NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian police have launched a hunt for a Sikh preacher who has revived talk of an independent Sikh homeland and stoked fears of a return to violence that killed tens of thousands of people in 1980s and early 1990s.
Police in the northwestern state of Punjab, where Sikhs are in the majority, said they had arrested 114 supporters of the preacher, Amritpal Singh, 29, and seized 10 guns and 430 rounds of ammunition and other equipment.
Police said they had stepped up their presence and suspended mobile internet services to prevent unrest.
Police have accused Singh and his supporters of attempted murder, obstruction of law enforcement and creating disharmony and said he had been on the run since Saturday when officers tried to block his motorcade and arrest him.
Top Punjab police officer Sukhchain Gill told Reuters that Singh had set up a militia called Anandpur Khalsa Fauj. Its logos were found on the gate of his house and on the rifles and bullet-proof jackets recovered there, Gill said.
Singh's father, Tarsem Singh, told reporters the hunt for his son was a "conspiracy", adding that Amritpal was only working to fight drug addiction.
At a rally in September, Singh said in a speech that every drop of his blood was dedicated to "freedom for the community".
"We all are still slaves ... We have to fight for freedom," Singh said in the home village of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh insurgent leader killed in a 1984 Indian army operation.
Singh has said striving for a separate country, that Sikhs call Khalistan, was not an anti-democratic and should not be taboo.
Sikh militants complaining of unfair treatment on the part of the central government began agitating for a separate homeland in the 1970s.
India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, sent the military into the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs, in 1984 to root out Bhindranwale and his supporters in a bloody episode that infuriated Sikhs around the world.
A few months later, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards at her home in Delhi.
While the Sikh insurgency was suppressed in the 1990s, authorities have been wary of any revival of agitation, with a particular focus on small groups of Sikhs in Canada, Britain, the United States and Australia, who support the separatist demand and occasionally stage protests outside Indian embassies.
The Indian foreign ministry has complained about the protests and sought better security for its missions.
While many Sikh community leaders say the demand for a separate Khalistan has little support in Punjab, some security officials warn that trouble could again brew if activists like Singh are not stopped.
Media reported that Singh had spent a decade in Dubai working in his family’s transport business before returning to India in September and taking over the leadership of a Sikh group Waris Punjab De, or heirs of Punjab.
Singh had become popular through social media during drawn protests in 2020-21 by thousands of farmers from Punjab, many of them Sikh, against agricultural reforms.
Another Indian security officer said while Singh had only a few tens of thousands of supporters in India, he had a extensive social media reach, especially abroad, which the officer linked to the embassy protests.
"Surely what’s going on at missions abroad is a reaction to the operation against him. There is a direct link," said the officer who declined to be identified.
The Sikh insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s killed some 30,000 people. Sikh militants were blamed for the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Canada to India in which all 329 people on board were killed.
(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik; editing by Y.P. Rajesh, Robert Birsel)