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Indian police arrest Sikh separatist leader after long hunt

Amritpal Singh had been on the run since last month after capturing national attention in February, when hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station in Ajnala, a town in Punjab state, with wooden batons, swords and guns to demand the release of a jailed aide

Sikh separatist leader and head of Waris Punjab De, or Punjab's Heirs, Amritpal Singh, talks to his supporters in the village Jallupur Khera, near Amritsar, India, Saturday, Jan.7, 2023.
Sikh separatist leader and head of Waris Punjab De, or Punjab's Heirs, Amritpal Singh, talks to his supporters in the village Jallupur Khera, near Amritsar, India, Saturday, Jan.7, 2023.PRABHJOT GILL (AP)

Indian police on Sunday arrested a separatist leader who has 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 last month after capturing national attention in February, when hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station in Ajnala, a town in Punjab state, with wooden batons, swords and guns to demand the release of a jailed aide.

Punjab state police tweeted Sunday that Singh was arrested in Moga, a town in the state.

A Sikh religious leader, Jasbir Singh Rodde, said Singh surrendered after offering morning prayers at a Sikh shrine in Moga.

Police officer Sukhchain Singh Gill said police had surrounded the village on intelligence that Singh was in the shrine. “Relentless pressure built by the police over the past 35 days left Singh with no choice,’’ Gill told reporters.

He said the police didn’t enter the shrine, implying that Singh was taken into custody after he left. Gill declined to confirm whether Singh surrendered as claimed by his supporters. Singh was flown to Dibrugarh in India’s northeast where he will be detained until he is brought to court to face charges.

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 assassination in 1984 triggered bloody rioting by her Hindu supporters against Sikhs in northern India.

Ashwini Dubey, a lawyer in Punjab state, said Singh’s arrest would help police dismantle the separatist network and its supporters.

Tavleen Singh, a political commentator and former journalist who covered the Punjab insurgency in the 1980s, said: “The police took this man out, which is good because had they gone into a gurdwara (Sikh shrine), and started shooting you would have had a reaction from the general populous. The Sikhs happen to be very sensitive to gurdwaras being attacked.”

Sikhs are a religious minority in India and say they are discriminated against by the majority Hindus. More than 3,000 people were killed by extremists during the 1980s insurgency in the prosperous farming state. The insurgency was crushed by Indian forces by 1990.

Punjab borders India-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of supporting, training and arming insurgents, a charge Islamabad denies.

Police declared Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, a fugitive and accused him and his aides of creating discord in the state. Police accused them of spreading disharmony among people, attempted murder, attacking police personnel and obstructing public servants’ lawful discharge of duty.

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 organization that was part of a massive campaign to mobilize farmers against controversial agriculture reforms being pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. 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 like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, which are home to a sizable 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 U.K.’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London. The supporters of the Khalistan movement also vandalized the Indian Consulate in San Francisco in the United States.

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