Balpreet Singh: Sikhs Denounce India’s Draconian Operation Against Amritpal Singh
"Diaspora organizations and bodies have begun to call on their respective governments to demand accountability from India so that civil rights are not suppressed and democratic norms are respected."
March 18, 2023 | 3 min. read | Original Reporting
Updated as of March 27, 2023
Sikhs worldwide have condemned the security operations in Punjab to arrest Sikh leader Bhai Amritpal Singh. Indian authorities have announced the mass suspension of internet services across Punjab until 12 pm Sunday, citing a threat to “public order by incitement to violence.” [Editor’s Update as of March 22: the suspension of services has been extended to March 23, 2023, in some parts of Punjab). State-wide cordon and search operations are currently underway across Punjab.
In addition to the mass arrests of associates of Bhai Amritpal Singh and other Sikh activists, Section 144 of the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure has also been invoked in multiple areas in Punjab. The colonial-era law prohibits the gathering of four or more people and those found in violation of the order can be charged with rioting.
Many fear the extrajudicial killings of Sikh activists in the guise of ‘fake encounters’ in the current circumstances.
Bhai Amritpal Singh, head of the Waris Punjab De (Heirs of Punjab) organization, has recently become prominent in Punjab with his successful campaign to inspire Punjabi youth to reject drugs and embrace the Sikh faith. Amritpal Singh has also been open and unapologetic in his support for Khalistan, a sovereign Sikh state, and highlighting discrimination against the Sikh community in India.
Today, as Bhai Amritpal Singh was travelling to a religious program, a special police team of over 100 police cars began to pursue his convoy. Police forces from eight districts were deployed to facilitate the arrest. According to initial reports, after a chase, Bhai Amritpal Singh and his companions were taken into custody and transported to an undisclosed location. In a recent news release, however, the Punjab government has said that Bhai Amritpal Singh is not in custody and a manhunt is taking place to find and arrest him. [Editor’s Update as of March 22: The Punjab and Haryana High Court, in a habeas corpus plea from WPD lawyer Imam Singh Khara, have demanded that the Punjab Police provide a fresh affidavit on Amritpal Singh’s whereabouts, questioning the police narrative that Amritpal Singh is still at large.]
Bhai Amritpal Singh’s village, Jallupur Khera in Baba Bakala District of Amritsar, has been sealed and surrounded by police and India’s Rapid Action Force. All major roads in Punjab currently have checkpoints by paramilitary forces. There are also reports of Sikh activists across Punjab being detained by police. According to reports, at least 78 persons have so far been taken into custody. [Editor’s Update as of March 22: reports and sources share that hundreds of Sikhs have now been picked up across Punjab, as further arbitrary arrests are underway. Official accounts show over 150 have been arrested.]
No reasons have been provided by the government for these draconian measures or for the arrest of Bhai Amritpal Singh and his companions. Indian colonial-era laws like the National Security Act, allow authorities to detain individuals without charge for up to 12 months. [Editor’s Update as of March 20: So far, five detainees have been held under the NSA and have also been transferred to jails in the state of Assam]
The suspension of civil liberties in Punjab will also impact other protests taking place in the state, such as the Quami Insaaf Morcha (National Justice Agitation) in Mohali, which is calling for the release of Sikh political prisoners, and also the commemorations of the first anniversary of the murder of Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala which were scheduled for tomorrow. [Editor’s Update as of March 20: Moose Wala’s barsi occurred as organized and was attended by thousands despite attempts to obstruct travel. Moose Wala’s parents denounced the Punjab government, and his mother suggested that Sikhs continue to live in slavery, as evidenced by the actions against Amritpal Singh.]
Diaspora actors have also begun to raise their voices against the crackdown.
“The suspension of the internet in Punjab along with deployment of paramilitary forces to arrest Bhai Amritpal Singh and other Sikh activists is deeply disturbing. State-wide blackouts have been a tool of genocide and were used in 1984 to facilitate the mass killing of Sikhs by the Indian state. The Indian state has once again demonstrated that it is willing to suspend civil liberties arbitrarily, without justification, using colonial-era laws. Today’s extreme and oppressive measures appear to have clear political motivations to silence Bhai Amritpal Singh and intimidate his supporters into silence,” shared the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO)’s president, Tejinder Singh.
Sikhs are also concerned about the risk of extrajudicial murder, as Tejinder Singh shares, “we are also deeply concerned that the confusion around Bhai Amritpal Singh’s detention may be used to orchestrate a false encounter and facilitate his extrajudicial murder. This tactic was commonly used by the Punjab police through the 80’s and 90’s to eliminate Sikh activists.”
Diaspora organizations and bodies have begun to call on their respective governments to demand accountability from India so that civil rights are not suppressed and democratic norms are respected. [Editor’s Update as of March 23: Canada’s Foreign Minister shared that the Canadian government is "aware of the evolving situation in Punjab and we are following it very closely" and that it hopes for a "more stable situation.” Politicians from the UK, USA and Australia have also voiced concerns.]
[Editor’s Update as of March 20: Many social media accounts belonging to Sikh journalists and civil liberty organizations, both within and outside India, have been withheld in India on government orders, including Baaz News. Protests are being held across the diaspora.]
[Editor’s Update as of March 22: NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, has called on the Canadian government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to boycott G20 events in Chandigarh and Kashmir and also ban BJP officials that have made threats against minorities and Canadian Members of Parliament that expressed concerns around the suppression of civil liberties and democratic rights in Punjab.]
[Editor’s Update as of March 27: The Akal Takht has issued demands of the Indian government regarding those that have been detained by the police and other suppressions of civil liberties.]
Balpreet Singh hails from Toronto, Canada, and is the spokesperson and legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
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