Amritpal Singh: the so-called preacher who is inciting dread in Punjab, India

Amritpal Singh, the head of Waris Punjab, and his close aide Lovepreet Toofan on February 24, 2023, in Amritsar, a...

In Punjab, a state in northern India, hundreds of Amritpal Singh's controversal followers stormed a police station last week to demand the release of a detained aide.

The group of irate young men, many of whom were armed with guns and swords, overpowered barricades and left the area only when it was confirmed that the assistant would be freed. Later, according to police officials, the crowd was using a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikhs' sacred text, as a shield, making it impossible for them to disperse.

The circumstances brought Singh, a 30-year-old who supports the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh homeland, to public attention.

The fact that Singh resembled the preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was charged by the Indian government with leading an armed rebellion for a separate Sikh homeland in the 1980s, raised suspicions as well. He was killed in the contentious Operation Blue Star conducted by the Indian Army in 1984.

Thousands of people died during the insurgency, which lasted for about ten years. These included well-known figures and common citizens who were the targets of insurgent attacks, while numerous young Sikhs were killed during police operations, some of which were later determined by Indian courts to have been staged. Punjab continues to be scarred by this violence.

Shashi Kant, a former director general of police in Punjab, says, "What we are seeing in Punjab definitely forces you to think whether we are headed back to the dark era of militancy.". "Fear is present in the air. ".

However, some contend that Singh's popularity has been exaggerated.

"Even though separatist sentiment never completely subsided, it did lose support from the general public in the 1990s. In the state, not everyone agrees with those like Amritpal Singh who call for a violent movement. It still makes up a very small portion of the population, claims Prof. Parminder Singh, a professor at the state's Guru Nanak Dev University.

Bhagwant Mann, the chief minister of Punjab, has also stated that despite efforts to sever it, "everyone lives in harmony" in the state and that there is a "special bond" between communities.

One thousand Singh supporters don't speak for Punjab, he claimed.

Supporters of Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh clashing with Punjab Police personnel on Thursday afternoon as they headed for the police station in Ajnala to protest the arrest of his aide in a kidnap and assault case on February 23, 2023
Swords and firearms were carried by many of Singh's supporters.

The earliest years of Singh are not well-known. He relocated to Dubai in 2012 to work in his family's transport company. He was previously a resident of Jallupur Khera in Punjab's Amritsar district.

He holds a mechanical engineering degree from a Punjabi university, according to his LinkedIn profile, and previously held the position of "operational manager" at a cargo company.

According to reports, for a long time his popularity was confined to social media, where his ideas about Sikh unification and statehood were well received. .

He traveled to India from Dubai in August of last year, and compared to earlier pictures where his hair and beard were neatly trimmed, he was clearly a different person.

He now had long, flowing hair, a steel bangle on his wrist, and a small sacred dagger called a kirpan hanging from his waist, giving him the appearance of a devout, active Sikh.

Waris Punjab De Chief Amritpal Singh with his close aide Lovepreet Toofan and other supporters paying obeisance at Golden Temple on February 24, 2023 in Amritsar, India.
Following Lovepreet Toofan's release, Amritpal Singh (on the right) gathered at the Golden Temple with some of his supporters.

A month later, Singh was named the organization's leader, Waris Punjab De (Heirs of Punjab), which was founded by actor and activist Deep Sidhu. Sidhu was killed in a car accident the year prior after being arrested in connection with violence at a farmer protest.

The ceremony was held in Rode, Bhindranwale's ancestral village, and thousands of people attended.

Supporters of Singh frequently compare him to Bhindranwale, whom he refers to as an "inspiration.".

In his speeches, Singh adopts the hardline stance of Bhindranwale, openly advocating for a separate state for Sikhs and arguing that it is the only "permanent solution" to the problems plaguing Punjab, including water disputes, drug abuse, and the decline of Punjabi culture.

Singh, however, rejects the comparison in his own words: "I am not even equal to the dust of his feet. I only follow his lead when he directs me to do so, he said to The Indian Express newspaper last year.

Given Singh's age, Prof. Ashutosh, a political scientist who teaches at the state's Panjab University, calls his sudden rise to prominence "mysterious.".

Singh, however, has been able to capitalize on Sikh concerns by drawing comparisons between the notion of their sovereignty and the Hindu nationalist identity, the author continues.

Farmers raise slogans during a protest over farm reform laws at Singhu border on 2 December 2020 in New Delhi
As soon as the farm laws were repealed in December 2021, Amritpal Singh went back to Dubai.

Punjab, dubbed the breadbasket of India, is still a relatively wealthy state. However, according to experts, the state's social and economic standing has declined due to a persistent unemployment issue and a farming crisis.

Some Sikhs feel the need for a leader who talks about the injustices done to them and could represent their interests and problems because the supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are calling for a Hindu nation, according to Prof. Ashutosh.

Singh's popularity, according to Prof. Khalid Mohammad of Panjab University, has been greatly influenced by social media because it has made it easier for him to "connect with the masses.".

In order to encourage Sikhs to become baptized (undergo the Amrit ceremony), give up drug use, which is a serious problem in Punjab, and give up traditions like dowry and caste-based discrimination, Singh oversaw a month-long religious procession across the state in November.

After Singh claimed that people should only be seated on the floor when in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, his supporters made headlines a month later for destroying furniture at a gurudwara.

According to Prof. Parminder Singh, the discontent of many young people in Punjab is a contributing factor in Singh's popularity surge.

"There are many young people in Punjab who are underprivileged, poorly educated, jobless, and lack the funds to travel abroad. According to him, many of them may have turned to this brand of religious fundamentalism.

Singh frequently makes the case in his speeches that the demand for Khalistan is wholly legitimate. He also appears to have a strong appeal for his supporters.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, (Photo by Raghu Rai/The The India Today Group via Getty Images)
In a military-style operation, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed in 1984.

But more than anything, his unexpected popularity and success serve as a horrifying reminder of the state's violent past.

Punjab has mostly returned to normal today, decades after the bloodshed, with its cities once again humming with activity.

Some are now concerned that the state might experience unrest once more.

Having joined the force in the 1980s, a former senior Punjab police officer told the BBC that he had witnessed numerous attacks on police stations in the past. However, he adds, "This is the first time that the police have been seen to be so helpless.".

Prof. Parminder Singh also notes that for the previous few months, Singh traveled through Punjab with swords and firearms without having a case brought against him.

"In general, this trend should not be allowed to continue because it is dangerous. Punjab would otherwise experience a serious crisis phase.

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