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Ominous dark clouds hover over Punjab

Supporters of pro-Khalistan Amritpal Singh attacking police in Ajnala on February 23

Thursday, February 23, 2023 would go down in the history of Punjab for the wrong kind of reasons – Police Station Ajnala, in district Amritsar was overrun by a violent hostile mob of thousands of rioters, who were brandishing swords, firearms, lathis and brickbats.

This came after an open ultimatum from Amritpal Singh, a self-styled, hardliner, a pro Khalistani, donning the garb of a crusader against drugs, who had openly challenged the authority of the State and the police by proclaiming that if his associates were not released within twenty hours, the police would be responsible for the consequences arising thereof.

Punjab Police is an iconic force of the country, and has been baptised by fire and is fully capable of handling such difficult situations.

Twenty-nine years old, Amritpal Singh, a 10 + 2 pass out and had a transport business in Dubai, and was a modern, clean-shaven young man. He reportedly left this business and came to India, and found himself catapulted to a position of remarkable importance, becoming the President of Waris Punjab De organization. Incidentally, the former head of this organisation, Deep Sidhu died in a road accident recently and his brother has alleged that this was not a case of a road accident but a murder.

Amritpal Singh is unambiguous and vociferous in his demand for the Sikh homeland, Khalistan. In this absurd pursuit, he seems to be actively supported by the banned organization, SFJ (Sikhs for Justice) and its fugitive head Gurpatwant Singh Pannu.

On arrival in Punjab, Amritpal started sporting a flowing beard and the traditional headgear, plus other sacred symbols of Sikhism. He toured Punjab extensively along with his large number of followers, carrying firearms and swords, preparing simultaneously, a road map to rise in the eyes of the youth of Punjab, by addressing several key social issues like demanding the release of all those arrested during the militancy of the 80s, under stringent laws, fighting the drug menace and generally acting like a Robinhood. He has tried to fill a vacuum, both social and political in Punjab.

Police station Ajnala is in Amritsar, which is a border district and extremely sensitive. Amritpal Singh managed to overwhelm the police there and coerce them to release his associate, Lovepreet Singh Toofan. The police personnel beat a hasty “tactical” retreat and Toofan was taken out in a huge procession with great fanfare.

The arguments given by the Punjab Police are most unconvincing, to say the least. It was stated that since the sacred Guru Granth Sahib was a part of the procession, the police therefore could not control the mob or use force against the rioters. But what prevented the police from taking action under the preventive sections of the law imposing Section 144 of the CrPC making preventive arrests, effective ban on carrying of firearms and swords etc. Getting adequate reinforcements and Central paramilitary forces to handle the ugly face-off effectively, but nothing like this was done and there seems to be a failure of both the state government and the police, who appeared to be dragging their feet and failed to take effective and meaningful steps to maintain peace and calm.

In the first place, if Toofan was arrested then he should have been dealt with as per law but to release him would look like a surrender, which does not augur well for the prestige and the morale of the Punjab Police. Furthermore, many police personnel were beaten up and barricades broken and it was almost a free for all kind of a situation which could have been professionally avoided.

The State Government maintained a sphinx-like silence and there was not a word of condemnation for the violence and the attack on the police station and police personnel. There are important lessons to be drawn from this administrative collapse. The intelligence antenna has to be ever so vigilant and effective so as to monitor every small social and criminal undercurrent and suitable and firm administrative action should be taken wherever and whenever required. The signal that has gone is that the anti-social elements and Amritpal can get away with anything. Terrorism in Punjab was contained and controlled after the supreme sacrifice of almost 36,000 lives; let that durable peace not slip out at the behest of a hostile neighbour and its rogue intelligence agency, the ISI.

It is well known that General Zia‘s K2 plan, (Kashmir and Khalistan) got a bloody nose in the 80s. Kashmir is well under control now, the failed state of Pakistan is hell bent to foment trouble in Punjab. Captain Amarinder Singh is on record to have said that Pakistan is already deploying heavy duty drones to supply drugs, counterfeit currency, and weapons to its supporters and agents, well inside Punjab because these drones have a capacity to fly around 45 kilometres.

The Government of India would do well to position paramilitary reserves in sensitive areas of Punjab so that timely reinforcements of men and material could be rushed in times of need, unlike what happened in Ajnala. Any replication of such an ugly incident is bound to have far reaching negative consequences. Sharing of intelligence at all levels is imperative and if any wing of the administration choses to be a silent spectator to this kind of violence and challenge the authority of the state, then the Constitutional provisions in respect of breakdown of Constitutional machinery must be put in place without any delay.

(Vikram Singh is a former Director General of Police of Uttar Pradesh. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)