(CNN) — Indian authorities blocked internet access for about 27 million people in Punjab state for a third straight day – one of the country’s longest blackouts in recent years – as police searched for a fugitive Sikh separatist.
The Punjab government on Saturday announced a 24-hour internet blackout as authorities launched an operation to arrest Amritpal Singh, a popular leader of the Khalistan separatist movement that seeks to establish 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 midday on Tuesday under a law that allows for disconnections to “prevent incitement to violence and disturbance of peace. Public order”.
Punjab police have justified the internet shutdown to maintain law and order and prevent the spread of “fake news”.
Dramatic video footage broadcast on local television showed hundreds of Singh supporters, some armed with swords and sticks, marching through the streets of Punjab. Police and paramilitary forces were deployed in various districts of the state in an attempt to restore order.
At least 112 people have been detained, Punjab police said on Sunday, while Singh remains unaccounted for.
History of the Sikh Secessionist Movement in India
For decades, some Sikhs have demanded the creation of an independent state called Khalistan in Punjab state for followers of this minority religion. Over the years, violent clashes erupted between supporters of the movement and the Indian government, claiming many lives.
In June 1984, when the Indian Army stormed Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikh holiest site, to capture armed separatists, thousands were killed and much of the building collapsed. The massacre shocked the Sikh community and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the operation, was later killed by her Sikh bodyguards.
The Khalistan movement is banned by the Indian government and seen as a serious threat to national security, but maintains some support among some Sikhs at home and abroad.
In a statement issued on SundayThe Canadian World Sikh Organization (WSO) condemned the “draconian” detention of Singh, fearing that “Singh’s custody could be used to plan a false encounter and facilitate an extrajudicial killing”.
Over the weekend, some of Singh’s supporters vandalized the Indian High Commission in London, an incident that prompted British authorities to condemn it.
Britain’s High Commissioner to India, Alex Ellis, called the actions “disgraceful” and “totally unacceptable”.
In a statement released late Sunday, India’s foreign ministry said the UK government is expected to take immediate action to “identify, arrest and prosecute those involved in this incident”.
“Such behavior has no place in our city. The Metropolitan Police have launched an investigation into today’s events,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted on Sunday.
Internet ban in India
Internet barriers are growing in India, which has more than 800 million internet users, the world’s second largest digital population after China.
Earlier this month, a report by Access Now, a New York-based group that monitors internet freedom, noted that India imposed 84 internet blackouts in 2022, the world’s largest democracy for the fifth consecutive year, with more than 1.3 billion. Citizens top the global list.
The outages “impacted the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours,” the report said.
Connecting the country’s isolated rural areas to its growing cities, the Internet has become an important social and economic lifeline for large sections of the population.
The government has repeatedly tried to justify blocking Internet access by citing the need to protect public safety over fears of collective violence. But critics say the bans are another blow to the country’s commitment to freedom of expression and access to information.
Manveena Suri contributed to this report from New Delhi.
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