Is a repeat of the 1980s Punjab in the making?


How sad that Punjab gets national attention only when it is seen as posing a problem to our national opinion makers. Unfortunately, that is what seems to be happening again now with the state being back in the news for all the wrong reasons. The worst of these reasons has to do with fresh challenges to peace and communal harmony in this sensitive border state.

Khalistan related material by vijay pandey (4)Is there a danger of the state being sucked in by a wider conspiracy hatched by one or the other major political stake holders in the country to communally polarise India for cheap political gains? And if so, are the brave and patriotic Sikhs once again in danger of being used as pawns on the country’s political chessboard?

And also, are Punjab and the Sikhs once again on the active radar of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) wing as part of a wider plot to drive international attention away from that country’s internal mess? Does Pakistan want to use India’s problems in Punjab as a counter-blast to its travails in Balochistan, just as it accuses India of using Balochistan and Sind as counter-blasts to turn international attention away from Kashmir?

Very sadly for peace-loving people in the country, especially in Punjab, the answer to these questions appears to be ‘Yes’ – especially if Captain Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of the Indian Punjab, and the state police Chief Suresh Arora are to be taken on their word. The diagnosis offered by the CM and his police chief is not way off the mark, but there is more to the problem than can be understood from what they chose to share with their audience. What they did not tell us is that dangers to peace and communal harmony in the state (and consequently, in the country) stem as much from across the border as from happenings on this side of it.

To begin with, the Punjab government did not exactly enhance its reputation for governance and efficient administration when it gave contradictory versions on key recent instances of targeted killings of Hindu leaders in Punjab. In the first official version, the government “did not rule out a Khalistani hand” in the killing of Hindu Sangharsh Sena leader Vipin Kumar in Amritsar on October 30. The only basis for this claim was the turban worn by one of the assailants. Making the turban synonymous with Khalistan is a blunder of terrifying magnitude, and Captain Singh should have been the last person to be its author; he had seen how this blunder led to the horrendous tragedy of 1984. The government at that time had made the turban synonymous with terrorism.

Police investigations in the Amritsar killing later revealed that the murder was the result of a long standing personal enmity in which Vipin Kumar had allegedly got the father of one of his assassins killed. The Amritsar police then categorically declared that this was not a terrorist act, as was believed and claimed earlier.

Within days, the government did yet another somersault — blaming “most killings in Punjab in recent days on Khalistani terrorists acting on behalf of Paksitan’s ISI.” This mishandling of a sensitive issue brought back memories of 1980s when every act of violence was blamed on “unidentified Sikh extremists”. How could anyone be sure of the Sikh identity of the extremists if they were unidentified? This was a question which at that time neither the media nor the government allowed the common man to ponder over. Anyone wearing a turban came to be looked upon as a terrorist or at least a potential terrorist. India was communally polarised against its most patriotic community — the Sikhs. Can Punjab afford these tragic blunders again?

Capt Amarinder Singh in Chandigarh.

But the Chief Minister and the DGP’s warning about cross-border triggers for communal tensions in the state needs to be taken seriously. Some key ex-Generals of the Pakistani army including former President Parvez Musharraf, former ISI Chief General Hamid Gul and former diplomats like Zafar Hilali have gone on record in recent years admitting Pakistan’s involvement in Punjab’s deadly decade, 1983-1993. Even today, Pakistan has not given up nor is likely to give up its efforts to keep India under security pressures in both Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.

Diplomatic niceties apart, there is nothing unusual about it. Every country in the world, including India, routinely resort to the Ajit Doval doctrine of “offensive defense” (a euphemism for destabilising countries perceived to be threats to one’s national interests) even while publicly swearing by non-interference and peaceful co-existence.

Therefore, even though the CM’s diagnosis seems based on credible intelligence inputs, we almost certainly do not want to get stuck with this Pakistan-obsession in search for our solutions. The problem in Punjab in 1980s was our own creation and Pakistan merely exploited it — exactly as the East Pakistan problem in 1970-71 was of Pakistan’s own creation and India merely exploited it. That is exactly what we must try to prevent in ‘Punjab 2017.’ The Pakistan factor is not primary but secondary as a contributory factor.

India does not have a copyright on the Ajit Doval doctrine. It is as much available to Pakistan as it is to us. And it seems fairly obvious that Pakistan’s army establishment is trying to do an Ajit Doval on Ajit Doval’s country. And an additional irony is that Pakistan had been following the Ajit Doval doctrine much before Ajit Doval invented it! They had been using J&K and, to a lesser extent, Indian Punjab as zones for implementing their offensive defense strategies.

As per Doval’s own version, the success of his doctrine depends on how well you play upon the enemy’s vulnerabilities. For that, the enemy has to have vulnerabilities. Fewer the vulnerabilities, fewer the chances of this doctrine’s success. It simply means that to defeat external designs of offensive defense against India in Punjab, we need to eliminate our own internal vulnerabilities so that there is nothing there for Pak to exploit. Our biggest and the most worrying vulnerabilities in Punjab are the confused majority-minority terms of engagement. Punjab is one of only two states in India where the national majority community — the Hindus — is a regional minority. Despite the fact that Hindus and Sikhs have lived together in peace for centuries, the problem of the Sikhs’ religious identity has remained one of the major factors threatening peace here. The Sikhs strongly believe that they have a unique religious identity different from that of any other religion including the Hindus. There is nothing “nationalistic” or “anti-national” about the Sikh beliefs in this regard. It is only about getting the Sikhs recognised as a unique and separate religion like any other religion in the country and the world. The Sikhs have remained in the forefront of patriotic causes, always leading from the front in making supreme sacrifices for India’s unity and integrity. Their belief in a separate religious identity has never come in the way of their unswerving patriotism. This needs to be respected by those at the helm with tangible gestures, such as making constitutional amendments where necessary to remove the impression that the Statute does not recognise the Sikhs as a separate religion.

Simultaneously, in Punjab, law enforcing agencies need to come down heavily and with an even hand against extremist communal organisations claiming to represent Hindus and Sikhs respectively. Unfortunately, this is not happening. For example, the Punjab government’s response to the communal propaganda of some fringe Hindu organisations has been to provide additional police security cover to their leaders, bestowing upon these controversial leaders and organisations not only legitimacy but even respectability. This is bound to cause heartburns and backlash among their radical Sikh counterparts who would also use this to convince the peace-loving Sikh masses that the governments discriminate against the community. I believe the government has erred grievously here and needs to undertake immediate corrective measures. It must be and must appear to be fair and impartial in its decisions.

In a nutshell, we need to set our own house in order. What we need to fear in Punjab are not Pakistan’s conspiracies to destabilise India’s border state but own stupidities which can unwittingly ensure the success of these conspiracies. Peace and communal harmony among Hindus and Sikhs are the best “offensive defense” against Pakistan in Punjab. And for this, the government must ensure that it acts equally firmly with fringe communal radicals from both the Hindu and the Sikh communities.

There is yet another dangerous dimension to the challenge we face here. As in the 80s and 90s, the real danger to peace comes from the revival of petty political games played by political parties for cheap electoral gains. There is widespread apprehension in people’s minds about a conspiracy to polarize the majority national opinion against the Sikhs along communal lines. The peace loving majority of Sikhs fear that they will again be demonized, their image tarnished with the help of some lunatic or opportunist elements within the community itself, and eventually they (the Sikhs ) will be used as flogging horses to consolidate Hindu vote behind X or Y political party.

For their own part, the Sikhs need to be vigilant against elements from their own community who can help conspirators to create these conditions against the community. If these apprehensions are indeed based on ground realities — as these well might be — then the community will have to avoid its errors of omission committed in the past and recognize that some opportunistic elements from their own ranks are bought and sponsored to perform acts which will appear heroic to the community at first but which will actually be used to tarnish the image of the Sikhs, dubbing the entire community as terrorists. These acts then will be used — in a repeat of 1984 — as excuses to visit terrible reprisals against the vast majority of peace-loving, patriotic Sikh masses. The community itself needs to learn from how it was hoodwinked in the 1980s and it needs therefore to be loud and vocal against such dangerous elements. The Sikhs must loudly distance themselves from suspect elements by condemning their acts from the very start.

On test is the sagacity of Sikh leaders. On test also is the sagacity and far-sightedness of the country’s opinion-makers and political parties and the saner lot among the Hindu leaders to steer the country away from the edge of the precipice towards which circumstances are pushing it. Our failure to stay united is the only chance Pakistan or any other hostile country has of defeating us. Peace within our borders is the first requirement of success in any war on our borders. Do not bleed the sword arm of the nation — Punjab.

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