False Prophet

Amritpal’s sudden rise follows a script from Punjab’s past

Amritpal Singh (centre), at the Golden Temple, in Punjab’s Amritsar city, on 30 October 2022. Amritpal returned to India in August, after a decade in Dubai. In the short period since his return, he has anointed himself a saviour of the Sikh community and become the most visible proponent of the demand for Khalistan. Narinder NANU / AFP / Getty Images
01 March, 2023

It was around 2 pm on the afternoon of 23 February. A contingent of the Punjab Police, almost eight hundred strong and armed with lathis, stood behind barricades placed outside the Ajnala Police Station, near Amritsar. On the other side, a crowd of equal size was gathering. Scores among them were armed with kirpans, flanking a converted bus that held a palki sahib—a consecrated seat for the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Walking alongside the vehicle, surrounded by men armed with rifles, was Amritpal Singh, a 30-year-old self-styled preacher. He had been travelling up and down the state for the past six months, calling for the establishment of Khalistan, an independent state for Sikhs, and urging a return to Sikh orthodoxy, which he often redefined on his own terms. 

Within minutes, the front line of the crowd, which had several Nihang Sikhs, an armed warrior order, broke down the barricades and pushed towards the police station. Media footage shows the police moving to the sides and giving way to the crowd accompanying the bus without any resistance. Simultaneously, Amritpal and his armed gunmen moved behind the bus, using it as a shield as they pushed towards the police station. Soon, the crowd surrounding the bus attacked the police, who, again, did not retaliate. At least six police personnel, including a superintendent, were injured in the melee. Amritpal and his supporters then occupied the station for the next several hours, using a microphone to give speeches from inside and to address the media thronging the site. The bus remained parked outside the station and the police stood on the side lines. 

The trigger for the incident was a first-information report filed at the Ajnala Police Station on 16 February that named Amritpal, five of his supporters and around twenty other unnamed persons, in a case of kidnapping and assault. The case was filed by Varinder Singh, a preacher associated with the Damdami Taksal (Ajnala), a Sikh seminary. Varinder supported Amritpal earlier but had recently fallen out with him and his group, Waris Punjab De, a socio-political organisation. Two days later, the police detained Amritpal’s associate Lovepreet Singh, known by the alias Toofan, in connection with the FIR, even as the preacher roamed free for days.  

Between 22 and 25 February, Amritpal gave several interviews and speeches offering different versions of why he and his supporters descended on the police station. In some, Amritpal claimed he was going to court arrest and that he had told the police that he would lead a peaceful procession for the same. In others, he claimed that Lovepreet was innocent of the charges, that the police tortured him in custody and that Waris Punjab De came to secure their associate’s release.