The ongoing hunt for a hard-line Sikh separatist in India’s western state of Punjab has culminated in a diplomatic clash with the United Kingdom.
On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the country will review security at the Indian High Commission in London following “unacceptable acts of violence” against mission staff.
Cleverly’s statement came shortly after India, in an alleged tit-for-tat move, removed temporary security barricades outside the British High Commission in New Delhi, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Earlier this week, India also summoned the top British diplomat in New Delhi to protest the actions of “separatist and extremist elements” against the country’s mission in London.
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An abandoned security post outside the residence of the British envoy in New Delhi after security barricades were removed on Wednesday (Manish Swarup/AP)
How did it get this far?
It all started on Saturday after police in Punjab launched a search for Amritpal Singh, a separatist leader who has revived calls for an independent Sikh homeland, fueling fears of violence in a state with a history of bloody rebellion.
Police accuse Singh, 30, and his aides of creating strife in the state, which is haunted by the memories of a violent separatist movement in the 1980s for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
The move sparked a controversial military operation by the Indian government that killed thousands, according to official estimates.
Demonstrators outside the Consulate General of India in San Francisco (File: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo)
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Authorities have sent thousands of paramilitary soldiers to the state and suspended mobile internet services in some areas to prevent unrest, Sukhchain Singh Gill, the inspector general of the Punjab Police, said on Wednesday.
He said police have so far arrested 154 Singh supporters and seized 10 guns and ammunition while the pastor was on the run.
Who is Amritpal Singh?
Singh, who has said he supports the Khalistan movement, drew national attention in February when hundreds of his supporters stormed a Punjab police station at gunpoint to demand the release of a captured aide.
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Very little is known about Singh, who worked in Dubai for ten years in his family’s transport company before returning to India in September last year.
He has since led marches calling for the rights of Sikhs, who make up about 1.7 percent of India’s population, to be protected.
Police and security personnel patrol a village near Amritsar in the Indian state of Punjab (Narinder Nanu/AFP)
Singh claims to take inspiration from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh rebel leader accused by the Indian government of leading an armed rebellion for Khalistan that began in the 1970s.
Bhindranwale and his supporters were killed in 1984 when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.
Singh’s speeches have become increasingly popular among supporters of the Khalistan movement, which is banned in India.
Speaking at a September rally in the home village of Bhindranwale, Singh said every drop of his blood was dedicated to “freedom for the community”.
“We are all still slaves… We have to fight for freedom,” Singh said.
Indian officials view the movement and its affiliated groups as a threat to national security.
Although the movement has declined over the years, it still has some support in Punjab and beyond – including in countries such as the UK and Canada, which are home to a significant Sikh diaspora, as well as the United States and Australia.
An Indian security officer said that while Singh had only a few tens of thousands of followers in India, he had a large social media reach, especially abroad, which the officer linked to the embassy protests.
“What happens on missions abroad is a reaction to the operation against him. There is a direct connection,” said the officer, who declined to be identified.
Amritpal Singh’s residence in Jallupur Khera village near Amritsar (Narinder Nanu/AFP)
Singh also heads Waris Punjab De (Punjab’s Heirs), an organization that was part of a massive campaign to mobilize farmers against controversial agrarian reforms pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The legislation sparked a year of protests that began in 2020, when farmers – most of them Sikhs from the state of Punjab – camped out on the outskirts of New Delhi during a harsh winter and a devastating wave of coronavirus. The protests ended after Modi’s government withdrew the legislation in November 2021.
Waris Punjab De was founded by Deep Sidhu, an Indian actor who died in a road accident in 2022.
How did the UK and US get involved?
The United Kingdom is home to more than half a million Sikhs, the country’s fourth largest religious group. While Sikh separatism has died out in India, pro-secession groups have become active internationally, mainly in the UK, Canada and the US.
India has often complained to foreign governments about the activities of Sikh hardliners in the Indian diaspora who, they say, are trying to revive the armed insurgency with huge financial resources.
A day after the Punjab police launched its operation to arrest Singh, his supporters took down the Indian flag at the High Commission of India in London and smashed the window of the building in a show of anger.
People display an Indian flag from the roof of the Indian High Commission as alleged supporters of the Khalistan movement demonstrate on the streets of London (Kin Cheung/AP Photo)
The BBC and Indian media reported that protesters with “Khalistan” banners unhooked the Indian flag from the balcony on the first floor of the diplomatic mission building to protest the recent police crackdown in Punjab.
A crowd gathered outside the high commission building on Sunday and windows were smashed, according to the BBC, after which India demanded an explanation for the “complete absence of British security” around the property.
India’s foreign ministry denounced the incident and summoned the UK’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi, Alex Ellis, to protest what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London.
Cleverly said police investigations into the acts of violence are continuing and his government will make necessary changes to ensure the safety of Indian mission staff in London.
Indian newspaper The Hindu reported on Wednesday that at least 100 police officers stood guard on both sides of the road outside the High Commission in London on Wednesday.
The supporters of the Khalistan movement also vandalized the Indian consulate in San Francisco on Monday, sparking a strong protest from New Delhi.
“The US government was reminded of its fundamental obligation to protect and secure diplomatic representation. Appropriate measures were requested to prevent the recurrence of such incidents,” a statement from India’s foreign ministry said Monday.
A police officer stands outside the Consulate General of India in San Francisco (File: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo) (TagsToTranslate)News