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A look at Amritpal Singh, the Sikh preacher on the run who has captivated India

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Between the car chase, the manhunt, the government shutting down internet access, what's been happening in India this week sounds like the plot of a Bollywood thriller, but it is a real-life drama involving a separatist leader who is on the run. NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer joins us now from Mumbai. Hi.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Lauren, who is this separatist leader?

FRAYER: His name is Amritpal Singh. He's 30 years old, from Punjab in northern India, and not a lot is actually known about him personally, which sort of fuels this aura of mystery and intrigue. He is a follower of the Sikh faith - that's a minority religion in Hindu-majority India. About 2%, a little bit less, of Indians are followers of the Sikh faith. So he does wear a yellow or sometimes navy blue turban and these long, white, flowing robes. He carries a kirpan, which is a traditional Sikh sword or dagger, but he's actually on the run. And so people are calling into TV channels saying they spotted him in disguise. This has been, like, a multi-day car chase. Like, think of OJ Simpson times ten. Here's what it sounds like on Indian TV these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Breaking news coming in - chilling details of how Amritpal escaped. Amripal's Mercedes drove through barricades.

FRAYER: The TV channels are showing wall-to-wall footage of his Mercedes bursting through police barricades or grainy footage of him maybe at a tollbooth. He was spotted on a motorbike, like, snatched someone's cellphone as he was passing by to escape, ducking into a Sikh temple. Like, all of this is unverified. But what we do know - he worked as a truck driver in Dubai, returned to India last year and has garnered this massive following as a Sikh preacher. He's been involved in anti-drug campaigns, social issues, farmer protests in his region.

SUMMERS: OK. Wow. So why is he wanted, then?

FRAYER: Yeah. So he's most famous as a leader of a group that's been agitating for an independent Sikh homeland - like, a new country called Khalistan. And that is something that the Indian government considers treason, and it has outlawed the Khalistan movement.

SUMMERS: OK. So, I mean, I guess that's why he makes the Indian government nervous, then?

FRAYER: Totally. And in India, there is a long history of cracking down on Sikh separatists. In the 1980s, there was this insurgency. And anybody who's old enough to remember these extraordinary scenes of gunmen holed up in the Golden Temple, that is, like, the holiest site in the Sikh religion. In 1984, the then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi, sent the army in, and there was fighting. There was damage to the temple. Hundreds, thousands of people were killed. And that is a trauma that is seared in the memory of Sikhs in India and around the world. And, actually, months later, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. So there is history here.

SUMMERS: OK. And this time, how has the Indian government responded?

FRAYER: Harshly. The government has deployed thousands of paramilitary troops to Punjab, arrested more than 150 people, including Singh's relatives, seized guns and ammunition, and they've suspended 4G cellphone service for literally tens of millions of people across huge swaths of northern India. That's a tactic the Indian government uses to quell protests. But actually, protests are spreading. We've seen rallies in the U.S., in Canada, in Britain. Khalistan activists tore down a flag at the Indian embassy in London, raised their own banner, broke windows there. We saw similar violence at the Indian consulate in San Francisco.

SUMMERS: OK. So, Lauren, I mean, how does this end, do you think?

FRAYER: Possibly without Amritpal Singh's arrest. But, you know, that could send his supporters into the streets in even greater numbers. Indians are speculating, do police have him in custody already but aren't revealing that because they want to gauge tensions? One thing is certain - this has brought back bad memories for the Sikh community here, and it's straining unity in a very diverse country that's seen sectarian riots and testing the restraint of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has a reputation for cracking down on minorities.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.