Chandigarh: If Thursday’s siege by pro-Khalistan leader Amritpal Singh and his supporters at a police station in Ajnala near Amritsar is any indication, Punjab has entered another era of turbulent times.
Three and half decades ago, the killing of Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Operation Blue Star in June 1984 plunged the state into a long period of separatist (Khalistan) movement.
Before it was quelled in the mid-90s, Punjab paid a heavy price – thousands of civilians, militants and police personnel were killed in the conflict between insurgents and security forces. Several cases of enforced disappearances and human rights violations remain unsolved to date.
The sudden and mystifying rise of 29-year-old Amritpal, who has positioned himself as the rightful claimant of Bhindranwale’s legacy, put the spotlight back on the radical elements that are reviving their presence in the state.
Since he shot into the limelight last September, the Waris Pujab De chief has publicly made the demand for Khalistan, a separate Sikh state. This, he claims, is the only “permanent solution” to the problems that Punjab has been facing: be it river water dispute, drug addiction, mass migration to foreign countries or the dilution of Punjabi culture.
The siege on Thursday shows he is not just a man of rhetoric, as his supporters attacked and injured several policemen – and managed to browbeat the administration to give in to their demands.
What led to the siege?
Five days before Amritpal and his supporters stormed the Ajnala police station on Thursday, February 23, Lovepreet Singh, his close aide, was arrested in connection with the alleged kidnapping of Varinder Singh. The latter is apparently a critic of Amritpal and a resident of Chamkaur Sahib in Ropar district.
Varinder in his complaint accused Amritpal and his supporters of kidnapping him in Ajnala on February 15. They took him to Jandiala and thrashed him, he said.
A police case was filed based on Varinder’s complaint and the cops picked up Lovepreet, also called “Toofan Singh”, on February 18. Amritpal and others were also named in the case, for kidnapping and assault.
On the day of Lovepreet’s arrest, Amritpal claimed that the case was politically motivated. He demanded that the police release him, warning of dire consequences otherwise. He “will not be responsible” for these consequences, he said.
As expected, he mobilised his supporters on Thursday, February 23, outside the Ajnala police station, where Lovepreeet was lodged – despite prohibitory orders being clamped to prevent the congregation.
Soon, his supporters turned violent and clashed with the police. Armed with swords, lathis and guns, the supporters broke the barricades and gathered outside the police station.
A number of police personnel as well as protesters were injured.
In several media bytes, Amritpal Singh has blamed the police for the clash. He said they went there to “show solidarity” with Lovepreet but it was the police’s “wrongdoing”, which led to the clash – although visuals show his supporters storming the police station without any provocation.
#WATCH | Punjab: Supporters of ‘Waris Punjab De’ Chief Amritpal Singh break through police barricades with swords and guns outside Ajnala PS in Amritsar
They’ve gathered outside the PS in order to protest against the arrest of his (Amritpal Singh) close aide Lovepreet Toofan. pic.twitter.com/yhE8XkwYOO
— ANI (@ANI) February 23, 2023
Mann government faces flak as police cave in
A day after the episode, the police caved into Amritpal’s demand. Lovepreet walked out of jail on Friday after a court in Ajnala ordered his release based on the application filed by local police to discharge him.
While Satinder Singh, SSP Amritsar (rural) could not be reached for comments, he told the media on Thursday that according to evidence provided by Amritpal’s supporters, Lovepreet was not present at the time of the assault on Varinder Singh.
“While we are releasing him, a special investigation team (SIT) has been formed to look into the matter,” he added.
Punjab | Lovepreet Toofan, a close aide of ‘Waris Punjab De’ chief Amritpal Singh released from Amritsar Jail pic.twitter.com/EmcXif2inZ
— ANI (@ANI) February 24, 2023
The situation could have been far worse, had the Punjab police used brute power. Amritpal’s supporters reportedly used the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, as a shield. Sacrilege and desecration are emotive issues in Punjab, and if the police had opened fire at the protesters, it could have resulted in a wider backlash. So, Amritpal’s move to use the holy book as a shield was cunning and calculated, observers say.
— Kamaldeep Singh ਬਰਾੜ (@kamalsinghbrar) February 23, 2023
This development is set to have several repercussions. First, it will increase the spotlight on Amritpal and add to his popularity in Punjab.
Second, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the state – which has a bad track record on law and order – will come under further pressure.
Third, the siege gives opposition political parties in Punjab another opportunity to slam the Bhagwant Singh Mann government.
With the by-election for the Jalandhar parliamentary seat likely to be held soon, the rise of Amritpal may become part of a political slugfest. The Lok Sabha seat fell vacant after Congress MP Santok Singh Chaudhary died of a heart attack while participating in the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
‘Failure of government, police’
Senior journalist Jagtar Singh said that the AAP government had mishandled the situation. If Lovepreet was innocent, why he was arrested in the first place, he asked. If he was released due because of the pressure exerted by Amritpal and his supporters, it is a failure of the ruling party’s political leadership as well as the police, he added.
Manjit Singh, a former sociology professor at Panjab University, Chandigarh, told The Wire that Amritpal Singh and his followers could not have “captured” the Ajnala police station without the backing of “big power players”. It is not clear who these players are, he said.
The combination of religion with politics, and faith with political power could prove to be highly combustible. Punjab is at the threshold of lawlessness and there are many agencies or actors seeking to gain from troubled waters, Manjit Singh warned.