India is facing a growing challenge from a Sikh separatist movement that seeks to establish an independent nation called Khalistan in the state of Punjab. The movement has been outlawed by the Indian government as a grave national security threat, but it has gained momentum and support among some Sikhs within the country and overseas.
The latest flashpoint came on Saturday, when authorities launched a massive operation to arrest Amritpal Singh, a popular leader within the Khalistan movement. Singh is accused of inciting violence and sedition against the state. He has been on the run since March 2, when he escaped from police custody after being arrested for allegedly hoisting a Khalistan flag at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Amritsar.
Sikh separatist leader evades arrest as India struggles to contain Khalistan movement in Punjab
The Punjab government imposed a 24-hour internet ban across the state to prevent any incitement to violence and any disturbance of peace and public order. The internet shutdown was extended for a third time to midday Tuesday, affecting about 27 million people in one of India’s most extensive blackouts in recent years.
Singh’s supporters have staged protests and rallies across Punjab, some holding swords and sticks, demanding his release and challenging the authorities. Police and paramilitary troops have been deployed across several districts in the state to maintain law and order. At least 112 people have been arrested so far, while Singh remains elusive.
Sikh separatists spark unrest in Punjab as India braces for more violence
The Khalistan movement dates back to decades ago, when some Sikhs demanded a separate homeland for their minority faith. The movement turned violent in the 1980s under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who inspired groups such as Dal Khalsa to take up arms against the Indian state. The violence reached a climax in June 1984 when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, to capture armed separatists. Thousands of people were killed and much of the temple was destroyed.
The carnage roiled the Sikh community and India’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the operation, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984. This triggered anti-Sikh riots across India that claimed more lives.
India faces renewed threat from Sikh secessionists in Punjab amid internet shutdown
The Khalistan movement has since lost much of its steam within India, but it has found support among some Sikhs living abroad. In recent years, there have been attempts to revive it through social media campaigns and political lobbying. Some countries such as Canada have faced criticism from India for allegedly harboring Khalistan sympathizers.
The Indian government has repeatedly asserted its sovereignty over Punjab and rejected any demand for secession. It has also accused Pakistan of supporting and funding Sikh militants to destabilize India.
The current situation in Punjab poses a serious challenge for India’s internal security and stability. It also raises questions about human rights, freedom of expression and religious tolerance in the world’s largest democracy.