Internet Blocked in Indian State as Security Forces Pursue Separatist

The authorities on Monday restricted communications across the Indian state of Punjab for a third day as a manhunt continued for a Sikh separatist leader, whose rapid rise in the public eye has stirred fears of violence in a state with vivid memories of a bloody separatist insurgency.

The statewide search for Amritpal Singh, 30 — who leads a group called Waris Punjab De, meaning “the heirs of Punjab” — comes a month after the self-styled preacher and hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station with swords and firearms, demanding the release of one of his aides. Six police officials were injured in the clash.

For many in India, the images of Mr. Singh’s armed followers chasing police officers in the city of Amritsar raised memories of the 1980s in Punjab, India’s only Sikh-majority state, when thousands of people were killed during an insurgency by Sikh separatists that raged for years.

Internet service has been blocked and telephone communications restricted in Punjab since Saturday, when the manhunt began. Local police officials said the government has deployed thousands of paramilitary soldiers to Punjab, many of whom have been patrolling streets and setting up checkpoints.

Satinder Singh, a senior police official in Amritsar, said the separatist leader was being sought in connection with the storming of the police station.

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Sukhchain Singh Gill, the inspector general of police for Punjab, said 114 people have been arrested so far. “Amritpal is still on the run,” he said.

On Sunday in London, in a show of anger over the crackdown in Punjab and the move to arrest Mr. Singh, Sikh separatists climbed the balcony of the Indian High Commission, lowered India’s national flag and tried to raise the flag of Khalistan, as the movement calls its would-be homeland. India summoned a senior British diplomat in New Delhi to protest what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London.

Promoting the Khalistan cause has been outlawed in India, but it is still a rallying cry for some Sikhs in Punjab and among the Sikh diaspora, particularly in Canada and the United Kingdom. In recent years, India has repeatedly expressed displeasure with some Western countries about how easily supporters of the movement have been able to gather and raise funds in their capitals.

Mr. Singh, who for years drove a truck and ran a small car rental business in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was unknown until last year, when he emerged in Punjab and began leading marches joined by thousands of people. He called for protecting the rights of Sikhs and the culture of Punjab against what he called the overreach of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. He has extended his appeal by combining appeals to religious faith with commentary on social issues, such as Punjab’s rampant drug problems.

Mr. Singh, center, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in March. Credit…Narinder Nanu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Singh has encouraged his followers to associate him with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh separatist leader who was killed along with many of his followers in 1984, when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In September, Mr. Singh was honored in a religious ceremony in Mr. Bhindranwale’s home village.

In recent months, besides calling for an independent Sikh state, Mr. Singh has implicitly threatened India’s powerful home minister, Amit Shah. He suggested that Mr. Shah would meet the same fate as Indira Gandhi, the prime minister who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 after she ordered the raid on the Golden Temple, one of the holiest Sikh sites. Her death was followed by widespread violence against Sikhs in New Delhi.

Waris Punjab De, the organization that Mr. Singh now leads, was founded by Deep Sidhu, an actor who died last year in a traffic accident. It was part of a successful campaign to mobilize farmers in Punjab, most of them Sikhs, against an attempt by Mr. Modi to overhaul Indian agriculture, which farmers said would leave them even more vulnerable to corporations at a time when many were struggling with debt.

That yearlong protest movement, which forced Mr. Modi’s government to retract its legislation, turned violent after it culminated in a massive show of strength on India’s Republic Day in the heart of New Delhi in 2021.

On Monday, thousands of farmers, many of them from Punjab, once again descended upon New Delhi, protesting what they called the government’s “unfulfilled promises” since Mr. Modi retracted the bills and promised to study their demand that minimum prices be guaranteed for their crops. They threatened to carry out a larger protest movement than the previous one.

At a time when India’s government has been quick to arrest activists and critics of the government, questions have been raised about why Mr. Modi’s central government and state leaders in Punjab had allowed Mr. Singh to travel around the state for months and mobilize openly for a separatist cause.

Saurabh Bharadwaj, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi Party, which is in power in Punjab, said politics played no role into why action was not taken immediately against Mr. Singh after his takeover of the police station.

“This is a professional operation of the government,” he said. “We will deal with these kind of law and order issues.”

Mujib Mashal and Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting.

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