Internet shutdowns, dozens of arrests and a manhunt. What's happening in India's Punjab state?
Police in India's northwestern state of Punjab, the country's only Sikh-majority state, say they are on the hunt for a prominent voice in the separatist movement and have taken extraordinary steps to find him.
Punjabi police say they're carrying out a "mega crackdown" to apprehend Amritpal Singh, dubbed a "self-styled preacher" in India's English-language media. Police say he was able to "slip" away Saturday during an attempt to arrest him and a group of his followers. Officers have since made more than 100 "preventative arrests" of people they say were "attempting to disturb law and order."
Officials have also restricted gatherings in some areas to a maximum of four people and set up road checks in the state with a large separatist movement campaigning for an independent Sikh homeland which they call Khalistan.
In February, a large crowd of supporters stormed a police station in a village near Amritsar demanding the release of one of Singh's associates, who had been detained in a kidnapping case.
Mobile internet connections, including SMS messages, have been largely cut off in the state since Saturday and are expected to remain blocked until at least noon local time on Thursday. Broadband services are not affected.
While authorities say such measures are needed to maintain order and prevent the spread of "fake news," members of the Sikh community in Punjab, and in Canada, are critical.
"There is not a clear sense of why these measures were necessary," said Harjeet Singh Grewal, who teaches Sikh studies at the University of Calgary.
Nearly 25 per cent of the world's Sikhs live outside of India, including more than 750,000 in Canada, meaning events in Punjab are being watched closely far beyond the state's borders.
Grewal, like many other Sikhs in Canada, is concerned for the "potential violation of human rights" as Indian authorities limit communications as they pursue Singh. It's also happening at a time when many Punjabi people from Canada would be traveling to the state to see family.
Who is Amritpal Singh?
Police, who have accused Singh and his supporters of attempted murder, obstruction of law enforcement and creating disharmony, said he "absconded" when officers tried to block his motorcade and arrest him.
Punjab's top police officer, Sukhchain Gill, told Reuters Amritpal Singh had set up a militia called Anandpur Khalsa Fauj, the logos of which were found on the gate of his house and on the rifles and bullet-proof jackets police recovered there.
Thirty-year-old Amritpal Singh has only recently risen to prominence in Punjab, a state of about 31 million people.
Many Sikhs in Hindu-majority India say they face discrimination and oppression, charges Indian authorities deny.
Amritpal Singh returned to India last August, becoming leader of a group whose name translates to the "Heirs of Punjab." Prior to that, while living in Dubai for 10 years, he found a following debating Punjab-related issues in online forums such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.
From social issues to separatism
At the helm of this group, Amritpal Singh has been able to attract young followers with a message that resonated with them.
"Drug use and drug deaths are actually skyrocketing, and [Singh's] message was that youth need to get off drugs and return to their [religious] roots," said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel and spokesperson for the Toronto-based World Sikh Organization (WSO).
Amritpal Singh has also spoken about the desire for a sovereign Sikh state, saying at a rally in September that "each drop of [his] blood is dedicated to the freedom of our community."
The University of Calgary's Grewal said, according to a Supreme Court of India ruling, it's not illegal to promote separatist aspirations in India, so long they are non-violent.
But Amritpal Singh has also been accused of threatening Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, saying he would suffer the same fate as Indira Gandhi, India's then prime minister, assassinated amid a Sikh militant insurgency and counterinsurgency in the 1980s and 90s which left thousands dead.
Gandhi sent the military into the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs, in 1984 to root out the insurgency's leader and his supporters in a bloody episode that infuriated Sikhs around the world.
A few months later, Gandhi was shot by her two Sikh bodyguards at her home in Delhi.
Shivaji Mukherjee, a University of Toronto Mississauga professor who studies political violence in India, said the Indian government is "always worried that there could be some potential radical elements, whether in the diaspora in Canada or England or in the Middle East, to come back and try to spread … seeds of discontent."
"This particular government [of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party] being Hindu nationalist and more conservative probably is even more worried," he said.
WATCH | Canadian academics face threats over criticism of Hindu nationalism:
Internet shutdown leader
With mobile internet connections, including text messages, still being blocked, WSO's Balpreet Singh is concerned about a possible "information blackout."
He said that could allow authorities to carry out a more severe crackdown, as happened back during the 1984 assault on the Golden Temple, when thousands of Sikhs were killed.
Although broadband internet connections are working, as are landline telephones, he explained most people in Punjab rely on mobile internet communications.
WATCH | India blocks internet access in parts of Punjab state :
The Government of Punjab says the blockage is in "the interest of public safety [and] to prevent any incitement of violence."
But severing some digital communications to stymie dissent is a familiar practice; India has been dubbed a world leader in internet shutdowns and has been condemned for it by human rights groups.
According to the website Access Now's Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project, India accounted for 58 per cent of internet shutdowns globally in 2022.
LISTEN: Indian government uses emergency powers to block Modi documentary: