The crackdown on Amritpal: A potboiler in the making

What explains the strange bonhomie between the BJP and AAP, or even the timing of the crackdown?

Via Twitter
Via Twitter

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

This weekend for the second time in a month Amritpal Singh, the radical Khalistan apologist, hogged national media attention. It seemed like the second season of an OTT potboiler. The first season ended with the young preacher emerging triumphant after a daring raid on the police station at Ajnala on February 23, and the second season commenced on 18th March with the State making a “spectacular” comeback as Amritpal was chased by Punjab Police amidst verdant wheat fields and in narrow streets only to escape at the end on a motorcycle.

After chasing away Amritpal, the full might of the state was on display in Punjab over the next few days. Internet was cut off for the entire state until 21st March (it has been partially restored since), and the police conducted flag marches and enacted Nakkas (barriers) all over the state. Punjab Police claimed to have arrested more than 150 members of “Waris Punjab De”, Amritpal’s organisation. The draconian National Security Act (NSA) was slapped on 7 of his closest associates who were packed off to Dibrugarh jail in Assam. National media cited “unknown official sources” to claim that Amritpal was in close contact with ISI and recruiting a private army of his own Anandpur Khalsa Fauz (AKF) in his quest for Khalistan. It was claimed that he was trained in Georgia, received illegal foreign funds and had close contacts with drug smugglers. BSF and SSF were instructed by the home ministry to seal the borders to apprehend the fugitive. Breathless TV anchors played Amritpal, Khalistan and ISI on a loop over the weekend.

The operation, which was conceived in early march after a meeting of Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann and Home Minister Amit Shah and saw the deployment of Central paramilitary companies in Punjab, was a joint Centre-State effort. What intrigued most people in Punjab was the strange bonhomie between AAP and BJP, the timing and the hype behind the operation. AAP and BJP, bitter rivals in both Punjab and Delhi, suddenly found a common purpose in this operation due to their respective political compulsions. AAP’s ability to handle law and order in Punjab had increasingly been questioned over its failure to combat gangsterism, street agitations and religious radicalism. Its pusillanimity in the Ajnala episode, failure to explain gangster Lawrence Bishnoi’s jail interviews and routine kowtowing to agitations had brought ignominy to it. BJP on the other hand having been scarred by the “Kisan agitation” and eager to attain a foothold in the state with a demonstration of its “law and order” might found a perfect pretext in the form of “Pakistan backed Khalistani extremist” to brandish its nationalist image. The operation commenced just a day before Sidhu Moosewala’s first death anniversary, and a Kisan Mahapanchayat in Delhi was no mere coincidence.

Those familiar with recent Punjab history can easily identify that the script of this latest “Punjab Potboiler” is lifted straight from the 1980s , a young charismatic religious fanatic out to violently destabilise the nation with the help of Pakistan and ISI until the might of the state finally slays him in full public view leaving Police ascendent, the public fearful and the politicians reaping electoral rewards.

However, despite the full might of an uncritical and pliant media to hype him with the help of “sources”, Amritpal is no Bhindranwale. He lacks the conviction, roots and support base of Bhindranwale. Unlike Bhindranwale, who had deep religious convictions, a dedicated core of supporters, the backing of the Akali Dal, and not to mention, a prolonged battle waged for Sikh rights and even death in service of said convictions, Amritpal is more of a social media warrior leading a riff-raff mob that picks petty fights. He was criticised for using the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield at Ajnala and was opposed by most Sikh religious, political and intellectual figures. The contrast between his Bombast and craven manner of escape has earned him opprobrium from most sections of Sikhs whose sense of identity is imbued with tales of courage, sacrifice, standing up for one’s beliefs and martyrdom.

Despite the Delhi media-led narrative of a big crackdown against Khalistani extremism with flag marches and Internet shutdowns, there was hardly any popular support on ground for Amritpal except a couple of Dharnas at Mohali and Harike which have subsequently been lifted. The only protests have been on social media and western countries like Canada and the USA, which are the traditional havens of Khalistanis. The disproportionate use of “shock and awe” in contrast to an actual threat is glaring.

The real purpose of all this “hyped up operation” is more sinister, to instil fear and alarm in Punjab and browbeat political dissent. Already, there are fears that the security state will use the pretext of Amritpal and Khalistan to recover ground and reassert its power which it had lost to an assertive Civil Society since the Kisan Andolan. The history of Punjab is an epic struggle of a repressive state against an assertive and proud society where periods of ferment and assertion are followed by state crackdowns and forced peace. Punjab has been in ferment in the last 10 years which culminated in the “Kisan Andolan". A confident and suave civil society emerged from this which has spawned a “million mutinies” at Mattewara, Zira, Mohai, Behbal and many other places. These common struggles on farming, environmental and human rights issues have repeatedly brought the state to its knees.

In Amritpal, whose sudden and meteoric rise could not have been possible without the active or passive involvement of the security state, the state found a “useful idiot”. Internet bans, flag marches, section 144, massive arrests and banning of Twitter handles of journalists in Punjab all points towards the security state creating a “fear psychosis” in Punjab. Punjab  has a bloody history of false arrests, torture, encounters and disappearances and has a cause to worry.

In Punjab, after this catastrophic setback, the fortunes of “Radical Social Media” influencers should dim in the near future. ”Operation  Amritpal” could also revive the personal fortunes of Bhagwant Mann, who is being portrayed as a decisive CM ensuring communal amity and peace by his party. AAP would hope that this will help it both in the coming by-election in Jalandhar and in its quest for expansion in India. BJP will hope that the ISI & Khalistan bogey can help in its polarisation agenda and consolidate its “Hindu vote”. Akali Dal with its support for the arrested Sikh youth would hope to revive its declining fortunes. Congress appeared clueless during the whole operation.

Punjab will only hope that this series should end with the eventual arrest of Amritpal in this season itself; another season with the coming elections fast approaching is too painful to contemplate.

Harjeshwar Pal Singh teaches history at SGGS College, Chandigarh and is a keen student of Punjab’s politics and history

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