India’s northern Punjab state has been put on security alert after Sikh separatist groups called for protests to mark the anniversary of a military operation at the Golden Temple — the religion's most sacred shrine.
Thousands of additional police and paramilitary troops have been stationed in the holy city of Amritsar to deter a proposed march on Sunday, a day ahead of a general strike call to mark the 38th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, in which the Indian Army raided the holy site.
Patrols have been increased at vulnerable places, including tourist spots and religious shrines, according to police officer Arun Pal Singh.
Several teams of Punjab anti-riot police and the Special Operation Group, a counterterrorism unit, have also been deployed, he said.
Dal Khalsa, a Sikh separatist group demanding an independent Sikh state of Khalistan and two other groups said in a statement that a “freedom march” will be organised in the city to commemorate the week-long battle in 1984 that culminated with the shelling of the religious monument on June 6.
“We have called for protests against the Indian Army’s attack on our fighters inside the temple. We want to pay tributes to our martyrs,” Kanwar Pal Singh, a Dal Khalsa leader, told The National.
In recent years tensions ran high at the time of the anniversary, with dozens of people injured after two Sikh groups attacked each other with swords in 2014 in the Golden Temple over the raising of pro-independence slogans.
Operation Blue Star
Hundreds of heavily armed Sikh militants, including the leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were holed up in the temple after the Indian Army raided the premises on June 1. The raid followed days of gunfights and artillery shelling by the army, leading to severe damage to the shrine ― described by many Sikhs as a desecration of their holiest place.
Accounts of the final death toll vary but about 700 militants and soldiers were killed, including Bhindranwale ― who is an iconic figure for many Sikhs demanding an independent country ― despite armed militancy almost disappearing from the state since the mid-1990s.
But several violent incidents recently, including the bombing last month of a police office, have caused concern over a possible revival of armed militancy.
A group of right-wing Hindus were attacked by Sikhs in April after raising anti-Khalistan slogans.
The state is already on alert after the murder of well-known singer Sidhu Moosewala, a killing reportedly linked to rivalry between two criminal gangs.
Moosewala, 28, whose real name was Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on Sunday.
An autopsy report found more than two dozen bullets in his body, including one in his skull.
Moosewala was a popular singer among Punjabis in India as well as in the UK and Canada, but had courted controversy after promoting guns and violence.
One of his popular songs released in 2020 praised Bhindranwale and his aides and called for retribution against New Delhi for its handling of Punjab.