In Punjab's Khadoor Sahib, resonance for Amritpal Singh, not his separatist ideology : The Tribune India

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In Punjab's Khadoor Sahib, resonance for Amritpal Singh, not his separatist ideology

Pro-Khalistan activist is contesting Khadoor Sahib Lok Sabha constituency as an Independent candidate.

In Punjab's Khadoor Sahib, resonance for Amritpal Singh, not his separatist ideology

Poll office of Khadoor Sahib Independent candidate Amritpal Singh at Jallupur Khera in Amritsar. Malkiat Singh



Jupinderjit Singh & Gurbaxpuri

Khadoor Sahib, May 17

Smoke blankets the Delhi-Amritsar national highway as farmers boldly set wheat stubble ablaze on both sides. The haze thickens as one turns from Rayya town toward Jallupur Khera — the native village of pro-Khalistan activist and National Security Act (NSA) detainee in Dibrugarh Jail, Assam — Amritpal Singh. He is now contesting the Khadoor Sahib Lok Sabha constituency as an Independent candidate.

Destination NDA: A milestone at Khadoor Sahib gurdwara.

Despite the smoke, there seems to be no haze in the minds of voters in this belt of the constituency. At Nijjar village (not of slain Canadian pro-Khalistan leader Hardeep Nijjar), just short of Jallupur Khera, a large board on a gurdwara announces: “This village wholeheartedly supports Amritpal in the elections. Other parties should refrain from seeking votes here.”

Adjacent to the gurdwara, a wheat field has turned black after being set on fire to “cleanse” it of stubborn wheat stems for the next crop. However, caught in the cross-flames of this “cleansing” process is a mango tree. Its branches and leaves are badly burnt, and it won’t bear fruit this season. That reminds one of the lingering question: Could innocents, especially the youth, once again become victims in the crossfire if Amritpal and his team gain prominence? Memories of Amritpal leading a weapon-wielding mob to Ajnala police station in February 2023 to free his supporters remain fresh. In that same month, he openly supported “Khalistan”, asserting that Sikhs need not demand it from anyone.

“No, it’s not about Khalistan,” says 72-year-old Surjit Singh of Gagdewal village, passing by on his bike. “The government has unfairly locked him up,” he adds. “Here, everyone wants to vote for Amritpal, especially the youth. Although old folks like me may stick to our traditional choices — the Congress or Akalis — I can’t say for sure. Perhaps I’ll vote for him too.”

Jallupur Khera is a wealthy village with cement houses and no kucha kotha (poor house), although the main approach road is all stone and sand. A vehicle of an election observer makes a round of the village at slow speed trying to negotiate the sharp stones that threaten to stab his car tyres. Candidate Amritpal’s election office operates from the house of his maternal uncle, Sukhchain Singh, a retired Punjab Police inspector. The office has less than 10 persons, who continue to belong mostly to the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), which is led by Sangrur MP Simranjit Singh Mann, a pro-Khalistan idealogue.

Amritpal’s parents, Tarsem Singh and mother Balwinder Kaur, were not at home or in the office when The Tribune reached the village; they are out, accompanying Mann for the filing of his nomination papers in Sangrur. Mann insists that “the narrative of Khalistan is wrong and spread by rivals.”

Sukhchain Singh brushes aside the talk of Khalistan with a smile. “It is a false narrative. Amritpal was only trying to cleanse the society of drugs. And he wanted the youth to become baptised Sikhs. I am a police officer. I abide by Indian law,” he adds.

Harmanjit Singh, an ex-serviceman and resident of the village, is part of Amritpal’s campaign team. “I am an Indian soldier. We are not for separatism,” he tells The Tribune. The comparison with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the former religious leader who held the state to ransom during the 1980s, is both inevitable but superficial. Political observers point out that a largely agrarian economy which is reaching the end of its tether in many ways is once again looking for deliverance. Amritpal’s secessionist rhetoric is attractive, these observers admit, but empty.

Former Director-General of Police SS Virk, who was in the forefront of countering terrorism in the 1980s, told The Tribune: “The state government will have to watch his activities. Earlier, Bhindranwale was allowed to grow out of proportion. The government has burnt its fingers once and that experience cannot be repeated.

DGP, Intelligence, Rajinder Singh, who also has a great deal of experience of those years in Punjab, adds: “The pattern emerging with Amritpal contesting the elections needs careful watch. There is a crisis of leadership in the state. People in general are in favour of the rule of law. I hope the democratic process is not misused.”

Back in Khadoor Sahib, Sarbjit Singh, the sarpanch of Khanpur village near Baba Bakala, serves as the halqa incharge of the SAD-Amritsar faction. Previously associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), he has now brought a local BJP leader — formerly the head of the Backward Class wing of the party — into Amritpal’s campaign.

Sarbjit’s motivation is clear: “I want to fight against drug abuse. No party is addressing this issue because they have all become partners with smugglers. Only Amritpal is actively combating it.”

Khadoor Sahib’s SAD candidate Virsa Singh Valtoha is most vocal about Amritpal. He, clearly, realises that if there is one candidate who will undercut his vote it is this Sikh candidate on the extreme right. “Amritpal only has supporters on social media. Many are supporting him from abroad or fake IDs,” a derisive Valtoha tells this reporter.

Amidst the heat and dust of the election campaign, the burning issues in the state, besides the ongoing struggle with drug addiction, is the release of Bandi Sikhs — Sikh political prisoners who were jailed because they once participated in terror activities, but have remained incarcerated for years without the glimmer of bail. Sukhchain emphasises this cause.

Soon enough, the story accumulates a twist. The family of Gurdeep Singh Khera, a Bandi Sikh, opposes Amritpal. “He never visited our house. If he genuinely sought the release of Sikh prisoners, he should have started from our home,” says Khera’s wife, Gurjit Kaur.

The dichotomy becomes even more pronounced at the Khadoor Sahib Gurdwara. A big flex poster of Amritpal hangs near the entry gates, like it does in a variety of other religious places and education institutions in the constituency. Inside the gurdwara, this reporter spotted a curious milestone, painted in white and saffron, which pointed to the National Defence Academy, 1857 km away in Pune.

The gurdwara runs a military training institute and has recently started an IAS training institute. “Punjabis, of all caste and communities, have valour in their blood. What better than to serve the motherland in police and Army. The milestone is a constant reminder to our students about their aim. More than 20 have made it to the NDA, besides 600 males and females have joined the Punjab Police,” Baba Sewa Singh said.

The Hindu community remains wary. The agitation in Punjab, when pro-Khalistan terrorists targeted the Hindu community is 40 years old, but the inherited memories of those awful years keep them fresh. In Tarn Taran, “arhtiyas” or farming middlemen, say Amritpal is a threat to peace. Satish Kumar, Rakesh Kumar and Visvanath unequivocally tell The Tribune Amritpal’s politics is “unacceptable in a civilised state”.

They will not vote for him, they add. “Moreover, he has no right to seek votes and he doesn’t accept the Indian Constitution,” say the three men. Herein lies the rub. Several political observers based in Chandigarh say that even though Amritpal’s stated politics, in theory, is the demand for a separate state carved out of India, the fact that he is participating in the elections means that he has signed the oath to abide by the Indian Constitution.

But a former senior police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was not so sanguine. “Hardliners have earlier too used elections in the country to suit their own purpose. They try to keep the separatist movement alive and radicalise some youths. Community elders should ask them to drop the demand of Khalistan if they are seeking votes,” he said.

#Khadoor Sahib #Lok Sabha


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