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'A Vote for Khalsa': Amritpal & Sarabjeet Singh Shook Up Election, Can They Win?

The surge in popularity of Independent Sikh candidates is a symptom of deeper and older grievances in Punjab.

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"Kis party da zor aa es halqe ch?" (Who is leading in this seat?).

"Khalsa Panth da" (Khalsa Panth is leading).

This is a common response one got while speaking to people in the Faridkot and Khadoor Sahib constituencies in Punjab during the Lok Sabha election campaign.

These are both seats where Independent candidates have completely changed political equations. In Khadoor Sahib, the candidate is Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh, who is presently jailed in Dibrugarh under the National Security Act. In Faridkot it is Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa Maloya, the son of Beant Singh, one of the security guards who gunned down Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984.

A vote for Amritpal or Sarabjeet is being seen as a vote for the Khalsa Panth or the Sikh community.

Their campaigns as well as that of Simranjit Singh Mann in Sangrur, Lakha Sidhana in Bathinda and a number of other candidates are being seen as part of a Panthic surge in Punjab politics.

Some parallels are being drawn with the 1989 Lok Sabha election, in which several Panthic candidates got elected to Parliament - some from the Simranjit Mann faction of the Akali Dal and some as Independents.

This is the second part of our series on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in Punjab. The first part can be read here.

In this piece, we'll try and look at these three aspects.

'A Vote for Khalsa': Amritpal & Sarabjeet Singh Shook Up Election, Can They Win?

  1. 1. What is driving the popularity of Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh?

    There is a strong emotional appeal driving both Amritpal and Sarabjeet's campaigns. Many of those rallying behind them see them as victims of injustice by the state.

    For a section of Sikhs, Sarabjeet's father Beant Singh was a hero who avenged the attack on Harmandir Sahib.

    By extension, Sarabjeet is seen as the son of a martyr. He is seen as someone whose childhood was sacrificed in the name of the faith.

    Incidentally polling in Punjab is taking place in the week in which Operation Bluestar was carried out 40 years ago.

    Amritpal Singh's sympathisers see him as a figure who has been wrongly incarcerated for tackling drug addiction and making Sikhs take Amrit (initiation).

    However, their emergence is a symptom of much older grievances.

    There have been term grievances such as lack of justice in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom as well as the encounter killings and enforced disappearances of 1980s and 1990s. However, to understand the present revival of assertive or some would say 'hardline' Panthic politics, the chronology of the last decade or so is important.

    • 2007-09: Rising protests against Dera Sacha Sauda

    • 2012: Protests against the impending death penalty to Balwant Singh Rajoana barely a few months after SAD-BJP win an unprecedented second term in power.

    • 2013: With Gurbax Singh Khalsa's hunger strike in 2013, the protests for the release of Sikh political prisoners also gathered steam.

    • 2014: The Lok Sabha elections see the rise of Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindutva politics. By that time, the Shiromani Akali Dal under the Badals had begun facing charges of nepotism, corruption and collusion with the drug mafia. In that election, many of the independent Sikh political entities tactically aligned with Aam Aadmi Party, helping it break into Punjab's political space.

    • 2015: This was the big turning point. Sacrilege incidents in Faridkot district, allegedly done by Dera Sacha Sauda followers. The incidents sparked protests by Sikhs demanding action against the perpetrators. However, instead of taking action, the police fired at protesters in Behbal Kalan, killing two men. SAD's popularity went on a downward spiral after this.

    • 2017: Badals defeated but issues remained unresolved as the Congress government led by Captain Amarinder Singh also didn't take any action in the sacrilege and firing cases.

    • 2020: Union government's farm laws introduced in 2020 sparked mass protests across Punjab, further adding to the alienation and dissatisfaction among Sikhs.

    • 2021: Punjab and Haryana High Court quashes SIT report on 2015 sacrilege cases, Captain and Congress' popularity begins declining rapidly.

      2022: AAP wins a massive victory in the Assembly elections, Congress and Akalis face massive rout.

    Two other turning points in 2022 were the death of actor-activist Deep Sidhu and the assassination of Sidhu Moose Wala. Both cases added to the grief and dissatisfaction among Sikhs. Moose Wala's killing in particular harmed the credibility of the newly formed AAP government and led to the victory of Simranjit Singh Mann in the Sangrur bypoll.
    • 2022 Continued: Amritpal Singh suddenly emerges as a prominent figure in the Panthic space.

    • 2023: Amritpal Singh and his associates arrested under NSA, several Sikh journalists and activists blacked out on social media.

    • 2024: Amritpal Singh, Sarabjeet Singh and other 'hardline' Panthic candidates decide to contest Lok Sabha elections.

    Expand
  2. 2. Panthic Surge and Parallels With 1989

    Another important Panthic candidate in this election is Simranjit Singh Mann in the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency. Read this story to know more about Simranjit Mann and why he is seen as the last man standing on Punjab and Sikh-related issues.

    Two other important candidates of Mann's party are Lakha Sidhana in Bathinda and Amritpal Singh Chhandran in Ludhiana. Sidhana is a gangster-turned-activist and politician who has been a fierce critic of both the earlier SAD government as well as the present AAP government.

    Amritpal Singh Chhandran is the son of militant Rashpal Singh Chhandran who was killed by the police in 1992. He is said to have been subjected to brutal torture before being killed.

    There are parallels being drawn between the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, in which a majority of seats were won by Panthic candidates. This included Simranjit Mann himself from Tarn Taran (now Khadoor Sahib), Bimal Kaur - the wife of Beant Singh - from Ropar. Her son Sarabjeet Singh is now contesting from Faridkot.

    Dhian Singh Mand, who led the Bargari Morcha demanding justice in the 2015 sacrilege cases, had won from Faridkot in 2015.

    The surge in popularity of Independent Sikh candidates is a symptom of deeper and older grievances in Punjab.
    Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) Chief Simranjit Singh Mann addressing media person at Amritsar on August 30, 2013. (Photo: IANS)

    An interesting winner in that election who has become a key player in the 2024 election is Rajdev Singh Khalsa who was elected from Sangrur. Rajdev Singh now happens to be the lawyer of Amritpal Singh and he's playing an important role in his campaign in Khadoor Sahib.

    He is also said to be supportive of Sarabjeet Singh's campaign.

    Rajdev Singh has an interesting backstory. He is said to have been an associate of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. After a hiatus in his political career, he reportedly joined the SAD in 2012.

    Surprisingly, he joined the RSS' Sikh wing Rashtriya Sikh Sangat for a brief while in 2015 but left soon after saying that he found the organisation "dangerous". He joined the BJP in 2022 but again left after a very brief stint.

    He backed Simranjit Singh Mann in the 2022 Sangrur bypoll. His presence in Amritpal's campaign has made many AAP, Congress and SAD supporters allege that the sudden emergence of "hardline" candidates is a conspiracy by BJP and RSS to destabilise Punjab and harm existing parties. SAD candidate against Amritpal Singh - Virsa Singh Valtoha - has openly called Rajdev Singh an "RSS man".

    On his part, Rajdev Singh has said in his interviews that "Contesting elections is a way to pressurise the Centre to release Amritpal Singh the way the Union government released Simranjit Mann after his win in 1989".

    Those in the know say that Rajdev Singh's flirtation with the RSS is linked to his deep dislike of communists and leftist farm unions.

    There is a tussle even within the independent Panthic space. Sarabjeet Singh for instance, has been a vocal critic of Simranjit Singh Mann, who in turn has also made statements against the former.

    Then in Ludhiana, there is a competition within this space between Amritpal Singh Chhandran on one hand an another Independent Kamaljit Singh Brar. Though originally from a Congress background, Brar is running the campaign on Amritpal Singh (Waris Punjab De chief)'s name and has even taken the same mic symbol.

    Expand
  3. 3. Can They Win and What Happens if They Do?

    Khadoor Sahib seems positive for Amritpal Singh. In the 2019 elections, Paramjit Kaur Khalra, the wife of slain human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, had contested from the seat and secured 20 percent votes. Her campaign is said to have been less organised and funded than Amritpal Singh's present campaign and the sentiments were also not as strong as they are now. This has given Amritpal's supporters hope that they can pull it off.

    Faridkot is tougher to predict as Sarabjeet Singh's campaign suddenly surged in the past couple of weeks in a seat that seemed in the bag for AAP.

    The context of the Faridkot seat is also important in Sarabjeet's case, even though he is not from the area.

    The village of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - Rode - lies in Moga district and is part of the Faridkot seat. Faridkot seat was also the epicentre of the 2015 sacrilege incidents and the subsequent protests and police firing.

    Incidentally Amritpal Singh had also surrendered at Rode village in 2023.

    Both Independents also face the challenge of ensuring that voters remember their election symbols - mic in the case of Amritpal and sugarcane farmer in the case of Sarabjeet.

    Candidates from Simranjit Mann's party are at an advantage in this respect as his 'bucket' symbol is known.

    Mann faces a different problem. Having been MP for the past two years, Mann is no longer a 'change' candidate like he was in 2022 so his potential to get votes of voters driven by emotion and discontent is lesser than that of Amritpal Singh or Sarabjeet Singh.

    Even AAP insiders acknowledge that Amritpal and Sarabjeet being new entities represent a bigger threat politically as the 'emotional' votes they get are difficult to predict or counter.

    One threat that all the 'hardline' candidates face is that of tactical voting by those opposed to their ideology or those who feeling insecure - meaning a counter polarisation in favour of the strongest non-Panthic candidate in these seats. In both Faridkot and Khadoor Sahib, their main challenger is the AAP. In Sangrur on the other hand, Mann is facing a challenge from both AAP and Congress. The Congress candidate, Sukhpal Khaira, is getting some support from both Panthic and non-Panthic voters.

    If one or more of these candidates win, it could spark a churn within the Panthic political space and become a challenge for the SAD. And if either Amritpal or Sarabjeet manage to win and Simranjit Mann loses, it could lead to the emergence of a newer crop of 'hardline' Panthic leadership.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What is driving the popularity of Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh?

There is a strong emotional appeal driving both Amritpal and Sarabjeet's campaigns. Many of those rallying behind them see them as victims of injustice by the state.

For a section of Sikhs, Sarabjeet's father Beant Singh was a hero who avenged the attack on Harmandir Sahib.

By extension, Sarabjeet is seen as the son of a martyr. He is seen as someone whose childhood was sacrificed in the name of the faith.

Incidentally polling in Punjab is taking place in the week in which Operation Bluestar was carried out 40 years ago.

Amritpal Singh's sympathisers see him as a figure who has been wrongly incarcerated for tackling drug addiction and making Sikhs take Amrit (initiation).

However, their emergence is a symptom of much older grievances.

There have been term grievances such as lack of justice in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom as well as the encounter killings and enforced disappearances of 1980s and 1990s. However, to understand the present revival of assertive or some would say 'hardline' Panthic politics, the chronology of the last decade or so is important.

  • 2007-09: Rising protests against Dera Sacha Sauda

  • 2012: Protests against the impending death penalty to Balwant Singh Rajoana barely a few months after SAD-BJP win an unprecedented second term in power.

  • 2013: With Gurbax Singh Khalsa's hunger strike in 2013, the protests for the release of Sikh political prisoners also gathered steam.

  • 2014: The Lok Sabha elections see the rise of Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindutva politics. By that time, the Shiromani Akali Dal under the Badals had begun facing charges of nepotism, corruption and collusion with the drug mafia. In that election, many of the independent Sikh political entities tactically aligned with Aam Aadmi Party, helping it break into Punjab's political space.

  • 2015: This was the big turning point. Sacrilege incidents in Faridkot district, allegedly done by Dera Sacha Sauda followers. The incidents sparked protests by Sikhs demanding action against the perpetrators. However, instead of taking action, the police fired at protesters in Behbal Kalan, killing two men. SAD's popularity went on a downward spiral after this.

  • 2017: Badals defeated but issues remained unresolved as the Congress government led by Captain Amarinder Singh also didn't take any action in the sacrilege and firing cases.

  • 2020: Union government's farm laws introduced in 2020 sparked mass protests across Punjab, further adding to the alienation and dissatisfaction among Sikhs.

  • 2021: Punjab and Haryana High Court quashes SIT report on 2015 sacrilege cases, Captain and Congress' popularity begins declining rapidly.

    2022: AAP wins a massive victory in the Assembly elections, Congress and Akalis face massive rout.

Two other turning points in 2022 were the death of actor-activist Deep Sidhu and the assassination of Sidhu Moose Wala. Both cases added to the grief and dissatisfaction among Sikhs. Moose Wala's killing in particular harmed the credibility of the newly formed AAP government and led to the victory of Simranjit Singh Mann in the Sangrur bypoll.
  • 2022 Continued: Amritpal Singh suddenly emerges as a prominent figure in the Panthic space.

  • 2023: Amritpal Singh and his associates arrested under NSA, several Sikh journalists and activists blacked out on social media.

  • 2024: Amritpal Singh, Sarabjeet Singh and other 'hardline' Panthic candidates decide to contest Lok Sabha elections.

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Panthic Surge and Parallels With 1989

Another important Panthic candidate in this election is Simranjit Singh Mann in the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency. Read this story to know more about Simranjit Mann and why he is seen as the last man standing on Punjab and Sikh-related issues.

Two other important candidates of Mann's party are Lakha Sidhana in Bathinda and Amritpal Singh Chhandran in Ludhiana. Sidhana is a gangster-turned-activist and politician who has been a fierce critic of both the earlier SAD government as well as the present AAP government.

Amritpal Singh Chhandran is the son of militant Rashpal Singh Chhandran who was killed by the police in 1992. He is said to have been subjected to brutal torture before being killed.

There are parallels being drawn between the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, in which a majority of seats were won by Panthic candidates. This included Simranjit Mann himself from Tarn Taran (now Khadoor Sahib), Bimal Kaur - the wife of Beant Singh - from Ropar. Her son Sarabjeet Singh is now contesting from Faridkot.

Dhian Singh Mand, who led the Bargari Morcha demanding justice in the 2015 sacrilege cases, had won from Faridkot in 2015.

The surge in popularity of Independent Sikh candidates is a symptom of deeper and older grievances in Punjab.
Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) Chief Simranjit Singh Mann addressing media person at Amritsar on August 30, 2013. (Photo: IANS)

An interesting winner in that election who has become a key player in the 2024 election is Rajdev Singh Khalsa who was elected from Sangrur. Rajdev Singh now happens to be the lawyer of Amritpal Singh and he's playing an important role in his campaign in Khadoor Sahib.

He is also said to be supportive of Sarabjeet Singh's campaign.

Rajdev Singh has an interesting backstory. He is said to have been an associate of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. After a hiatus in his political career, he reportedly joined the SAD in 2012.

Surprisingly, he joined the RSS' Sikh wing Rashtriya Sikh Sangat for a brief while in 2015 but left soon after saying that he found the organisation "dangerous". He joined the BJP in 2022 but again left after a very brief stint.

He backed Simranjit Singh Mann in the 2022 Sangrur bypoll. His presence in Amritpal's campaign has made many AAP, Congress and SAD supporters allege that the sudden emergence of "hardline" candidates is a conspiracy by BJP and RSS to destabilise Punjab and harm existing parties. SAD candidate against Amritpal Singh - Virsa Singh Valtoha - has openly called Rajdev Singh an "RSS man".

On his part, Rajdev Singh has said in his interviews that "Contesting elections is a way to pressurise the Centre to release Amritpal Singh the way the Union government released Simranjit Mann after his win in 1989".

Those in the know say that Rajdev Singh's flirtation with the RSS is linked to his deep dislike of communists and leftist farm unions.

There is a tussle even within the independent Panthic space. Sarabjeet Singh for instance, has been a vocal critic of Simranjit Singh Mann, who in turn has also made statements against the former.

Then in Ludhiana, there is a competition within this space between Amritpal Singh Chhandran on one hand an another Independent Kamaljit Singh Brar. Though originally from a Congress background, Brar is running the campaign on Amritpal Singh (Waris Punjab De chief)'s name and has even taken the same mic symbol.

Can They Win and What Happens if They Do?

Khadoor Sahib seems positive for Amritpal Singh. In the 2019 elections, Paramjit Kaur Khalra, the wife of slain human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, had contested from the seat and secured 20 percent votes. Her campaign is said to have been less organised and funded than Amritpal Singh's present campaign and the sentiments were also not as strong as they are now. This has given Amritpal's supporters hope that they can pull it off.

Faridkot is tougher to predict as Sarabjeet Singh's campaign suddenly surged in the past couple of weeks in a seat that seemed in the bag for AAP.

The context of the Faridkot seat is also important in Sarabjeet's case, even though he is not from the area.

The village of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - Rode - lies in Moga district and is part of the Faridkot seat. Faridkot seat was also the epicentre of the 2015 sacrilege incidents and the subsequent protests and police firing.

Incidentally Amritpal Singh had also surrendered at Rode village in 2023.

Both Independents also face the challenge of ensuring that voters remember their election symbols - mic in the case of Amritpal and sugarcane farmer in the case of Sarabjeet.

Candidates from Simranjit Mann's party are at an advantage in this respect as his 'bucket' symbol is known.

Mann faces a different problem. Having been MP for the past two years, Mann is no longer a 'change' candidate like he was in 2022 so his potential to get votes of voters driven by emotion and discontent is lesser than that of Amritpal Singh or Sarabjeet Singh.

Even AAP insiders acknowledge that Amritpal and Sarabjeet being new entities represent a bigger threat politically as the 'emotional' votes they get are difficult to predict or counter.

One threat that all the 'hardline' candidates face is that of tactical voting by those opposed to their ideology or those who feeling insecure - meaning a counter polarisation in favour of the strongest non-Panthic candidate in these seats. In both Faridkot and Khadoor Sahib, their main challenger is the AAP. In Sangrur on the other hand, Mann is facing a challenge from both AAP and Congress. The Congress candidate, Sukhpal Khaira, is getting some support from both Panthic and non-Panthic voters.

If one or more of these candidates win, it could spark a churn within the Panthic political space and become a challenge for the SAD. And if either Amritpal or Sarabjeet manage to win and Simranjit Mann loses, it could lead to the emergence of a newer crop of 'hardline' Panthic leadership.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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