The manhunt for Indian Punjab’s Amritpal Singh has implications for Pakistan
The Indian State of Punjab has been in the news as the manhunt for the hard-line Sikh leader and Khalistan activist Amritpal Singh continues. Security has been heightened as thousands of paramilitary forces have been deployed in the state, which is home to nearly 30 million people. In order to comprehend the rapid rise of Amritpal Singh, one has to understand the political history of the Indian Punjab and the political and societal variables at play, with implications for the Pakistan-India bilateral relationship.
Being the land of the two holiest sites of Sikhism and a state that softened its border regime to provide Indian Sikhs with a pilgrimage corridor to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan has a stake in this situation and could diplomatically support some of the political and religious demands of the Sikh community.
Indian Punjab, the breadbasket of India and a critical recruitment ground for the Indian Armed Forces, has remained a vital part of the Indian federation. Nonetheless, the state, being home to a majority of Indian Sikhs has also experienced a strong current of separatism in the form of the Khalistan Movement. Under the charismatic leadership of Sikh Missionary Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala, the movement gained traction particularly in the rural parts of Indian Punjab in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. As the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi crushed the movement by military force, this led to a deterioration of security in the state and the prevalent law and order condition.
The political aftereffects of the 1980’s gradually dissipated but the fault lines uncovered never truly disappeared. As the Prime Minister Mod-led Indian Government introduced controversial farm laws, farmer unions in Punjab and other north Indian states rose in rebellion and initiated mobilization that resulted in farmer camps setup on borders of the Indian capital Delhi and on various motorways leading to the capital.
Being the land of the two holiest sites of Sikhism and a state that softened its border regime to provide Indian Sikhs with a pilgrimage corridor to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan has a stake in this situation.
This farmer agitation in Punjab had full support of the highest Sikh religious authority, the Akal Takht, and Sikh diaspora who contributed generously towards the cause. The eventual success of the farmers movement further dented the clout of traditional political players within the state paving way for the first electoral victory of Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the 2022 State elections. However, the new government’s dismal failure to make its mark in the governance domain has been evident within a short span of time further exacerbating the political alienation of the electorate.
It is in this backdrop that Amritpal Singh, the head of an outfit called “Waris Punjab De” heirs of Punjab emerged on the religio-political sphere of Indian Punjab. Singh has veritably pressed the nerve of Sikhs particularly in rural Punjab by focusing on issues of drug menace, the erosion of Sikh religious values, migration of non-Punjabis into Punjab and eventually the ultimate Sikh right for self-determination. Singh may eventually be caught but it will be difficult to suppress the new discourses disseminated by him.
The rise of Amritpal Singh, his charismatic demeanour and the revival of Sikh identity politics are likely to dominate Indian Punjab’s political fold. This may lead to a re-introduction of the securitized approach vis-à-vis Punjab from the Modi led ultra-nationalist and hindu-majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and to frame Singh’s cadre as terrorists. Such a course of events will brew further civil unrest. It is rather interesting to note that Pakistan and its security infrastructure which is often accused by India of interference in its internal affairs remains totally silent on these developments as the focus remains on internal power games. Pakistan’s decision makers need to understand that the developments across the border have strategic implications for the bilateral relationship.
There is still time for Pakistani political elites to develop a consensus on issues of a strategic nature and to respond to new political opportunities. This may help Pakistan regain some political leverage with regards to India, which has otherwise been lost due to the growth of the Indian economy and its position as a frontline state against China.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.