Amritpal Singh. India cuts internet to 27 million as Punjab police chase Sikh separatists

(CNN) Indian authorities have blocked internet access for a third day in a row for some 27 million people in Punjab state, one of the country’s worst shutdowns in recent years, as police search for a fugitive Sikh separatist.

The Punjab government initially announced the 24-hour internet ban on Saturday as authorities began arresting Amritpal Singh, a popular leader of the separatist Khalistan movement, which seeks a sovereign state for followers of the Sikh religion.

The internet blackout affecting everyone in the northern Indian state was extended by the government for a third time until Tuesday afternoon under a law that allows the disconnection to “prevent incitement to violence and any breach or breach of the peace.” public order”.

Punjab police justified the shutdown as a way to maintain law and order and stop the spread of “fake news”.

Dramatic scenes captured on video and broadcast on local television showed hundreds of Singh’s supporters, some carrying swords and sticks, marching through the streets of Punjab. Police and paramilitary troops have been deployed in several districts of the state in an effort to maintain law and order.

At least 112 people have been arrested, Punjab police said Sunday, while Singh remains on the run.

For decades, some Sikhs have demanded that an independent nation called Khalistan be carved out of Punjab province for followers of the minority faith. Over the years, violent clashes have erupted between the movement’s followers and the Indian government, claiming many lives.

Amritpal Singh in Amritsar, India on March 2, 2023.

The violence peaked in June 1984 when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, to capture armed separatists, killing thousands and reducing much of the building to rubble. The massacre shocked the Sikh community, and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the operation, was killed by Sikh bodyguards.

The Khalistan movement is banned and considered a serious threat to national security by the Indian government. but maintains a level of support among some Sikhs at home and abroad.

In a statement on Sunday. The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) condemned the “draconian” operation to arrest Singh. “Singh’s detention could be used to set up a fake encounter and facilitate his extrajudicial killing.”

Over the weekend, some of Singh’s supporters vandalized the Indian High Commission building in London, prompting UK authorities to condemn the incident.

British High Commissioner in India Alex Ellis. called out “shameful” and “totally unacceptable” acts.

In a statement late on Sunday, India’s foreign ministry said it “expects that the UK government will take immediate steps to identify, arrest and prosecute those involved in the incident”.

“There is no place for such behavior in our city. An investigation into today’s events has been launched by the Met,” Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. on Twitter Sunday.

India internet cuts

Internet blackouts are increasingly common in India, which has more than 800 million internet users, the world’s second largest digital population after China.

A report earlier this month by Access Now, a New York-based organization that tracks internet freedom, said India would have 84 internet shutdowns in 2022, marking the fifth year in a row that the world’s largest democracy, with more than 1.3 billion people, has led the world. level. the list.

The outages “impacted the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours,” the report said.

The Internet has become a vital social and economic lifeline for large segments of the population, connecting isolated rural areas of the country with growing cities.

The government has repeatedly tried to justify blocking Internet access on the grounds of maintaining public safety fear of mob violence. But critics say the closures are another blow to the country’s commitment to freedom of speech and access to information.

CNN’s Manveena Suri contributed with reports from New Delhi.

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