Punjab’s blood-soaked history may repeat itself, with the new Waris Punjab De chief shooting his mouth off without any fear of action
Amritpal Singh (in beige shawl) publicly extols the idea of Khalistan and celebrates violence with much audacity, courtesy the backing of his powerful patrons. Pic/Twitter
In a country where people are arrested for social media posts, it is astonishing that Amritpal Singh should publicly extol the idea of Khalistan, celebrate violence, disparage communities, and lavish praise on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant leader who, along with the Indian state, scarred Punjab in the 1980s. Amritpal’s audacity suggests he enjoys impunity, courtesy the backing of powerful patrons operating incognito.
Amritpal Singh who? Twenty-nine years old, he came to Punjab last year, from Dubai, to take over the Waris Punjab De, an organisation late actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu had floated in 2021. In Dubai, Amritpal was clean-shaven and wore denim jeans. He now dresses in a white gown and blue turban, with a sword dangling by his side. You could dismiss his carefully cultivated Bhindranwale-like demeanour as a pantomime act but for his divisive politics.
Bhindranwale’s village Rode was chosen as the place to install Amritpal as the head of the Waris Punjab De. Amid chants of Khalistan zindabad, he said he would “only walk the path shown by” Bhindranwale. To ThePrint, he explained: “We want to give the state a message that no matter how evil they portray him as, he will always be our hero.”
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Amritpal’s speeches evoke imagery of victimhood. “Successive governments in Delhi [Centre]—and be it the BJP or the Congress—have worked towards the humiliation or elimination of Sikhs,” he told The Hindu. In Punjab’s popular parlance, Delhi is synonymous with Hindus, whom Amritpal indirectly blames for humiliating Sikhs. The panacea, therefore, is to convey to the State that “they are no longer going to silently tolerate slavery.”
He perceives the 1984 anti-Sikh riots an outcome of the community’s resistance to enslavement, and mentions an undeniable fact—that “in the 1980s, scores of Sikhs were killed in fake encounters.” But he has yet to articulate what is also beyond doubt—the killing of scores by Sikh militants.
Even his most euphemistic remarks acquire menacing tones because of his celebration of violence. “Violence is neither good nor bad, violence is violence,” he told The Hindu. Pointing out that the State, too, resorts to violence through the courts and police, he argued, “The day we have that system, our violence would be justified.”
Conversion was never on the radical Sikh’s agenda. Not so with Amritpal, who asked villages to ban entry of pastors. He allegedly said, “Jesus could not save himself, how will he save others?” This provoked Christians to block roads in Jalandhar. Lambasting Hindu migrant labourers for “worshipping idols, selling cigarettes and drugs”, he advised, “If you do not want such things…take action.”
But there are also reformist-revivalist streaks in his outpourings. He speaks against drug addiction, dowry and casteism, and advocates Sikh baptism; he insists people should be seated on the floor, not on benches or chairs, when listening to the recital of Guru Granth Sahib in gurdwaras. Such speeches of his have many remember that Bhindranwale, too, began as a reformist-revivalist before he turned into a high priest of militancy, cocking a snook at his political patrons who nurtured him.
Not for nothing has Amritpal earned the moniker ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’.
Punjab’s blood-soaked history may well repeat itself, with Amritpal being allowed to shoot his mouth off. Former Chief Minister and BJP leader Captain Amarinder Singh blames the Aam Aadmi Party government for the emerging Amritpal phenomenon: “How can you let someone like him go scot-free? He has been making statements against the unity and integrity of the country…”
But this is precisely the question Amarinder should pose to the Modi government, which can order the National Investigation Agency to take action against Amritpal, for this central agency is empowered to “investigate and prosecute offences affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity of India.” Amritpal, ostensibly, has committed these offences, which should be anathema to the BJP, given its abhorrence of secessionism. As for the AAP, it believes any action against Amritpal, such as arresting him, would turn him into a hero and also undermine its popularity. This could well be his patrons’ endgame, some think.
But undermining the AAP would only be a spinoff of the larger game of using Amritpal to weaken democratic movements and splinter the subaltern unity, vividly demonstrated during the farmer movement, said Prof Parminder Singh, of the Association for Democratic Rights, to me. He said subaltern unity was the only check against the state implementing neo-liberal policies.
Indeed, Amritpal’s contempt for the Left-leaning Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), Punjab’s biggest peasant formation, is obvious in what he said to the Baaz website: “Bringing the Left and Sikhs together is like bringing the North and South Pole together.” Amritpal’s emergence does not surprise BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) leader Sukhdev Singh Kokri Kalan, who told me, “Whenever people unite, religion is brought into politics.”
Regardless of the identity of Amritpal’s patrons, his rise could spawn fear among Hindus about militancy returning to haunt Punjab, leading to their consolidation. With the Sikhs fractured ideologically, Amritpal’s shenanigans could be advantageous to the BJP. This electoral calculation is cited by Punjabi intellectuals as an explanation, although without evidence, for the NIA’s indifference to Bhindranwale 2.0.
The writer is a senior journalist
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