Massive Manhunt Keeps Punjabis in Northern India on Edge

Tensions are running high in the northern Indian state of Punjab as authorities conduct a massive manhunt for Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh, who has evaded capture since March 18. He is wanted for disrupting communal harmony: on February 23, he and a group of supporters allegedly raided a police station armed with knives, guns, and swords, demanding the release of one of Singh’s aides.

Since then, more than 150 people with alleged connections to Singh have been arrested, and on Saturday, the police blocked mobile internet access for the state’s 30 million residents, 58 per cent of whom are Sikhs. Authorities said they partially restored internet access on March 21.

A brief history of Sikh separatism

Punjab was wracked by a decade of violence starting in the early 1980s, when Sikh separatists demanded an independent homeland they called Khalistan. Amritpral Singh has likened himself to a leading Sikh separatist at the time, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple – Sikhism’s holiest shrine – in 1984. Later that year, prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. In the violence that ensured, thousands of people in Punjab were killed – both Sikh and non-Sikh – by the insurgents and the Indian military. Support for the Khalistan movement is now outlawed in India, thus the manhunt to take Singh into custody.

Fugitive’s rapid – and unlikely – emergence

Amritpral Singh’s emergence as the voice of Sikh separatism was both abrupt and unlikely. Until recently, the 30-year-old was working as a truck driver in the United Arab Emirates. But in early 2022, he seems to have stepped into the void filled by the accidental death of Deep Sidhu, an actor and activist who had championed the cause of Sikhs who were a major force in the farmers’ protest movement of 2020-21. Singh’s fiery speeches have galvanized some in Punjab, but it is not clear whether his ideas have widespread support among the state’s Sikh population.