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Fishing in troubled waters

Radicals in Punjab manipulating public anger towards a secessionist platform

Fishing in troubled waters

MISGUIDED: Religion is being invoked to create an artificial crisis of identity. PTI

Rajesh Ramachandran

IS Punjab on the boil or was the violence on February 8 at the Punjab-Chandigarh border in Mohali the eruption of a lone boil on its body politic? The former could be truer, with the eruption being symptomatic of the rumblings of disenchantment that are getting louder by the day. The violence, providentially, did not lead to any fatal casualties, though 40 policemen were injured. While Punjab Police allowed Khalistani secessionists to gather, gain momentum and finally push themselves into Chandigarh, the police of the union territory were caught unawares. Yet, the vulnerable cops did not open fire, which would have lent them to international opprobrium. It would be interesting to know how the western asylum-givers now look at the inconvenient video evidence of the aggressors and the aggrieved.

No one in Punjab wants to return to those days of fear. All fresh attempts made to set the clock back are being watched anxiously by society, particularly the grouping of discredited leaders of the failed insurgency.

The curious coincidence of the new Khalistani platform in Punjab coalescing after the ‘2020 referendum’ getting hosted in London in October 2021 has again given credence to the belief held by some in the Indian security establishment that the radicals in Punjab are still being kept afloat by foreign intelligence agencies. If it is so, it is a grievous mistake because the secessionist agenda has no takers in Punjab and hence the ‘foreign hand’, if any, would easily get exposed this time around. After all, it had taken a huge toll on the nation the last time — the assassination of a Prime Minister and a Chief Minister, the desecration of the holiest of holy shrines of the Sikhs, and the death of tens of thousands of innocent people, mostly Sikhs. This tragedy is something that Punjab cannot afford to revisit.

It was only 28 years ago that a Chief Minister was blown up, and such was the terror instilled in the minds and quills of the people of Punjab that a few years before the assassination, even this newspaper was forced to publish a virtual hit list, flashing, among others, the names of some brave and honest officers trying hard to restore normalcy after Operation Blue Star. Looking back, the most shocking aspect about this listing of the enemies of the radicals was that it was published as if it were some regular list of transfers and postings, with the editor carrying his signed article next to it on the front page of the newspaper. Fear makes people do strange things and a terrorised society loses its moral compass, with the last man standing with the smoking gun often being the worst of all those who had entered the arena.

No one in Punjab wants to return to those days of fear, which gave the police the licence to kill, grab and enrich themselves. So, all fresh attempts that are made to set the clock back are being watched anxiously by society without missing any detail, particularly the grouping of all the discredited and discarded leaders of the failed insurgency and their relatives. A new import from West Asia who had a training stopover in a Central Asian republic is expected to become the nucleus of the planned push. He dresses up like the prophet of the previous insurrection and apes his mannerisms, but has not got any traction yet. Religion, obviously, is again invoked to incite passions and create an artificial crisis of identity, which can lead to a sense of insecurity among the masses, with the objective of an armed uprising.

The radicals are desperately manipulating many streams of popular anger to have them converge on a secessionist platform. The primary one is frustration over the AAP government, which was brought into power by the people seeking revenge against the Akalis, their anger over the attitude towards Gurmeet Ram Rahim, sacrilege cases, and narco-corruption allegations; also, there was anger over the collusion of the Congress government with the Akali leaders. But soon after the regime change, the Sidhu Moosewala murder made the people punish the AAP too — not just for the lack of police protection that resulted in the brutal killing of a singer and a pop icon, but also for nominating outsiders to the Rajya Sabha from Punjab. The defeat of the AAP in the Sangrur bypoll was not the victory of a secessionist but the expression of disappointment with all the mainstream political parties.

Then, the politics of Hindu supremacy by the BJP-RSS only further alienates the Sikh masses from the mainstream. In fact, majority and minority communalism feed off each other. Every time there is a cry of Hindu khatre mein hain, it legitimises the cry of Panth khatre vich hai. The AAP’s embrace of Hindutva in Delhi and allegations of Delhi’s remote-controlled rule in Punjab have added to the popular discontent. Interestingly, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is playing up all these aspects, exacerbating the communal divide. It is in this context that the SAD and the radicals have taken up the issue of ‘bandi Singhs’, the militancy-era terror convicts. Though they had procured RDX from Pakistan to blow up a CM, some of the convicts are out on parole and are being feted as heroes and their permanent release is being sought.

The most interesting twist in the tale, of course, has been some farmer unions of Punjab embracing the secessionists. After their historic win against the Union government’s farm laws — that had threatened to dismantle the MSP regime, allegedly to help the Adani Group — fashioned with the support of the masses from Attari to Agra, a few unions have taken a plunge into radical politics by sharing the Khalistanis’ platform and even trying to be their new vanguard. Obviously, farmer unions offer a credible, ideological and intellectual cover for the secessionists to raise funds and indulge in drumming up support for their divisive agenda. They stand exposed, which is a relief, for at stake is the peace of Punjab.

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