Amritsar, Punjab: Fugitive pro-Khalistan Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh Sandhu is now under arrest. After the 37-day-long, Sandhu on Sunday surrendered before the law enforcement agencies soon after delivering a speech at a Gurdwara in Rode hamlet of Moga district in Punjab.
Who is Amritpal Singh Sandhu? Why is he creating headlines?
The village where Amritpal Singh Sandhu delivered a speech is also known as Bhindranwale Village. Sandhu admires Bhindranwale. He stands accused of being a pro-Khalistan preacher. On his part, the Sikh leader has argued that if Hindus demand a Hindu Rashtra why can’t Sikhs demand a separate homeland for Sikhs.
Why is Amritpal Singh Sandhu in the news? Why was he on the run? Why was the fugitive Sikh preacher evading arrest in Punjab?
Hardly anyone knew about Amritpal Singh Sandhu until he began setting a narrative on the Clubhouse, a popular social network based on voice media, in mid-2021. Though he did not openly endorse creation of Khalistan during his early Clubhouse (chat room) conversations, there were signs that he was using social media to gain prominence. He was pitch forked by social media as an alternative voice for the Sikh community in polarised Punjab region.
On Facebook, Sandhu has been espousing the cause of Khalistan for quite some time. “Why is it wrong for a Sikh to demand Khalistan if Hindus asking for a Hindu Rashtra go unpunished,” Sandhu said in multiple media interviews. In his speeches, the leader would often stoke passions while talking about the alleged atrocities against the Sikh community in Punjab, especially during the rule of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s.
During the COVID19 pandemic, Sandhu shot into prominence as one of the voices in favour of the Sikhs and someone who would carry forward the legacy of a well-known actor and activist, Deep Sidhu, who was heading an outfit by the name ‘Waris Punjab De’. Sidhu died in a road accident in February 2022. Though he never met Sidhu in person, Sandhu claimed being in touch with the Sikh leader through online interactions. By his own admission during several interviews, Sandhu said he was deeply influenced by Sidhu and wanted to model himself on him. In a way, Sandhu tried to fill in the boots of the deceased. After the passing away of Sidhu, this young preacher took over as head of ‘Waris Punjab De’ in an online ceremony.
On Sidhu’s first death anniversary, Amritpal Singh Sandhu stopped trimming his hair apparently on the late actor’s advice. On September 25 last year, Sandhu went through a formal Sikh baptism at Anandpur Sahib to become an Amritdhari Sikh followed by a ritual of Dastarbandi to continue the legacy of late Jarnail Singh Bindharnwale, a Sikh leader who stood for a separate territory for the Sikhs.
The new avatar took place within months—from a clean shaven man to the one sporting flowing beard and dressed like late Bindhranwale. This is exactly when Sandhu overtly voiced his support for Khalistan. Some of his supporters used the hashtag #ISupportAmritpalSingh to lend credence to a renewed pro-Khalistan political narrative.
The 30-year-old radical preacher Amritpal Singh Sandhu, accused of reviving pro-Khalistan separatist movement in Punjab— is now in the custody of the Punjab police. The Punjab police launched a massive manhunt to nab the fugitive activist. He shot into the limelight when he came in support of the recent farmers’ agitation.
Along the way, Sandhu courted many controversies. He has been a smart operator by lending tacit support for the creation of Khalistan on the one hand, but also not opposing the assembly elections in Punjab. Ambiguity is the name of the game when it comes to Sandhu, he does not spell out his vision for Khalistan perhaps with the aim to escape scrutiny. But the leader is also known for changing goalposts.
Sandhu earned notoriety for gathering his sword-wielding supporters some of whom favour a separate state and identity for the Sikhs of the Punjab region.
Born in Amritsar’s Jallupor Khera hamlet in 1993, he did his matriculation and 10+2 in Punjab and left his mechanical engineering studies mid-way. In 2012, he left for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he began managing his family’s transport business. He returned to Delhi on separate occasions in 2013, 2016 and 2019. In 2022, he eventually returned to India permanently.
In an interview with BOOM, just days before police swung into action against the Sikh leader, he said that, like many other youths in Punjab, he too went outside to find better opportunities. Recalling the horrors of 1984 violence, he argued that the youth in Punjab prefer moving to countries like Canada, United States of America, United Arab Emirates, and various parts of Europe because “there is deep dissatisfaction against the state among the aspiring youth in Punjab”. His proximity with Deep Sidhu, the Sikh leader further claimed in the interview happened when he came into contact with Sidhu towards the end of 2020 through telephonic conversations. “My conversations with Deep Sidhu set the tone for forming our organisation ‘Waris Punjab De’ (heir of Punjab). Our telephonic conversations and interactions on Clubhouse played a decisive role in cementing our organisational structure.”
The passing away of Sidhu in 2022, claimed Sandhu, left a huge void in leadership after which his name was proposed by many supporters and a 16-member core committee to lead the newly formed Sikh outfit. This organisation is deemed radical by the Indian government. Initially, Sandhu led the organisation from Dubai through his live interactions on social media and later, on his return from Georgia to India, he became a household name in Punjab. He had visited Georgia for an eye surgery, saying that the medical expenditures were bare minimum there.
People in Punjab remain divided over Sandhu’s emergence as a new Sikh leader. Some of his critics accuse him of being a pawn of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as his pro-Khalistan narrative would pave the way for creation of Hindu Rashtra in India. “On the ground, Sandhu does not enjoy massive support.