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Why is India's Khalistan separatist movement on the rise?

Nidhi Suresh in New Delhi
March 22, 2023

Indian authorities are carrying out a massive manhunt for Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh. As he evades the police, his popularity haunts Punjab as a reminder of once deadly tensions.

Raman Singh (L) holds a photo of Sikh organizer Amritpal Singh while protesting against the Indian government outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco on March 20, 2023
Amritpal Singh's popularity among Sikhs has stirred fears of violence in Punjab stateImage: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

The Amritsar district in India's northern Punjab state is on high alert as authorities try to track down Amritpal Singh, a self-styled preacher who heads a radical organization that demands a separate Sikh homeland known as "Khalistan."

Several major roads are blocked, internet services have been cut in many regions, and authorities have blocked several Sikh twitter accounts. More than 100 people have been detained in connection with the investigation.

Singh's popularity and calls for a separate Sikh nation have stirred fears of violence in Punjab state.

Sikh separatist tension in India

In the 1980s, during the decade-long insurgency led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, thousands of people were killed in Punjab.

Bhindranwale was a Sikh separatist leader who was killed in 1984 when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

In 1984, after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, anti-Sikh riots broke out and over 3,000 Sikhs were killed in New Delhi alone. Thousands were left displaced across the country.

As Singh continues to evade the police, his rise in popularity and the ensuing crackdown haunt Punjab as a reminder of a bloody past.

On Sunday, a group of people carrying banners that said "Khalistan" vandalized and removed the Indian flag from the balcony of the Indian High Commission in London. A day later, pro-Khalistan protesters damaged the Indian Consulate in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Punjab and Haryana high court criticized police for having failed to apprehend Singh quickly.

"You have 80,000 police. How has he not been arrested? If he escaped, this is an intelligence failure," the court said.

Between India and Pakistan - The Sikh Dilemma

Who is Amritpal Singh?

Singh, 30, first gained popularity after moving to Dubai in 2012, where he joined his family's transport business and drove trucks.

During his time in Dubai, Singh gained a following on social media, where his separatist views and ideas of Sikh unity amassed a lot of young followers.

In August 2022, Singh traveled back to India and was appointed the head of  Waris Punjab De (WPD), which translates to "Heirs of Punjab."

Until then the organization had been led by Deep Sidhu, an actor and activist who died in a car accident in 2022.

Singh's LinkedIn profile shows a photo of him in a shirt, sporting a neatly trimmed beard and a short haircut.

However, when Singh returned to India, he adorned a distinctly different look. He began wearing only traditional Sikh clothes and a turban. He grew his beard, wore a steel bangle on his wrist and the kirpan — a dagger that hangs at the hip.

People began noticing Singh's resemblance to Bhindranwale. Singh has been vocal about drawing inspiration from the former leader. In a symbolic move, when Singh was appointed the head of the WPD, the ceremony was held in Bhindranwale's ancestral village.

Why is Singh gaining popularity?

Amandeep Sandhu, a Punjabi writer and journalist, told DW that Singh has tapped into social problems in Punjab after returning to India, which has resonated with people there.

One of the first things Singh did when he reached Punjab was to set up a drug rehab center. For decades, Punjab has suffered from a widespread drug abuse problem, which is combined with high unemployment.

A study conducted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), revealed that in the state of 30 million people, 15% of the population are consuming drugs.

Pakistan: Quetta Sikhs celebrate return of temple

Meanwhile, a 2021 economic survey reported that Punjab has an unemployment rate of 7.4%, one of the highest in India. Even though both drugs and unemployment have consistently ranked high as issues in political polls, politicians have yet to provide results.

Singh, however, took on the drug issue head on. Simultaneously, he began leading processions and giving speeches promoting the idea of Khalistan and threatening officials from India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

While Singh has managed to mobilize large groups during his speeches, his popularity and impact in Punjab remains contested.

Sandeep Singh, a journalist based in Punjab, interviewed Singh while he was still in Dubai.

"Most of his supporters are youngsters who realized that unlike politicians, Singh was addressing issues that plague Punjab," he told DW.

The spokesperson for Punjab's chief minister, Bhagwant Mann, told DW that he believes Singh's popularity is a "social media issue," and that police will soon arrest the Sikh separatist.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn