India cuts internet to 27 million as Punjab police hunt down Sikh separatist

(CNN) Indian authorities have cut off internet access to some 27 million people in Punjab state for the fourth consecutive day – one of the largest blackouts in years – as police search for a fleeing Sikh separatist.

The Punjab government initially announced a 24-hour internet ban on Saturday as authorities launched an operation to arrest Amritpal Singh, a popular leader within the Khalistan separatist movement seeking to establish a sovereign state for followers of the religion sikhs.

The internet outage – which affects everyone in the north Indian state – was extended by the government for the third time until midday on Tuesday under a law that allows you to cut your connection to “prevent any incitement to violence and any disturbance of the peace and public order.”

The Punjab Police justified shutting down the internet as a means of maintaining law and order and stopping the spread of “fake news”.

Dramatic scenes captured on video and broadcast on local television showed hundreds of Singh supporters, some armed with swords and sticks, walking 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 on Sunday, while Singh remains on the run.

For decades, some Sikhs have called for an independent nation called Khalistan to be carved into the state of Punjab for followers of the minority faith. Over the years, violent clashes have erupted between followers of the movement and the Indian government, claiming many lives.

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

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 in rubble. The carnage shocked the Sikh community and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the operation, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath.

The Khalistan movement is outlawed and considered a major national security threat by the Government of India, but maintains a level of support among some Sikhs within the country and abroad.

In a statement Sunday, the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) has condemned the “draconian” operation to arrest Singh e he said he feared Singh’s “detention could be used to orchestrate a fake meeting and facilitate his extrajudicial killing”.

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

The British High Commissioner for India, Alex Ellis, called the “shameful” and “totally unacceptable” acts.

In a statement on Sunday, India’s Foreign Ministry said that “the British government is expected to take immediate steps to identify, arrest and prosecute” those involved in the incident.

“There is no place in our city for this kind of behaviour. The Met have launched an investigation into today’s events,” said Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. tweeted Sunday.

The internet cuts in India

Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common in India, which has more than 800 million Internet users, the second largest digital population in the world, after China.

Earlier this month, a report by Access Now, a New York-based advocacy group that tracks internet freedom, said India imposed 84 internet shutdowns in 2022, marking the fifth consecutive year. that the world’s largest democracy of more than 1.3 billion people topped the global 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 sections of the population and connects the country’s isolated rural areas with its growing cities.

The government has repeatedly tried to justify blocking internet access on the grounds of preserving public safety in between fears of mob violence. But critics say the closures are yet another blow to the country’s commitment to free speech and access to information.

CNN’s Manveena Suri contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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