Last week, hundreds of supporters of controversial self-styled preacher Amritpal Singh stormed a police station in the northern Indian state of Punjab, demanding the release of an arrested aide.
The mob of angry young men – many holding guns and swords – broke down barricades and only left the scene after getting an assurance that the aide would be released. Police officials later claimed that they had been unable to stop the crowd as they were carrying a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book venerated by Sikhs – as a shield.
The events propelled Singh – who is around 30 years old and says he supports the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh homeland – to national attention.
What also raised eyebrows was Singh’s appearance, which resembled that of the man he claims to draw inspiration from: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a preacher accused by the Indian government of leading an armed insurgency for a separate Sikh homeland in the 1980s. He was killed in the Indian army’s India setting controversial Operation Blue Star in 1984.
During the insurgency, which lasted about a decade, thousands of people lost their lives. These included prominent leaders and ordinary people targeted by insurgents, while many young Sikhs were killed in police operations – some of which Indian courts later ruled were staged. Punjab still bears the scars of that violence.
“What we are seeing in Punjab definitely forces you to think whether we are headed back to the dark era of militancy,” says Shashi Kant, a former director general of police in Punjab. “The atmosphere of fear is real.”
But some argue that Singh’s popularity has been blown out of proportion.
“Even though the sentiment of separatism never died down completely, it did lose popular support in the 1990s. Not everyone in the state supports people like Amritpal Singh and their demand for a violent movement. It is still a very small chunk of the population,” says Professor Parminder Singh, who teaches at the Guru Nanak Dev University in the state.
Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has also said that “everyone lives in harmony” in the state and that there is a “special bond” between communities despite attempts to destroy it.
“A thousand people don’t represent Punjab,” he said, referring to Singh’s supporters.
Not much is known about Singh’s early years. A resident of Jallupur Khera in Punjab’s Amritsar district, he moved to Dubai in 2012 to join his family’s transport business.
His LinkedIn profile says he has a mechanical engineering degree from a university in Punjab and that he worked as an “operational manager” at a cargo company.
For many years, reports say, his popularity was restricted to social media where his views on Sikh unity and statehood found plenty of resonance.
In August last year, he travelled to India from Dubai, looking visibly different from old photos in which his hair and beard were neatly trimmed.
Now, he looked like a devout, practising Sikh – with unshorn hair tucked into a blue turban, a long, flowy beard, a steel bangle on his wrist and a small sacred dagger, called a kirpan, hanging from his waist.
Why is Singh popular?
Singh’s supporters often compare him with Bhindranwale, whom an”inspiration is known as by him”.
In his speeches, Singh emulates Bhindranwale and his hardline views – freely calling for the state that is separate Sikhs, claiming it to end up being the only “permanent solution” to Punjab’s problems, from water disputes to drug addiction to the erosion of Punjabi culture.
Singh, however, actually dismisses the contrast: “we have always been not even add up to dirt of their feet. We only walk the path shown he told The ASH24 NEWS last year by him.
Prof Ashutosh, a scientist that is governmental during the state’s Panjab University, says he finds Singh’s sudden rise to prominence “mysterious”, given his age.
But he adds that Singh was able to play on Sikh anxieties by drawing parallels between the essential notion of their sovereignty and the Hindu nationalist identity.
Punjab, known as India’s bread basket, is nevertheless circumstances that is relatively well-off. But experts say a persistent unemployment issue and farming crisis have shrunk the state’s social and standing that is economic.
“With the Bharatiya that is governing Janata’s supporters clamouring for a Hindu nation, some Sikhs feel the need for a leader whom discusses the injustices done in their mind and might represent their passions and dilemmas,” Prof Ashutosh says.
Prof Khalid Mohammad, also from Panjab University, states that social media has played a significant part in Singh’s appeal him to “connect with the masses easily” as it permitted.
In November, Singh led a month-long religious procession across the state to encourage Sikhs to become baptised (go through the Amrit ceremony), forgo drug consumption – a serious issue in Punjab – and ditch customs such as dowry and discrimination that is caste-based.
A later, his followers also made headlines for destroying furniture at a gurdwara after Singh said that individuals should only be seated on a floor in the clear presence of the Guru Granth Sahib month.
Prof Parminder Singh says that Singh’s popularity rise may also be attributed to the frustrations of numerous people who are young Punjab.
“There are a number of young adults in Punjab that are not well-to-do, not that educated, can’t find any work and don’t have the resources to go abroad. Many of them may have moved towards this type or kind of spiritual fundamentalism,” he says.
How come their rise a concern?
In his speeches, Singh often contends that the demand for Khalistan is absolutely justified. He also seems to hold appeal that is considerable their supporters.
More than anything, though, their rise that is sudden and serve as a chilling reminder for the state’s violent history.
Today, decades after the bloodshed, Punjab has mostly reverted to normality. Now, some stress it often see times being turbulent.
A former punjab that is senior officer who joined up with the force in the 1980s told the BBC that he had seen many attacks on police channels in yesteryear. “But this might be the time that is first law enforcement have actually been seen so helpless,” he claims.
Prof Parminder Singh also points out that Singh was travelling in Punjab swords that are carrying weapons for the previous few months with no instance being filed against him.
“Overall, this trend is dangerous and should not be permitted to develop. Else Punjab would enter a period that is serious of.”