"I am safe and managed to escape by God's grace, despite the police deploying lakhs of personnel," Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh said in a video message released on 29 March. The video put to rest 12 days of speculation on whether Amritpal Singh has been arrested or if he still remains on the run since the Punjab Police's crackdown against Waris Punjab De began on 18 March.
But it is another aspect of Amritpal Singh's message that's going to assume more importance in the days to come - his appeal to the Akal Takht Jathedar to call a Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi, which is on 14 April. The Akal Takht is the highest temporal body for Sikhs.
This appeal has directly put the ball in the court of Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh as well as that of the Punjab government and, to some extent, even the Centre.
In this article we will try to answer the following questions
What is Sarbat Khalsa and why is it important?
What's Amritpal Singh's strategy behind asking for Sarbat Khalsa?
What options do the Akal Takht, Punjab government, Centre and Amritpal Singh have?
What is Sarbat Khalsa and Why is it Important?
During his statement, Amritpal Singh said, "After Ahmad Shah Abdali carried out a genocide of Sikhs, a Sarbat Khalsa was held which everyone attended. Not one Sikh was left behind. If we have to save Punjab, we have to take part in this Sarbat Khalsa".
So what is Sarbat Khalsa?
Sarbat Khalsa literally means the 'entire Sikh nation'. The Sarbat Khalsa was called on a number of occasions during the 18th century but got discontinued in the beginning of the 19th century.
An important Sarbat Khalsa took place in 1920 in the context of the abolition of the Mahant system. The Mahants or priests had ended up taking control of many Gurdwaras, partly with the support of the British. They were ousted by reformists in 1920 and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee was established as a result of the 1920 Sarbat Khalsa.
After a gap of over six decades, a number of Sarbat Khalsa gatherings took place in the turbulent 1980s. But these gatherings reflected the schism within the community between pro-government and anti-government Sikhs.
A Sarbat Khalsa organised by the SGPC in August 1984 was dismissed as a 'pro-government' gathering, especially due to the anger following the army operation in Sri Harmandir Sahib in June that year.
Two Sarbat Khalsa gatherings were held in quick succession in 1986 - one without the backing of the SGPC and Akal Takht and the other one organised by the two bodies themselves.
The Sarbat Khalsa organised on 26 January 1986 by the Damdami Taksal and All India Sikh Students' Federation, divested the SGPC and Akal Takht of control over Sikh affairs and ordered the replacement of Akal Takht Jathedar Kirpal Singh with Jasbir Singh Rode, nephew of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Senior journalist with the Times of India IP Singh points out strong parallels between the January 1986 Sarbat Khalsa and the next important Sarbat Khalsa held 29 years later - in 2015.
"None of the two was called by the incumbent Jathedar of the Akal Takht. Both passed resolutions for removing the Akal Takht Jathedar," he writes.
The 2015 Sarbat Khalsa was held following the sacrilege incidents at Bargari and the police firing at Kotkapura, killing two people. It was a reflection of resentment against the then Punjab government led by Parkash Singh Badal and Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh. The then Jathedar was under fire for pardoning of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Rahim in a sacrilege case.
IP Singh points out that in both the 1986 and 2015 Sarbat Khalsa gatherings, there was no clarity regarding an alternative Sikh leadership.
What's Amritpal Singh's Strategy Behind Asking for a Sarbat Khalsa?
Now, the 1920,1986 and 2015 Sarbat Khalsa gatherings show that it doesn't necessarily have to be called by the Akal Takht or the SGPC.
However, Amritpal Singh seems to have played it safe by asking the Akal Takht Jathedar to take the lead and call a Sarbat Khalsa. Throughout his address, he kept trying to project that he's on the same side as the Akal Takht Jathedar - he even expressed support for the Jathedar in his war of words with Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann. He also didn't mention Khalistan even once.
A fascinating power play seems to be taking place between Amritpal Singh and the leadership of mainstream Sikh bodies, which is different from the direct confrontation that had taken place in 1986 and 2015.
This is interesting also because Amritpal Singh's mentor Papalpreet Singh, who may have advised him to ask for a Sarbat Khalsa, was one of the organisers of the 2015 Sarbat Khalsa. Papalpreet is said to be on the run along with Amritpal.
Amritpal Singh, no doubt is a threat to the mainstream Sikh leadership. But instead of directly confronting him, the Akal Takht Jathedar has tried to bring part of Amritpal Singh's work within the domain of mainstream Sikh bodies.
This was clear in the high-level meeting called by the Akal Takht Jathedar on 27 March. After the meeting, Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh announced that the Akal Takht will be initiating a Khalsa Vaheer to promote Sikh values and against drugs and anti-Sikh practices.
Now, the Khalsa Vaheer - or campaigns to promote Sikh values - is an old practice. But of late, it had come to be associated with Amritpal Singh. Therefore, the Jathedar's announcement could be seen as an attempt to channelise some of Amritpal's momentum into mainstream bodies and revive the credibility they may have lost due to the events of 2015.
What Amritpal Singh has done through his appeal for Sarbat Khalsa is the reverse. He has tried to push the Akal Takht Jathedar towards a more confrontational approach with the state and central governments and come closer to his line of politics.
Calling for a bigger gathering is also Amritpal Singh's way of setting the narrative. The Jathedar tried to control the narrative through a restricted gathering on 27th March. The demands made after the meeting, though critical of the government, still stand for incremental change.
However, a larger gathering like the Sarbat Khalsa could provide the platform for a much more stringent line being taken.
What Options do the Akal Takht, Govt and Amritpal Singh Have?
The Akal Takht would surely be in a dilemma on whether or not to agree to Amritpal Singh's request for a Sarbat Khalsa.
If it does agree, it would amount to magnifying Amritpal Singh's stature significantly. It would also run the risk of escalating the confrontation with the central and state governments, one that could potentially lead to a bigger crackdown than what has taken place since 18 March.
If it refuses, it risks repeating a 2015-like situation in case hardline organisations like the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) respond to Amritpal Singh's call and start mobilising people for a Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi.
So far, Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh has been much more diplomatic at handling such challenges compared to the 2015 leadership. It would be interesting to see how he handles this and arrives at a consensus on the next course of action.
The main challenge for the Punjab government and the Centre would be how to prevent a Sarbat Khalsa from happening or at least contain its impact. That is, if the two governments are on the same page.
The 2015 Sarbat Khalsa did intensify the churn within the Sikh community and weaken the then state government. If a Sarbat Khalsa is held again and a large gathering takes place, it could have the same impact.
But a full fledged state crackdown can lead to further alienation among Sikhs and may invite comparisons with General Dyer as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place on Baisakhi.
For Amritpal Singh, this move is a huge gamble. The Waris Punjab De chief doesn't currently have the organisational strength for mobilising a very large gathering. Many of the outfit's mobilisers have been arrested.
In case the Akal Takht doesn't back the move, the gathering would largely be dependent on organisations like the SAD-Amritsar and Dal Khalsa. It remains to be seen how many of such alternative Panthic organisations support this move. Many of them are facing different levels of government scrutiny so their participation can't be taken for granted.
Another obstacle to a big mobilsation is the fear that presently exists among many Sikh organisations as well as lay citizens. Not all would be keen on a move that's likely to escalate tensions or invite a government crackdown.
If Amritpal's call doesn't lead to a significant mobilisation, it would probably be a political endgame for him even if he remains out of jail
However, if the Sarbat Khalsa is a success, it would be a major victory for Amritpal Singh and Papalpreet Singh's strategy.