Amritpal Singh is a mechanical engineer, businessman, Sikh preacher and now a fugitive.
The 30-year-old gained social media stardom over the past year or so with speeches calling for a separate homeland, known as Khalistan, for Sikhs, who make up the majority of the population in the Indian state of Punjab.
Singh’s separatist ideas have unnerved the authorities because India has had a violent history of Sikh separatism. Thousands of police have been chasing Singh for more than two weeks. TV channels have reported on Singh’s whereabouts, often blurring the line between fact and rumour. They have seen surveillance footage from street corners that they say shows him first getting into an SUV, moving to a smaller vehicle and finally fleeing on a motorcycle.
Even as the police closed in on him, Singh reportedly stopped gurudwara — Sikh religious place — for changing food and clothes.
Singh himself posted a video saying that he is the one who chooses when to surrender. But he did not specify when and how he will do it.
The nation remains transfixed, though opinions about Singh and his campaign are mixed.
“If you talk to Punjabis here, it’s like that. “But he has become an icon for Punjabis abroad. And this incident made him an even bigger icon.”
Toor writes about farmers’ rights and lived in the US for many years before returning to India.
Tur said that Sikhs living in India generally do not support the idea of a separate nation. Many Sikhs in India are old enough to remember what happened when Sikh separatist militants clashed with security forces in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.
Calls for a separate Sikh nation were strong in those days. The Indian Army not only drove tanks into Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, but also killed a charismatic Sikh separatist leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had barricaded himself inside the temple. Singh styles himself in Bhindranwale.
In response to the temple attack, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. After that, the nation saw widespread violence against Sikhs.
Thousands of people were killed and many were maimed and tortured. Those who remember the violence are tired of separatism, according to Tour. But the youth of Punjab, who did not witness those days, were seduced by the idea of a Sikh nation, Toor said.
One of the biggest issues raised by Singh is drug abuse in Punjab, which affects millions of youth in the state. Singh blamed the authorities for not doing enough to control it.
“Are you seeing an epidemic of drug genocide here?” Days before the escape, Singh said in the local media. “Who controls the drugs? Who is responsible? [for ending] this epidemic. Who doesn’t take a step?’
If it had a separate country, Singh said, it would be better.
Ashutosh Kumar, who teaches political science at Punjab University, echoed Tur, saying such ideology is not prevalent in Punjab.
“Few people believe that a single country is the solution,” Kumar said.
Moreover, Punjab’s problems have deeper economic roots. Punjab is one of the largest producers of food grains in India. However, Kumar added, the agricultural sector is in deep crisis.
“The quality of the soil has gone down, the water level has gone down, farmers are in debt, industries are not coming, there is no investment in Punjab,” he said. “So, youth [are] totally disappointed.”
That’s why a separate country can be tempting for some, Tour said. “For any inflammatory idea, you’re going to get a lot of people behind you, especially when there’s illiteracy and opportunities for anyone to wait.”
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