to achieve our rights. Before the Britishers came to India, it was our rule here. I am sure it would yet again be ours in the future.”

Public display of guns, weapons

The Opposition parties have also targeted Mr. Amritpal for defying the government’s order issued on November 13 banning the public display of firearms, including on social media, and songs allegedly promoting gun culture. The order also bans the display of weapons at social gatherings and religious places. The radical preacher’s followers, however, are often seen carrying firearms and swords in public. On November 21, the police had booked Bhagwant Singh, a close aide of Mr. Amritpal, for allegedly posting pictures of him holding guns on social media.

However, the chief of Waris Punjab De maintains that glorification of weapons is not a crime as they are embedded in Sikhism and a cultural part of Punjab. “We possess guns, but don’t indulge in violence. Historically, there have been extrajudicial killings in Punjab. The governments pretend that they care for the public, but when they don’t protect you, one needs to protect oneself. We are being accused of instigating people, but the truth is that the governments have never tried to find the root cause of the problem. They don’t do it because their egoistic nature comes in the way,” he tells The Hindu.

Opinion is divided over the public display of guns by Mr. Amritpal’s followers. “It sends the wrong signal,” says Kuldeep Sharma, who works as a daily wager at a roadside food stall at Goindwal, a few kilometres from Dhunda village. Hindu-Sikh brotherhood has been the hallmark of Punjab’s history and it helped the State overcome the “dark days of militancy”, he says, adding that “flaunting of weapons should be restrained. It definitely spreads fear among people”.

There is nothing to be scared of, says Sukhjinder Singh, who works alongside Mr. Sharma. He says the weapons are brandished not to create fear but to fight against any kind of victimisation. “They are doing this as part of maryada (the Sikh code of religious living),” Mr. Sukhjinder says.

‘No mask of being non-violent’

Mr. Amritpal says he is not averse to violence. Without violence nothing can be established and this has been proved across the globe. We can’t wear a mask of being non-violent, he says.“Violence is neither good nor bad, violence is violence. The State also does violence... It is a sophisticated way of violence. The State imposes its right to violence through the courts and police. The day we have that system, our violence would be justified,” the fiery orator says.

On December 12, Mr. Amritpal’s supporters allegedly vandalised chairs at a gurdwara in Jalandhar and set them on fire during their State-wide procession. The preacher had warned against the use of chairs inside gurdwaras as being seated at the same level as the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is “a violation of maryada”.

Fomenting trouble

Persistent efforts are being made by banned pro-Khalistan outfits to foment trouble in Punjab, according to law enforcement agencies. About two dozen accused and suspects operating from outside the country are under the scanner. “Huge funds have been channelled from abroad for online propaganda and recruitment. We have come across prima facie evidence indicating that violence is being promoted in the garb of music videos,” an official from a Central agency says.

On December 8, the National Investigation Agency arrested alleged terrorist and pro-Khalistan operative Bikramjit Singh after his extradition from Austria. He was wanted in connection with a bomb blast in a vacant plot on the outskirts of Pandori Gola village in Tarn Taran on September 4, 2019, leaving two persons dead and one injured.

On December 16, Punjab Police claimed that it had solved the rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Sarhali police station in Tarn Taran with the busting of a foreign-controlled terror module.

In view of the recent spate of incidents surrounding the Khalistan connection in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, debate over the revival of the secessionist movement has gained momentum. There is also concern over the presence of sleeper cells in Punjab and  other States.

Can’t let guard down, says expert

A small percentage of hard-line leaders have always existed in Punjab and outside India, says former State DGP S.S. Virk. “These recent incidents with Khalistan connection indicate that sleeper cells of sympathisers of the cause are in place and active. Sympathisers located abroad come to the aid of the movement through funds. Some proponents of a separate State have even contested elections, but without much success.”

Though the Khalistan movement had lost popular support in the 1990s, the government should not let its guard down, says Mr. Virk. “This is a phase that needs to be seriously watched. If there’s any mishandling, there could be serious consequences. The government needs to come up with innovative ways to handle the situation.”

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