Punjab : Passing Through a Serious Phase
The Indian state of Punjab has been grappling with a worsening law and order situation over the past year. The state, known for its vibrant culture, rich history, and agrarian economy, has been witnessing a surge in criminal activities, with incidents of gang wars, drug trafficking, and targeted killings becoming increasingly common.
The state has been facing a multitude of challenges, including a rise in the drug trade, political violence, and communal tensions. According to recent reports, drug trafficking has been one of the major drivers of the state’s deteriorating law and order situation. Punjab is a major transit point for the trafficking of drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to other parts of India. The state’s proximity to the international border makes it an attractive destination for drug smugglers.
In addition to drug trafficking, the state has also witnessed a spate of targeted killings, especially of political and religious leaders. These incidents have been linked to inter-factional rivalry, as well as to communal tensions between different religious communities in the state. The killings have led to a sense of fear and insecurity among the people, with many calling for urgent action to restore law and order.
The police have been struggling to contain the situation, with reports of political interference and corruption within the force. There have also been allegations of human rights violations, including custodial deaths and fake encounters. This has eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement agencies, making it difficult for the police to carry out their duties effectively.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also added to the state’s woes, with the lockdowns and restrictions on movement leading to an increase in unemployment and poverty. The economic distress has fueled the drug trade and other criminal activities, exacerbating the state’s law and order situation.
The Punjab government has taken some steps to address the situation, including setting up special task forces to tackle the drug trade and initiating measures to improve police accountability. However, much more needs to be done to restore law and order in the state.
Khalistan- rearing its head once again
The Khalistan movement, which seeks an independent homeland for Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab, is once again rearing its head after lying dormant for several years. The movement, which began in the 1980s and led to a bloody insurgency that claimed thousands of lives, had largely fizzled out by the 1990s. However, recent developments suggest that the movement may be making a comeback. In recent years, there have been signs of a resurgence of the Khalistan movement. Some Sikh activists have been calling for a referendum on Khalistan, arguing that Sikhs have the right to self-determination. The demand has gained traction among the Sikh diaspora, particularly in countries such as Canada, the UK, and the US, where Sikhs have a significant presence. Sikh activists have been holding rallies and demonstrations in these countries, calling for an independent Khalistan.
In India, too, there have been signs of growing support for the Khalistan movement. In 2017, the Indian government banned the pro-Khalistan group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) for allegedly promoting secessionist activities. The SFJ had been running a campaign called “Referendum 2020,” which sought to hold a vote on whether Punjab should secede from India and become an independent country. While the campaign was largely seen as a publicity stunt, it did attract some support, particularly among young Sikhs.
Amritpal Singh- the new face of Khalistan
Amritpal Singh, the self-declared leader of the separatist Khalistani pressure group “Waris Punjab De,” recently made headlines for attacking a police station in Amritsar to get his close aide Lovepreet Toofan, released from jail. The 29-year-old pro-Khalistan controversial leader has been dubbed as ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’ by his supporters. Amritpal has invoked the teachings of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale — who was killed on June 6, 1984 — during Operation Bluestar, with renewed calls for the freedom of Punjab and the creation of Khalistan. He styles his turban, wears traditional robes and other Sikh articles just like the slain militant preacher. Like Bhidranwale, his new avatar moves with an army of heavily armed Nihang Sikhs who shower flower petals on him wherever he goes.
As Waris Punjab De’s chief Amritpal Singh gains popularity among pro-Khalistani elements across the globe, more details about his history are emerging. Amritpal recently made headlines following a clash between his supporters and Punjab Police personnel at Ajnala Police Station in Punjab. He is being criticized for taking Shri Guru Granth Sahib to the site and using it as a shield against the police personnel.
Who is Amritpal Singh Sandhu, then? He is a 30-year-old pro-Khalistan leader who runs the Waris Punjab De movement. Amritpal has advanced to the stage where he can organise thousands of followers and tell them to storm a police station to free his aide within six months of moving to India and taking over the organisation founded by the late actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu. Amritpal Singh was born in Jallupur Khera, Amritsar, in 1994. In 2012, he moved to Dubai to join his family’s transport business. Amritpal’s LinkedIn page shows he was the operations manager at Sandhu Cargo, and his mail ID was firstname.lastname@example.org. Amritpal did his Bachelor of Engineering (BE) in Mechanical Engineering from Lord Krishna Polytechnic College, Kapurthala, Punjab, per his LinkedIn page.
Throughout his time in Dubai, Amritpal Singh was active on social media and used his posts to widely spread his beliefs. To promote the propaganda on Twitter, he used the particular ID sandhuamrit10. Now that Twitter account is no longer active. Amritpal made multiple tweets in February 2022 that were directed towards liberals, the Left, and women. He frequently spread extremist ideas and tweeted with the hashtags #SikhGenocideContinues and others.
When Deep Sidhu passed away in February 2022, everything changed. After his passing, his fans lost all focus. In an effort to fill the void created by Sidhu’s passing, Amritpal Singh, who was keeping an eye on the situation, proclaimed himself the new leader of Waris Punjab De.
Deep Sidhu started the group after the farmers’ unions who were protesting refused him a platform. At first, Amritpal Singh’s takeover of the organization was opposed by his family. Amritpal chose Punjab as the basis from which to advance his separatist agenda, which was a major factor in his rising fame among supporters of the Khalistani movement. Amritpal is considered a brave separatist who dared to further his goal from India whereas many separatists, including Gurpatwant Pannu, operated their businesses from foreign nations.
Political parties have charged him of attempting to fracture Punjab, while some of his detractors claim he is widening the gap between Sikhs and other groups, particularly Hindus. Additionally, his critics claim that his talks can influence young people to embrace radicalism. Following the destruction of elderly-designated chairs by his followers in Jalandhar’s Model Town Gurdwara, he has received a strong criticism from the Sikh sangat. He attracts a lot of young people despite courting controversy. Also, he has a sizable social media following. He frequently asserts in his speeches that India’s desire to methodically exterminate Sikhs is the cause of Punjab’s drug problem.
In his speeches, he frequently makes statements like “Punjab is for Punjabis” and “Jobs need to be reserved for locals at all levels,” which make his anti-immigrant stance quite evident. Also, he makes an effort to connect with young people through “Amrit Prachar” by discussing the drug epidemic and other societal ills. His activities have been closely monitored by the Central agencies, and a thorough dossier on him reveals that he is receiving substantial financial support from Khalistani elements that have fled to other countries. He recently wed a London-based woman in a Gurdwara in Nakodar, and he described the event as a reverse migration of Punjabis who had previously lived abroad.
As per many reports, the Central security agencies believe the rise of Amritpal Singh is an attempt by ISI to plant a “real, flesh and blood cult leader” in Punjab and flare secessionist sentiments, especially among the social media-savvy youth. He was also pointed out as a potential threat by these agencies from “day one” when he returned to India last year, senior officers told the media.
Singh’s followers have grown and he has developed a “private army” of gun-wielding supporters, whose number has increased from four-five to almost 20-25 now. As per the Central security agencies, Singh first showed “signs of radicalisation” during the COVID-19 pandemic when he was out of business, reported TOI. It is then that he started following stories on Bhindranwale and social media posts by Sikh radical leaders. He also got in touch with Sidhu, particularly during the year-long farmers’ protests.
These reports suggest that it is here that Singh was “spotted” by ISI agents and was eventually “groomed” to talk in such a way that would “touch a chord with the radically-inclined Sikhs, both in India and abroad”. The report further said citing an officer that Singh has been backed by Avtar Singh Khanda, a UK-based radical leader linked with Khalistan TV. Khanda has reportedly used his purported connections with radical Sikh outfits that have leaders based abroad, who are in touch with ISI, to support Singh as a “pro-Khalistan icon”.
Under the ISI’s social media push, young Sikhs in the 18-25 age group are being targeted through Facebook and Instagram with pictures of alleged “suppression” and “atrocities” on Sikhs in India.
These are being promoted through advertisements which are also visible in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany these reports suggested. These ads are also highlighting the similarity in the way of dressing and style of Amritpal Singh with that of Bhindranwale, the report added.
The intelligence sources further said that the comments on such posts are not from India’s Punjab but from Pakistan’s Punjab province, while they are visible in India through VPN with the location set as the UK, Canada, or Germany.
In a presentation on 22 January to prime minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, Punjab Director General of Police Gaurav Yadav had ‘red-flagged’ the rise of Amritpal Singh. The home ministry is keeping a close watch on the situation in Punjab and a probe is underway to find out who is funding Singh, as per media reports.
Often a meteoric rise is met by an equally rapid fall. Amritpal will make his mistakes, and hopefully, the state government will act against him at least then. At the same time, since larger national security could be at stake, the Centre will do its bit to keep nudging the Punjab government and intervene where necessary and as per the Constitutional scheme of things.
By NILABH KRISHNA