Sikh separatist contests India election from jail, a worry for government

By Shivam Patel

KHADOOR SAHIB, India (Reuters) – A jailed Sikh separatist leader is contesting India’s general election from prison and drawing good support, his campaign managers said, in what could become a concern for New Delhi which has sought to stamp out any revival of Sikh militancy .

Amritpal Singh, 31, is detained in a high-security prison in Assam, nearly 3,000 km (1,865 miles) from his Khadoor Sahib constituency in Punjab state, where villages and towns are dotted with posters depicting him with swords and bullet-proof vests.

Singh was arrested last year and jailed under a tough security law after he and hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station with swords and firearms, demanding the release of one of his aides.

A win for him in an election to parliament could give Singh some legitimacy and spark concerns of a revival of a militancy that killed tens of thousands of people in the 1970s and 1980s.

“People will make their decision on June 1,” Singh’s father Tarsem, 61, said referring to the voting in the constituency on Saturday. “They will send an important message to those who have maligned his image of him, to those who are defaming our community and our Punjab.”

Tarsem Singh spoke inside a Sikh temple set beside wheat fields and a river canal. Portraits of Sikhs who were killed during the militancy in Punjab, called “martyrs” by Singh’s supporters, were pinned on the walls.

Sikhs are the majority community in Punjab but they constitute just 2% of India’s 1.4 billion people. Sikh militants began agitating for an independent homeland in the 1970s but the insurgency was largely suppressed by the early 1990s with harsh crackdowns.

However, Sikh separatism has made global headlines in the last year as Canada and the United States have accused India of being involved in assassination plots against Sikhs in those countries, charges New Delhi has denied.

Singh said in a 2023 interview that he was seeking a separate homeland for Sikhs and the people of Punjab, where the religion was founded more than 500 years ago.


To be sure, Singh’s campaign is focused on fighting Punjab’s drug problem, freeing former Sikh militants from prison and protecting the Sikh identity in Hindu majority India. His father and aides are careful to avoid any mention of the idea of ​​a Sikh homeland.

“There is a tsunami in the name of Amritpal Singh, anyone who stands against him will be swept off,” said Imaan Singh Khara, 27, Singh’s lawyer.

Community leaders Singh pushed to contest from Khadoor Sahib, a historical center for Sikhs on the border with Pakistan, despite his initial hesitation, his aides said. Indian law allows undertrials to contest polls.

Singh is contesting as an independent and his main rivals – also all Sikhs – belong to the opposition Congress party, the Sikh-centric Shiromani Akali Dal, Punjab’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Amritpal Singh may have some support but not enough to win, said BJP candidate Manjit Singh Manna. “People have seen the militancy days, they don’t want those days to return,” Manna said.

Demand for a separate Sikh nation has more support abroad, but a rise in support for Singh risks giving new legs to extremist politics at a time when mainstream parties are involved in their own rivalries, analysts say.

“Once you weaken the moderates, people get articulation through these fringe radicals, which is a danger signal,” said Pramod Kumar, chairperson of the Institute for Development and Communication, based in the city of Chandigarh.

“Amritpal may win, in a four-cornered contest he may win.”

(Reporting by Shivam Patel in Khadoor Sahib; Additional reporting by Sunil Kataria; Editing by YP Rajesh and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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