In recent times, Amritpal Singh has been making the rounds in Punjab as a man who has managed to evade the police despite his alleged involvement in various criminal activities. It is vital to delve into the Khalistan movement, its history, and its resurgence and finally address the elephant in the room: Is the Khalistan movement’s era under Bhindrawale all over again? To acquire a depth of understanding of the issue that recent events have exposed, it is necessary to investigate the Khalistan movement, its history, and its rebirth.
The Scars of Khalistan: The History Through the Late 1970s to 1990s
The Khalistan movement, which seeks to establish a separate homeland for the Sikhs in India, has a long and complex history. The Khalistan movement was born out of the long-standing grievances of the Sikh community in India, who felt marginalised and discriminated against by the Hindu-dominated government. The roots of the Khalistan movement can be traced back to the 1940s when a demand for a separate Sikh state was first raised.
In the early 1980s, India was facing a rising tide of separatist sentiment in the state of Punjab, led by Sikh militants who were seeking an independent state of their own, which they called Khalistan. The movement gained momentum under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, a charismatic Sikh preacher who became the face of the movement. Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale was born in Punjab in 1947 and became a prominent figure in the Sikh community in the 1970s. He was the head of the Damdami Taksal, a religious institution that trained Sikh preachers and was known for his fiery speeches and advocacy for Sikh rights. Bhindrawale’s popularity grew, and he soon became the face of the Khalistan movement.
The Indian government responded to the Khalistan movement by launching a massive crackdown on Sikh militants, including Bhindrawale and his supporters. In 1984, the Indian Army launched Operation Blue Star, a military operation aimed at flushing out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Punjab, where Bhindrawale and his followers were holed up. The operation resulted in a violent clash between the militants and the Army, leading to hundreds of deaths, including Bhindrawale. The operation was carried out with tanks and heavy artillery and resulted in the death of Bhindrawale and hundreds of his supporters and the destruction of the temple. The operation was met with widespread outrage among the Sikh community, leading to a wave of violence and unrest in Punjab.
The government’s response to the Khalistan movement was further characterised by the Gill Doctrine, a strategy developed by the then-police chief of Punjab, KPS Gill. The doctrine involved using a combination of intelligence-gathering, police action, and propaganda to suppress the movement. The police were free to deal with the militants, and extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances became common. The strategy successfully reduced the level of violence in Punjab but at a great cost to human rights and civil liberties.
Despite the government’s crackdown, the Khalistan movement did not completely disappear. Some Sikh separatist groups continued to advocate for the creation of Khalistan. However, the movement largely died down, and most Sikhs in India rejected the idea of a separate state.
A Face for the Republic: The Rise of Deep Sidhu
To understand the recent resurgence of the Khalistan movement, we need to go back to November 2020, when a man named Deep Sidhu gained notoriety for a video of him trying to persuade Haryana police to let the farm bill protesters go into Delhi. This video went viral, and Sidhu became known as an English-speaking articulate and smart character. His good looks didn’t hurt either, and he soon became a talked-about figure in Punjab.
But it was on January 26, 2021, Republic Day, that Sidhu’s legend truly began. He climbed onto the ramparts of the Red Fort and unfurled the saffron flag of the Khalsa. This act was seen as a repeat of what Jassa Singh Ahluwalia’s soldiers did two centuries ago when the Mughal Empire was in its last throes. Sidhu was subsequently arrested and bailed out, but his fame only grew.
Sidhu died on February 15, 2022, after a car accident. As he died, a vacuum appeared in the rising universe of semi-radical sentiment permeating Punjab through social media and popular culture. Before his death, Sidhu had set up an organisation called Waris Punjab De, which translates to “Heirs of Punjab” or “Legatees of Punjab.” The subtext was that Punjab had been forgotten by people who belonged to Punjab and that something needed to be done about it. After Sidhu’s death, a vacuum emerged, and a new figure soon appeared in his place.
Modern Legatees of Khalistan: The Phenomena of Amritpal Singh
On November 27, 2021, a video surfaced of Mandeep Sidhu, the brother of Deep Sidhu and a syndicate or the politburo of Waris Punjab De member. He spoke about the need for a new leader to guide the movement. This led to a split in the group, with five members leaving to declare Amritpal Singh, on March 4 2022, as the new head of Waris Punjab De. This move was resisted by other members, including Mandeep Sidhu, who argued that Singh’s appointment was not legitimate.
Despite the controversy, Singh’s popularity grew on social media, where he built a large following by espousing radical views and attacking anyone who questioned his ideas. He began preparing to return to India, where he had gained a reputation as a separatist leader.
Amritpal Singh began preparing to come to India after being declared the head of Waris Punjab. On August 20, Amritpal Singh returned to India, and he had grown a full beard and a turban, which he did not have in his pictures from Dubai. He went to Georgia for eye surgery, but there were speculations about his visit. On September 25 2022, he went to the Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara, one of the biggest Gurdwaras in Sikhism, and went through the process of Amrit Chhakna, which is partaking of the Holy nectar. This meant he had sworn to adhere to the most puritanical and conservative form of Sikhism. Four days later, on September 29, he went to Roday, the village of Bhindranwale, and went through the process of Dastar Baddi, which meant that he was given the responsibility of the Khalsa pant of the Sikh faith. He positioned himself as the legacy of Bhindranwale and even used slogans of Khalistan Zindabad.
On November 22, 2022, Amritpal Singh said they also had a tradition of “vaheer” in Sikhism, which was significant because he was positioning himself as a puritanical, conservative form of Sikhism. This was also significant because it indicated he was trying to attract followers who believed in this ideology. Amritpal Singh was slowly but surely positioning himself as a leader who could unite the Sikhs and bring them together under one banner.
February 23, 2023, was a turning point in Punjab, India. On this day, a mob led by Amritpal Singh stormed the police station at Ajnala and ransacked it. The reason behind this mob attack was the arrest of a man named Lovepreet Singh Toofan, who had been arrested earlier by the police based on an FIR filed by Bijender Singh. Bijender Singh alleged that Lovepreet Singh had made an offensive post about someone who works closely with the brick pulsing.
The mob, which carried the holy Guru Granth Sahib, demanded the release of Lovepreet Singh. The accusations brought against the crowd were dropped, and Lovepreet Singh was set free as a result. The police chose not to take any harsh punishment against the mob. This unprecedented show of weakness by the Punjab government and police raised questions about the law and order situation in the state.
This incident highlighted the growing influence of mob culture in Punjab. The fact that the police gave in to the mob’s demands has set a dangerous precedent, implying that anyone can take the law into their own hands and get away with it.
On March 18, the central and Punjab governments decided to crack down on Amritpal Singh, also known as Waris Punjab De, and his followers. Amritpal Singh had reportedly planned to launch another procession, or Bahir, following the storming of a police station in Ajnala. As he made his way to Shakot, towards Barnala in Punjab, the police caught up with him and his followers at a strong nakabandhi or police picket. A chase ensued, at the end of which Amritpal Singh managed to escape, while five people around him were arrested and charged under the National Security Act (NSA).
Amritpal Singh is a 30-year-old who gained fame after storming the police station in Ajnala. He thought that he should leverage his fame and launch another procession. His financier, Diljit Singh Kalsi, a part-time Punjabi actor who also made some money running an MLM company, Sterling India Private Limited, has been arrested under the NSA. Amritpal Singh’s uncle, Harjit Singh, who used to run the transport company in Dubai where Amritpal worked, has also been arrested. He had become a manager for Amritpal.
Gurmeet Singh Bokanwala, who used to be with Deep Sidhu, moved over to Amritpal’s side and is also the Moga District head of Waris Punjab de. Basant Singh Foji, a former Nihang, was seen in many pictures with Amritpal as a bodyguard carrying weapons. While people who carried weapons with Bhindrawale or his bodyguards carried mostly automatic weapons, which cannot be licensed, and their weapons were not licensed in this case, the licenses for the weapons carried by Amritpal’s associates were cancelled by the Punjab police.
Amritpal Singh remains at large as of writing, evading a crackdown on Waris Punjab De and arrests under the National Security Act.
Going Global: Khalistan Beyond India
The events triggered by the Indian crackdown on Amritpal Singh have exposed the global stature of the Khalistan movement. The Indian Sikh diaspora in countries such as Canada, the US, the UK and Australia have gained prominence in local politics, hence tabling various referendums to legitimise support for the Khalistan movement. The banned outfit Sikhs for Justice organised a Khalistan referendum in Toronto, Canada, in September last year.
Since the crackdown on Waris Punjab De, this situation had taken a turn for the worst when Khalistani protestors in these nations began targeting Hindu temples, as well as the Indian embassy and the Indian High Commission in these countries. Most notably, this occurred in London, where a Khalistani protester scaled a balcony in an attempt to take down an Indian flag and replace it with a Khalistan flag.
The Indian government registered strong complaints over the lax security of its diplomats in these countries and, in retaliation, removed security from the British High Commission in New Delhi, India.
The hotbed for Khalistan abroad is coming to be Canada, where ministers in Trudeau’s government, Harjit Sajjan and Amarjeet Sohi, have been accused of being Khalistan sympathisers by the ex-CM of Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh. Some media have reported this entrenchment of Khalistan sympathisers as an impediment to better Indo-Canadian ties.
The Khalistan movement has a complex history and has gone through various stages, from its initial demand for a separate Sikh state to the violent insurgency led by Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale. The movement did not completely disappear. Recent events have seen the emergence of new figures, such as Deep Sidhu and Amritpal Singh, who have gained notoriety through social media and popular culture. The recent split in the Waris Punjab De group shows that the Khalistan movement is far from over and continues to evolve unpredictably. How the Indian government will respond to this fresh wave of separatist ism in Punjab remains to be seen.