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Long-drawn manhunt for Amritpal Singh causes anxiety

Sentiments in Punjab supportive of the action against the separatist leader

Pheroze L. Vincent New Delhi Published 23.03.23, 02:14 AM
Amritpal Singh

Amritpal Singh File picture

The crackdown on separatist leader Amritpal Singh appears to have the approval of the people of Punjab, but the delay in arresting him is causing anxiety with prolonged Internet curbs, increased police deployment and unrest in the Indian diaspora.

There are few takers for the Punjab police’s claims on their attempt to arrest Amritpal near Jalandhar on March 18. However, in contrast with a vocal section of the diaspora in developed countries, sentiments in Punjab are supportive of the action against him.


Experts on the state told The Telegraph that the casualty in the remarkably bloodless “cordon-and-search operations” against Amritpal’s Waris Punjab De (WPD) outfit since Saturday were the endemic issues of the economy and law enforcement even after a year of AAP rule.

“It does not seem possible for a person to escape like the police says he (Amritpal) has. The majority don’t want to return to the 80s or 90s, and through the weekend people have gone about their business as usual. The perception is that police action was delayed to avoid turmoil, and there hasn’t been any mass expression of disagreement with the action,” Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a professor of political science at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University, said.

On February 23, a mob led by Amritpal had stormed Ajnala police station near Amritsar. The police did not retaliate despite being assaulted as the mob carried the Guru Granth Sahib in front of them. On Saturday, the police said they had intercepted Amritpal and his accomplices on Shahkot-Malsian Road but he escaped after a chase.

Mobile Internet and SMS services were cut in Punjab, although broadband, TV and newspapers are operational. Restrictions remain in four of the state's 23 districts, and a few other police stations. Prohibitory orders have been invoked without curfew being enforced, although state and central police forces have carried out flag marches in every district. Scores of WPD men have been arrested, some of whom have been lodged in Assam’s Dibrugarh prison.

“Curtailing of mobile Internet has an adverse impact on democracy, and causes hardship to those who depend on it for their livelihood. Even so, the media, especially local channels, have sensationalised the coverage badly, affecting the way people have been following the news…. This issue has overshadowed issues like unemployment, organised crime, (lack of) investments and the farmer’s agitation," said Sekhon, co-author of the book Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality.

“Currently the AAP is the main political force. But the BJP, with defectors from the Congress, is even opening branches in rural areas. The agenda of the BJP is perceived as being divisive and its success depends on how the people of Punjab respond to this issue. So far, they have not been swayed,” Sekhon added.

Author and chronicler of Punjab, Amandeep Sandhu, however, felt that the opaque nature of the prolonged police operation and the associated curbs were scaring the people, and that the timing of the action was wrong. “This botched-up operation will be seen in the light of (slain singer and Congress member) Sidhu Moosewala’s memorial event (this Sunday). After the death of (actor and separatist) Deep Sidhu (in a traffic collision last year), there has been a narrative that any young person who talks about the state’s rights becomes a target.”

He added: “Governments seemed to have learnt nothing from Operation Bluestar (to liberate the Golden Temple from Khalistani insurgents) which took place on the martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Dev when the place was filled with pilgrims. It was supposed to last a few hours but went on for days. In contrast, Operation Black Thunder (to recapture the temple from insurgents in 1986) was quick and transparent.”

Bluestar was followed by a spurt in the Khalistan movement and claimed the life of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the same year. This was followed by a pogrom against Sikhs in several Indian cities.

“I don’t see the AAP getting anything out of this. (The prolonged operations) is certainly scaring Hindus who could return to the BJP in Punjab’s urban centres…. Normally, Sikh culture celebrates people who fight back. The contemporary expression of this is courting arrest. This (the flight of Amritpal) is going to damage the Sikh psyche. Amritpal does not define Sikhi (Sikh faith, identity and culture) but he attracts the youth. What is happening now may create an impotent rage among youth as it creates the impression that no Sikh leader can stand up for them. And rage leads to mistakes and horrible things,” Sandhu said.

Hearing a habeas corpus petition for Amritpal on Tuesday, Punjab and Haryana High Court questioned the “intelligence failure” of the police and asked for a status report on the operations. On Wednesday, Punjab’s leader of opposition Partap Singh Bajwa of the Congress claimed that the unsuccessful police operation was merely to scuttle Moosewala’s memorial and demanded CM Bhagwant Mann’s resignation for the ongoing fiasco.

Political parties had closed ranks until Monday when Delhi AAP minister Atishi accused “other parties” of sheltering “those who disrupt peace”. Hours later, Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal tore into the AAP on Twitter: “SAD strongly condemns the puppet AAP regime in Punjab for the undeclared emergency and reign of repression & terror let loose in the state. We warn the govt against dangerous conspiracies to defame the most patriotic Sikh community for communal polarisation & electoral gains.”

Reiterating the commitment of Sikhs to the "unity & integrity of India", he added: “Shiromani Akali Dal strongly condemns the indiscriminate arrests of innocent Sikh youth, especially the Amritdhari youth, on mere suspicion through resort to extra-constitutional methods. We demand the immediate release of all innocents arrested in the ongoing crackdown.”

The Twitter accounts of the Indian Express's Chandigarh-based journalist Kamaldeep Singh Brar, Pro Punjab TV bureau chief Gagandeep Singh, Sangrur MP Simranjeet Singh Mann, Canadian MP Jagmeet Singh, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur and a few others have been suspended in India for unknown reasons.

The message on their Twitter profiles reads: "...Account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand..." While Brar and Gagandeep have been reporting the police operation, the rest have alleged violations of human rights in the operation.

In a webcast on Tuesday, CM Mann stressed that the AAP was a “100 per cent secular party".

He added: “We will not spare any force working against the country. I thank the three crore Punjabis for their cooperation in this operation (against Amritpal and Waris Punjab De). There was not a single report of any untoward incident from the state. It has boosted my confidence that people want peace and progress.”

An AAP source said: “Amritpal being on the run demolishes his claim to (separatist Jarnail) Bindranwale’s legacy even further. The AAP will take the nationalist line of a strong stand against separatism…. The Akalis feel that Amritpal’s supporters are their vote bank and they will speak accordingly.”

Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh, echoed the perception of public sanction for strong action and the belief that the police might have Amritpal in their grip. “People won’t approve of any party deriving political capital from what is happening…. When I talk to my students, I find that their parents don’t talk to them about the 80s and 90s. There is a conscious amnesia,” he told this newspaper.

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