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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Amrit Dhillon in Delhi

Punjab hit by internet blackout as authorities hunt for Sikh preacher

Amritpal Singh, a radical Sikh leader, leaves the holy Sikh shrine of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, earlier this month.
Amritpal Singh, a radical Sikh leader, leaves the holy Sikh shrine of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, earlier this month. Photograph: Reuters

Economic life in the north Indian state of Punjab has been paralysed by an internet shutdown, affecting 30 million people, imposed as part of a huge manhunt for a Sikh preacher fighting for a separate Sikh state.

Police have been searching for Amritpal Singh Sandhu, who is wanted for allegedly disrupting communal harmony, since Saturday.

The internet and SMS shutdown was imposed to stop the spread of fake news but it has also paralysed shops, businesses, colleges and digital payments for everyone in the state. Originally in place until noon (0630 GMT) on Monday, the outage was extended for a further 24 hours.

The extension came after supporters of Singh were filmed vandalising India’s consulate in San Francisco. A similar disturbance took place in London.

In India, more than 100 of Sandhu’s followers have been arrested but he remains on the run. The police were close to arresting him in Bathinda on Saturday when they intercepted his car but Sandhu got away in the ensuing melee.

The preacher was unknown until recently although authorities claim he has been building up a “militia” to fight for independence for some time.

The radical Sikh preacher burst into the national consciousness on 23 February through the audacious rescue of a key aide, Lovepreet Singh Toofan, from police custody.

With a gang of followers brandishing swords and guns, Sandhu stormed the police station in Ajnala demanding Toofan’s release.

Police capitulated to his demand, saying they could not target Sandhu because he was using the Sikh holy book as a shield.

The home minister, Amit Shah, has put the border police on alert to ensure Sandhu does not flee the country.

In February, Sandhu threatened Shah, saying he would meet the same fate as the former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

From the mid-1980s Punjab was convulsed by violence and carnage under a decade-long reign of terror created by armed separatist groups trying to create a Sikh state called Khalistan.

The movement was eventually defeated but it left, according to official estimates, more than 20,000 dead, over half of them civilians caught between the police and the militants.

Apart from a brutal police crackdown on the separatists, another reason for their defeat was loss of support among Sikhs sickened by their indiscriminate violence.

The state has been peaceful since about 1993 but the experience has left a permanent scar on the Indian state. Fear of a revival has lingered, exacerbated by the fact that Punjab borders India’s arch-rival Pakistan.

Analysts say the Punjab state government and New Delhi have been blindsided by Sandhu’s activities and the apparent support he has found among a few disaffected Sikhs.

Little is known about Sandhu except that he is 30 and leads a group called Waris Punjab De (roughly translated as Heirs of Punjab). He became active in Punjab after returning to India last year from Dubai to take over from the group’s leader who had died in a car accident.

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