Amritpal Singh: Rumours swirl in hunt for fugitive Indian preacher

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Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh with his supporters outside police station in Ajnala to protest the arrest of his aide in a kidnap and assault case on February 23, 2023Image source, Getty Images
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Amritpal Singh has been on the run for 11 days

Rumours are circulating in India about the whereabouts of a controversial self-styled Sikh preacher, more than 10 days after he went on the run.

A massive operation is under way to find Amritpal Singh, who is wanted in many cases including attempted murder.

His calls for an independent Sikh homeland have riled the authorities.

Reports say he has been seen in at least four Indian cities, including the capital Delhi, since evading arrest in Punjab state on 18 March.

Nepal put him on a surveillance list this week at India's request.

On Tuesday night, Punjab police searched houses in a village in Hoshiarpur district, triggering media speculation that he may still be in the state.

Earlier in the day, the state government had told the Punjab and Haryana high court that the police were "close to catching" Mr Singh.

The manhunt has dominated Indian headlines over the past fortnight as police swarm state borders, comb the streets and scour surveillance footage in search of the man whose radical views stoked fears of a renewed phase of violence in Punjab.

Mr Singh, who suddenly rose to national attention in February after his followers stormed a police station, says he supports Khalistan, or a separate Sikh homeland. His rapid rise revived memories of the violent insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s in which thousands were killed.

The search for Mr Singh, spanning four Indian states as well as neighbouring Nepal, has been full of twists and turns, including rumours of disguises and dramatic escapes.

Image source, Getty Images
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Punjab police declared Amritpal Singh "a fugitive" and launched a state-wide search for him

The escape

Punjab police first tried to arrest Mr Singh on 18 March, weeks after he and hundreds of supporters descended on a police station, demanding the release of an arrested aide. After the incident, local police charged him with several cases including attempt to murder and spreading hatred and disharmony.

The bid to arrest him failed - though hundreds of police personnel were deployed, Mr Singh managed to get away in a high-speed car chase which was livestreamed by some of his supporters.

Police said Mr Singh had been travelling in a Mercedes SUV when the chase first began, but that he later shifted to a smaller car and finally to a bike. (Since then, senior police officials have said several times that Mr Singh is travelling around the country in disguise.)

Within hours of Mr Singh's escape, authorities blocked internet services in Punjab - where 27 million people live - restricted the movement of people, and arrested hundreds of Mr Singh's supporters. They also charged him under the stringent National Security Act.

The restrictions were eventually eased but the search operation has continued. BBC Punjabi spoke to several people who said that the heavy police presence in their towns and villages had affected their mental health and livelihoods. The Twitter accounts of several journalists and activists have also been blocked in India - including, briefly, that of BBC Punjabi.

On 21 March, Punjab police released CCTV footage that purportedly showed Mr Singh wearing a disguise while travelling on a motorcycle.

The same day, police also released seven photos of him in different outfits - including an AI-generated version, which shows him without his long beard - asking people to watch out for him.

Image source, NARINDER NANU
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Thousands of paramilitary troops were deployed in Punjab

On 24 March, several media reports said the preacher had been spotted in Delhi.

News agency ANI quoted unnamed police sources who said that Mr Singh, accompanied by an aide, had been seen at a prominent bus terminal disguised as a sadhu, or Hindu preacher.

Delhi and Punjab police teams then launched a search operation in the capital and its borders and arrested more people, believed to be Mr Singh's supporters.

Punjab's Inspector General of Police Sukhchain Singh Gill told reporters that after escaping, Mr Singh had taken shelter at a woman's house in neighbouring Haryana state. Mr Singh had first tried to get a boat to cross a river into Haryana, but later had to complete the journey on foot, the official said.

Mr Gill added that the woman - arrested on 26 March - revealed during interrogation that Mr Singh had been in touch with her for the last two-and-a-half years, and that his aide had stayed at her home in Kurukshetra district several times.

The police also released surveillance footage believed to be of Mr Singh in Haryana. According to reports, the clip showed a man wearing a white shirt and dark blue jeans hiding his face with an umbrella as he tried to escape from the woman's house.

Around the same time, reports said that Mr Singh may have fled to the northern state of Uttarakhand. However, the Punjab police did not officially confirm this.

On Monday, Nepal said it had put Mr Singh on a surveillance list after the Indian embassy alerted them that he may have entered the country.

Image source, Getty Images
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Police in Punjab have launched a crackdown against Mr Singh's supporters

So where did Mr Singh go?

No one seems to know, but the police claim to have found several leads in the past 10 days and say they are following each of them.

In the meantime, local media have been highlighting surveillance footage from various cities which purportedly shows Mr Singh.

This includes a clip that allegedly shows him fleeing in a make-shift cart along with a motorcycle, somewhere in Punjab; an unverified selfie of him holding a drink can with an aide; and footage of him in Delhi wearing a mask - not all of these have been verified by police.

Prominent Sikh leaders and the state's high court have demanded to know how he could possibly remain at large, given teh tens of thousands of security personnel who have been deployed to catch him.

One of the more bizarre twists came when Mr Singh's lawyers even accused the authorities of holding him in secret detention, while they pretend to look for him. His legal adviser alleged he'd been illegally and forcibly detained by police - the high court has demanded evidence.

For now, the search seems to have circled back to Punjab.

This week, the Indian Express newspaper quoted an unnamed investigating official from the state who said that after Mr Singh's escape, the operation has been like looking for "a needle in the haystack".

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