The rise of Amritpal Singh: Punjab relives 1980s nightmare

Despite the furore, Amritpal’s support base is still quite narrow and his visibility is mostly on social media

Supporters of Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh clashing with Punjab Police personnel on Ajnala, Amritsar, 23 Feb 2023.
Supporters of Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh clashing with Punjab Police personnel on Ajnala, Amritsar, 23 Feb 2023.

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

Last month, when a crowd of gun-toting, sword-wielding Nihang Sikhs descended on Ajnala jail to ‘rescue’ Lovepreet Singh ‘Toofan’, the phenomenon that is Amritpal Singh threatened to be more than a storm in a teacup.

Video footage revealed the helplessness of the police in the face of this armed incursion, and the canniness of the raiders in using a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib as their shield and armour. The propriety of using the Sikh holy scripture to settle a private grievance in such an unlawful manner was condemned and defended with equal passion. Headlines across national television, social and print media raised the spectre of the revival of ‘Khalistan’ and unleashed waves of alarm about ‘threats to India’s unity’.

Acrimonious debates raged not only in Punjab but across the Punjabi diaspora, between supporters and detractors of the 29-year-old preacher who, up until the middle of last year, was not known for being anything more than a ‘transporter’ working in Dubai.

So who is Amritpal Singh and what is the brouhaha about? Amritpal first caught public attention through his combative pro Khalistan posts on social media, and abrasive exchanges with those who opposed his views. The death of Deep Sidhu— actor-turned-radical activist who came into prominence for allegedly masterminding the farmers’ diversion to the Red Fort on Republic Day—in a car accident in February last year seems to have been the trigger for Amritpal to return to Punjab. Avowed supporter of Sidhu, Amritpal came back home in September, and was swiftly appointed head of a splinter group of ‘Waris Punjab De’, an organisation founded by Sidhu.

Over the next six months, his rhetoric against conversion and Christian pastors, Hindus, leftists, Panthic rivals—in short everyone ‘other’ than those in favour of Khalistan—became increasingly strident. In December, his supporters burnt the chairs placed in a gurudwara for the ease of elderly devotees, an action that seems benign compared to the recent face-off at Ajnala.

The markers of Amritpal’s persona—his lanky frame, his turban style, fierce gaze and abrasive rhetoric—inescapably remind of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Echoes of Bhindranwale can be heard in his slogans of Sikhs being no more than ghulam (slaves) in India, as well as his adherence to a puritanical, fundamentalist version of Sikhism with no room for modernity. His ‘Amrit Sanchar’ campaign as an antidote to rampant drug addiction seems to stem more from this holier-than-thou streak than a genuine desire for change. His admiration for another longterm supporter of Khalistan, Simranjeet Singh Mann, is qualified by his view that parliamentary politics is a compromise.

Well-knit, organised, resourceful, and savvy with social media, his group has won Amritpal a following, especially among the disgruntled and frustrated youth of the Majha belt, as well as well-heeled NRIs. The impunity with which he operates—freely spouting hate-speech, espousing and inflicting violence—when others have been jailed for far lesser crimes has led to the suspicion in Punjab that he has the tacit support of the Union government.

Smarting from the ignominy of having to withdraw the contentious farm trade laws, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been working overtime to consolidate their presence in Punjab. Dropping the Akali Dal, its oldest political ally, the BJP has made a determined bid to expand its narrow urban Hindu base in Punjab by inducting a number of former Congress and Akali leaders, including Amarinder Singh, Sunil Jakhar and Manpreet Badal. Commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur and his sons (Sahibzadas) at the hands of the Mughals, and persuading Pakistan government to open the Kartarpur corridor are some of the ways in which the PM has attempted to woo the Sikh community.

The BJP seems to be hoping that the emergence of Amritpal and his Khalistan rhetoric, amplified by a pliant national media, will help discredit the Bhagwant Mann government, and reactivate the anxieties and fears of the Hindus in Punjab. This polarisation, it believes, can be the boost it needs in a 4-5 horse race in the 2024 general election.

The spectre of the ‘Return of Khalistan’, a movement for a separate Sikh state, has haunted Punjab since the 1980s. It invariably triggers painful memories of curfews, killings, pogroms and gory encounters, which destroyed an entire generation before being forcefully crushed in the early 1990s.

Dormant for a long while, with little support within Punjab, the word ‘Khalistani’ was widely and mindlessly used by the Indian media in 2020-21 in a bid to discredit the farmers’ protest against farm laws. With the media’s over-the-top attention to Amritpal Singh, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own.

In Punjab, the widespread belief has been that ‘Khalistan’ is a ploy of the deep state and ‘agencies’ to trigger insecurities among minority Hindus, and reap electoral dividends for the ruling party, while suppressing legitimate regional aspirations.

The political scene in Punjab in the post-militancy phase since the 1990s has been dominated by the Congress and Akali DalBJP combine. Under their 25-year reign, Punjab has witnessed agrarian crises, downturns in industry, unemployment, drugs, migration, and debt traps.

The ruling political class, far from having solutions, was seen to be part of the problem. Mafias of all types—sand, drugs, liquor, transport, cable TV—siphoned off state resources. Politics became the preserve of a handful of families who shared common commercial interests and switched sides as IPL players.

Even as the economy declined and politics played out within a closed and venal circle, society grew younger, more literate, with greater aspirations and smarter networks reliant on faster communication technologies.

The surge of political parties like PPP and AAP infused new energies in both the Sikh left and the Sikh right, who dominated the farmers’ unions and religious groups. A number of agitations like the White Fly agitation and Jhaloor strengthened the left, while issues like Dera Sacha Sauda, beadabi (blasphemy) and Sikh prisoners catalysed radical forces. Both sides briefly came together during the historic kisan andolan or farmers’ protest, but then spectacularly fell apart after the misadventure on 26 January 2021 at the Red Fort in Delhi.

While the Akali Dal and Congress are still struggling for legitimacy, a newly assertive BJP, historically a marginal force in Punjab, is making an aggressive bid for power in the state. The traditional Sikh right wing in Punjab politics has been championed by the Akali Dal and its splinter groups. It thrived by pressing the buttons of victimhood, over a list of perceived grievances against the Centre, and a range of demands on a spectrum from autonomy to Khalistan.

A titanic struggle for dominance— between ‘moderates’ like Parkash Singh Badal, Surjit Singh Barnala and ‘radicals’ like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Simranjit Singh Mann—has been another feature of right-wing Sikh politics.

Radicals gained the upper hand during the 1980s and swept the polls in the 1989 elections. Since 1992, however, the moderates led by Parkash Singh Badal have steadily gained sway. Post the 1997 elections, Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir have dominated Akali politics, maintaining control of its religious wing, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). Akali radicals have been co-opted, broken into splinter groups, or marginalised. Witness the free fall of Simranjit Mann’s faction in state elections, which barely garnered 1-2 per cent votes, until its recent resurrection during the Sangrur bypolls.

The rise of Amritpal Singh can only be understood against the fractious histories of the region. ‘Neo-panthics’ began to emerge in Punjab at the turn of the century. The old wounds of 1984 have been kept open, and memories of folk heroes like Bhindranwale have stayed simmering below the surface, with Punjabi magazines, pamphlets, books and music keeping separatist ideas alive. As the state relaxed its iron grip after the 1990s, in the wake of a perceived return to normalcy, proscribed literature proliferated.

Magazines like Khalsa Fatehnama, books like Bhindranwale de Sher, Jaanbaaz Rakha, as well as Bhindranwale posters began appearing at bus stalls and bookshops all over the state. Radicals, especially among the NRIs, began to use the internet and new communication technologies to promote their version of the 1980s, eulogising the valour of militants and highlighting state brutality.

More and more educated Sikhs, who came of age after the turbulent eighties, began to be influenced by this narrative. A new set of radicalising missionaries like Dhadrianwala, Panth Preet, Daduwal whipped up religious sentiments among the masses. Radio stations, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Clubhouse, smartphones, cheap data packs, Punjabi fonts, video blogging and internet telephony—all played their individual and collective role in spreading this discourse swiftly.

Not surprising, then, that many digital natives among the Sikh population support the demand for Khalistan and referendum. Clean-shaven Sikhs, especially Jaat Sikhs with a rural background, comprise a substantial section of the neo-panthics. Deeply divided as they are, the neo-panthics are united in their intolerance of views that contradict theirs.

The emergence of Narendra Modi, the ascendency of Hindutva and the demand for a Hindu Rashtra since 2014 have further accorded legitimacy to the radical Sikh right and their demands, including that of Khalistan. The failure of the state to provide a healing touch and ensure closure of pending issues like disputes over river water, justice for the victims of 1984, State atrocities, Sikh prisoners et al have only added fuel to the fire.

Amritpal Singh at the Golden Temple.
Amritpal Singh at the Golden Temple.

What we are witnessing today bears striking parallels with the early eighties, when political parties had lost their credibility, the state administration was paralysed, radicals dominated politics, people were polarised on religious lines, capital took flight, and minorities sought safety in numbers.

However, history rarely repeats itself it exactly the same way. Amritpal’s resemblance to Bhindranwale is more superficial than his supporters lead us to believe. Bhindranwale’s religious training, deeply-felt convictions, and his fight for the Anandpur Sahib resolution and the state’s rights received far greater popular acceptance and support than Amritpal’s rhetoric for Khalistan.

Despite the furore, Amritpal’s support base is still quite narrow and his visibility is mostly on social media. The more vocal opposition to him and his agenda comes from within the Sikh community, including former militants like Kuki Gill, intellectuals, religious figures and organisations. Unlike Bhindranwale who was initially propped up by a section of the Congress and the Akalis, no political party supports Amritpal.

However, there is no doubt that his doings can help the BJP emerge as a serious political player in Punjab, tarnish the reputation of Punjab as an investment and tourist destination, and polarise its society even further.

One can only hope that Punjab will rise to the occasion; that the state government will have the spine to maintain law and order; and its political parties and civil society organisations will mobilise their leaders and cadres to maintain harmony and foil divisive designs that aim to push Punjab back into the dark years

Harjeshwar Pal Singh is a commentator on current affairs and teaches history at SGGS College, Chandigarh.

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