April 5, 2023
Until last summer, Amritpal Singh had been a relatively unknown name in Punjab politics. Yet the self-styled leader of the Khalistani movement — a separatist movement advocating for an autonomous Sikh homeland — has taken over news channels and social media over the past few weeks in India and beyond. These reports picture Singh in his signature white robes and flowing beard, fashioned after his idol, the late Khalistani leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. But Singh is no Bhindranwale.
Singh, who has been on the run for the past 19 days, is also the leader of Waris Punjab De (“Heirs of Punjab”), an anti-drug organization that has broadened its agenda to include human rights violations in Punjab. The bedlam began on February 23, when police arrested an aide of Singh’s, Lovepreet Singh Toofan, on charges of kidnapping. Members of Waris Punjab De protested outside the Ajnala police station, which was holding Toofan, and clashed with police. Amritpal Singh then allegedly stormed the police station, the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib in hand.
Over the next few weeks, more protests would ensue, and Punjab police would arrest over 300 people. The Punjab government also shut down the state’s internet, halted texting, blocked human rights organizations, and imposed Section 144, a law that bans the assembly of more than four people. For many, including those who do not support the Khalistani movement, these events are a painful reminder of times past. But where does that leave Punjab — home to some 30 million people — and a state the Indian government has disenfranchised time and again?