Waris Punab De' group's leader Amritpal Singh's supporters break barricades and enter the police station demanding the release of Amritpal Singh's close aide, in Ajnala near Amritsar Image Credit: ANI

For more than two decades Punjab has tried to keep a step ahead of its hunted past. Last week old scars were painfully scratched as thousands brandishing swords and guns lay siege at a police station in the border town of Ajnala.

They got what they wanted, with ease. The release of Lovepreet Toofan who was picked up on charges of kidnapping though was less alarming than Punjab Police withdrawing the case. It is a script that the state has seen before.

Once the protesters were inside the police station, hands were tied. But by being allowed to cross that threshold itself both the police and intelligence agencies were involved in a national security failure that could have repercussions.

Amritpal Singh, self-styled leader of the group ‘Waris Punjab De’ (incidentally the family of its founder Deep Singh Sandhu who died in a road accident deny any connection with Amritpal) and his supporters shielded themselves behind Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism incapacitating the police force from acting.

More by the writer

The AAP government was aware a repeat of eight years ago would be damaging, sacrilege and subsequent police firing in Babel Kalan was the turning point in Parkash Singh Badal’s ouster.

Including chief minister Bhagwant Mann there has been widespread criticism of Amritpal’s act forcing the Akal Takht to form a committee. The influential SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) though has remained quiet.

Why was Amritpal allowed to walk free?

If there is one takeaway from Punjab’s brutal history it is to not recap it. Yet, the radical leader was not stopped as he moved with his supporters.

For those who lived through Punjab’s dark days there is a sense of Déjà vu, in 1981 a preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale similarly escaped arrest, the rest is a story of bloodshed.

Ruling Punjab comes with the caveat of a strong leadership, any churning in the state is an indication to the contrary. Last month in events that have been almost normalised, protesters demanding prisoners’ release clashed with police on the Chandigarh-Mohali highway breaking barriers with swords and injuring 40 police personnel including women.

Law and order situation in Punjab

When it comes to the state’s security AAP should have hit the ground running, instead it was caught napping barely weeks into office when two groups with extreme elements clashed in Patiala.

Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann’s response to the Ajnala incident has been equally worrying. In less than 24 hours he was posing with Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai from where he moved to Gujarat while central agencies flagged Amritpal’s activities as ‘very serious.’

Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress have dominated Punjab’s post-independence political landscape but successive governments failed in bringing the marginalised youth to the job market. What both Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh accomplished though was to keep separatists at bay.

AAP was barely in and the first crack was visible in the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll which was won by radical Akali leader Simranjit Singh Mann, a man who spent the last two decades in political wilderness. There was more than symbolism in that win and Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP missed it.

The party leadership seems to be without gravitas when it comes to law and order in the state. Remote-controlling from Delhi showed that it either doesn’t understand the signs on the ground or doesn’t want to. Kejriwal’s ambitions for pan-India will falter badly if his party fails in keeping Punjab safe.

Who exactly is Amritpal Singh?

The meteoric rise of a short haired, clean shaven Amritpal Singh who was running a transport business barely a year ago to a preacher with a flowing beard and an army openly brandishing weapons also raises many questions. What has changed suddenly?

How did Amritpal gain such a big following in six months? Whose patronage does he have to confront the state directly? Amritpal has allegedly even threatened Home Minister Amit Shah but it is baffling that a government who arrested Pawan Khera for mispronouncing the prime minister’s name has let this serious threat slide.

Since November carrying arms openly in Punjab has been prohibited, its implementation is for all to see. A state that is desperate for industry and investment will get neither if anarchy rules. Debt is at an all-time high making AAP’s freebies appealing but with gaping logic.

Unemployment meter has barely moved and 3 million Punjabis are on drugs making them unfit to even work. Jobless youth either migrate to Canada or stay behind in an environment ready-made for brainwashing by people like Amritpal Singh who are taking advantage of the socio-religious vacuum in panthic leadership.

Politics in Punjab is complex, AAP is yet to learn this and despite a clock ticking shows neither urgency or gives confidence. In the countdown to general elections vested interests will like to see Punjab destabilised.

Party’s relations with the centre too are at an all- time low with the governor holding the budget, a matter now in court. In these trying times, centre too needs to think beyond politics.

Once again Punjab finds itself at crossroads, Bhagwant Mann needs to act before Amritpal Singh taking a leaf from the past, thinks he too is untouchable. The people of Punjab have paid with blood once and know what they don’t want.