NEW DELHI – Till a few months ago, Sikh separatist and self-styled preacher Amritpal Singh, a Canadian permanent resident, was unknown in India.
Now, the country cannot look away as a massive manhunt, closely tracked by the Indian media, is under way to catch Singh, who supports Khalistan or a separate Sikh homeland.
The episode has triggered memories of a separatist movement in the state of Punjab in which tens of thousands of people were killed in the 1980s.
Wanted by the police for fanning communal tensions, the 29-year-old, who last returned to India in September 2022 and heads Waris Punjab De, which means Heirs of Punjab, has so far managed to outwit the police and intelligence agencies.
To prevent unrest, the police shut down the Internet for three days for 27 million people in the state. They have accused Singh and his supporters of attempted murder, obstruction of law enforcement and creating disharmony.
More than 200 people have been taken into preventive custody by the police to maintain peace while members of Singh’s family have been questioned over his whereabouts.
He got married in February to Ms Kirandeep Kaur, a British-based non-resident Indian, at his family’s village in Amritsar in Punjab.
The chain of events leading to his manhunt started after Singh’s supporters, armed with swords and guns, stormed a police station, seeking the release of key aide Lovepreet Singh on Feb 24.
Police said the latter was released to maintain peace.
With 80,000 police personnel on Singh’s tail, his dramatic escape since March 18 has involved a high-speed car chase through the city of Ludhiana in Punjab, changing his appearance and switching from cars to motorbikes.
The reverberation of the hunt is being felt most among certain sections of the Sikh diaspora, especially in Britain, Australia and Canada, where support for the Khalistani movement has continued.
Khalistan supporters vandalised the Indian consulate in San Francisco and managed to lower the Indian flag in the Indian High Commission in Britain.
New Delhi, in retaliation for the lapse in Britain, reduced visible security for the British High Commission in India, by taking away some barricades.
North-western India’s Punjab state was wracked by a violent separatist movement in the 1980s. Sikhism – a religion founded by Guru Nanak – is now practised by 57.7 per cent of the state’s 27 million population.
The movement for a separate homeland of Khalistan was snuffed out after a 1984 Indian Armed Forces operation killed its leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar.
That action also led to the assassination of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in the same year.
Singh became increasingly immersed in the developments in Punjab, taking part in the 2020 to 2021 protests against agricultural reforms by Punjab farmers, many of whom are Sikh. According to Indian media reports, he started gaining traction through Facebook live and ClubHouse chat groups, where he aired his views on Khalistan and other issues, including drug use facing Punjab’s youth.
For the most part of the last decade, he lived in Dubai, working in his family’s transport business before the high-profile return to Punjab last year.
He went from trimmed hair and beard to wearing a blue turban as well as keeping a long beard and a sacred dagger or a kirpan.
His LinkedIn profile describes him as an engineer by training and an experienced operations manager with a demonstrated history of working in transport and trucking. Indian media reports suggest he may not have completed his education.
At some point, he became associated with actor and activist Deep Sidhu, who founded Waris Punjab De in September 2021. It was formed as a social organisation to “fight for the rights of Punjab” and protect the state’s “culture, language and social fabric”.
Mr Sidhu died in a car crash in February 2022 and Singh took over in spite of objections from the actor’s family.
Singh started urging people to fight for Punjab’s “freedom”, maintaining that this is the path to protecting the culture and rights of Punjab.
In September 2022, he took part in a succession ceremony in Bhindranwale’s village with thousands of supporters. In interviews, he has spoken of his admiration for Bhindranwale.
“Bhindranwale is my inspiration. I will walk the path shown by him. I want to be like him because that’s what every Sikh wants, but I am not copying him. I am not even equal to the dust on his feet,” he said, according to The Indian Express newspaper.
Professor Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist from Panjab University, believes Singh’s importance is overblown.
He said: “In some speeches, he is imitating Bhindranwale. He was just an ordinary Punjabi boy doing business abroad.”
He added: “But the litmus test (of whether he has buy-in from the public) has happened.
“People are not buying the kind of rhetoric perpetrated by Amritpal, people are not giving him shelter and people are not coming on the street.”
While some believe that the latest developments have the potential to blow up against the backdrop of growing unemployment among the young as well as drug problems, others believe that Singh’s influence is limited.
The issue of Khalistan remains on the fringe in Punjab and has been a non-matter during elections, noted academics.
Professor Jagrup Singh Sekhon, who teaches political science at Guru Nanak Dev University, said: “He was given a larger than life image by the state. The media is making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Explaining the ethos of Sikhism, he added: “The Khalistan issue remains in the diaspora. If you take Punjab, the state has a composite culture of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims living together. The teachings of Guru Nanak talk of universal brotherhood.”
Still, there is concern over these developments in Punjab. This is because the state borders Pakistan and there is a problem of cross-border smuggling of fake currency, drugs and arms. There are often reports of law enforcement agencies recovering drugs or arms dropped by drones.
There are worries that separatists could get aid in the form of money and arms from elements harmful to Indian interests from across the border in Pakistan.
“Even if the youth may not be happy, even if the farming sector is not doing well and some kind of unrest is there, which is an all-India phenomenon, that doesn’t mean the people of Punjab will support militancy or a return of violence,” said Prof Kumar.
But he warned: “These kinds of people will keep coming. There is a dangerous cocktail of drugs, fake money, diaspora, unemployment. So the police have to be vigilant.”