Radical on the run

Khalistani separatist Amritpal Singh took the Punjab scene by storm in a matter of months after returning from Dubai, where he drove truck to make a living, writes Aayush Goel

No one had even heard about Amritpal Singh, the 30-year old Khalistani separatist, till a year ago but today he has rattled the state of Punjab. Amritpal, a declared fugitive, is not just challenging the might of the state but has also brought back traumatic memories of the reign of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the spectre of Khalistan into Punjab.

Amritpal had set up a nascent militia called Anandpur Khalsa Fauj (AKF) that had been imparting “weapons and martial” training to youths. The investigations brought to fore videos of his new army practising shooting in addition to  pictures of the emblem, logo, and currency bills of the proposed Khalistan state, and a hologram logo of AKF and its members with weapons. All this is in addition to getting terror funding from organisations like ISI as Amritpal Singh transformed from a state nuisance to a national threat.

Punjab, still scarred by a decade-long insurgency in the 80s is in no mood for encore and is out cracking on the self-styled Sikh separatist and his outfit, Waris Panjab De. Fanatically searching for him after he gave them a slip during a Bollywood style chase on March 18, Punjab police had picked up around 353 people across the state leading to panic. According to Punjab DGP Gaurav Yadav, 197 people out of these have so far been released while seven, including Amritpal, have been detained under the stringent National Security Act (NSA). NSA, 1980, empowers the central and state governments to detain an individual “to prevent him/her from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of India, the relations of India with foreign countries, the maintenance of public order, or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community if it is necessary so to do”. 

The family however strongly believes he is in police custody, “We are not sure as to how they will show him to the public but we just hope they don’t make a mockery of him. We don’t believe the series of videos they are releasing,” Amritpal’s mother Baljinder Kaur told media persons  recently. Amritpal has become the most wanted criminal in the country. According to CCTV footages recovered and released by Punjab police he has travelled across several districts, switching vehicles and changing appearances, before he reportedly crossed over to adjoining Haryana and Uttrakhand. The man hunt is now country-wide.

Cat-and-mouse chase

Punjab woke up to tense environs on March 18 with news and reports of a major drama in the cat-and-mouse chase between the Punjab Police and Amritpal Singh in Jalandhar. The chase which included around 100 police vehicles went on for hours and he was almost caught but managed to give the cops a slip. He changed vehicles to dodge the police and also dumped his mobile phone during the chase. Soon, reports led to the rumours of him being arrested and plans of his illegal encounter started doing rounds and the state saw internet suspension for almost three days in the majority of areas. In no mood to let any speculation, opinion or rumour affect their operations or create unrest, the state machinery in an unprecedented move went ahead getting social media accounts, including those of a few journalists, suspended. 

Jalandhar DIG Swapan Sharma revealed that they missed Amritpal Singh by a whisker as he changed his routes several times during the chase and reached a one-lane link road of 12 to 13 km. There were six-seven motorbikes into which Amritpal Singh’s car crashed, probably helping him to escape. Some riders were to divert the cops. Police however managed to pick up his aides across the state. The Punjab and Haryana High court called Amritpal’s escape an intelligence failure raising questions on the 80,000 strong team of Punjab police.

The making of Amritpal

Right after he went on the run following a police crackdown, old pictures of Amritpal Singh, the self-styled pro-Khalistan preacher, surfaced on social media. The 30-year old could be seen in a T-shirt with short hair and well-trimmed beard. Nobody could ever imagine or predict that this man would in a matter of months shake the entire nation. Amritpal was born in Jallupur Khera village in 1993 in Amritsar, nine years after separatist leader Bhindranwale, on whom he modelled himself, was killed in the Operation Blue Star. Singh had left India in 2012 to join his uncle in Dubai and worked as a truck driver there. 

The man was first heard of in 2022, when on his return he was anointed the head of the Waris Punjab De, the outfit founded by Deep Sidhu, who died in a car crash last year. Sidhu, a Punjabi actor, had shot to fame for hoisting a religious flag on Red Fort during farmers’ protest. The investigations however reveal that Amritpal reportedly chose to form ‘Warris Panj-Aab De’, similar to ‘Waris Punjab De’ to ride on the late actor’s popularity after the radical preacher failed to take control of the existing outfit. He had demanded control but when Sidhu’s family refused, the new organisation was formed , which led to confusion on social media. 

Amritpal however reached heights of notoriety with the infamous Ajnala police station attack. On February 23, a huge mob belonging to Waris Punjab De amassed in front of a police station in the town of Ajnala demanding the release of a member of their organisation, who had been booked and arrested. Armed with sticks, swords and guns, they attacked the outnumbered cops and managed to have their man released from police custody. The incident turned Amritpal into a separatist hero overnight as he had orchestrated the entire attack. He was on the media’s top list and became a self-assumed Sikh spokesperson demanding a separate nation.

The king makers

Amritpal was not a lone wolf  but it was a team of Deep Sidhu loyalists who made him what he was. From managing funds to training AKF, these five close associates of his are currently in police custody and booked under NSA. The first on the list of kingmakers is Harjit Singh, Amritpal’s uncle. He landed in India in August last year and joined his nephew as manager and in charge of Amritpal’s finances. 

Punjabi actor Daljeet Kalsi, also known as Jeet Kalsi, was originally associated with actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu. Kalsi was pivotal in handing over the outfit to Amritpal. He reportedly arranged foreign funds for Amritpal and investigations revealed that he had so far garnered Rs 30 crores for him. Gurmeet Singh Bukkanwal was also a former associate of Deep Sidhu who joined Amritpal. He was made the Waris Punjab De in-charge for Moga. Basant Singh Fauji, another former associate of Sidhu, was Amritpal’s bodyguard and in-charge of de-addiction centres. 

Bhagwant Singh alias Pradhanmantri Bajeke was a “outspoken Sikh radical” who was using social media to air his views about various Sikh issues using the term ‘Pradhan Mantri’. Besides several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the police have invoked the NSA against Amritpal and his five associates, who have been arrested and sent to Dibrugarh jail in Assam. The latest to join the list of close aides is Tajinder Singh Gill alias Gorkha Baba who was security in-charge of Amritpal. He got close to Amritpal when he got himself admitted to the drug-addiction centre at Jallupur Khera. He was arrested by Khanna police and his mobile data left the entire country stunned. There were videos of Amritpal’s private shooting range and an army in making along with insignia of his dream country.

Mann, Amit Shah team up

The Amritpal crisis emerged as the biggest challenge for the first time in Punjab’s Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government. Working around healthcare and education for a year, the government was thrown to deal with extremism. The crisis forced the political rivals at centre and state to come together. Bhagwant Mann’s meeting with Amit Shah had raised many eyebrows as it was followed by deputing of central forces in state.

“I will not let our youth become raw material for ‘factories’ opened in the name of religion. It is my duty to maintain peace and harmony and brotherhood in Punjab. I will fulfil it. I will continue to do so. Punjab will not become Afghanistan,” said Bhagwant Mann.

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal lauded the ‘tough steps’ taken by the Punjab government to maintain law and order. He said, “We are patriots. We love Bharat Mata and no one will be spared if they take steps against the country or try to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere.” The opposition parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress however slammed the AAP-led state government for the botched operation. Pratap Singh Bajwa, Congress leader, who is the Leader of the Opposition, said “Bhagwant Mann has acted as a pawn in the hands of the Central government. An attempt is being made to take the entire community back to the 1980s and 1990s. They could have caught him anytime from his house in Amritsar but they created ruckus in Jalandhar for forthcoming Lok Sabha by-elections.”

Describing the arrests as extra-constitutional, the SAD chief Sukhbir Badal said in a statement, “It was shocking that scores of youth were being arrested indiscriminately merely on suspicion.” He said on Twitter, “Unity and integrity of India is non-negotiable. Akali Dal strongly condemns divisive forces attempting to create communal disharmony and destabilise Punjab.” The SAD has also offered legal assistance to the arrested Sikh youths.

Protests held abroad

Out to create a flutter and garner support for Amritpal, some pro-Khalistan supporters held demonstrations in the UK, the US, Australia and Canada. The protestors have not just been shouting slogans but vandalised embassies and tried to hoist Khalistani flags there. Sections of media too have been harassed at these sites.  The protest in the UK resulted in a diplomatic row, prompting the Ministry of External Affairs to summon the senior-most UK diplomat in New Delhi as the Ministry strongly disapproved of  “separatist and extremist elements” replacing the Tricolour at the Indian High Commission in London with their flag. 

In a clear case of retaliation, the security agencies removed the barricades around the British High Commission in Chanakyapuri in New Delhi and the residence of UK High Commissioner Alex Ellis. Similarly, a group of pro-Khalistan protesters damaged the Indian Consulate in San Francisco and another group staged a demonstration outside the Australian parliament in Canberra. The protests however have failed to gather any sympathy for Amritpal but have added strength to Sikh determination against Khalistan or similar extremism.