The story so far: The dramatic rise of pro-Khalistan propagator Amritpal Singh has become the cause of worry for security agencies, more so after his armed supporters stormed a police station in Ajnala near Amritsar in Punjab last week to secure the release of his aide Loverpreet Singh alias Toofan Singh, who isaccused of kidnapping and theft.
The 30-year-old first grabbed headlines last year when he took over as the head of ‘Waris Punjab De’, a social organisation established by actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu. ‘Waris Punjab De’ translates to ‘heirs of Punjab’.
Since then, both the organisation and its leader have risen to prominence in the religio-political scene of the State, creatingan atmosphere of disquiet and reviving the memories of the Sikh separatist movement of the 1980s.
How did Waris Punjab De come into being?
Ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections in Punjab, activist Deep Sidhu, who played an active role in the farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws, floated ‘Waris Punjab De’ to provide a common platform for those dissatisfied with the social reality of Punjab.
Deep Sidhu came to public attention during the farmers’ protests in late 2020 when a video clip of him persuading police personnel to allow protesters to proceed to Delhi went viral on social media. “ Ye inquilab hai. Ye revolution hai,” he was heard saying in the clip. Mr. Sidhu became a prominent voice of the agitation, but his relationship with farmer organisations soured following allegations linking him to Khalistan and slain militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) issued a notice to Deep Sidhu and a few others over their alleged links to Khalistani separatist groups. Mr. Sidhu also said in an interview that he didn’t consider Bhindranwale a terrorist.
During a farmers’ Republic Day rally in 2021, the activist was part of a group of protesters who breached the Red Fort and hoisted a religious flag. Mr. Sidhu even conducted a Facebook Live from the site and addressed other protesters. The rally, initially expected to be peaceful, saw protesters breaking barricades, clashing with police and engaging in violence.
A few days later, he was arrested by the Delhi Police for his alleged involvement in the violence. He was in jail for over two months before being released. A few months after this, Mr. Sidhu founded Waris Punjab De.
The mission of the organisation
At the Waris Punjab De launch event in September 2021, Deep Sidhu outlined the mission of the “pressure group”, saying that it would fight to protect the rights and culture of Punjab and raise social issues. “Religion doesn’t matter. Waris Punjab De is for anyone ready to fight for Punjab,” he said. “The State [Centre] has so far disregarded our struggles and shown us just one direction that arises out of their structure, elections. But even after 70 years, it hasn’t given us any solution.”
He clarified that the organisation was only a social platform and not a political gimmick since it was established just months before the crucial election. “Waris Punjab De has not been set up for the attainment of any political position at present. This is a social platform. Be it 2022 or 2027, we will continue to stand on our present principles,” he said.
He, however, campaigned for Simranjit Singh Mann, a leader of radical SAD (Amritsar) ahead of the Punjab election. Mr. Sidhu died aged 37 in a road accident on February 15, 2022, as he was travelling from Delhi to Punjab to take part in the campaign. The accident took place five days before the State went to the polls.
The rise of Amritpal Singh
Around a year after the launch of Waris Punjab De, the organisation came into the limelight when a Dubai returnee dressed like Bhindranwale was anointed as the head of the organisation- Amritpal Singh. The ‘ dastar bandi’ (turban-tying) ceremony of the new head of Waris Punjab De was filled with symbolism as thousands turned up at Rode, Bhindranwale’s ancestral village in Moga district and raised pro-Khalistan slogans to mark the occasion. During the ceremony, Mr. Amritpal declared that he drew inspiration from Bhindranwale.
Since then, the 30-year-old has been calling for violence and urging secession and separatism,openly espousing the cause of Khalistan on all platforms.
He has modelled himself on Bhindranwale— Mr. Amritpal is usually seen wearing a white robe, a navy-blue turban and a sword-sized kirpan (the sacred dagger of Sikhs) at his side, while gun-wielding men guard him. This has led to many branding him Bhindranwale 2.0.
He has been travellingacross the State, promoting ‘ Khalsa Vaheer’— a traditional religious procession preaching Sikhism to youth and encouraging them to shun drugs. His supporters have also been involved in violent incidents in gurudwaras. For instance, his followers vandalised chairs and set them on fire in a Jalandhar gurudwara last year , since hebelieves that the use of chairs and other facilities inside gurudwaras is against the ‘ maryada’ (code of conduct) of Sikhs.
Mr. Amritpal’s claims of not being averse to violence and the use of weapons have sent both the security establishment and the government into a tizzy. “… without violence, nothing can be established and this has been proved across the globe,” he told The Hindu in an earlier interview.
Mr. Amritpal says 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,” he said.
Former Chief Minister and BJP leader Captain Amarinder Singh pins the blame for his meteoric rise on the AAP government. “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,” the BJP leader says.
Concerned about the growing clout of the Waris Punjab De chief, State Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring says the State can’t afford another era of violence and bloodshed. “When will you act against Amritpal, @BhagwantMann Sahab? What are you scared of? If you don’t take any action against him, we at @INCPunjab will be forced to come out on the streets. We won’t let go hard-earned peace of Punjab. Nip the evil in the bud,” he said in a tweet.
The Centre has said it is “closely monitoring” the developing situation in Punjab after Waris Punjab De supporters stormed the Ajnala police station to secure the release of Lovepreet Singh, an aide of Amritpal Singh, accused of kidnapping and assault. Mr. Singh was released from jail on February 24. The Waris Punjab De chief, however, has said that Khalistan movement could not be stopped from flourishing. If Union Home Minister Amit Shah desired to stop it, let him “fulfil his desire”, he said.