25 years after Rajiv-Longowal Accord
As the nation observes the 25th death anniversary of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal who paid with his life by signing a path-breaking Accord with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on July 24, 1985, with the earnest intent of bringing peace to terror-gripped Punjab, many key questions remain unanswered.
Had Longowal not been assassinated as he was on August 20, 1985, less than a month after signing the Accord, could terrorism have been reined in earlier? It was only a decade later that it actually came under control. How much of a factor was the lack of co-operation extended to the Accord by key Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal and SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra? Could the Surjit Singh Barnala government in the state that came to power have handled the insurgency better considering that public support for militancy was waning?
Last week the leading surviving actors in the political drama of that time were approached by The Tribune to reconstruct events and interpret them.
What has emerged is a plethora of interesting observations by then Governor Arjun Singh who drew the contours of the Accord on a cue from then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Surjit Singh Barnala who worked closely with Longowal in the build-up to the Rajiv-Longowal Accord and was later rewarded with chief ministership, and Parkash Singh Badal who, along with SGPC chief Tohra, had serious reservations over the Accord from the word ‘go’and is today as vehement in his opposition to it as he was then.
The Accord proved a virtual non-starter with the assassination of Sant Longowal and the opposition of some key players, but the psychological climate that was created both by the Accord and by other measures like the release of a substantial number of young Sikhs who had been imprisoned in the wake of Operation Bluestar, relaxation of censorship on the Punjab Press, withdrawal of army control over certain districts, lifting of ban on the All India Sikh Students Federation and the announcement of a judicial inquiry into the November 1984 killings of Sikhs went a long way in ultimately restoring normalcy.
Interpretations of the Accord and its aftermath differ. Octogenarian Arjun Singh, Rajiv Gandhi’s pointsman at that point who worked very closely with a core group of Akalis which included Sant Longowal, Barnala, Balwant Singh who later became Finance Minister and Professor Attar Singh of Panjab University can be credited with providing the ‘healing touch’. He lamented in an exclusive interview with The Tribune that Badal did not lend support to the accord despite all efforts to persuade him. His contention is that had Badal been helpful, quite a different picture would have emerged. “This (Badal’s lack of cooperation) was in substance the tragedy of the Accord,” says Arjun Singh with a degree of finality.
On the other hand, Parkash Singh Badal, who is now Chief Minister of Punjab, lashed out at Arjun Singh in another exclusive interview with the paper. According to him, the Rajiv-Longowal Accord was part of a “treacherous plan” Arjun Singh had engineered for his own political rehabilitation.
Says Badal: “We had forewarned Sant Longowal. Our apprehensions that he would be cheated into the Accord have ultimately come true. Did Punjab or Sikhs gain anything out of the Accord except losing great souls like Sant Longowal?” he asks. He claims that before his assassination Longowal had realized that he had been cheated and had told him so.
Another front-ranking Akali leader who was deeply involved in the build-up to the Accord, Surjit Singh Barnala, who is currently Governor of Tamil Nadu, recalls that days before Sant Longowal was to meet Rajiv Gandhi, special messengers were sent to Badal and Tohra, but neither of them responded.
According to Barnala, Longowal had told him before he signed the Accord: “I have nothing to lose. There is no one to cry for me after I am gone. But I would be failing in my duty if I am unable to bring back peace and normalcy to Punjab.”
All said and done, the Rajiv-Longowal accord was a turning point in the quest for peace in Punjab. It was by no means a clincher but it certainly marked a step forward. That after Longowal’s assassination, an estimated two lakh people turned up for ‘bhog’ at his village despite threats from terrorists to keep away or face their ire was indicative of the turning tide.
The people at large were beginning to tire of an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The sense of alienation was still stark but more and more people were yearning for peace so that they could get on with their day-to-day lives.
Yet, it was a decade before one saw the eclipse of terror in the state. With assembly elections in August that year catapulting the Akalis back to power under Barnala, popular rule returned but terror showed no signs of abating.
A bare three months before the Accord was signed, an Air India flight operating on the Montréal-London-Delhi-Bombay route was blown up in midair over the coast of Ireland. In all, 329 people perished, among them 280 Canadian nationals, mostly of Indian birth or descent, and 22 Indian nationals. When news trickled in that it was the work of terror groups linked to Punjab, the revulsion against terror grew as many families had lost their dear ones.
But there was still time for the tide to turn dramatically.
In fact, during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a sharp rise in radical Sikh militancy in Punjab. On October 7, 1987, Khalistan was declared an independent state and a Council of Khalistan, headed by Dr. Gurmit Singh Aulakh, was formed.
With dwindling support and elimination of terrorists, may of them in fake encounters, Sikh militancy was effectively over by early 1990s.
A quarter of a century after the accord, where does Punjab stand?
It is unfortunate that many of the terms of the Rajiv-Longowal accord remain unimplemented to this day for various reasons. The issue of greater autonomy for states as sought in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was referred to the Sarkaria Commission which rejected the ASR approach to Centre-State relations.
The contentious issue of transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab is where it was with three successive commissions (Matthew/Venkatarmiah/Desai) failing to yield an agreement. On the sharing of river waters between Punjab and Haryana, the Eradi Tribunal was appointed but its recommendations that favoured Haryana were not acceptable to Punjab.
The prosecution of those responsible for the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom was referred to the Mishra Commission but the Congress having been absolved of all responsibility, the matter is still dragging on.
There were issues of army deserters and political detainees too which were not adequately addressed.
With reports trickling in of attempts at reviving terrorism, issues that were buried under the carpet need to be addressed without delay. The Rajiv-Longowal accord was in some ways a watershed but essentially it was the dried public support for the Sikh homeland cause that pulled the rug from under the feet of the militants.