Jaskaran Sandhu: Amritpal Singh’s Journey Has Just Begun
“People are not just built to work nine to five and pursue materialism. There is something greater we have to fulfill..."
January 18, 2023 | 15 min. read | Original Reporting
It took a couple of hours of phone tag before getting a hold of Amritpal Singh for our scheduled interview earlier this month. A meeting brokered by mutual acquaintances between Punjab and Canada. He has become an incredibly busy man, highly in demand by Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike around the world, as he wrapped up the first phase of his Khalsa Vaheer tour. He had been suddenly invited to a Nagar Kirtan, and he would now get back to me on the drive home, after spending some time with the local Sangat.
On standby, I remained.
It has been approximately ten months since our last sit down with Amritpal Singh, courtesy of Sandeep Singh, but it feels much longer than that now, considering how much has changed. A lot of what was discussed then felt abstract at the time, hypotheticals, as none of us knew how things would play out at Waris Punjab De (WPD) post-Deep Sidhu. For many, Amritpal Singh was a curiosity. For most, the interactions with him were limited to fiery debates on apps like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.
While there will always be more to explore about Amritpal Singh, the man, what he plans to do in the Panthic space, although continuously evolving, is now much less left to speculation.
We finally begin our interview.
“Everybody likes attention,” he shares when I ask him if he is surprised by the buzz he has been generating over the last few months, “but to be honest, I was always private in my life.”
There is a humility in his voice, even when it is soaked in self-assuredness.
“It is weird, the personal attention,” he continues, introspecting some more, “but I appreciate it because of what it brings to the cause,” making clear that he could care less about the personal glory. Although, I find it hard to believe after our conversation that he does not, at the very least, find it amusing, if not bewildering.
“My life is not mine anymore. I do not want a private life. I will sacrifice everything I have for the people trusting me now.”
He is self-aware of where he finds himself in the Sikh world. It is difficult to think of someone else rising the way he has over the last two decades or so, which is probably one of a few reasons why he is also often compared to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (Sant Ji) - a topic we explore later in our conversation.
“It is not explainable,” he opens up, as I prod him some more on what it is about him that caused the groundswell he explains he is experiencing.
With the attention and excitement, comes big expectations. A casual search of social media feeds, hashtags, and keywords, as well as inquiries with folks on the ground, all present the same results. Many are incredibly supportive of Amritpal Singh, which he believes makes “the responsibility” he owes the Panth even greater.
“There was a huge vacuum,” he replies when I ask him why he believes people are so intrigued by what he has to say. However, he is adamant that he will not take credit for the early success, squarely putting the response he has received to “Hukam.”
Others have come before him, but none have achieved this type of following so quickly, I note.
“There are many active people in Punjab, saying similar things to me. People have gone to jail, made sacrifices," he responds.
His family is happy for the path he has taken but is scared as well for what it means in a country with documented arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial murder of Sikhs - especially outspoken ones.
“My family always thought I was a little weird growing up,” he shares, “they would have been surprised if I led a normal life.”
Family always finds a way to worry, I think out loud, but how does he personally feel about his safety and security, I ask.
“I am not scared. But I do feel there is a constant threat to my life, and those working with me.”
“One thing we operate with is that we can die any day. We can be arrested at any time.”
What does state surveillance look like for someone talking about the things he does, the way he does? Even though he could not predict the scale of it, he knew they would be paying attention to him and his accomplices.
“Wherever we go, they send numerous policemen to watch us. They don't say anything or interrupt, but they are keeping a close watch. All agencies are very active. They are going to every village, trying to check my history in Dubai, even in Georgia, even though I only spent two months there. The surveillance is unimaginable. But it is not a threat, it is a part of life.”
It gets me thinking. Why would the Indian state put itself through all that hassle when they could have just arrested him when he landed back in India? Sikhs have been detained for much less, including those that are citizens of India, like Amritpal Singh, and those that are not.
“I was ready to be arrested in Amritsar when I landed, but they didn't. They interrogated me for hours when I came, but they let me go,” he responds.
“When I came [back to India], they had two options, arrest me and make a scene [or let me go]. They didn't [arrest me] because they thought I would go to Punjab, I would do some speeches, and people wouldn't accept me as a leader. But what happened is, everything changed so quickly and drastically that they now can’t do anything after the fact.”
The Indian state underestimated the whole situation and is not as familiar with ground realities as some may believe they are, he suggests. Hoping he would immediately fail on his accord was their failure.
“If the Indian government knew it would get this big this fast, they would have definitely arrested me,” Amritpal Singh shares.
He partly believes India thought he would behave like some diaspora actors that may advocate outside India, but once inside, tone down out of fear. Or, in the alternative, India thought Punjabis would see Amritpal Singh as an outsider, unaware that while he may have been living in Dubai for work, most of his life, network, and upbringing are in Punjab.
“Sometimes we overestimate [the Indian state’s] strength in understanding phenomena. [Authorities] are just human beings on the payroll. They do not understand Guru Sahibs Kirpa.”
It makes sense when looking at the reactive steps India has taken since Amritpal Singh’s rise to fame in Punjab, including censoring multiple social media accounts.
He believes the Indian state is becoming increasingly worried about the following he is generating. “They are in a confused state,” Amritpal muses, explaining that the Indian government has demanded some media houses not to cover him, and others to wage misinformation campaigns.
The information war is now being fought.
“Bhindranwale 2.0” headlines have been dominating the coverage so far, which irks Amritpal Singh.
He recollects about a journalist from an Indian outlet coming to write about him when he first arrived. The whole hoopla had not started yet, and he was still travelling with a skeleton crew of one or two individuals. The journalist would live in the same village as Amritpal Singh for two days and followed them wherever they went.
“We told them if you going to do the same thing as everyone else and just say ‘Amritpal Singh is Bhindranwale 2.0’ then just stop, and don't follow us,” he continues, “but if you are doing an honest breakdown of the kind of people coming to us, the problems they have, and our solutions, then okay.”
Ultimately, the journalist did not keep true to their word, and the article was anchored on now-predictable Bhindranwale 2.0 themes.
“Godi media has a duty to bash me, with nonsense and no logic,” he explains, “[both left and right-leaning media] don't understand Punjab, they don't understand Sikhi, they don't get it. They say religion can be secondary, but for us, it cannot.”
In the end, an attempt is being made to manufacture consensus around the alleged violent state of Punjab that will allow or excuse future state-sponsored violence against Sikhs, he believes.
“When you project this idea that nobody is safe in Punjab, it will make it easy to take some military action against me or commit genocide,” Amritpal Singh explains, “there are already pre-existing genocidal impulses in the majority. They just need some sort of justification to do it.”
He clearly does not want to talk about "Bhindranwale 2.0" all that much, tired of the constant comparisons made between him and Sant Ji. There is a frustration of sorts when I push on it, but at the same time, it is obvious we have to talk about it. The speeches, the similar visuals, and the chatter both within and outside the Sikh community are all too constant for us not to dive into the topic, albeit from a Sikh perspective.
“There are two types of people,” Amritpal Singh begins, jumping to the first group, “we have this crisis of leadership after Sant Ji, and [some Sikhs] hope that I fulfil that gap. I do not believe in that. I might have filled some gaps, but I am not able to compare myself to Sant Ji.”
“Then there are others,” he begins, discussing the second group, “comparing me to Sant Ji to start some criticism or propaganda against me.”
The Indian national media has been fixated on the comparison, with multiple stories across all mediums discussing it to no end, often coupled with stories about Punjab’s “law and order problem” - with a not-so-subtle gesture towards the Sikh community.
“Sant Ji is our leader, [however] he was not our first or last leader,” Amritpal adds, “people will come and serve the community, and do everything for what we need as a community.”
Many argue that some of the similarities have to be, at the very least, intentional. However, Amritpal Singh is adamant that his style has never changed, and while inspired by him, he is not attempting to mimic Sant Ji. Any similarities are, at most, accidental or coincidental.
“We are not trying to copy anything. People think we are operating with big plans. We are not planning anything.”
There is one actual similarity, Amritpal Singh suggests, that no one has picked up on. He is encouraging Sikhs to take Amrit, and walk a religious path that is not decoupled from politics. He believes this has not happened to the scale it is now for a very long time, perhaps not since Sant Ji. And, while many may not realize it, this is why the two feel so similar.
“Deep Sidhu was a great leader, but he couldn't do much on the religious aspect,” Amritpal Singh shares, speaking about the founder of WPD, and one of his early mentors, “politically, he did very well, and he raised issues. But he was not in a position to say, ‘let's follow the religion,’ and ‘let's take Amrit and keep kesh.’ He had a wish to, but he wasn't doing it at [the point of his death].”
It did not dawn on me until he made the point either, that a lot of what we are seeing from Amritpal Singh is religiously driven. It is, at its core, the reason why all of this feels familiar, beyond attire and geography. It seems so obvious now, that what irks his critics outside of the Sikh community is this drive to reconnect Sikhs to Sikhi. We saw seeds of this during the Farmers' Protest, and it threatens the establishment, as a whole new cohort of Sikhs begins to disrupt the status quo after arguably years of community stagnation.
“I had two options,” Amritpal Singh begins again, on the same theme, “come to Punjab and do politically motivated actions [or move beyond that]. The crisis I was looking at, like the drug crisis, and then the migration [out of Punjab] as a fashion - even the people that can live here do not want to [stay as they follow others out to the West] - but a political movement cannot solve those issues. Maybe short term they could, but not long term. If we want a long-term solution, we need to work from a religious lens.”
“If we strengthen our religious foundation, then the political will follow. We cannot separate the two as Sikhs.”
Referring back to his interrogation at the airport when he landed, the security officials asked him what he was planning to do in Punjab. Amritpal Singh had not really thought it entirely through at the time, but he understood that his mission would start with Amrit and end with Amrit.
“That became the main thing of our movement.”
Electoral politics has no place in that movement though, saving it from the usual pitfalls that some advocacy efforts take in India.
“We will never enter electoral politics. Too many limitations there and people will be disappointed when you naturally cannot deliver. Entering this system on our own is stupid.”
The tone in which he has pushed that movement forward has spooked the establishment. He gives two early examples, which were immediate tests of how much ground support he actually had.
Loudly calling on Sikhs to stop Christian missionaries from entering villages, for example, caused some early pushback. There is a fear complex of sorts amongst Sikhs, Amritpal Singh suggests, that stops them from criticizing non-Sikh actors in Punjab, even when forces at play are undermining the community. He refused to back down from the call, and he believes it has had a “big impact on the ground, with villagers now stopping missionaries from entering.”
The second test was Amritpal Singh calling on Sikhs to give their heads to the Guru, garnering a sharp reaction from older Sikh actors.
“In the establishment, they told me to back down [from telling Sikhs to give their heads to the Guru], but [instead say that we should be] giving our mind in Gurus feet. I said no, I am not backing down. You give your head and mind.”
While the external pushback from Indian actors is, at its core, predictable, and easier to combat across clear lines, the internal criticism coming from the Sikh and Punjabi establishment requires some discussion.
We would be dishonest if we did not touch upon community perspectives, some of which find Amritpal Singh controversial. I put to him how there have been various voices, whether we agree with them or not, that have criticized his style, rhetoric, and visuals.
How does he address such criticisms?
“I don't give a damn about [the establishment]. They are irrelevant to Sikhs,” Amritpal Singh makes clear, laying out a paradigm of the establishment elite versus everyone else.
“[Many in the establishment] are just trying to please the central government and the majority to keep themselves safe. The only thing that can protect them is the central government. They are on duty to speak against me.”
While he has been tempted to get into a back-and-forth with some of them, he has restrained himself, instead extending an invitation for everyone to come to speak to him face to face as he travels Punjab.
“I do not even reply to them now. Initially, I thought I would, but I made this policy that I won't answer them, or even acknowledge them.”
Amritpal Singh believes this frustrates them more than anything else, as he paints a picture of ground realities being different than what is being presented in some of the chattering classes.
“On the ground, the community is very supportive of what we have set out to do, things like removing chairs in Gurdwaras,” he continues, “it is against Maryada. On social media, on TV, and elsewhere, people are debating with each other about what we are doing. I don’t give a damn.”
The chairs in Gurdwaras debate has generated one of the more iconic visuals of Amritpal Singh’s Khalsa Vaheer tour, as videos circulated of his supporters pulling out luxurious-looking chairs and sofas and breaking them on the streets. It was not a planned action and only came as a result of Amritpal Singh falling upon them after being invited to the Gurdwara at the behest of locals.
“I am not the kind of person to project violence everywhere,” he shares, describing his reaction to the videos of his supporters destroying chairs, “but I am also not going to back down, I do support those people that did it.”
Amritpal Singh believes the chairs in Gurdwaras are a symptom of another issue - “elites” and the “very rich” “manipulating Sikhi as they want.”
They do not care about Maryada, Amritpal Singh suggests, and feels that one of the reasons why that episode attracted the ire of some Sikhs was because they felt offended that someone like him, relatively uneducated and self admittedly not as well read, could enter their spaces and disrupt them.
“It is all about the ego. [the elite] do not want to hear it from me.”
Where do others in the Sikh establishment fit in all of this, then? There are Panthic actors in those spaces, that may be sympathetic to what Amritpal Singh is doing and saying, and while elite in a sense, they are not the type of folks that would fight him on sofas in Gurdwaras.
“They are scared,” Amritpal Singh tells me.
“Everyone is staying a bit away from me,” he continues, “they are kind of just watching. They think we are going too fast to wherever we are going, and it is not going to end well.”
He does not believe he is getting open support from many within Sikh institutions, and part of that likely has to do with his desire to disrupt many of those spaces as well. That includes the SGPC, an organization that needs reform at the top, according to Amritpal Singh.
The culture of “sifarish”, or getting work done through personal connections, runs rife throughout Sikh institutions, he claims, undermining the work they could be doing. People are drawing economic benefits from these organizations, diluting the efforts of Seva, which is a core part of the Sikh psyche.
This expands to Sikh politics as well, Amritpal Singh believes. The Badal's iron grip on the Akalis has done little to benefit Sikh causes, referring to Simranjit Singh Mann as doing the actual work of upholding Akali ethos.
“Individual persons are taking control of Sikh institutions, and taking personal economic benefits from it,” Amritpal Singh laments, “we cannot let this happen anymore. We have warned the SGPC that they have to listen to Sangat.”
He believes that elections under the current system cannot save Sikh institutions. The system is broken. Replacing one set of management with another does not solve the problems before these bodies.
“It is not about taking power from someone's hands that is evil and then giving it to another person that can become evil,” Amritpal Singh states.
In the end, the real solution is restoring Akal Takht’s freedom, he suggests.
“Even if we cannot free the SGPC, at least we should think about, and start working towards, freeing the Akal Takht from SGPC. The Akal Takht is not an organization that should be controlled by some gurdwara management committee.”
The Akal Takht needs to be able to fearlessly challenge Sikh bodies if they make a mistake. But that is impossible with the way the structures exist now, he shares.
It is getting late now as we begin to wrap up our interview.
He shares how the second phase of the Khalsa Vaheer will begin shortly, after weather conditions clear up. Amritpal Singh and his team are becoming better organized, thinking more medium and long-term as the dust settles on their initial foray into Punjab. Encouraging Sikhs to take Amrit will continue to be the focal point of their efforts.
So, where does this all go, I ask, highlighting that the topic of Khalistan and Sikh sovereignty has underpinned a lot of what has been said and done so far.
“People are not just built to work nine to five and pursue materialism. There is something greater we have to fulfill,” he begins while highlighting that we are now the third generation since 1984 and the product of parents that stopped talking about it in lieu of more worldly pursuits, “general goals, like getting a house and a car, was a big deal for our elders. But this does not excite [the next generation] anymore.”
As for the diaspora, he feels that they can “freely advocate and speak about these issues outside India,” which has the impact of bringing up a generation that may not understand everything about Sikhi, “but do understand the idea of sovereignty.”
Amritpal Singh believes these conversations, his popularity, and the general discourse on the ground in Punjab are all part of a natural process that will “either give us sovereignty” or our next generation “a cause to fight for.”
As for what his personal path will bring next, he shares that he will continue to live in hukam as he travels Punjab, and eventually beyond.
“Even if a fool like me remembers God, he is blessed.”
Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Strategist at the public affairs and relations agency State Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_
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