The self-styled radical preacher Amritpal Singh has resurfaced on the political turf of Punjab as an independent contestant on the Khadoor Sahib parliamentary seat. He is contesting the election, while being lodged in a jail in Dibrugarh in Assam after he was arrested last year along with his aides, and charged under the National Security Act (NSA).

He is pitted against Virsa Singh Valtoha of Shiromani Akali Dal-Badal (SAD-Badal), Patti legislator and cabinet minister Laljit Singh Bhullar of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Kulbir Singh Zira of the Congress.

Khadoor Sahib is a seat known as the hotbed of Panthic politics of the Majha region of Punjab. It was earlier known as the Tarn Taran seat. This area was the core of the militancy that raged across Punjab from late seventies to mid-nineties and its hangover still lingers on in different ways. It is also known for radical political discourses.

As one moves across the Majha area, posters carrying pictures of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was killed during Operation Blue Star are a common sight. These posters are calling upon the people to congregate at Rode village on June 2. The day marks the eve of Operation Blue Star, carried out by the Indian forces against militants at Harmandir Sahib in 1984.

One can see vendors selling rumalas (cloth used to cover heads at religious shrines) with pictures of militants like Jagtar Singh Hawara and Sukha Jinda. One also comes across people questioning the polling date in Punjab scheduled on June 1, asking why it was not scheduled in an earlier phase.

As this reporter crisscrossed the Khadoor Sahib constituency, it was clear that Amritpal’s candidature was being taken seriously by his rivals. There are pockets where he is drawing considerable support. His main election office is being run from his village Jallukhera while another office is being run from a nondescript building near Tarn Taran town.

The people hold different views about Amritpal. His campaigners did not wish to be quoted, but said that “a leader like him was needed in Punjab to address the menace of drugs, and fight for the Bandi Singhs (prisoners of the militancy era languishing in prisons)”.

They added that “Amritpal is needed to fight for justice in the cases of sacrilege of holy texts in which the successive Congress and AAP governments have failed to deliver”. They added that protests and dharnas do not achieve anything and other means have to be resorted to for getting justice.

However, many locals had a different opinion about Amritpal. “He is a pawn of the agencies that are out to use him for playing different games,” said a property dealer in the town. He added that there is a betting underway on Amritpal’s political future, and that he too will place a bet.

An e-rickshaw driver said, “What is wrong in having a leader who talks on cracking down on drugs and other intoxicants. After all he wants to bring about a Khalsa Raj. You tell me whether the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was better or the current hopeless system that we have in place today.”

But Amritpal’s campaigners are spinning a different narrative. “If the agencies give me 5000 more such pawns I will make Punjab heaven. All this propaganda is just to defame Amritpal who has emerged tall in Panthic politics,” one of his campaigners, who is an ex-serviceman, said.

“The day he wins will be a slap on the system that has defamed him as a separatist and Khalistani. It will be a people’s fatwa,” he added. The most vocal of his rivals is the Akali camp under Valtoha.

The Akalis claim to be the prime representatives of the Panth and this seat has traditionally been an Akali bastion. Valtoha’s supporters have been questioning Amritpal saying, “He has just spent a few months in jail and is claiming to be the leader of the Panth. He is contesting against the same Constitution that he was questioning.”

“The people’s support for the Akali Dal is returning after being cheated by those who had sworn with Gutka Sahib in hand to finish off the menace of drugs in four weeks and those who had promised to punish those guilty of beadbi (desecration) towards the holy texts.

“They have realised that this is the only party that has stood for Punjab on the federal issues like the riparian rights and has made sacrifices throughout the more than 100 years of its existence,” former MLA Harmeet Singh Sandhu who is managing Valtoha’s campaign said.

He added that the party had lost the last election on this seat as the Panthic vote had stood divided. “Our priority is communal brotherhood and peace in Punjab. Today this constituency is reeling under the menace of drugs and deteriorating law and order.

“There are at least 50 drug peddlers in every village. There are frequent cases of extortion and murders. We are fighting for the development of this area,” he added.

Some interesting people centric issues are being raised by the Congress candidate Zira. “The area under the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) has been increased to 50 km from the International Border with Pakistan. But there is no decline in the menace of drugs.

“Instead the number of drones sighted from across the border continues to increase. The Centre needs to answer the people on this and the BSF officers need to be made accountable.

“I will work for the opening of the border at Khalra for the revival of trade. This will boost the economy of this area and provide employment avenues. This trade was stopped after the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan,” Zira said.

He also said that this constituency is known for its ancient religious sites and should be declared a Heritage Centre. Responding to a query on Amritpal’s campaign he said, “I am telling the people that here you have a person claiming to be a new Panthic face who descended on a Police Station using Guru Granth Sahib as a shield and everything failed to check him. What do you make of it?”

Meanwhile, Bhullar is concentrating on the achievements of the Bhagwant Singh Mann government in the state over the last two years. “We are promising to address the issue of the ruhi (sewerage drain) running through the middle of the town. Our focus will also be on improving civic amenities and generating jobs. Our fight is already going on against the menace of drugs,” Komalpreet Singh who is in the campaign team of Bhullar, said.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded Manjeet Singh Manna in this constituency. The party’s campaign here is low key.

Khadoor Sahib is one of the most keenly watched seats in Punjab. It remains to be seen who emerges victorious in this seat known for its Panthic politics. The result here is sure to have long term ramifications on Punjab politics.