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India’s crackdown on Sikh separatists sparks fears of Khalistan revival

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Ending a five-week manhunt, the Indian police have arrested fugitive Sikh separatist and preacher Amritpal Singh, officials said on Sunday. Singh had been on the run since March after capturing national attention in February when hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station in Ajnala, a town in Punjab state, with wooden batons, swords and guns to demand the release of a jailed aide.

Singh surrendered to police after offering morning prayers at a Sikh shrine in Moga, a town in Punjab state, according to a Sikh religious leader, Jasbir Singh Rodde. Police then arrested him and took him away, he said. Police officer Sukhchain Singh Gill said police had surrounded the village on intelligence that Singh was in the shrine. “Relentless pressure built by the police over the past 35 days left Singh with no choice,” Gill told reporters.

Singh was flown to Dibrugarh in India’s northeast, where he will be detained until he is brought to court to face charges. He is accused of spreading disharmony among people, attempted murder, attacking police personnel and obstructing public servants’ lawful discharge of duty.

Singh is a 30-year-old preacher who has revived calls for an independent Sikh homeland and the secession of India’s northern Punjab state, which has a history of a violent insurgency. He claims to draw inspiration from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh leader accused by the Indian government of leading an armed insurgency for Khalistan in the 1980s. 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 styled himself after Bhindranwale with a long, flowing beard and dresses like him. He also heads Waris Punjab De, or Punjab’s Heirs, an organisation that was part of a huge campaign to mobilize farmers against controversial agriculture reforms being pushed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Punjab suffered a bloody insurgency in the 1980s that led to the killing of India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi. Her assassination in 1984 set off bloody rioting by her Hindu supporters against Sikhs in northern India.

Sikhs are a religious minority in India and say they are discriminated against by the majority Hindus. More than 3,000 people were killed by extremists during the 1980s insurgency in the prosperous farming state.

The police appealed to people to maintain peace and harmony. Authorities have deployed thousands of paramilitary soldiers in the state and arrested nearly 100 of his supporters. Singh’s wife was prevented from leaving India last week.

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