India's New Political Landscape: BJP-led NDA Forms Govt, Punjab Sends Khalistan Voices to Parliament

An NSA detenue incarcerated in Dibrugarh jail, Amrit Pal has been inactive on social media, while Sarabjit Singh continues to issue statements in his hubris charting the road ahead. What many political analysts view with both interest and concern is his express goal to raise another Akali Dal since, according to him, the present one is tainted and moribund having lost both its moorings and direction. Should that happen, there is every chance that Simranjit Mann, an ex-IPS officer, would be its founding father with Amrit Pal and Sarabjit, both plain matriculates, as front runners. In the event, Punjab politics would be in for an unprecedented shake-up. True, Simranjit Mann had been elected to the parliament in 1989 while still in prison but, isolated in Parliament, accomplished little politically as a fire-breathing radical, only to gradually lose steam and traction. This time around, the emerging triumvirate might prove far more potent with their inflammatory rhetoric and even greater groundswell. What remains to be seen is the extent to which they’ll polarise the populace, and how far the latter will ride with separatist agenda.

However, when it comes to Amrit Pal, the waters are rather murky because of a popular conspiracy theory that many including the SAD chief, Sukhbir Singh Badal, subscribe to—that he’s been "propped up by the central agencies". Several incidents lend strength to this intrigue: a cleanshaven Amrit Pal, running his own family transport business in Dubai for ten years, was picked by Indian intel agencies and brought to Punjab in September 2022; he usurped leadership of the pressure group, ‘Waris Punjab De’, founded by the late Deep Sidhu (Deep Sidhu’s family still don’t accept him as successor); the Home Ministry is known to have issued a large number of arms licences to Amrit Pal and his outfit to stir trouble; after his attack on the Ajnala police station on 23 Feb 2023, the police manhunt ran like a charade for over a month; initially, Amrit Pal had shown no inclination to contest the Lok Sabha election until nominated, so people believe, by an RSS operative.

Such a flurry of ‘charges’ may be difficult to prove either way but if the investigation now under progress in North America over India’s aggressive posture to use its intelligence operatives as instruments of policy are any indication, Punjab could well be heading for uncharted waters that could prove far more dangerous than the period leading up to and beyond Operation Blue Star operation in the 1980’s.

Unsurprisingly, India is circumspect to blame Amrit Pal’s induction to Pak ISI. Be that as it may, parallels with the Bhindranwale narrative are difficult to ignore.

In his book ‘Tragedy of Punjab’, co-written with Khushwant Singh, the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar described Bhindranwale as similarly propped up by the Congress government. Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, “knowing how extra-constitutional matters worked,” suggested a “sant” be put up to challenge the Akali Dal government, its chief rival in Punjab. Two Sikh priests were shortlisted for the task, and the final selection left to Sanjay. One did not look “the courageous type.” The other was Bhindranwale. Sanjay’s friend, the MP Kamal Nath, told Nayar, “Bhindranwale, strong in tone and tenor, seemed to fit the bill. We would give him money off and on, but we never thought he would turn into a terrorist.”

The Congress supported Bhindranwale in the 1978 SGPC elections and, by January 1980, when Indira Gandhi was voted back into power, Bhindranwale had grown in stature and influence. To reciprocate, during the Punjab elections of 1980, he canvassed for some of the Congress candidates and once even shared a dais with Indira Gandhi.

When his name appeared in the police report investigating the assassination of Gurbachan Singh, Nirankari head, in April 1980, for the first time, Bhindranwale sought shelter in Guru Nanak Niwas within the Darbar Sahib complex, until his name was cleared by the Congress high command.

As an ugly parallel, the conspiracy theory shrouding Amrit Pal’s entry into Punjab politics allegedly on the behest of the ruling dispensation needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the festering farmer distress and an agitation that refuses to die. It seems to have scarred the Punjabi psyche severely enough for an on-duty farmer’s daughter (CISF official) to slap a newly elected MP on 6 June at the Chandigarh airport—also serving to endorse the Jat-Sikh established reputation for reckless courage.

Economic distress has often been a powerful cause of disaffection among state and non-state actors alike the world over. It must be remembered that Bhindranwale himself was an impoverished farmer with a meagre landholding, and his family had to struggle for a living akin to those of the many young men who took up arms against the Indian state alongside Bhindranwale, and continued to do so even after his death.

Today, among large sections of the unemployed youth in Punjab, Bhindranwale is worshipped often with a devotion at par with that for Sikh Gurus primarily because he has come to epitomize their ‘hakkan di larai’ (fight for their rights), which for many translates as a separate homeland.

The Green Revolution indubitably brought prosperity to rural Punjab, but it also exacerbated inequalities among Jat-Sikhs, the predominant landowning community in Punjab when differences in landholding size multiplied into differentials in wealth and status. Even today, unemployed Sikh youth who flock to the numerous deras—roughly translates as a monastery with a religious head in rural Punjab—that dot the Punjab hinterland are semi-literate at best, from poor homes, and lack the capital to invest in a Canadian visa—first choice among many. Sadly, they also constitute ready material for radicalisation.

Ranked first in GDP per capita amongst Indian states in 1981, Punjab suffered a major setback during the militancy years, precipitating a downslide. By 2001, it had slipped to the fourth rank, and continues to experience the second-slowest GDP per capita growth rate of all Indian states and UTs, behind only Manipur.

While the Green Revolution in Punjab had several positive and negative impacts, the introduction of the mechanised agricultural techniques brought in its wake uneven distribution of wealth. The industrial development trailed agricultural growth since the Indian government has been reluctant to set up heavy industries in a high-risk border state. Combined with this, the rapid increase in higher education opportunities without a commensurate uptick in jobs resulted in increasing unemployment of educated youth, who were drawn in large numbers into militant groups to form the backbone of the Punjab militancy during the 1980s.

Writing in his tell-all ‘Turmoil in Punjab’, Ramesh Inder Singh, Deputy Commissioner Amritsar during the dark days of Operation Blue Star and after, states: “Since the militants lacked legitimacy, they fell back on what scholar Mark Juergensmeyer called ‘meta-morality that religion provides’….As the violence accelerated, Pakistan stepped in to train and arm the militants….Blue Star sowed the seeds for an ethno-national struggle, triggering greater violence….Punjab suffered humongous losses. About 30,000 people died in a decade of violence. The state slipped from the number one position to below 15th among states on most of the socio-economic parameters.”

Unable to arrest the downswing that continues unchecked, the economy of Punjab today has slipped to the 16th spot, while its per capita GDP ranks 19th.

This rising lack of job opportunities means more youth enlisting in Punjab’s burgeoning deras. With good reason, many attribute the mindless violence sweeping the state to these sectarian institutions that readily condone and even authorise violence, mostly against defenceless unarmed victims. If the number of sacrilege-related killings going unchecked are any indication, they have the police on the backfoot, under a fear psychosis, too cowed to act.

Will Punjab dial back to turn into a Republic of Fear if such violence attains legitimacy under the new partisan Akali Dal proposed by the newly elected MP, Sarabjit Singh? can it become a political force to reckon with should the Mann-Amrit Pal-Sarabjit triumvirate come into being?

In the midst of such high-octane speculation, moderate voices of Sikh intellectuals, albeit muffled, can also be heard, and augur well. Critical of Sikh praxis today where vacuous rituals alone are the mainstay, they hark back to the essential Sikh ethos propagated by Sikh Gurus. Ask any of them and they’ll tell you how far-removed Punjab society is from the teachings of the Sikh gurus today.

They frown upon the emotive backlash against the frenzied hullabaloo created at the drop of a hat over alleged incidents of ‘bedabi’ (sacrilege). Sikh ethos, they explain, has long “espoused a formless creator while condemning ‘murti puja’ (idol worship). However, once the Guru is wholly equated and identified with a physical form, the danger to take quick and grave offence at anything and everything that happens to this Form, by accident or design, is severely palpable around us.”

But the scriptures nowhere justify such ossification of spirituality:

Gur kā bacẖan basai jī▫a nāle.

Jal nahī dūbai ṯaskar nahī levai bẖāhi na sākai jāle. ||1||

The Guru's Word abides with my soul.

It does not sink in water; thieves cannot steal it, and fire cannot burn it. II 1 II

- Guru Arjan Dev, SGGS, 679.

Many Sikhs are also appalled at the hair-trigger tendency for violence, especially among nihangs, but hesitate to openly call it out. Citing Baba Deep Singh as an example, they commend the sant-sipahi “who was governed by a moral code and compass, even their weapons carried scriptural inscriptions as holy remembrancers”.

The Tenth Guru particularly condemned violence against the unarmed:

Mazan teg khoon kas be dareg l Tura neej khoo charakh rezad bateg l 69 l

Do not strike the helpless, else the Lord will strike you – Stanza 69, Zafarnamah

What is worse, they lament, the top-most injunctions of the Sikh Gurus—kirat karna (‘earn an honest living’) and dasvand kadna (‘tithe’)—"have been replaced by a robustly endorsed tendency to propagate an exclusively visible form of Sikhi with little focus on core Sikh values. Picture worship, long taboo in Sikh ecclesiastical practice, continues to be ‘more honour’d in the breach than the observance’”.

One might well ask: “As a forward-thinking religion founded on lofty principles of humanism with aspirations for edification and justice, is the current iteration of Sikhism of a piece with its founding values and civilisational goals?”

Which way will Sikhism turn under its present politico-religious leadership?

According to Ramesh Inder Singh, “the ethno-national movement is dead, but it still resonates with a microscopic element abroad, raising concerns in India.”

The most significant ‘unknown unknown’ confronting Punjab today is that, given our socio-economic climate, doctrinal rigidity, grassroot problems, particularly agrarian distress, are these ‘concerns’ destined to exacerbate into a full-fledged separatist campaign under threat from a looming triumvirate?

Colonel Harisimran Singh belongs to a military family based in rural Punjab.He retired after 31 years having served in regimental, staff and instructional appointments.During service he also proceeded on sabbatical to the UK for MA War Studies at King’s College London


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