Those who believe that harsh legal action against self-styled Khalistan activist Amritpal Singh will solve things are mistaken. Arrests sometimes invigorate separatists.
In the late seventies, efforts were made to push an arrogant Sikh campaigner from Damdami Taksal (an orthodox Sikh cultural and educational organisation) to the status of a mass leader. The exercise to portray leaders from various parties in Punjab as sold out was part of this strategy. The entire country was disillusioned then. Unemployed youths had no choice but to believe that their freedom was meaningless. Taking advantage of this, the Salim-Javed duo was portraying a down at heel hero as a great rebel in several film scripts. Similar scripting was being done for Bhindranwale in the altered backdrop of Punjab’s religious politics.
Those who were not paying attention to this had no idea how intense this script was. Bhindranwale not only transformed himself from a humble preacher to a “saint”, but also from a saint to a defiant leader. It would be a waste of time to discuss which politicians gained or were harmed by this. A lot has already been written and said about this. That was, undoubtedly, the most dangerous attack on Indian sovereignty ever, from within the country.
Operation Blue Star was followed by four decades of uninterrupted peace, despite some leftover bitterness. Images of Bhindranwale can be seen in many gurudwaras even today. An attempt was made to make Indira Gandhi’s killers martyrs, but the average Punjabi was unconcerned. At the same time, those who tried to rekindle old fires overseas persisted.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many separatists took shelter in Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and east Europe, continuing to spread venom there. The result is now visible. Hindu temples and Indian buildings have been attacked in a number of western nations in recent weeks.
It is the obligation of the countries concerned to end this, but they hesitate in the name of freedom of expression. This is the classic western double standard. Would they have taken the same position had it been the ISIS protesting? Why are the operators of torture centres such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib quiet? They are the same people who want to label Russian president Vladimir Putin a war criminal; yet for them, both Bushes, father, and son, who attacked Iraq and killed 450,000 people are democratic leaders. Undoubtedly, the moment has come again for the ministry of foreign affairs to show its teeth.
The rulers of Chandigarh and Delhi, like foreign policy makers, have also blundered in the past. On April 25, 1983, Avtar Singh Atwal, DIG, Jalandhar Zone, was assassinated and thrown down the stairs of the Golden Temple. He was in uniform when attacked. Despite this, his body was left unattended for hours. Journalists covering Punjab eventually said Operation Blue Star could have been averted if the Punjab police and paramilitary forces had been pushed to act immediately.
Are Chandigarh’s rulers making the same mistake today?
Since the death of Deep Sidhu, an accused in the Red Fort violence, Amritpal’s popularity in Punjab has rocketed. If the state’s home department had closed in on him then, the current situation would not have arisen. In the absence of action, he became increasingly aggressive. On February 24, he not only stormed the Ajnala police station but also succeeded in getting his accomplice Lovepreet Singh Toofan released. Had the government acted against him then, Amritpal would not have got the opportunity to be featured in breaking news. The Ajnala incident made his anti-national outburst national and international news.
In the late 1970s, Punjab’s elderly politicians were nearing the end of their careers. A generation of ultra-ambitious youth was hell-bent on replacing them at any cost. Today, Punjab’s political situation is far worse. Parkash Singh Badal’s Akali Dal has lost its lustre. The Congress has lost its clout. The Bharatiya Janata Party is struggling to establish a significant base on its own. Not only is the ruling Aam Aadmi Party new, it also needs to consolidate its ideological foundation in the state. Similarly, no party has a strong leader who can inspire people to take the right direction. These circumstances are favourable for separatists. Simranjit Singh Mann’s victory in the by-election for the Sangrur seat vacated by chief minister Bhagwant Singh Mann is an example of this.
Keep in mind that viewing the current scenario in Punjab solely through the lens of law and order would be a mistake. This problem has its roots in society and politics. Our leaders must remember they have to eradicate the ailment, not the patient.
Shashi Shekhar is the editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal