Chandigarh: An unknown figure until a few months ago, 29-year-old Amritpal Singh is now being spoken of as the new poster boy of Sikh radical politics in Punjab.
Amritpal, who returned to India from Dubai just a few months ago, has amassed a sudden and surprising following among the state’s youngsters and has observers concerned with his hardline rhetoric about Khalistan, the demand for a separate Sikh state.
He was appointed as the new head of Waris Punjab De, a pressure group that actor-activist Deep Sidhu founded months before his sudden death in a car accident last February.
Claiming in one of his initial interviews that he was closely associated with Deep Sidhu in starting the organisation, Amritpal speaks of working for a larger religious and social transformation in Punjab in his capacity as the new head of the pressure group.
Part of this agenda, the 29-year-old says, is solving the problem of drug addiction, making sure that the pending sacrilege cases are tackled and Sikh political prisoners are released. He says that taking youth back into the puritan form of ‘Sikhi’ is also a key objective.
On October 30, he initiated over 1,000 people into the Sikh faith and said it would result in the de-addiction of youngsters. On November 24, he began a month-long journey across the state to encourage this.
However, what makes his rise a particular cause for concern is that Amritpal also openly supports the demand for Khalistan and claims that there is a continuous ‘genocide’ of Sikhs in India.
Explaining what he meant by ‘genocide’ in a TV interview, he stated, “There were hundreds of thousands of people killed in fake encounters (during the 1980s). There were mass rapes.”
Going further, he said that the ‘genocide’ was not over. “Punjab is facing mass migration (to foreign countries). There is no education policy. Farmers are dying by suicide.”
The dilution of Sikh values, promotion of pop culture encouraging Sikhs to cut their hair and shave their beard (important tenants of Sikhism), water sharing dispute, recent farm laws, undermining Punjabi language are all part of the “silent genocide” on Punjab, he was quoted saying in another news article.
In one of his first interviews after being appointed as Waris Punjab De in March last year, he also declared that the main issue facing Punjab was “slavery” and India’s “colonial rule” in the state. He said the river water dispute and the problem of drug addiction were “symptoms of this colonial rule”.
“While we will work on each of these issues independently, we also need to keep working collectively on the ‘freedom’,” he said in that interview.
His idea of freedom is articulated in a number of his statements. For instance, he recently said during his visit to Mohali on January 29, “If we had got independence in 1984 (peak of the separatist movement in the state), the condition of Punjab would not have been like India.”
In another statement, he is quoted as saying, “We lost our (Sikh) empire to the British in 1849 and we are asking for that empire back.”
Responding to a media question if he is vouching for a separate state, he replied, “The idea of Khalistan is not for a separate state. It sounded like we were connected to something. The point is that we were forcefully taken into the Indian nation by the British. There was no India before 1947.”
For some time now, the alleged increasing influence of Christianity in Punjab has been drawing sharp responses from Sikh religious leaders.
Last September, the highest temporal authority for Sikhs, the Akal Takht’s Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh had claimed that Christian missionaries funded by “foreign forces” were targeting Sikhs and Hindus from backward classes and converting them.
A meteoric rise
After the March interview, Amritpal announced his presence in Punjab on September 25, 2022, when he participated in a large gathering at the important Sikh holy city of Anandpur Sahib and was baptised according to Sikh tradition.
Four days later on September 29, a dastar bandi (turban tying) ceremony was held for him at district Moga’s Rode village, the native place of slain militant leader and Khalistan ideologue Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, marking his official installation as the head of Waris Punjab De.
As per media reports – which The Wire has not been able to independently confirm, he is believed to hail from Jallupur Khera village in Baba Bakala tehsil of Amritsar district. He left for Dubai in 2012, only to return to Punjab weeks before his dastar bandi.
After this ceremony, observers say Amritpal’s demeanour, attire and oration have imitated Bhindranwale’s.
During his dastar bandi ceremony, he openly declared Bhindranwale as his inspiration. “I will walk the path shown by him. I want to be like him because that’s what every Sikh wants, but I am not copying him. I am not even equal to the dust of his feet,” he added.
Ever since, there has been no looking back for him. He remains an enigmatic figure and very little is known about the forces backing him – if any. He is followed and feared in the same breath by different sections of the state.
Amritpal’s major support base has been that of the youth, with many youngsters sharing and liking his videos online. The media, especially in Punjab, extensively covers him and is debating his rise.
Punjab political class nervous
Amritpal’s radical posturing has prompted many politicians in Punjab, including former chief minister Amarinder Singh, now with the BJP, and Congress MP Ravneet Bittu, to call the recent increase in activities of pro-Khalistani forces a “dangerous trend” that may destabilise Punjab.
Bittu raised apprehensions that Amritpal was trying to destabilise Punjab and misleading the youth at the behest of foreign powers. He said Deep Sidhu had also been working with a similar agenda. However, “their agenda will not succeed”, said Bittu.
In response to his critics, Amritpal claims that he is “working for Punjab” and is opposed to all those who are working against it. He also flayed those stating that his actions would bring back the tensions of the 1980s in the state.
There are reports that in October last year, the Union home ministry had asked the AAP government in Punjab to keep an eye on him. His social media profiles – first Twitter and then Instagram – were suspended. Though the AAP government has not said much about Amritpal, the latter has begun programmes to connect with different sections of society.
His first pan-Punjab tour, called ‘Khalsa Vaheer’, began from Akal Takht Sahib – the highest Sikh temporal seat at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar on November 23. He is set to launch the second phase, demanding the release of Bandi Sikhs (political prisoners) arrested during the militancy in the state.
Two weeks ago, on January 29, he visited Mohali to show solidarity with those demanding the release of Bandi Sikhs (Sikhs in prison convicted of militancy charges).
Interacting with the media, he lashed out at the Haryana government for granting parole to the Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who is an accused in the sacrilege cases in Punjab. Amritpal urged the Sikhs to “wake up” and protest against the “discrimination” shown to the Bandi Sikhs.
He said, “If the government does not listen to our demands and release Sikhs from prison, we will change our course of action. [Any threats to] the law and order situation are not because of us but because of the government that is not releasing Sikhs. In case Punjab burns, we will not be responsible.”
What explains Amritpal’s rise?
There are different views on Amritpal’s rise, but one common perception is that it is linked to the current political vacuum in Punjab.
Experts say that there is a degree of restlessness in Punjabi society due to long-standing socio-economic crises like unemployment, drug addiction, and religio-political crises like the delay in trying sacrilege cases or releasing Sikh political prisoners.
A section has lost faith in traditional political parties to tackle these issues, which is why, say experts, AAP swept to power with a record mandate in the 2022 state assembly polls.
However, there are early signs of some disenchantment with even AAP. After all, soon after getting elected, the ruling party lost the parliamentary seat that Bhagwant Singh Mann vacated to become chief minister.
Some erosion of faith in political parties is evident by the fact that the protesters in the state are keeping politicians at an arm’s length. Over the past three years, parties have not been welcome at the protest against the farm laws, those against the Mattewara industrial park and then the demand to close the Zira liquor factory.
Senior journalist Baljit Balli told The Wire that politics is all about meeting the aspirations of the people. “When it does not happen, people find ways to express themselves in one way or another. Amritpal’s rise reflects it,” he added.
According to him, there is another important factor responsible for Amritpal’s rise: the lack of leadership in the Sikh radical space, which he is also trying to capture. Historically, this has always been a parallel political space in Punjab, focussed on disquiet with Delhi’s treatment of the region after Independence.
While Punjab’s division in 1966 allowed Punjabis to profess and protect their religion, language and culture, several issues persisted and became trickier over time, continuing to simmer beneath the surface. These include issues like disputes over river water sharing and sharing the state capital Chandigarh with Haryana, apart from the state losing a few Punjabi-speaking areas.
This was one of the factors that fuelled the separatist Khalistani movement in the 1980s, before it was quashed and normalcy returned in the mid-90s.
But, non-state actors keep finding relevance when mainstream politics fails to address the concerns of people, say observers like Balli. This trend became apparent in the 1980s, with the rise of Simranjit Singh Mann’s SAD (Amritsar) and other splinter groups. It is now visible again, he said, pointing to Simranjit Mann’s victory in the bypoll election to the Lok Sabha constituency that was held by Bhagwant Mann before he became chief minister, followed by the rise of Amritpal Singh.
“Whether it is good or bad for the state, only time will tell. But whenever society is divided, it is bound to have negative repercussions,” Balli added.
Meanwhile, sociologist Manjit Singh, formerly with Punjab University in Chandigarh, says that he remains baffled by Amritpal’s sudden rise. “How can a person who lived in Dubai for many years suddenly surface in Punjab and project himself as a leader of the entire Sikh masses, besides interpreting the Sikh history, culture and ethics in his own way?” he asks.
Manjit said because Punjab is reeling from deep political, social and economic crises, Amritpal is gaining some traction when he raises these concerns. But he said he thought his Khalistani agenda was dodgy.
What is also mystifying is that the Union government, vocal and tough on the Khalistan question – at least on international platforms – appears relatively nonchalant about Amritpal’s prominence. Or at least there are no overt signs of discomfort at his growing popularity.
To draw parallels with Bhindranwale’s troubled journey in the 1980s may seem tenuous just now, but to deny any similarity would be foolhardy.
Manjit Singh added that as of now, it is hard to draw a parallel between them because the political, social and economic situation of Punjab is entirely different from what it was in the early 1980s.
“People can’t be easily swayed with this sentiment since they have seen the past repercussions. Those days are still fresh in the minds of Punjabis, particularly Sikhs and the state’s political class,” he added.
When aksed about the traction that Amritpal seems to be receiving, Manjit believed that he is being discussed, but despite the 29-year-old’s best efforts to mobilise people suited to his designs, there is still only a lukewarm response so far.
But even if there are the slimmest of similarities, the road ahead appears a rocky one, and beset with trouble.
Edited by Amrit B.L.S.