Punjab has always symbolized India’s dynamism and pluralism. It is also known as the “land of peers and Gurus”. Sikhs are devout and admired throughout India. Their dynamism and energy are unparalleled. Unfortunately, some political parties and organisations misused and again started the same tactic to misuse devotion and religious feelings. As a journalist, I was following the rise of terrorism in Punjab since the 1980s when Congress leaders tried to use Bhindranwale against Akalis and their own rivals in the party. Intelligence agencies reported to Mrs Indira Gandhi that Congress Chief Minister Darabara Singh was in direct touch with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and later, he also became close to Gyani Zail Singh.
Now Baisakhi festival is coming on 13-14 April. It reminds me of Bhindranwale (so-called Sant) who emerged on the scene on 13 April 1978. In a few years, he became the leader of the Khalistani movement and got the support of the Pakistani Intelligence agency ISI. They received arms and ammunition from Pakistan. I also remember the first big killing of a media personality Lala Jagat Narain by terrorists in September 1981. He was head of the Hind Samachar group, the publishers of the Punjab Kesari newspaper, and carrying strong comments against terrorism. Bhindranwale was believed to be the man behind this killing. When he was arrested, he triggered selective and targeted Hindus. Trains were derailed, and an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked and taken to Pakistan. After a few months, he was released and Bhindranwale openly spoke for a separate Khalistan. This group had the full support of Pakistan. Darbara Singh’s government failed and President’s Rule was imposed. Gyani Zail Singh was Home Minister and he started helping Bhindranwale behind the scene. According to former IB chief T.V. Rajeswar, on one occasion, when the central government decided to arrest Bhindranwale on the route from Mumbai to Punjab, Gyaniji tipped his close people and the secret plan failed. Later is a history of violence not only in Punjab, but across the country and the Blue Star operation, the assassination of Mrs Gandhi and afterwards large-scale killings of Sikhs.
In this background, now going soft on the Khalistani elements has added to the woes of the Punjab government, which was already facing criticism for the deteriorating law and order situation in the state. Within a fortnight, Punjab had witnessed two major attacks on the police force. The first incident was reported on 8 February 2023, in Mohali, in which 33 cops were injured. The Khalistani elements even snatched a tear smoke handgun, and ammunition and tried to kill policemen amid pro-Khalistan slogans. The attackers also included radicalised minor boys. Sources also said foreign funding was fuelling the Khalistani movement in the state. The Ajnala incident could be an eye-opener to the Bhagwant Mann government which is going soft on the hardliners. This incident is considered a shot in the arm for the Khalistani elements. Why are the political bosses (AAP leaders) silent on the growing threat?
Punjab has acquired a new dharna culture as separatists and other organisations are regularly receiving financial support from foreign-based Khalistani sympathisers, who were disseminating a false narrative against India and the Indian Constitution in at least eight foreign countries. Be it the Mohali or Ajnala incident, the police had received no orders from political bosses to use force against the anti-social elements. Despite being challenged openly by Khalistanis, the administration did not dare to arrest them.
The radical elements went on a rampage to secure the release of Amritpal’s aide Lovepreet Toofan, who was arrested on charges of rioting and abduction. Amritpal himself is one of the accused in the FIR registered on 16 February. While the pro-Khalistani outfit “Waris Punjab De” is responsible for the complete incident, the Mohali incident was jointly masterminded by nearly a dozen Khalistani organisations, demanding the release of convicted Khalistani terrorists (Bandi Singhs). Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann kept mum on the Ajnala incident which occurred the day when the two-day-long investors’ summit kick-started in Mohali. Meanwhile, former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, while demanding the immediate arrest of Amritpal Singh, has expressed shock over the deteriorating law and order situation. He has also appealed to the central government to impose a Governor’s rule in the state. In fact, last January, when he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he raised his concern about terrorist activities in Punjab.
Intelligence agencies are probing the possible ISI connections of Amritpal Singh who has modelled himself on the leading figure of the Khalistan movement Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Amritpal is back in Punjab after 10 years and has become chief of Waris Punjab De, a “pressure group”, floated by the late actor and activist Deep Sidhu. Sidhu’s family has denied picking Amritpal Singh for the position. Amritpal is moving from village to village in Punjab and talking about freedom, Sikhi, and against the establishment, sources said. Agencies feel that he has taken over this role on behalf of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a long-term strategy to destabilise Punjab once again.
Amritpal Singh’s dastarbandi (turban-tying ceremony) also happened with the slogans of “Khalistan Zindabad”, pointed out sources. Intelligence officials say Amritpal went to Georgia before coming to India from Dubai. Recently, the Union Home ministry asked the Punjab government to keep a vigil on his activities. The 30-year-old separatist leader hails from Jallupur village in Punjab’s Amritsar. Up until February 2022, Amritpal was just another Punjabi man influenced by the Western lifestyle and did not even wear a turban. He was in Dubai, supporting his relative’s transport business and would spend his time on social media. A big reason why Amritpal was becoming popular among the Khalistani sympathisers was that he made Punjab the base to pursue his separatist agenda. While many separatists like Gurpatwant Pannu were running their businesses from foreign countries, Amritpal dared to pursue his agenda from India. Following in the footsteps of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amritpal expanded the sphere of his organisation by organising mass baptisms of young people. He dressed like Bhindranwale and gets his pictures clicked in the same piercing manner. “Bhindranwale is my inspiration. I will walk the path shown by him. I want to be like him because that’s what every Sikh wants, but I am not copying him,” said Amritpal Singh.
Creating a communal divide and hatred between Hindus and Sikhs, he spread the agenda that Sikhism was in danger and Sikhs were slaves. While many believe he is promoting Sikhism, a sizable number of Sikh scholars said he was harming the religion and was in fact pursuing the agenda of Pakistan’s ISI. Amritpal Singh’s major target is the Hindi-speaking population in India. Amritpal threatened Home Minister Amit Shah, saying he will meet the same fate as that of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi if he tried to stop the Khalistan movement. Later, he tried to confuse by saying that Amit Shah had said that he won’t let the Khalistan movement rise. I had said that the same was done by Indira Gandhi and if you do the same, you’d have to face consequences. If the Home Minister says the same to those demanding “Hindu Rashtra”, then I’ll see if he remains the Home Minister,” Amritpal Singh said. Despite gaining popularity in a short span of time, Amritpal also came under attack from various Sikh preachers and leaders. Several Sikh organisations objected to his activities, including burning gurdwara furniture.
The writer is editorial director of ITV Network—India News and Dainik Aaj Samaj.