The alarm bell in Punjab


Amritpal arrest drama
Comparisons with the 1980s are misleading. But space for moderate politics is shrinking as politically separatist, socially divisive and electorally retrogressive tendencies compete for power in the state
History comes alive once again in Punjab with the emergence of a pro-Khalistan preacher Amritpal Singh and the unfolding of a cat and mouse game. These events have touched off different responses in the three Punjabs – Diaspora Punjab, Indian Punjab and Pakistan’s Punjab.
In Diaspora Punjab, the political narrative echoes the Khalistan slogan, communally divisive and violative of national unity. In Indian Punjab, the support for Khalistan is only among the fringe elements and not divisive on religious lines, as communalism may have a long tongue but no teeth. The main political narrative has been peace and harmony at any cost. The Pakistan Punjab establishment has found a pretext in the current situation to revive its efforts to disturb the peace.
Fortunately, for a large section of Punjabi society, the memories of the 1980s are still vivid. There is, thus, a greater responsibility on the political leadership and the state machinery not to make any concessions for those who wish to violate peace and harmony.
Parallels drawn between the current moment and the times of Bhindranwale in the 1980s can be misleading. The current situation has its own specific features.
First, the Punjab farmers are grappling with a crisis in agriculture. They have just emerged from a long protest movement that engulfed almost every facet of life in the state. They have realised that the traditional ways of doing agriculture and politics are in question and their future is uncertain.
Secondly, moderate politics has been turned away from the protest sites — be it the Congress, the BJP, the Akalis, and even the AAP. The space vacated by the moderate political parties is being occupied by those like Waris Punjab De and other fringe elements encouraged and patronised by sections of the pro-Khalistan political outfits.
Thirdly, the dominant narrative has been to bring closure to the tragic events by reaching out to the Sikh minority. The BJP has made efforts to reach out to the Sikh community, the Akalis are in retreat to consolidate their support in the Jat Sikh peasantry, the Congress is in flux, and the ruling AAP is perplexed.
The current episode began when Amritpal arrived from Dubai on the political scene of Punjab and was installed as head of the organisation Waris Punjab De. He mimicked the demeanour, attire and oratory of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He termed the farm laws, drug menace, migration of labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, exodus of Sikh youth from Punjab, alleged neglect of Punjabi language and denial of justice to the Bandi Sikhs (incarcerated Sikh prisoners in cases for years) as a “silent genocide”. He exhorted the youth to make sacrifices to reverse this trend and prescribed a code of conduct for his followers.
The state responded to these developments with ineptness and hyperbole. On the day Amritpal’s followers stormed Ajnala police station, a charge sheet in a 2015 case against the then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, his deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal and a number of policemen for opening fire on those protesting against incidents of sacrilege of the Sikh holy book, was filed. Two protesters were killed, and around 20 policemen were injured. The message to the police was to hold back.
Amritpal was only a trigger. In the post-terrorism phase, on several occasions, there have been other such triggers but they could not succeed in disturbing the peace as the horrific outcome of such a kind of politics is still fresh in people’s memory. For instance, apart from the incidents of sacrilege, there was the holding of a congregation of the Sikhs labelled as “Sarbat Khalsa”, and the announcement of hardliners as the custodians of Sikh religious institutions, namely Akal Takht and the SGPC. But the way in which events have unfolded recently indicates that these were planned, not spontaneous, politically motivated and ideologically driven. The underlying serious issue remains — political battles continue to be fought in the religious (panthic) domain rather than on development, agrarian or governance agendas.
These triggers, including Waris Punjab De, very carefully manipulated the absence of a vigorous and grounded counter-narrative. The consensus in the country to ensure justice for the Sikhs killed in Delhi 1984 was extended to the rehabilitation of the terrorists. This was interpreted as a licence by a section of the militants to pursue “revenge” for the “hurt Sikh psyche” and to stoke the perennial demand for a separate Sikh state. This was further reinforced by eventually conceding (in 2014) the twice denied appeal of the Dal Khalsa (a radical Sikh organisation) for the conferment of martyrdom on hardline leaders by the Akal Takht. These organisations, having acquired legitimacy, raised their claim to control the SGPC and the Akal Takht and to “liberate” these institutions from the moderates and the liberals.