Political void in Punjab: Can a radical leader again ignite separatism?

The audacious takeover of Ajnala police station on February 24 by a mob gave rise to the question in political circles: who is Amritpal Singh?

Pallab Bhattacharya

Pallab Bhattacharya

The Daily Star


Photo: Collected

March 20, 2023

DHAKA – When a mob led by a radical 30-year-old Sikh preacher openly espousing to separatist cause stormed a police station in Amritsar district of India’s Punjab bordering Pakistan on February 24, the incident and the man behind it revived memories of the dark days of militancy that had ravaged the state for years in 1980s.

The audacious takeover of Ajnala police station by the mob, many of whom brandished swords and firearms, gave rise to the question in the security establishment and political circles: who is Amritpal Singh? A few persons also wondered if he was in the mould of Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had spearheaded militancy for a separate Sikh homeland in 1980s and was killed in the Indian army’s Operation Blue Star in 1984.

What runs common between Bhindranwale and Amritpal is their public support for the demand for a separate Sikh homeland. According to Punjab watchers, Amritpal has tagged the successive state governments’ alleged failure to address the serious menace of drugs among the youth in Punjab and to punish the guilty in the 2015 sacrilege cases.

The storming of the police station by a large mob catapulted Amritpal, who is fluent in English, in media headlines after being in obscurity since his return from Dubai six months ago. Prior to the incident, few had heard about Amritpal and his outfit “Waris Punjab De” (Inheritors of Punjab). What further helped media focus on Amritpal is that he eluded the Punjab Police which had chased him for about 25km on Saturday (March 18). An FIR has been registered against him under the Arms Act for illegal possession of arms.

Also on March 18, Punjab Police launched a major crackdown against Amritpal and suspended internet and SMS services till next Monday noon and has arrested 78 members of “Waris Punjab De”. But Amritpal remains elusive. The police in Haryana state, adjacent to Punjab, has joined the hunt for Amritpal.

What raised eyebrows in the security establishment was that Amritpal had taken with him the holy Sikh scripture the Guru Granth Sahib with him during the storming of Ajnala police station. However, Amritpal apparently failed to realize that this act of carrying the scripture with him has angered a sizeable section of the Sikh community. They thought it was tantamount to disrespecting the religion.

The question that has cropped up with the rise of Amritpal is whether Punjab’s Aam Aadmi Party government headed by chief minister Bhagwant Singh Mann, a greenhorn in administration, will be able to govern a sensitive state like Punjab where people recall the horrific days of militancy of 1980s.

Mann has sought to play down the Ajnala police station incident but there is fear that Amritpal may be tapping into brewing discontent and political vacuum in a state where established major parties like Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress have gone into a decline. In the last legislative assembly elections in the state in February 2022, both Congress and Akali Dal were comprehensively defeated by AAP. That electoral verdict was seen as Punjab’s yearning for a change from successive rule by Akali Dal and Congress.

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