To begin with, let me clarify that separatist leader Amritpal Singh who is on the run is no Bhindranwale 2.0, optics don’t begrudge hyperbole and his meticulously cultivated image including the armed army guarding him did its work- waiving from a Mercedes SUV though was hardly his mentor’s style.
Sweeping statements in the media that are far removed from regional ground realities then are equally damaging, those who have lived the terror will tell you, there is a difference between alarm bells and plunging headlong into terrorism.
Parachuted into Punjab by most reports to cause unrest — he was reportedly raising his own militia called ‘Anandpur Khalsa Fauj’ -- Amritpal Singh without any orthodox religious background is a recently minted radical preacher who worked as a truck driver abroad till as recently as September of last year.
Chased across the fields of Punjab, it hasn’t taken him long to leave his self-styled preacher persona behind and take refuge in western wear.
Attempts to destabilise state
The Tribune reports that Amritpal’s initiation was through the social media app Clubhouse when he joined a chat room hosted by the late Deep Sidhu, founder of the organisation Waris Punjab De which Amritpal later co-opted. He was thrown out of the audio room and blocked by Sidhu when he reportedly tried to hijack the agenda with his extremist views.
After Sidhu’s mysterious death in an accident, the Facebook page of the organisation was hacked and overnight much to the family’s horror, Amritpal announced himself as the chief.
The disturbing question remains, how was his band of supporters armed with weapons in such a brief time? There are also reports of weapons being illegally stockpiled in de-addiction centres with an aim to brainwash youth in rehab centres, an easy target re-enforcing the urgency of employment.
Who financed luxury cars like the Mercedes he travelled in? The trail should not end with his arrest, Amritpal’s funding needs to be probed to quash any future attempts to destabilise the state.
Media repeating mistakes
Secondly, to say there is a revival of the Khalistan movement within Punjab is an exaggeration. Amritpal and his supporters do not speak for the people of the state whose primary focus remains jobs and a life away from drugs.
In its reporting, Delhi media is making the same mistake it did in the 80s when a press entourage to cover terrorism in the state did not move out from their hotel in Chandigarh, filing stories that did not have the pulse of the state.
The Sikh community openly voiced its disapproval when Amritpal led his supporters to set chairs and sofas on fire at Gurudwaras in Jalandhar and Kapurthala.
The Bhagwant Mann government should have taken immediate action instead, it was complacent, setting the stage for the bold storming of a police station in the outskirts of Amritsar a few weeks later.
Amritpal being allowed to walk free after the siege will remain a blot on both Punjab Police and the AAP government. That, days after the crackdown, he is still not arrested in another strike, the Punjab and Haryana High Court was justifiably scathing asking how a police force of 80,000 could let him escape. In the first 24 hours of the operation, there were overwhelming rumours that Amritpal was in custody.
The stringent National Security Act (NSA) has been invoked against Amritpal and some key associates who were arrested were quickly shifted to the BJP-ruled state Assam giving credence to the reports that it was a joint operation between Bhagwant Mann and the centre.
This coordination is vital to keep Punjab’s law and order in check.
No takers back home
The attack on the Indian High Commission in London, the attempt to set fire to the Indian consulate in San Francisco are deplorable acts.
The only traction that the Khalistan movement gets is from some elements within the diaspora in countries like Canada, Australia and the UK. These platforms are not new nor is the periodic flogging of an ideology that has no takers back home.
Punjabi separatists in Canada have led to growing tension between the two countries, Sikhs in Canada are a sizeable vote bank and politicians prefer to turn a blind eye to their activities.
In the past India has termed it “deeply objectionable that politically motivated exercises by extremist elements are allowed to take place in a friendly country.” The nature of violence though isn’t partial as increasing incidents in the city of Brampton have shown.
As for the AAP government, it has been accused of going soft on separatists in the past and this may finally be its moment of reckoning. The chief minister says no one will be allowed to spoil peace and harmony in the state but much depends on how quickly Amritpal is apprehended.
There is also the timing. The crucial by- election in the Jalandhar constituency is around the corner and it is a battle of prestige for the ruling AAP after it lost the Sangrur bypoll shortly after coming to power.
As for the national media, this may not fit into its narrative but there is no reign of terror in Punjab. A radical leader has caused serious security disturbances and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
Don’t let the noise hijack the ground reality, again.