Why Amritpal's arrest is unlikely to solve Punjab's deeper problems

Concerted efforts from the Union and state governments are needed

PTI03_29_2023_000251A On guard: Security personnel in Hoshiarpur on March 29 | PTI

The shadow of Amritpal Singh looms over Punjab. The Waris Punjab De leader has been on the run for more than 10 days, and the hunt for him has prompted hundreds of young men who were once sympathisers to distance themselves from his radical path.

The police have already nabbed hundreds of Amritpal supporters. Eleven of them have been charged under the stringent National Security Act. The last time a person in Punjab was charged under NSA was in 2001, when followers of a breakaway Sikh sect published their own holy book, sparking violence across the state. The founder of the sect, Piara Singh Bhaniara, was denounced by the influential Akal Takht and charged by the police under NSA after several incidents of sacrilege were reported.

More than two decades later, another radical has the state on tenterhooks. Even if Amritpal is arrested soon, the disquieting situation is unlikely to be set right in the near future.

The police station at Jallupur Khera, Amritpal’s village, is receiving more visitors than usual. Elderly Sikhs comfort anxious young men summoned by the police. The men take pains to disavow Amritpal, saying they were miles away from him and his aides when they attacked the police station in Ajnala, some 10km from Jallupur Khera, with swords and sticks on February 23.

CCTV recordings of the Ajnala attack are being examined by the police to identify and arrest his followers. Amritpal himself has been absconding since March 18, and the continuing hunt for him has exposed a system that is grappling with social and religious tensions.

On March 29, a video message from Amritpal shot in an unknown location surfaced on social media. In the video, he describes the crackdown on him as an attack on the Sikh community. “I appeal to the community in the country and abroad to participate in the Sarbat Khalsa programme on Baisakhi (April 14). For a long time, we have been taking up issues in small ways, but if we want to solve the issues of Punjab, we have to put up a united front,” he says.

Amritpal has laid down conditions for his surrender, such as removing the NSA charges against his aides. Apart from the 11 aides booked under NSA, cases have been registered against 39 protesters and 31 Waris Punjab De members. As many as 360 others have been booked for breaking barricades, destroying public property, displaying arms and engaging in criminal intimidation.

Amritpal has left behind all but two of his followers―Pappalpreet Singh, an alleged Khalistani hand, and Bikramjit, a close aide who handles funds. The sundry criminals, aspiring gangsters and disillusioned youth who once followed him are scrambling to enlist the support of Sikh elders to distance themselves from Amritpal. The crackdown has been so extensive that the Akal Takht has demanded the release of “innocent” persons.

For a long time, we have been taking up issues in small ways, but if we want to solve the issues of Punjab, we have to put up a united front. ―Amritpal Singh, in a video that surfaced on March 29 (video grab on right)

“I was standing far away when the Ajnala violence took place. I don’t have any links with any of the accused,” said Manjeet (named changed), one of the 360 accused. Manjeet had come to the Jallupur Khera station with a co-accused and a village elder. The elder was there to help the young men explain how they were mere bystanders when the violence erupted.

“The police have released 348 of the 360 persons arrested under preventive sections of the law,” said Gaurav Yadav, director general of police, to THE WEEK. “Directions have been issued to all police stations in the state to ensure no innocent person is harassed or arrested.”

Amritpal Singh | PTI Amritpal Singh | PTI

Police sources said the NSA detainees―all of whom are key aides of Amritpal―will have to face the iron hand of the law. Accused members of Waris Punjab De and the violent protesters will also not be spared, they said.

The ball is now in the court of the state government. Once the police charge a person under the NSA, the action has to be validated by the district commissioner within 12 days. After the commissioner validates it, the accused can be kept in custody for three months.

In the meantime, the government has to send all case details to an advisory board―a quasi-judicial body of three members headed by a retired High Court judge. The board looks at the grounds for the arrest, summons witnesses and analyses all evidence. Only if the board is satisfied that the police is allowed to implement the maximum detention period of one year under NSA.

The NSA is considered draconian, because the detainee cannot get bail, does not have immediate access to lawyers, and cannot appeal to the government against the decision of the board. There is legal recourse in the High Court and the Supreme Court, but the process takes time. In the meantime, the detainee can be shifted to a jail in another state, and can be arrested under sections of the Indian Penal Code if the detention is over.

The Aam Aadmi Party, which came to power in Punjab last year, has to walk a tightrope between the need to release innocents and ignore the demands from pressure groups supporting Amritpal. The fact that Pakistan-backed Khalistani groups in Canada, the UK, the US and Australia are targeting Indian missions and running online campaigns in his support has been a wake up call for the Union and state governments.

“Even though Amritpal’s supporters and the forces behind him are trying to whip up pro-Khalistan sentiment abroad, the two worlds of Amritpal in Punjab and the pro-Khalistan supporters abroad are disconnected,” said G.K. Pillai, former Union home secretary. According to him, Punjab’s problems do not arise from any ideology or separatist sentiment, but from tangible and everyday concerns that can be addressed by the Central and state government together. “In fact, despite Pakistan-supported pro-Khalistan forces trying to fish in troubled waters, it still has no resonance on the ground,” he said.

The unmaking of Amritpal, said Pillai, will only be complete when the Punjab government is able to roll out a cohesive plan to stamp out the gangster network, drug mafia and lumpen elements who were attracted to Amritpal and his radical path.

The police are apparently working on such a blueprint. “We are hoping that, in the next few months, the momentum [of the Amrtipal hunt] is maintained to focus on cracking down on illegal sale of drugs, gun-running, cross-border smuggling and financial flows to outfits like Waris Punjab De,” said a counterterrorism official. “This is to prevent the growth of radical elements like Amritpal, who can whip up sentiments to the extent that they become a threat to national security.”