Over a dozen police personnel are busy guarding the palatial house of the Suris at Shivala colony in Punjab’s Amritsar on November 12 as a stream of visitors arrive to mourn the death of Sudhir Suri, 58, a leader of the Shiv Sena (Taksali), a right-wing outfit, who was shot dead in broad daylight under police protection on November 4.
A sense of insecurity is palpable among the mourners with Sudhir’s murder being the latest in a spate of targeted killings over the past few months, stoking worries over the law and order situation in the State. The emergence of an alleged nexus between gangsters and radical groups in investigations into the criminal cases has given ammunition to the Opposition parties — the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party — to target the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which formed the government after winning the Assembly election in March.
Amid the barrage of criticism, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has sought to defend his turf by taking measures to impose curbs on the gun culture in the State. “A few unfortunate incidents have occurred, but law and order is intact under the AAP government. The crime rate is extremely low in Punjab compared with Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other States in the country, but we are still taking measures such as cracking down on gun culture and reviewing arms licences issued recklessly by the previous governments,” he says.
Sudhir’s murder had rattled the State as he was being guarded by over a dozen police personnel under the ‘Y’ category security. Multiple bullets were fired at him from close range while he was staging a protest outside a temple in the city’s Gopal Nagar. He alleged that the temple’s management had disrespected idols and pictures of Hindu deities after some broken idols were purportedly found in the trash outside its premises. After the attack, he was rushed to a private hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. The police then arrested the alleged shooter, Sandeep Singh Sunny, 33, who ran a local garment shop, and seized a .32 bore licensed weapon from his possession.
Soon, videos of Sunny with Amritpal Singh, 29, the chief of the hard-line outfit Waris Punjab De, surfaced, prompting Sudhir’s family to demand a probe into Amritpal’s role in the case. “The accused fired multiple shots at my brother in front of several police personnel. What were they doing? It clearly shows something is fishy. We want the police to investigate Amritpal’s role in the incident. He is a radical preacher who has been openly calling for violence, secession and separatism. Sandeep has been seen with Amritpal on several occasions. The AAP government seems to be sleeping while the presence of extremist elements is rising. The law and order situation is worrisome and people are in the grip of fear. There is a nexus between gangsters and militants behind the killing. My family has been receiving threats from unknown mobile numbers,” says Brij Mohan Suri, the victim’s brother.
A Dubai-returnee and advocate of Khalistan (a sovereign state for Sikhs), Amritpal on September 29 was appointed the head of the Waris Punjab De, which was set up in September 2021 “to protect rights of Punjab and raise social issues” by actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu. He had participated in the year-long farmers’ stir against the three now-withdrawn farm laws and died in a road accident on February 15 this year. Amritpal, who dresses like slain militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and draws “inspiration” from him, has been demanding the creation of Khalistan.
On October 7, Punjab Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring wrote to Director General of Police (DGP) Gaurav Yadav expressing “growing concern among people over what he [Amritpal] says and does”. Mr. Warring said, “Punjab cannot afford yet another era of violence and bloodshed.” The Ministry of Home Affairs, too, in a communication to the government, expressed concern over his alleged suspicious activities.
Punjab witnessed an era of militancy from the mid-1980s to early 1990s over the demand for Khalistan, but the movement soon lost support.
Hardeep Sharma, who was with Sudhir at the protest site, says the murder could have been averted if the police on duty had taken swift action. “While we were staging the protest, the police officers approached us for deliberations. Then Sandeep came and fired multiple times at Sudhir. It was a targeted killing,” he says.
The police, however, maintain that the probe is under way and all angles are being investigated. Commissioner of Police (Amritsar) Jaskaran Singh says, “An inquiry has been ordered to ascertain who did what at the time of the incident.”
Fallout of 2015 ‘sacrilege’ case
AAP MLA from Amritsar (North) Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, too, has flayed the State government, saying “there was no such thing as law and order in Amritsar”. A former IPS officer, he has been raising his voice over the “delay in justice” in the 2015 incidents of ‘sacrilege’ in Bargari village, 15 km from Kotkapura in Faridkot district.
On June 1, 2015, a bir (copy) of the Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from a gurdwara in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in the district. Three months later, on September 25, derogatory posters against the Sikh religion, its preachers and the Guru Granth Sahib were found pasted in the village. On October 12 that year, torn pages of the Sikh holy book were found scattered in Bargari. These incidents sparked protests across the State and two persons were killed in police firing in Behbal Kalan village. It became a key political issue in the 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections.
Followers of the religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda, based in Sirsa, Haryana, were accused of being involved in the alleged desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. On May 16 last year, six Dera followers were arrested in connection with the case. On November 10 this year, Pardeep Singh, an accused in the Bargari case who was out on bail, became the seventh Dera follower to be killed over the ‘sacrilege’ case. Pardeep was shot dead by six assailants at 7.15 a.m. in Kotkapura while opening his shop. The accused was also under police protection. His gunman and another person suffered bullet injuries in the incident.
Goldy Brar behind attack: police
Canada-based gangster Goldy Brar, a member of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang allegedly involved in the killing of Punjabi singer Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, popularly known as Sidhu Moosewala, on May 29, claimed responsibility for the murder in a purported social media post. He said if a person insults a religion, they shall be wronged.
So far, five shooters, including two juveniles, have been arrested in the case. The police have also arrested a person who allegedly provided logistic support to the shooters. In a tweet on November 17, the State DGP confirmed that Goldy Brar was the mastermind behind the attack.
Shashi Kant, former DGP and crusader against illegal drug trade, says: “During previous governments, too, there were incidents of sporadic violence, but what’s happening today is of serious concern. The recent rocket-propelled grenade attack on the headquarters of Punjab Police’s Intelligence Wing in Mohali and the arrest of four persons from Karnal with three IEDs, which were being transported from Ferozpur to Telangana, indicate ‘sleeper cells’ are active. I feel the police are focusing only on arresting suspects and getting them convicted. They are not trying to solve cases. The police should go for a broader probe.”
He says the killings of Sudhir and Pardeep are linked to police incompetence. “In any armed force, the reaction time of gunmen as per accepted standards is just a few seconds. In the Amritsar incident, no action was taken for hours. In the Kotkapura incident, too, the reaction time was not as good as it should have been,” he says.
On the arrest of juveniles, Mr. Kant says, “It shows a new twist in the strategy of militants and gangsters. They are now employing minors for murders. Soon they may start using them for other nefarious activities. This might be because minors are protected under the law. There have been certain pro-Khalistan marches that are vitiating the atmosphere. In one way or the other, they are trying to lend support to militants located abroad. Such events are creating anxiety among a section of the population in Punjab.”
Residents on edge, businesses hit
Arvinder Singh Chahal, a resident of Wander Jattana village in Kotkapura, says, “We were hoping that the AAP government would be different from the previous dispensations, but it has failed too. The recent killings are an example of their failure. The State’s intelligence agencies seem to be in deep slumber, which has resulted in the government’s failure to establish law and order.”
In Amritsar’s Hall Bazar, one of the oldest markets, Sanjay Mahajan, who runs a 70-year-old sweet shop, says, “It’s natural to grow tense when such crimes occur. It’s not just one incident, several daylight murders have taken place over the past few months. In June, pro-Khalistan groups held a march in the city on the 38th anniversary of Operation Bluestar. Though it has been organised for several years, this year there was more aggressiveness in the sloganeering... such developments are bound to put people on the edge.”
Mr. Mahajan says these incidents have adversely impacted businesses. “There were crimes in the past as well, but under this government, there is no fear of the law. I feel there’s no system in place. If the situation is not brought under control, it may turn worse. If the situation doesn’t improve, I don’t have an option but to leave the State and settle somewhere else,” he says.
Raju Mahajan, who sells tea in the market, says the government has failed to provide a secure atmosphere. “If people under police protection are not safe, what can the common man expect?”
Bhupinder Singh, 50, who runs an electrical store, says targeted killings and the rise in activities of gangsters could be part of a conspiracy to divide communities in Punjab. “Attempts are being made to ruin the peace. I think it’s our unity over several years that has kept communal harmony intact in Punjab. The government, however, needs to curb the activities of gangsters.”
Piyush Kapoor, general secretary of Amritsar Hotel and Restaurant Association, says soon after Sudhir’s killing, tourists cancelled several hotel bookings in the city. “Tourism is a sensitive industry as safety is the top priority for visitors. Any untoward incident in the State or outside affects tourism. Be it any instance of violence, the first casualty is the tourism industry. In fact, the night Sudhir was killed, rival groups of liquor contractors opened fire at a local resort during a wedding reception of a non-resident Indian family. Such incidents definitely cause anxiety.”
Tightening gun regulations
Cracking the whip, the government on November 13 ordered a review of arms licences. Principal Secretary (Home) in a letter to the DGP, Police Commissioners, District Magistrates and Senior Superintendents of Police directed a review of arms licences within the next three months, with no new licence, unless genuinely required, to be issued during the period. The order also called for the cancellation of licences issued to anti-social elements. The government banned the public display of firearms, including on social media, and songs allegedly promoting gun culture. The order also banned displaying weapons at public gatherings and religious places. The officers were directed to conduct surprise checks and file FIRs against those giving hate speeches.
A day after the order was issued, the State Congress chief said mere announcements will not solve problems. “There is a sense of fear among people that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] is trying to resort to targeted killings to disturb the peaceful atmosphere in the State. But the government remains inert and is busy with the Gujarat election. The people of Punjab did not elect you for campaigning in Gujarat after abdicating your duties here,” he said. Mr. Warring also questioned the Centre’s silence over the law and order situation in the border State. “Maybe someone wants polarisation in Punjab to suit their designs.”
However, the Chief Minister has reiterated that law and order is intact in the State.