Don’t let the Amritpal saga damage the future of Punjab

Mar 31, 2023 09:44 PM IST

The radical preacher’s sudden appearance, alleged ties to Pakistan, dramatic escape, and video leaks raise unanswered questions.

The gates of the gurdwara in Nangal Ambian Khurd, a remote interior village in Punjab’s Shahkot Tehsil in Jalandhar, were locked. As the sun set over the wheat fields and children played on the swings in the distance, one family was crouched inside, behind doors they refused to open. This was the last known Punjab hideout of Amritpal Singh, the Khalistani sympathiser who came in from the cold, moving seamlessly and mysteriously from being a clean-shaven lorry driver in Dubai to a manufactured avatar of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Unlike Bhindranwale, Amritpal cannot command any significant section of the street. There were only a handful of people who came out to protest in his support. (HT File Photo) PREMIUM
Unlike Bhindranwale, Amritpal cannot command any significant section of the street. There were only a handful of people who came out to protest in his support. (HT File Photo)

I knocked on the door of the granthi’s (priest’s) residential quarters to hear the voice of a terrified woman and her daughter arguing from inside. “Go away, we have nothing more to say, we have said everything to the police.” An attempt to get anyone else in the village of 342 families to speak met with the same reluctance. Finally, the lambardar (community leader) agreed to go on the record with a chilling account. Amritpal Singh had arrived with four armed aides and demanded food and shelter at the gurdwara. He snatched away the granthi’s phone, took a new set of clothes from his son, so he could abandon the blue turban CCTV cameras had caught him wearing, rested for 45 minutes and left, moving from a motorcycle to a jugaad, a makeshift vehicle popular in rural India. “He had guns, the granthi panicked and didn’t tell anyone what happened till the footage leaked of him in our village.”

Like everyone else in Punjab, when I first reached the state to report on the absconding fugitive Amritpal Singh, I believed he was hidden away in a police safehouse to be brought out at an appropriate time. How I wish that wildly popular conspiracy theory was true.

As I travelled through the state, including to the radical preacher’s last hideout, it became evident that the police, under orders not to use force or bullets, had messed up. Amritpal Singh gave them the slip over a 25-kilometre-long car chase, constantly changing cars, switching eventually from a Mercedes to a motorcycle. Since then, we have seen the Khalistani sympathiser taunt the authority of the state with video messages released on social media, while on the run.

Amritpal Singh, who emerged in India suddenly as the chief of Waris Punjab De after the death of Deep Sidhu in an accident, modelled himself frame by frame on Bhindranwale, almost like a method actor. That’s where the similarity ends. Unlike Bhindranwale, Amritpal cannot command any significant section of the street. There were only a handful of people who came out to protest in his support. Most Punjabis I met were convinced that he was some sort of plant, propped up to vitiate the environment and pull their state back into the quicksand of its past. “Mahaul kharab karne ke liye aaya hai (He’s come to spoil the environment)”.

There is a stack of unanswered questions piling up. The top two among them are: Why did the police not arrest Amritpal Singh from his house a night earlier, instead of chasing him down the expressways of Punjab? And, why was he allowed to grow roots all these months?

Even though there is now an element of farce, even comedy, to the Amritpal Singh clips, we would be ill advised to underestimate the impact of his bizarre manhunt. For one, the authority of the State has been eroded. Punjab is a border state, where Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has long tried to stir things up. A Hudson Institute report reveals the linkages between Kashmir secessionists and pro-Khalistan groups in North America. The longer Amritpal Singh stays on the run and cannot be arrested, the more it makes the State’s security institutions look weak.

But most worryingly, Amritpal Singh’s direct appeal to the Akal Takht jathedar (high priest) Giani Harpreet Singh and his call for a mass congregation of Sikhs on Baisakhi is a dangerous intermixing of panthic leaders and politics. We have been here before and we do not want to be here again.

Amritpal Singh first hit the national headlines when he stormed a police station in Ajnala near Amritsar, using the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield. His mission was to secure the release of one of his associates. The police were widely condemned for being weak and allowing this. But they remembered what happened in the Behbal Kalan police firing incident of 2015 when two Sikh men protesting against a series of sacrilege incidents were killed in police firing. Using force at Ajnala was out of the question, they say.

Now imagine, if Amritpal Singh were to take refuge again in a major gurdwara, just as he did at gunpoint in Shahkot village, and then look for a deliberate confrontation with the security forces. This would be the police’s worst nightmare.

Amritpal Singh triggers memories of Punjab’s past. He cannot be allowed to impact its future.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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    Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. She tweets as @BDUTT.

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