Amritpal Singh: Who is he and why was he arrested?

The 30-year-old self-styled preacher and Sikh separatist has been arrested after a month-long manhunt by Indian police.

amritpal singh
Amritpal Singh has been leading marches calling for the protection of the rights of Sikhs, who account for 1.7 percent of India’s population [File: Prabhjot Gill/AP]

Indian police have arrested 30-year-old Sikh separatist Amritpal Singh, who has revived calls for an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab, stirring fears of violence in a state with a history of bloody rebellion.

Here is what you need to know about Singh’s rise to prominence and his arrest:

Who is Amritpal Singh?

Much of Singh’s early life remains shrouded in mystery. He lived in Punjab’s Amritsar district before moving at age 19 to Dubai, where he worked for his family’s transport business. He then returned to India in September last year.

That month he was appointed head of Waris Punjab De, an organisation founded by Deep Sidhu, an Indian actor and activist who died in a road accident in February 2022.

The organisation was part of an enormous campaign to mobilise farmers against agricultural reforms pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Since his return to India, Singh has been leading marches calling for the protection of the rights of Sikhs, who account for 1.7 percent of India’s population.

Singh’s speeches have become increasingly popular among supporters of the Khalistan movement.

Waris Punjab De
Supporters of Waris Punjab De shout slogans at the Akal Takht Secretariat inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar on March 27, 2023 [Prabhjot Gill/AP]

What is the Khalistan movement?

The Khalistan movement began about the time of India’s independence from colonial British rule in 1947 when some Sikhs called for an independent Sikh nation to be created within the state of Punjab.

The movement reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

Singh claims to have drawn inspiration from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a leading figure in the movement during this period. Bhindranwale advocated for greater autonomy within the Punjab state and not a separate Sikh state.

The Indian government accused Bhindranwale of leading an armed uprising that saw thousands of people die over two decades of violence.

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 emulated Bhindranwale’s style, donning similar clothes and growing a long beard.

Addressing a rally in September in Bhindranwale’s home village, Singh said every drop of his blood was dedicated to “freedom for the community”.

“We all are still slaves. … We have to fight for freedom,” Singh said.

The Khalistan movement is considered a security threat by the current Indian government and is banned.

Why was Singh arrested?

The series of events that led to Singh’s arrest began in February when hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station in Punjab with swords and guns to demand the release of a jailed aide.

On March 18, police in Punjab set up roadblocks and deployed thousands of personnel as they tried to arrest him for his involvement in the storming of the police station.

However, Singh was able to escape in a car chase, some of which was livestreamed by his associates.

Indian authorities then launched a month-long manhunt, deploying thousands of paramilitary soldiers and suspending mobile internet services in some areas of Punjab.

Police said they also arrested 154 of Singh’s supporters and seized 10 guns and ammunition while he was on the run.

Singh was eventually arrested on Sunday in Rode village in the Moga district of Punjab at the village gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship. He was arrested under the National Security Act, which allows for those considered a threat to national security to be detained without charge for up to a year.

A top official in the Punjab police force said Singh would be moved to Dibrugarh in the northeastern state of Assam, where some of his associates are already in jail.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies