After social media hype, the Amritpal saga ended in a whimper

May 08, 2023 07:55 PM IST

While Singh imitated Bhindranwale in appearance and oratory, the issue of a separate Sikh state had no support in Punjab, but it resonated in foreign countries.

Chandigarh: “For five weeks he was on the run, expecting people to come out on the streets in support. He miscalculated,” said a senior journalist, who has covered Punjab for three decades, including the Khalistani movement and most recently, the state-wide manhunt for Amritpal Singh that ended after the 30-year-old leader of the separatist movement was arrested from the Rodewala gurdwara in Moga on April 23.

‘Waris Punjab De’ chief Amritpal Singh was arrested by Punjab police on April 23 (File Photo) PREMIUM
‘Waris Punjab De’ chief Amritpal Singh was arrested by Punjab police on April 23 (File Photo)

The symbolism employed by the self-styled separatist leader was not lost on anyone. Rode is the ancestral village of militant Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed by the Indian Army in Operation Bluestar inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. The Rode Gurdwara was built in memory of Bhindranwale. For his endgame, Singh chose the Rode gurdwara. Last September, his audacious plan to resurrect the separatist movement, was also launched at the same place. Amritpal’s inspiration went deeper: he imitated Bhindranwale in appearance and in his firebrand oratory, as well.

“The call for a separate Sikh state did not find the support he expected here. The issue resonates in foreign countries where Sikhs are a sizeable population, but back in Punjab, he drew a blank,” the senior journalist of a vernacular daily who did not wish to be named, said.

Landing in Punjab from Dubai in September 2022 after leaving behind a family-owned truck business, Singh shot into the limelight when he declared him to be the chief of Waris Punjab De (WPD, literally, inheritors of Punjab), a socio-religious outfit that was floated in 2020 by Punjabi actor-activist, Deep Sidhu, during his participation in the farmer’s agitation against the now-repealed Central farm laws. Sidhu died in a road mishap in 2022.

Singh proclaimed that WPD’s new aim would be to fight for Khalistan — a separate homeland for Sikhs, which formed the nugget of the separatist movement that raged through the state in the 80s and 90s. Over three decades later, in what was clearly a series of well-choreographed moves, the lanky clean-shaven Jat Sikh youngster who was born in Jallu Khera village in Amritsar district in 1993 and migrated to Dubai in 2012, first transformed himself into an ‘Amritdhari’ (a baptised Sikh) at Anandpur Sahib, the birthplace of Khalsa. Four days later, on September 29, 2022, at a well-attended ‘dastarbandi’ (turban tying ceremony signifying the taking on of a responsibility) in Rode village, he became the WPD chief.

This was the beginning of his vocal and virulent tirade in which he cleverly juxtaposed his drug-de-addiction slogan with his pro-Khalistan speeches in which he also harped on the past incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. To whip up religious fervour and enlist the youth, he rolled out the ‘Khalsa vaheer’, a mobile Sikh religious campaign for baptism across Punjab.

Singh’s barely-concealed secessionist speeches struck a discordant note in violence-weary Punjab. His close aides recorded his firebrand speeches and uploaded them on social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, where Singh was followed by thousands. His FB page “Waris Punjab De official” was operated from Fresno, California.

On February 23, Singh led more than 2,000 supporters, many armed with licensed guns, swords and spears and stormed a police station in Ajnala, a town near the India-Pakistan border, to get the police to release one of his aides, Lovepreet Singh alias Toofan Singh, arrested in a criminal case. He carried the Guru Granth Sahib along in a religiously-loaded tactic, which put the police on the defensive for fear of being accused of desecrating the holy book. The raid lasted over two hours and ended when police agreed to free Lovepreet, who was released from Amritsar central jail, the next day. Six policemen were injured in the clashes and a number of police vehicles were also damaged.

The Ajnala showdown made Singh an overnight social media sensation, drawing traction from pro-Khalistan elements abroad. It also set the alarm bells ringing for both the state government and the Centre which saw a serious challenge to law and order in the border state.

For the next three weeks, the government weighed its options while Singh went underground. One of the overriding reasons against an immediate crackdown was the high-profile G-20 event that was to take place in Amritsar on March 15 to 17. In an interview with HT on March 15, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann said, “You will see the action soon.” Three days later, the state launched an operation to nab Singh and eight core aides of his. Singh managed to evade the police for several days: on March 18 itself, he made headlines after giving the police the slip at a busy Mehatpur market in Jalandhar.

An internet shutdown was enforced across Punjab for the following week. The cops wanted to prevent Singh, now on the run, from posting videos and writing posts that would incite his supporters, bringing them to the streets to cause unrest.

He released a video message on March 29, while on the run, in which he called upon the acting jathedar (head priest) of the Akal Takht (the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs) Giani Harpreet Singh to organise Sarbat Khalsa (congregation) on April 14, the day of Baisakhi celebrations. The video put to rest the speculations that he was arrested. At least half a dozen videos and pictures surfaced on the social platforms from unconfirmed sources while he was on the run. His last video, in fact, was released minutes before his arrest in which he said he will fight the “false” cases registered against him.

Now lodged in Assam’s high-security Dibrugarh jail and charged under the National Security Act (NSA), a little over two weeks since his arrest, he is already a forgotten figure, both on Punjab’s streets and on social media. Stringent scrutiny by the government appears to have played a role in muting his fledgling sympathisers. On the ground too, his support seemed thin. Giani Harpreet Singh gave a cold shoulder to Singh’s call for a Sarbat Khalsa, though he expressed sympathy for him and others arrested under the NSA. Few had expected such a tame ending to the saga when only months ago the fear of the Khalistani movement’s revival was etched in everyone’s minds.

Miscalculated support of Sikhs

“He didn’t come through the process. He tried to impersonate (the slain Sikh militant leader) Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale but he was not even a practising Sikh in Dubai,” said Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. “People were not clear about his antecedents and intentions.”

Many attributed his gambit to the victory of long-time pro-Khalistan Akali leader Simranjit Singh Mann in the Sangrur Lok Sabha by-election last year soon after the Aam Aadmi Party’s landslide win in the February assembly elections.

“Amritpal was delusional about his mission and far removed from the ground reality of Punjab which had long moved on after a tryst with a failed violent secessionist movement of the 1980s” said a veteran Congress leader requesting anonymity.

Equally misplaced was Singh’s intent to fancy himself as Bhindranwale 2.0. Bhindranwale’s rise came about in the context of a simmering conflict between the Sikhs and the Nirankari sect over the latter’s alleged acts of blasphemy. The flash-point was the 1978 clash in which the Nirankaris shot dead 13 Sikhs on Baisakhi day in Amritsar.

That fuelled a violent Sikh extremism, catapulting Bhindranwale to the centre-stage. Punjab at the time was also convulsed by the long-running Akali agitation over its political demands for a federal structure. Bhindranwale was heading the Damdami Taksal, a centuries-old venerated Sikh seminary with fundamentalist leanings — a critical factor in his emergence as an actor in the cataclysmic events that culminated in Operation Bluestar, the watershed event that changed the history of Punjab and India. Following Bhindranwale’s death, Punjab was the theatre of an unrelenting firestorm by a clutch of pro-Khalistan terrorist groups. The violent movement was vanquished by security agencies in 1993. Since then, pro-Khalistan political leaders have suffered defeat in elections, a reflection of the shift in the popular mood.

Singh sought to revive an idea that had long been rejected by Punjab’s residents and survives only in the fringes of the Sikh diaspora, political analysts said. “By taking the holy book to a police station, he exhausted whatever popularity he had garnered. He was becoming too big for his boots for he even challenged Union home minister Amit Shah to a debate,” said Jagrup Singh Sekhon, who teaches political science at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar.

“The concerns of people in today’s Punjab are different. They are concerned about their crops, jobs and livelihood and education. Many are selling off small land holdings to settle abroad,” he said.

Clearly, Singh’s antics to project himself as Bhindranwale’s successor were only a social media spectacle with little ground support. “ His undoing was taking the cover of the holy Sikh book to assault the police station,” said Sikh scholar Balkar Singh, who heads the World Punjabi Centre in Patiala.

“The very act of copying Bhindranwale, was Amritpal’s mistake. He may be the leader for a handful who need issues for their survival, but you can’t fool people for a long time,” he said.

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    Gurpreet Singh Nibber is an Assistant Editor with the Punjab bureau. He covers politics, agriculture, power sector, environment, Sikh religious affairs and the Punjabi diaspora.

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