A mysterious man from Dubai became a charismatic leader in Punjab within the space of months. In late February, his supporters stormed a police station in broad daylight—as he openly spouted separatist rhetoric. Yet the state government refused to say a word against him—and the union government claimed total ignorance of his background. Just weeks later, the same officials have launched a massive manhunt for Singh—claiming he is a dangerous Pakistan-funded extremist. What changed?
Remind me about this Amritpal…
We did a detailed Big Story on him back in February, but here’s a quick refresher.
The back story: Amritpal was born in Jallupur Khaira in Amritsar district—and completed his schooling in the village. He moved to Dubai in 2012 to work as a dispatcher for the family transportation business. He is just 30 years old.
The dizzying rise: Amritpal moved back to Punjab and burst into the public eye in a spectacular fashion. Within months, he took over as the chief of Waris Punjab De—an activist organisation founded by now deceased Deep Sidhu—the actor best known for getting into trouble with the police during the farmer protests.
The Khalistani rhetoric: While Sidhu’s family claims he has no ties to Sidhu or the organisation, Amritpal was anointed his successor in an elaborate ceremony in the village of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale—the leader of the Punjab insurgency in the 1980s. Amritpal too started spouting blatantly separatist views—challenging India’s “colonial rule” over Punjab.
The storming of Ajnala PS: On February 23, Amritpal shot into the national spotlight when his supporters—armed with lathis, guns and swords—took over a police station. They staged a dharna demanding the release of one of his lieutenants, Lovepreet Singh. He was charged along with Amritpal and others with kidnapping.
What was shocking: The police made no attempt to fight back—even though a number of personnel were injured—and police vehicles were burned. They also tamely set Lovepreet free—and promised to set up a special investigation to look into the FIR against Amritpal and his aides.
A pointed silence: Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann did not speak out against Amritpal. Even the union government claimed it had no idea who was orchestrating his meteoric rise. Many were perplexed by the union government’s attitude towards Amritpal. Despite the red flags raised by the storming of the police station—in a sensitive border state—the government insisted it will take a “wait and watch” stance.
Ok, what happened now?
On Saturday, the Punjab police suddenly sprang into action—and launched a statewide crackdown on Amritpal and his supporters. They arrested 78 members of the Waris Punjab De organisation—and four of his close aides have been flown to Assam to prevent a repeat of the Ajnala siege. But a number of elements of this operation are a bit puzzling.
The big plan: Indian Express is awash with reports based on unnamed “sources”—who claim that there was a plan to arrest Amritpal that was put in place two weeks ago. Apparently, both the ruling AAP party and the union government were united in their determination to nab Amritpal—contrary to public appearances. But neither wanted to move before the G20 summit in Delhi.
The great escape: On February 28, the Punjab government sought the support of 120 companies of central paramilitary forces from the Home ministry. They were dispatched on March 3. On Saturday afternoon, all internet services were suspended in Punjab. And security personnel were posted along a route that Amritpal was expected to take:
The entire operation was kept under wraps. The strong police presence was passed off as normal as Amritpal had to address two functions on Saturday and Sunday, at Rampura Phul and Muktsar respectively.
And yet, Amritpal escaped—and with astonishing ease. One version claims that the police were “spotted” by one of the cars in his convoy—which alerted Amritpal. He blithely abandoned his vehicle, jumped into another one and fled. NDTV has the same drama—but it involves a motorbike.
Where is Amritpal? While the police claim that Amritpal is still on the run, a High Court petition filed by Waris Punjab De’s legal advisor insists that he’s been illegally detained—and is being held in police custody. Some overseas Sikh organisations are also raising concerns about his human rights. More worryingly, Amritpal’s uncle has been sharing this story on online Punjabi channels:
I was with Amritpal were in same car. We were stopped on a police check post. We thought that police wanted to stop us from going to Muktsar for starting Khalsa Vaneer. I came out of car and asked Police why they are stopping us. Police didn’t answer. Amritpal was not in the car when I came back. Amritpal and two security person with him were not in the car. I have seen some videos and believe that he has been arrested or he has been (killed) in encounter.
Why this matters: As long as there is no clarity on his whereabouts, the police will either be accused of covering up an illegal arrest—or of being too incompetent to find and arrest the man.
What about the Khalistan angle?
After pleading ignorance just weeks ago, government sources have a full-blown narrative that casts Amritpal as a Pakistani agent. Here’s how it goes:
Back in Dubai: In 2012, when he went to Dubai to work at his family business, Amritpal was recruited by Khalistani extremists—linked to banned Sikh groups located in Pakistan. They hooked Amritpal up with the ISI—which offered him money to revive the Khalistan movement in Punjab. These Khalistanis—based in Dubai and UK—engineered his meteoric rise in the state.
The allegations: Amritpal used the ISI money to launch the grassroots Khalsa Vaheer campaign. The stated aim of this months-long yatra was to wean young Sikh men from drug addiction and bring them back to the religious fold. But the government claims it was all a ruse to recruit them into extremism: “In reality this march was supposed to include supporters sporting automatic weapons and ammunition and spread Amritpal’s ideas of Khalistan.” They would also expand the numbers of Amritpal’s alleged private army the Anandpur Khalsa Force (AKF).
The evidence: “Investigating agencies” claim that they have discovered Rs 350 million (35 crore) transferred from foreign sources in the bank account of one of Amritpal’s aides. He also received calls from around 24 Pakistani phone numbers. And then there are videos:
Sources in the agencies said they have found certain videos in which Amritpal’s close aides travelling in his cavalcade were seen carrying weapons bearing the AKF logo. Many were wearing stoles bearing AKF logos. They were seen saying they were not bothered about criminal cases that could be slapped on them by the police, the sources said.
An odd side-story: There is also some noise about a multi-level marketing organisation—Tirumalla Tirupati Multi State Cooperative Credit Society—being part of a laundering scheme to channel drug money. But it isn’t clear how any of this connects to ISI funding. But officials seem to be inching towards accusing Amritpal of also being a drug kingpin. Some claim there’s been an increase in the number of drones carrying drugs from across the border since his arrival in Punjab.
The bottomline: Despite Amritpal’s escape, AAP sources insist the entire operation was a “police master stroke”—leaving Amritpal looking weak and fearful. These grand claims are easy to make as long as there is no backlash on the ground. The mood in Punjab is ugly—especially among the youth who feel let down by the political establishment. Let’s just hope Amritpal will soon be produced in the courts to stand for public trial. It is only a matter of time before the fugitive becomes a martyr.
Our Big Story has the best details on Amritpal and his rise to power. For more on the ISI angle, read Indian Express (paywall), Economic Times or India Today. Also in Indian Express: why the crackdown offers political relief for AAP.