Indian police arrest Sikh separatist after month-long hunt

FILE PHOTO: Amritpal Singh, a radical Sikh leader, leaves the holy Sikh shrine of the Golden Temple along with his supporters, in Amritsar, India, March 3, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

NEW DELHI – Indian authorities have arrested a self-described separatist, officials in the border state of Punjab said Sunday (April 23, 2023), after a high-profile, month-long chase that prompted fears of a revival of a Sikh insurgency there.

The hunt for Amritpal Singh, which began on March 18, had led to heavy social media censorship, a statewide partial internet shutdown and roughly 200 arrests of alleged affiliates.

The new domestic security concern in the region bordering Pakistan was the latest instance of increasing turbulence associated with the Sikh separatist movement known as Khalistan over the past five years.

The issue has become a diplomatic flash point, with protests in support of Amritpal taking place in the United States, Britain and Canada – some of which had led to vandalism of Indian embassies. A photo of him towered over a sea of supporters in New York City’s Times Square in March.

For many in the state of Punjab, the recent events hark back to a period of intense violence in the 1980s, ignited by the Indian Army’s raid on the religion’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in which the Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed. The incident and its subsequent traumatic years, including anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, still reverberate in deep memory today.

Bhindranwale was born in the village that Amritpal was arrested in on Sunday morning, in yet another sign of Amritpal trying to evoke memories of one of the most salient figures in Punjab.

A video that circulated on social media suggested that Amritpal had decided to surrender to authorities. “I have decided to turn myself in. My arrest is not the end but a new beginning,” he said in the video. The Washington Post could not independently verify the footage.

Punjab police appeared to give a different version of events. Police Inspector General Sukhchain Singh Gill told a news conference that “relentless pressure” in this “special operation” had led to intelligence on Amritpal’s whereabouts, and police surrounded him in the village of Rode in Moga district. Amritpal will be detained far away, in the northeastern state of Assam, alongside some of his other jailed associates, the inspector general added.

The state’s chief minister, Bhagwant Mann, said: “Action will be taken against those who try to disrupt the country’s peace and law. We will not disturb any innocent person. We don’t do vendetta politics.”

The 30-year-old Sikh preacher from Punjab briefly lived in Dubai before returning to Punjab last year, according to officials, restyled in a turban and beard mimicking Bhindranwale.

Punjab is one of the wealthiest Indian states but has been saddled with a menacing drug epidemic and crippling debt, leading to an exodus abroad. In a vacuum of leadership, Amritpal was able to rise, state residents and experts say. Several officials and residents said that on a visit to the state in early April, Amritpal seemed to appear out of “nowhere,” harnessing social media and tapping into a base of unrest by espousing an anti-drug campaign.

He rose to a new level of prominence in February when he led a group to storm a police station in the Amritsar district, forcing the police to release his close aide. In discussing Sikh grievances, he has called for the “freedom” of Punjab, saying in media interviews that Khalistan – a separate Sikh homeland – will “end suffering.”

During the month-long hunt for Amritpal, television reporters chronicled his every move through CCTV camera leaks traversing several Indian states and all the way into Nepal, while Amritpal himself released videos of calls to action on social media. “I am not a fugitive, but a rebel,” he said in one video. “I am not going to run away from the country. I will come in front of the world soon.”

In a dramatic chase at the end of March that involved around 100 cars in Punjab’s countryside, Amritpal managed to escape police capture by switching vehicles, according to local reports.

Bhindranwale’s image – which had been removed from Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, and siloed into private spaces during the insurgency era – has resurged in Punjab, even entering the made-in-China supply chain. His image may carry Khalistani sentiments or may just be a reminder of a Sikh assertion against historical injustices, depending on whom you ask.

Similarly, depending on whom you ask, Amritpal is a creation of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Aam Aadmi Party-led state government, the Pakistani intelligence agency or Sikh diaspora groups. “Punjab has been a playground for political conspiracies,” said Amritsar Police Commissioner Naunihal Singh.

While support for Amritpal and Khalistan remains fringe in the state, the anger against the government simmers palpably, largely because of the drug epidemic that is often blamed on police and government collusion. Shashi Kant, the retired director general of the Punjab police, said that while officials have succeeded in one battle, “now the real task starts. They are the bigger challenges ahead.”

Many worry that the police crackdown during the search for Amritpal may stoke fires further. “Once you put them in jail, you have radicalized them for life,” said Kiranjot Kaur, granddaughter of Tara Singh, a key Sikh political party leader and a member of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which acts like a gurdwara manager and Sikh parliament.

“At the moment, Punjab is in deep crisis. . . . It is a simmering anger going from one generation to the next,” she said.



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