PUNJAB is experiencing a tragedy unfolding in very slow motion, and, as in the end-1970s and early 1980s, this time around as well, this occurs against the backdrop of an acute Centre-state rivalry.
Given the history of the orchestrated rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, speculation is rife that a similar drama is being played out today, with the BJP-ruled Centre seeking to destabilise the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab.
There is equally — and equally difficult to prove — speculation that Amritpal Singh, who just a year ago was anything but an orthodox Sikh in Dubai — a notorious recruitment ground for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence — is, in fact, acting on instructions from across the border. Allegations that he is funded and controlled by elements in the radical Sikh diaspora abroad are, again, unverifiable, and state agencies are yet to make these claims directly, though several media reports ostensibly quote ‘informed official sources’.
Even if all such speculation is dismissed, if on no other grounds, then because credible evidence is unavailable, it can still strongly be asserted that the Centre has done a great deal over the past years to mainstream the Khalistani discourse. This has been done, first, by attributing any disruption in Punjab as a manifestation of ‘Khalistani terrorism’. The most prominent case in point was the farmers’ agitation against the government’s ordinances on agricultural reforms, which were repeatedly projected as a Khalistani plot, contrary to evidence.
Another stream has been the constant exaggeration of the role and impact of specific incidents or individuals to create a narrative of far greater threat than what actually exists. Here, the most obvious example could be the activities of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun and his Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), at worst an irritant on social media. Streams of planted reports in the media have given Pannun and the SFJ a larger-than-life image, far out of proportion of the actual harm he has engineered, or could inflict.
Significantly, the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s efforts to simultaneously polarise communities in Punjab and co-opt the Sikhs have given further purchase to this narrative. Before the Sudhir Suri killing (November 4, 2022), radical Hindutva groups were engaged in a vicious cycle of exchanges with radical Sikh groups, and prominent individuals involved in this campaign, including Suri, instead of being booked for hate speech, were provided police protection. At the same time, the BJP government at the Centre announced steps to win over the Sikh community, including welfare measures for victims of the 1984 riots, the announcement of Veer Bal Diwas, slashing of the blacklist of Khalistanis abroad and opening of the Kartarpur Corridor.
In effect, identity politics remains the principal framework of political mobilisation. Crucially, the BJP’s broad Hindutva project creates a reflexive justification for Khalistani separatism. If the demand for a ‘Hindu India’ is legitimate, so must be the demand for a Sikh ‘Khalistan’.
Such reflexivity also extends to some of Amritpal Singh’s transgressions. He and his cohorts are by no means the only group in India that flaunts firearms in public places, or that engages in hate speech, and governments elsewhere have failed to act against such offences. Any action targeting one set of offenders, while others receive the indulgence of the state, can only augment the existing pool of grievances.
It is incomprehensible that Central agencies have failed to act against Amritpal Singh. The Centre may, of course, pretend that law and order is a state subject and, consequently, it is the AAP government that needs to act, but this is, at best, a half-truth. Amritpal Singh has threatened both the Prime Minister and Union Home Minister and in an environment where Central agencies have ranged across the country to arrest and incarcerate individuals for far lesser transgressions, the affectation that the Central agencies’ mandate does not extend to action in this case is somewhat unconvincing.
It is not just the state that has mainstreamed the Khalistani narrative. A section of the media — often fed by state agencies — has substantially done the same. Every incident or evidence of Sikh mobilisation for any cause is quickly labelled as a resurgence of the Khalistan movement or, a return to the ‘dark days’ of the 1980s.
There is also the easy acceptance of the extremist narrative, embracing the idea of Amritpal Singh as ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’ — an identity the former fervently aspires to. Some reports uncritically accept the claim that he has been ‘anointed’ the head of ‘Waris Punjab De’, a contention strongly challenged by the family of the organisation’s founder, Deep Sidhu. The family accuses Amritpal Singh of “misusing their name to propagate anti-social activities.” The original ‘Waris Punjab De’, formed by Sidhu, is currently headed by Harnek Singh Uppal and repudiates any linkage with Amritpal Singh and his Khalistani campaign. Earlier, we had the eager acceptance by many media channels of the alleged Khalistani linkages of the farmers’ stir, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
On the other hand, there are allegations of the AAP’s complicity with or, at least, appeasement of the Khalistanis. Indeed, as far back as 2017, KPS Gill, former DGP of Punjab and architect of the comprehensive victory against Khalistani terrorism in the early 1990s, had declared that the AAP was providing a platform to ‘radical Sikh elements’, though he conceded that this may have been ‘inadvertent’. While this was hotly denied by the AAP, the party’s actions, or lack thereof, periodically refresh such allegations.
The unfortunate reality is that with the influence of the traditional power centres and parties in Punjab dramatically eroded, the model of political consolidation, both for the marginalised groupings — the Akali Dal and Congress — as well as the principal contestants — the AAP and BJP — appears to be controlled chaos. Identity politics and communal polarisation are the main instrumentalities of this model. From time to time, these escalate into significant confrontations — the repeated mobilisation and violence over ‘beadbi’ (sacrilege) since the 2015 Bargari incident, ongoing Sikh Bandi Chhor protests, periodic eruptions of violence, including conflicts in and over gurdwaras, or between Sikh and Hindu extremist formations — and all of these then become grist for the electoral mill.
This model is working across the country and has brought significant benefits to its practitioners. It is, however, fraught with risks. Across the world today, and in many theatres within India in the past, the conjurers of this form of mass manipulation have lost control of the illusions they seek to construct or have been overtaken by others who choose an even more dramatic and potentially destructive deception.
This is a divisive and unpredictable process that has produced a catastrophe in the past, and can do so again.
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