03/24/2023, 18.39
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Delhi hunts leader of Khalistan movement, Amritpal Singh.

On the run for nearly a week, the Sikh preacher leads a separatist group in India's Punjab state. Khalistani independence dates back to the era of partition between India and Pakistan. A history of clashes with the central government. The role of the diaspora.

Milan (AsiaNews) - He used five different vehicles in 12 hours to evade capture by police in the Indian state of Punjab as riots broke out in front of diplomatic posts in London and San Francisco in protest of mass arrests of his supporters and the suspension of the internet throughout Punjabi territory.

Amritpal Singh, self-styled Sikh preacher who heads a movement calling for independence for Khalistan, has been on the run for nearly a week. But it is not so much his figure that enjoys support at home and abroad as it is the Khalistani movement, which has survived in various forms since independence and now appears to have regained new vigor after peaking in the 1980s before suffering violent repression by the Delhi authorities. 

Called "Bhindranwale 2.0," in honor of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh militant whom the preacher said he was inspired by, Amritpal Singh had moved to Dubai to pursue his family's transportation business and returned to Punjab last year to take the reins of an organization called Waris Punjab De (Heirs of Punjab) following the death in a car accident of its founder, Deep Sidhu.

"Our goal for Khalistan should not be seen as evil and taboo. It is an ideology and ideology never dies. We are not asking Delhi for it," Singh had declared on Feb. 24. The day before, hundreds of his followers had clashed with the IDF demanding the release of a movement member arrested for an alleged kidnapping case. 

The movement for Khalistan has taken many forms over the years, but has always called for the creation of an independent state in what is now Punjab, a region divided between India and Pakistan and now home to a majority of people of the Sikh faith. 

The political struggle for autonomy began with India's independence in 1947: during the partition with Pakistan, Punjab was the scene of fierce sectarian clashes. Lahore and other important Sikh cult sites, including Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, went to Pakistan.

Thousands of Muslims stranded in India poured toward the new state, while Hindus and Sikhs took the reverse route. Shortly thereafter the Punjabi Suba movement, forerunner of the movement for Khalistan, was born: it called for the creation of a Pujabi-speaking state.

After more than a decade of protests, India's geography was redrawn in 1966 to reflect the movement's demands: Delhi divided the original territory into three, creating Himachal Pradesh and Haryana with a Hindu and Hindi-speaking majority, and Punjab with a Sikh predominance and where Punjabi is spoken primarily. 

As a result of Punjabi Suba's achievements, the political scene in the 1970s was then dominated by the Shiromani Akali Dal, a party actually born in 1920, shortly after Gandhi's Congress and his main rival in Punjab: in 1973, after meeting in the holy city of Anandpur Sahib, the group made a number of demands of Delhi, including one for an autonomous Punjab with its own constitution, but envisioning remaining in the Indian Federation. 

Within the party, however, there was also a more radical current, represented by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The movement for Khalistan sought, among other things, to provide an answer to the socio-economic problems of the people in rural areas, but the popularity Bhindranwale achieved in the early 1980s became a problem for Indira Gandhi's government, which, instead of negotiating, decided it was a secessionist movement.

In 1984 the Indian government launched Operation Blue Star against the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site for Sikhs. On June 6 Bhindranwale was killed and has been considered a martyr ever since. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people died in the clashes. On October 31 of the same year Indira Gandhi is assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. Even by conservative estimates, at least 8 thousand Sikhs have lost their lives to street violence since the assassination of the Congress premier.

According to some observers, those who have protested in support of Singh in recent days are but a minority of Sikhs living abroad. For veteran journalist Terry Milewski, however, "the diaspora is predominantly composed of people who do not want to live in India.

These people include many who remember the bad old days of the 1980s." Today "there is a small minority that clings to the past, and that small minority remains significant not because of popular support, but rather because they are trying to maintain their own political influence with various political parties on the left and right. They can gather a mass of supporters who will vote for politicians who can flatter them."


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