Narendra Modi’s Punjab Problem (Francis Wade, 12/12/23, NOEMA)

In March, three months before the assassination of the Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada, the Indian government turned the Sikh-majority Punjab into a police state. Its internet was cut and messaging services restricted, gatherings of more than four people banned in some places, and a state-wide cordon and manhunt launched — all just to find one man, a 30-year-old fellow Sikh agitator called Amritpal Singh.

Over the previous year, Singh had been advocating for a separate homeland for Sikhs in northern India. He toured villages and towns in Punjab, a longstanding focal point of Sikh separatist ambitions, garnering a small following. He also drew the attention of security forces. Several weeks before the manhunt began, he and a group of armed supporters raided a police station in Ajnala, close to the Pakistan border, forcing the release of a close aide who was being held there. Singh then went on the run, moving from village to village, crisscrossing state lines, changing vehicles and guises. The police operation that ensued, with house-to-house raids and roadblocks set up across the nearly 20,000-square-mile state, resulted in the arrest of more than 300 people — including, on April 23, Singh himself.

It marked the intensification of a crackdown on Sikh separatists by Narendra Modi’s government — one that soon went international. Nijjar was killed outside a temple in British Columbia by an unknown assassin, an operation Canada pinned on India. Around the same time, according to an American investigation, an Indian official was directing a plot against another Sikh separatist in New York. Allegations of similar plots in the U.K. have since surfaced, and revelations of other India-backed assassination campaigns elsewhere in the world have emerged.

As the Singh manhunt widened in March, journalists and commentators began asking questions. Was Sikh separatism a valid concern, one deserving of such a far-reaching response? Or was the mass deployment of security forces to Punjab and the Indian government’s intensifying rhetoric around “Khalistan” — the long-imagined Sikh homeland beyond the control of New Delhi — serving other ends?

Despite once causing great tumult in Punjab and rocking the foundations of post-independence India, the Sikh separatist cause had lain dormant for three decades: Militant activity was so infrequent as to barely make headlines. As far as security threats were concerned, the government had spent the past decade far more interested in insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and the Maoist-Naxalite rebellion in the east.

The crackdown in Punjab — and the targeting of Sikhs on foreign soil that followed — seemed puzzling. Was Singh really raising an army? Did Nijjar really have the support in India to reinvigorate a long-dead insurgency? Or rather, was Modi, with an eye on the 2024 elections, raising the specter of a national security threat in order to sell the idea that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for whom national security has always been top of the agenda, must be reelected lest India break apart? Might he be diverting attention from the many real crises in Punjab, if not India more generally, that the BJP has been unable to resolve?