Amritpal Singh, the leader of the group Waris Punjab De, is an “ISI agent” who was brought to India by the Pakistani spy agency to spread violence over the Khalistan secessionist movement, officials in central intelligence agencies said on Saturday, as state police launched a crackdown to arrest him and his aides.
Singh remained on the run till the time of going to print but 78 of his supporters were arrested in a statewide operation that federal intelligence officials said was launched after tip-off that the group may be planning attacks in the national capital and carrying out a radicalisation drive in the state of Punjab.
“Amritpal Singh, a non-resident Indian who worked as a truck driver in Dubai, is an ISI agent who came in touch with Pakistani spy agency while living in the UAE. He was told to motivate naive young Sikhs in name of religion. There was an understanding that the ISI will spend money and by bringing the Sikhs behind him in the name of Khalistan, he would have a say in Punjab,” said a central intelligence officer, who asked not to be named.
Read | Who is Khalistani leader and radical preacher Amritpal Singh?
This person added that Avtar Singh Khanda, a UK-based Sikh radical and the vice-president of Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann), is a close associate of Khalistani terrorist Jagtar Singh Tara and acted as the “main handler of Amritpal Singh and the brains behind his meteoric rise”.
ISI, or the inter services intelligence agency, is Pakistan military’s main espionage wing.
This person said Saturday’s operation was precipitated by inputs of a conspiracy by Amritpal Singh and other Pakistan-based Khalistani leaders, including Lakhbir Singh Rode (head of banned outfit International Sikh Youth Federation), to attack government leaders in New Delhi and spread hatred in Punjab in the name of religion.
There have been hectic discussions between central and state intelligence officials in recent weeks, with federal officials highlighting the rapidly growing radicalisation that Singh was carrying out in the state.
The agencies, in a meeting earlier this month, even discussed keeping a tab on financial activities of all district units of Waris Punjab De to check flow of funds from foreign countries, the official said.
Union home minister Amit Shah, too, during a meeting with Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Maan on March 2 discussed the issue and assured all help in the form of additional forces.
Singh, the officer cited above said, was in touch with Lakhbir Singh Rode’s brother Jaswant in Dubai. Rode is wanted in multiple cases of terror attacks and for supply of explosives in India.
“After coming to Punjab, at the behest of ISI, Amritpal Singh took the help of Amrit Sanchar to set up his organisation. Later he launched a campaign called Khalsa Waheer and strengthened his organisation by going to the villages. He stirred up the issues of Punjab and started inciting the Sikhs against the Indian government. He got success in getting people to do what he wanted under the guise of religion,” said the officer cited above.
Avtar Singh Khanda, Amritpal Singh’s handler, is also a close aide of Paramjit Singh Pamma, who is associated with Babbar Khalsa international (BKI) and is known for holding theoretical radical training classes for Sikh youth.
“The idea was to destabilise Punjab through ideological indoctrination and give Amritpal influence in the region,” said this officer, referring to Pakistan’s plan in the northern state.
As part of the plan, Khalistani leaders who backed Amritpal Singh “were trying to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using common chemicals by giving live demonstration in Birmingham and Glasgow”, he said.
Security agencies pointed out that Amritpal Singh used threatening tactics to keep Sikh youth in line, citing an incident where his companions attacked the Gurdwara Singh Sabha Model Town in Jalandhar in December, where they broke chairs and set the Gurdwara afire.
He asked his comrades, officials said, “to stay armed” and “also formed a new army called Anandpur Khalsa Army (AKF).”
“This army is always around him with dangerous weapons. The Sikh Gurus had asked to wear arms to protect themselves in the time of difficulty, not to be armed to frighten the innocent people,” said a second officer aware of the matter, asking not to be named.
Amritpal Singh even threatened Shah and Punjab CM Mann in statements last month. His action have strengthened the ISI and its morale. “Due to Amritpal Singh’s actions, memories of the days when Punjab was hit by militancy were revived among the Punjabis even though the state has come out of that period with great difficulty,” the second officer added.
It was pointed out in last few weeks in meetings between top intelligence brass of the country that there was an atmosphere of fear in Punjab and everyone was questioning the administration.
“Punjab has faced two decades of bad times of terrorism. Today, no Punjabi wants to put the future of his children in a dark period,” said a third officer in intelligence agencies.
Officials at Centre further highlighted that Amritpal Singh has shown disrespect to Gurdwaras and the Akal Takht, highest temporal seat of Sikhs.
“Amritpal Singh considers himself above Guru Granth Sahib and disrespected it. He threatened Jathedar Akal Takht over committee formed against him for carrying Guru Granth Sahib to a protest site. He considers himself as the only saviour of Sikhism despite adopting Sikhism just six months back,” said the third officer.
About his depiction of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, intelligence officials said: “Amritpal Singh was attempting to cash in on the followers of the leader of Damdami Taksal by copying his attire and mannerisms.”
“His slogan of slavery, demand of self-determination for Sikhs and depiction of non-Sikhs as traitors all mimic Bhindranwale. Even his coronation as Waris Punjab De leader took place in Village Rode, Moga, the ancestral place of Bhindranwale,” said the third officer.
He took over the management and accounts of Waris Punjab De with the help of his uncle, Harjit Singh. The outfit, started by actor Deep Sidhu, was being funding from Pakistan, and its former treasurer Basant Singh Daulatpura also has known Pakistani links, said officers.