A colossal police hunt for a Sikh separatist who has revived calls for an independent homeland in India’s Punjab state has stoked fears of violence and revived painful memories of a bloody insurgency that killed thousands.
Amritpal Singh, 30, has been on the run since March 18 after he was accused by police of attempted murder, obstruction of law enforcement and creating “disharmony” in society.
Singh is a leading ideologue within the outlawed separatist movement that seeks to establish a sovereign state called Khalistan for followers of India’s minority Sikh religion.
Dramatic scenes captured on video showed hundreds of Singh’s supporters, some holding swords and sticks, marching through the streets of Punjab, demanding his freedom. Hundreds of armed police and paramilitary troops were deployed in various districts to maintain law and order.
More than 100 people have been arrested so far and authorities blocked mobile internet access for the entire state to “prevent any incitement to violence” – forcing about 27 million offline in one of the country’s most extensive blackouts in recent years.
Headlines surrounding Singh’s manhunt have dominated local news, with outlets giving feverish live updates as the search continues.
Amritpal Singh’s rapid rise in the public domain has returned the Khalistan movement to the forefront, stirring fresh fears of violence in a state that has long grappled with resentment towards the government.
Here’s what you need to know.
Who is Amritpal Singh?
The controversial self-styled preacher was relatively unknown until the death of actor and activist Deep Sidhu last year.
Sidhu backed the country’s year-long farmer’s movement and founded Waris Punjab De – a group established to protect Sikh rights.
Waris Punjab De mobilized farmers and activists – many of whom were Sikh – against Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to modernize the country’s agricultural sector. Farmers feared the changes would push prices lower.
In a rare retreat, Modi repealed the laws in November 2021. But even after the revocation, Waris Punjab De continued its campaign to protect the Sikh religion and Punjab’s culture.
Police march in front of farmers during a protest against the central government’s proposed agricultural reforms in Bangalore on March 22, 2021.Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images/File
Sidhu was killed in a car crash in February 2022 and Amritpal Singh took over the reins, leading marches and giving impassioned – often provocative – speeches, building a large following and gaining popularity.
His comments about social issues and protecting religious rights of Sikhs against what he has described as Hindu nationalist elements led by Modi have struck a chord among many Sikhs in the state.
Singh has likened himself to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a leading figure of the Khalistan movement who was killed by the Indian army in 1984 after they stormed Amritsar’s Golden Temple – Sikhism’s holiest shrine – in an operation ordered by former prime minister Indira Gandhi.
That operation caused huge anger within the Sikh community and Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath.
Last month Amritpal Singh invoked Bhindranwale’s rhetoric by saying home Minister Amit Shah could meet the same fate as Gandhi after Shah spoke against Khalistan.
Singh’s father, Tarsem Singh, told reporters this week the hunt for his son was a “conspiracy,” and that his son was working to fight drug addiction.
What is the Khalistan movement?
The Sikh religion was founded in the Punjab in the 15th Century by Guru Nanak and has about 25 million followers worldwide.
Sikhs are a minority group in India, comprising of less than 2% of the country’s 1.3 billion people, but they form a majority in Punjab.
The origins of the modern Khalistan movement trace back to around the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947, when some Sikhs demanded that a nation be carved in the state of Punjab for followers of the faith.
There had been a “big call from the Sikh community for better representation in politics,” said Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of political science at Panjab University, adding “the basic idea was the Sikh people should have their own territorial homeland – a Sikh majority state.”
When the Indian subcontinent won its independence, the bloody Partition hastily divided the former colony along religious lines – sending Muslims to the newly formed nation of Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs to newly independent India.
In the end, the Partition left up to an estimated 1 million dead and uprooted 9 million Muslims and 5 million Hindus and Sikhs.
The Punjab, which was sliced into two parts, saw some of the worst violence.
Around this time, Sikhs began a greater struggle for political and cultural autonomy, Kumar said, and the Khalistan movement gained prominence.
Over the years, violent clashes have erupted between followers of the movement and the Indian government, claiming many lives.
“In Punjab, religion and region comes together,” said Kumar. “And one of the most important factors that led to the Khalistan movement was the constant interference of the central state in regional affairs.”
The storming of the Golden Temple in 1984 by the Indian army roiled the Sikh community both in India and overseas and remains a festering source of tension to this day.
During the height of the insurgency in the early 1980s, some Sikh separatists in Punjab committed a series of human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, indiscriminate bombings and attacks on minority Hindus, according to Human Rights Watch.
In counterinsurgency operations, Indian security forces also committed human rights abuses against “tens of thousands of Sikhs,” it added.
But Khalistan supporters remain “fringe” and “on the margins,” Kumar said.
“The Sikh people living in Punjab know that if the militancy makes a comeback, they will be ones who will suffer.”
The damaged Akal Takhat after the Indiam Army stormed the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar on June 9, 1984.Sondeep Shankar/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Why is there support for Khalistan outside of India?
The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India and considered a grave national security threat by the government – a number of groups associated with the movement are listed as “terrorist organizations” under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
But it continues to evoke a level of sympathy from some Sikhs, particularly in Canada, Britain and Australia.
Indian consulates in the United Kingdom and the United States have been vandalized by Singh’s supporters who tore down the Indian flag, replacing it with the Khalistan emblem. Protests also broke out in Canada as the police search for him continues.
Canada, the US, Australia and the UK are home to a sizable Sikh communities, many of whom fled Punjab following independence in search of better economic opportunities.
A small but influential number of those Sikhs support the idea of Khalistan, with referendums periodically held to reach a consensus to establish a separate homeland within India.
Protests in favor of Amritpal Singh outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco on March 20, 2023.Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images
“Perhaps the reason for this support overseas is because the diaspora are looking for their roots,” Kumar from Panjab University said.
Kumar points out that the Khalistan operation can also operate freely overseas, unlike in India.
Where is Amritpal Singh now?
Singh remains on the run, while police have stepped up efforts to locate him, deploying thousands of troops and promising swift action.
A white car that been captured on CCTV and shared widely by news outlets allegedly shows Singh fleeing through what looks like a toll booth. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Police have declared him as a fugitive and have released several images of the man, both with and without a beard and a turban, appealing to the public to help spot him.
A plea has been filed by Waris Punjab De in Punjab’s High Court, alleging Singh has been illegally detained by the police.
Hearing the case on March 21, the court demanded how Singh escaped arrest while so many policemen were searching for him, and ordered the state government to submit a report on the search operation within four days.
“You have 80,000 police personnel. How has he not been arrested? This is an intelligence failure,” the court said, according to CNN affiliate CNN News-18.