Indian police have arrested a separatist leader who revived calls for an independent Sikh homeland and the secession of India’s northern Punjab state, which has a history of violent insurgency. Amritpal Singh had been on the run since March after capturing national attention in February when hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station in the Punjab town of Ajnala with wooden batons, swords and guns to demand the release of a jailed aide.
State police said on Sunday that Singh was arrested in the Punjab town of Moga. The police appealed to people to maintain peace and harmony. A Sikh religious leader, Jasbir Singh Rodde, said Singh surrendered to police after offering morning prayers at a Sikh shrine in Moga. Police then arrested him and took him away, he said.
Punjab suffered a bloody insurgency in the 1980s that led to the killing of India’s then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi. Her killing triggered bloody rioting by her Hindu supporters against Sikhs in northern India.
Police declared Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, a fugitive and accused him and his aides of creating discord in the state. Police accused him and his associates of spreading disharmony among people, attempted murder, attacking police personnel and obstructing public servants’ lawful discharge of duty.
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Authorities have deployed thousands of paramilitary soldiers in the state and arrested nearly 100 of his supporters. Singh’s wife was prevented from leaving India last week. Very little was known about Singh until he arrived in Punjab state in 2022 and began leading marches calling for the protection of rights for Sikhs, who account for about 1.7% of India’s population.
Singh claims to draw inspiration from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh militant leader accused by the Indian government of leading an armed insurgency for Khalistan in the 1980s. Bhindranwale and his supporters were killed in 1984 when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion. Singh has styled himself after Bhindranwale with a long, flowing beard. He also dresses like Bhindranwale.
Singh also heads Waris Punjab De, or Punjab’s Heirs, an organisation that was part of a huge campaign to mobilise farmers against controversial agriculture reforms being pushed by the government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi. The legislation triggered a year of protests that began in 2020, as farmers – most of them Sikhs from Punjab state – camped on the outskirts of New Delhi through a harsh winter and devastating coronavirus surge. The protests ended after Modi’s government withdrew the legislation in November 2021.
Waris Punjab De was founded by Deep Sidhu, an Indian actor who died in 2022 in a traffic accident. Singh’s speeches have become increasingly popular among supporters of the Khalistan movement, which is banned in India. Officials see it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. Even though the movement has waned over the years, it still has some support in Punjab and beyond, including in countries such as Canada, the US and the UK, which are home to a sizeable Sikh diaspora.
Last month, supporters of the movement pulled down the Indian flag at the country’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s windows in a show of anger against the move to arrest Singh. India’s foreign ministry denounced the incident and summoned the UK’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest against what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London.
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