Indian police arrest Sikh separatist leader after monthlong hunt

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NEW DELHI: Indian authorities arrested separatist leader Amritpal Singh on Sunday, bringing an end to a massive manhunt for the preacher who revived talks for an independent Sikh homeland in the northern state of Punjab, which has a history of violent insurgency.

The 30-year-old self-styled preacher has been on the run since mid-March after evading arrest. He captured national attention in February when he and his supporters broke into a police station in Punjab with swords and guns, injuring six police officials, to demand the release of one of his aides.

Police in Punjab said Singh was detained early Sunday morning, as authorities appealed to the public to maintain peace and harmony.

“Amritpal Singh was arrested by the Punjab Police around 6:45 a.m. today morning in Rode village (in the Moga district of Punjab),” Sukhchain Singh Gill, inspector general of the Punjab Police told reporters.

The fugitive was arrested under the National Security Act, which allows those deemed a threat to national security to be detained without charge for up to a year, he added.

“The NSA warning was issued against Amritpal Singh … Further law will take its own course in this case.”

Singh will be moved to Dibrugarh, in the state of Assam, where some of his associates are already detained.

He is the leader of Waris Punjab De, or Heirs of Punjab, and has publicly supported the Khalistan movement for a separate homeland for Sikhs, a minority community comprising about 1.7 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population.

India’s only Sikh-majority state of Punjab was rocked by violence triggered by the Khalistan movement in the 1980s and early ’90s, which saw the killing of thousands of people.

Singh rose to prominence after the incident in February, stirring fears of violence linked to the separatist insurgency that led to a crackdown by the police last month and saw more than 100 of his supporters arrested.

But many in India say the separatist movement has lost a lot of support in the past few decades.

“The people who are saying that a situation like the 1980s might emerge in Punjab, when there was a strong violent movement for Khalistan, are ignorant about the situation in the 1980s,” Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, told Arab News.

“They are deliberately trying to create a false bogey of a threat for their partisan political ends.”

Singh’s supporters have reportedly compared him to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant leader of the Khalistan movement who was eventually killed in a military operation in 1984.

Although police have accused Singh and his supporters of attempted murder, obstruction of law enforcement and creating disharmony, Sahni said he should not have been arrested under the NSA.

“By invoking the NSA you are putting out a message that someone like Amritpal Singh constitutes a threat to national security, which I consider laughable,” he said.

“Acts like NSA are intended for extreme threats like terrorism or organized crime against the state. These people should be tried under the normal law. This is not the way a strong state responds to a fairly minor threat.”