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Conspiracy Theories Swirl Around Sikh Separatist Amritpal Singh Sandhu

Amritpal Singh Sandhu is no longer on the run. Since March, the 30-year-old proponent of an independent Sikh state—to be carved from India’s Punjab province—had eluded a massive manhunt that commenced after he escaped an attempted arrest during a dramatic car chase in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar on March 18. Singh is wanted in numerous criminal cases, including attempted homicide. Before his April 23 arrest, Singh gave one final address at a gurdwara (a Sikh temple). Many of Singh’s associates have already been wrapped up and dispatched to the Dibrugarh Central Jail in India’s Assam province, but Singh remained elusive despite promises to surrender before Baisakhi (April 14) at the Sikh’s holiest of holies, the Golden Temple, before eventually surrendering.
The Sikh empire was once a mighty force in the subcontinent, and many Sikhs have never given up the aspiration for a state of their own based in Punjab, known as the Khalistan movement after the putative name of a Sikh nation. Sikh separatism—and communal violence against Sikhs—has been part of the Indian political landscape since independence. In his rhetoric and his clothes, Singh is trying hard to recall another charismatic young leader of the Khalistan movement who disported with armed escorts, claimed to be a Sikh religious and political leader, and launched a campaign of terror: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of a radical separatist movement in 1984.
Yet Indians have been bewildered by Singh and his seven-month political career that seemingly manifested from nothing—and wondering who is behind this sudden celebrity. When I was in Punjab during December 2022 and January 2023, few people had heard of him before the fall of 2022. The Sikh community in Punjab is tightly knit, so when Singh emerged, many Punjabis suspected a hidden hand propelling him to prominence. Throughout Punjab, questions continue to swirl about just who is backing Singh—and why.
Singh has become another piece in the conspiratorial puzzle of Indian politics. While some Punjabis accuse the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government of using Singh to bring down the Aam Aadmi Party, the BJP’s opposition in Punjab, others suspect that he is an agent of Pakistan’s dreaded intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, backed by foreign financing possibly coming from pro-Khalistan elements in the global Sikh diaspora.
There are plenty of mysteries around Singh’s origins. He was born in January 1993 in the Amritsar district of India’s Punjab province. After finishing the 10th grade in Amritsar District, he claims to have enrolled in a mechanical engineering program in 2009 at the Lord Krishna Polytechnic College in Kapurthala. He seems to have dropped out as soon as he joined, as no faculty member can recall his presence. In 2012, Singh moved to Dubai, where he helped with his family’s transport business. He had an online social media presence, supporting the mass farmers’ protest movement, which began in 2020 and was predominantly led by Sikh farmers protesting against the new agricultural regulations introduced nationwide by the BJP government, and complaining about issues in Punjab.

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