April 8, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
At the time of recording this episode, hundreds of policemen were still trying to find and capture the Sikh separatist Amritpal Singh. Amritpal worries the government because he wants to revive the Khalistan movement that calls for a separate nation for Sikhs. To this end, he has incited the youth to challenge the Indian government. The fear is that Amritpal could spark a resurgence of the secessionist movement, and the government rightly thinks he’s dangerous and must be tried. The question is will the way this chase has played out and the way he has managed to fool the entire state machinery add to his appeal?
As I record this, the police have no clue where the 30-year-old Amritpal is. He pops up sporadically on CCTV recordings in different disguises and places. There have been supposed sightings across Punjab, Delhi and even Nepal. The story has sparked a media frenzy with speculation rather than fact being the norm. For instance, some suggest he has Pakistani support, while others say he has local political backers.
But, first of all, who is Amritpal Singh? Till last year, he was an unknown. He worked for his father’s transport firm driving a truck in Dubai. He returned to support the protests against the three farm laws that were eventually withdrawn. Amritpal then joined Waris Punjab De, a group that claims to “fight for the rights of Punjab”. His rise was meteoric and, after the group’s leader died in a car crash, Amritpal took charge of it.
His penchant for drama became apparent when he began dressing like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who led the Khalistan movement once and was killed in Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple. Amritpal preferred T-shirts and short hair but began growing his beard and sporting a turban. A band of rifle-toting armed guards with bandoliers on their shoulders surrounded him at all times. This too was how Bhindranwale had styled himself.
Amritpal has relentlessly pushed orthodox Sikhism and urged Sikhs to fight for a separate homeland. He argues that, if Hindu nationalists can ask for a Hindu Rashtra, Sikhs are within their rights to demand a Khalistan.
Amritpal bolsters his image by narrating stories of Sikh warriors and has been outspoken about Punjab’s drug problem. It is estimated that the state has at least 30 lakh drug addicts, their habit fuelled by supplies from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. No party has been able to tackle the problem, suggesting that there’s a nexus between politicians and drug runners.
Amritpal says that orthodox Sikhism offers the path to recovery but, in return, families must be willing to sacrifice their sons for Khalistan.
He also uses social media, with his speeches going viral on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, in India and places with a Sikh diaspora.
In February, Amritpal and his supporters attacked a police station demanding the release of one of his aides.
Of course, there’s no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of Sikhs are buying in to Amritpal’s cause but he does have a small, dedicated core support group and a private militia called the Anandpur Khalsa Fauj.
Most experts dismiss suggestions that Amritpal’s speeches and actions could revive the call for Khalistan. He does not have the resources, the support or the knowhow. The problem seems to be the image that is building up because of the media hype and the state’s inability to capture him for so long.
There is also the speculation that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wants to use the drama to dismiss Punjab’s Aam Aadmi Party’s government and declare President’s Rule in the state.
The problem also is that the renewed talk about Khalistan could foment some trouble and create Sikh-Hindu divisions. Take that a step further, and things could quickly spiral out of control.
Meanwhile, the state’s fundamental problems remain. Agriculture is on shaky ground, there isn’t enough industrial investment and unemployment is a serious issue.
Punjab, like so many other states, is ruled by an opposition party and, as is the case across India with opposition-ruled states, it alleges step-motherly treatment from the Centre. This takes many forms across India, from Governor interference to being denied their share of the Goods and Services Tax and delayed payments to workers through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, better known as NREGA. Several chief ministers have alleged that the BJP government wants to destroy the federal structure detailed by the Constitution.
In Punjab’s case, Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann says the Centre has held back Rs 30,000 crore due to the state under the rural development fund and also its share of GST.
It is precisely issues such as these that Amritpal hopes to exploit. By pointing to the unfair treatment by the Union Government, he strengthens his argument for a separate Sikh homeland.
This, by the way, has now started attracting attention abroad. There have been protests against the manhunt in cities with sizeable Sikh populations. Khalistan supporters smashed windows of the Indian consulate in San Francisco, pulled down the Tricolour from the Indian High Commission in London and protested in Canada. There have been protests outside Indian missions in Australia too.
In Britain, the incident at the High Commission prompted a security review. India summoned Britain’s envoy and removed temporary security barricades outside the British High Commission in New Delhi.
The manhunt, meanwhile, has hurt businesses, schools and tourism. The internet blackout in Punjab has been bad for communication and the economy and many argue it’s a violation of fundamental rights. In a statement last week, Amnesty India said: “Indian authorities must stop using overboard reasons like those of ‘public safety’ to impose internet shutdowns over millions of people.” A spokesperson for the Internet Freedom Foundation said the internet blackout was “disproportionate and prima facie illegal” and used too often by the government.
Alongside this there is growing anger over the detention of nearly 400 youth after the crackdown on Amritpal. The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) announced free legal aid to the youth and Giani Harpeet Singh, acting Jathedar of the Akal Takht, served an ultimatum to the government to release those arrested. The Jathedar also asked why no cases were being registered against those demanding a Hindu Rashtra.
Later, there were reports that the government had released most of the detainees.
This, then, is the simmering cauldron in which the Amritpal manhunt is being played out. The sooner he is captured and brought to trial, the better it is for everyone. But, the matter won’t end unless the fundamental issues I pointed out earlier are addressed and resolved very soon. With agriculture in decline, an economy that needs reviving, unemployment and drugs rampant, and a Central Government that can’t stop messing up, it’s easy to find sympathetic ears for a separatist movement.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.