An invitation to militancy

Print edition : June 23, 2001

Prakash Singh Badal's efforts in support of the return of blacklisted Sikh extremists to Punjab raise fears about a revival of militancy.

IT is evidently time for the radicals and the proponents of diasporic nationalism to return to Punjab. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal will only be too happy to roll out the red carpet for them. Badal's efforts are prompted by the nuances of Punjab's politics, where each faction of the Akali Dal is trying to appear more radical than the other.

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar in early June.-AMAN SHARMA/ AP

What set the alarm bells ringing was the permission given to the self-styled president of the Council of Khalistan, Jagjit Singh Chauhan, to enter Punjab. This was made possible after the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the Union government to issue necessary travel documents to Chauhan through the High Commission in London. Rejecting the government's plea, the court said that Chauhan could not be denied his fundamental rights solely on the basis of intelligence reports that he supported secession.

This judgment gains significance from recent announcements by Badal and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani favouring a review of the "blacklist" of Sikh activists. On May 17, Badal met Advani (it was his 15th meeting with the Union Minister on the issue) to demand a review of the blacklist of Sikhs who had shifted to various countries at the height of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s and the early 1990s. The number of blacklisted persons has come down steadily over the years and only about 190 Sikhs figure in the list now.

Added to this development is the Badal government's soft treatment of Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, who was arrested on April 11. Zaffarwal's Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) was responsible for a series of communal killings, notably the massacre of six persons in Dasuya in January 1984.

Jagjit Singh Chauhan, who hails from Tanda in Hoshiarpur district, was a medical practitioner before he became Finance Minister in the Lachchman Singh Gill government in the 1960s. He actively propagated the idea of Khalistan in the late 1970s and the 1980s, and thereafter left for England from where he issued what was purported to be Khalistan currency notes and unfurled its flag. Both Chauhan and Zaffarwal recently stated that they were not averse to the idea of taking an active interest in Punjab politics again.

Badal's idea seems to be to attract the radicals to his group. Whether he would co-opt Zaffarwal and Chauhan into his party is another question altogether, but for the time being Badal may not go beyond working in tandem with the radicals. Said a senior Akali Dal leader: "Badal is wise enough to realise that if he invites them to join his party he would be sounding the death-knell for the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance."

The Akali Dal-BJP partnership is already showing signs of strain. The Hindu voters, it appears, are not too happy with the BJP's silence on the Akali Dal's open espousal of the Sikh Right. This could lead to a situation in which Hindu radical groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Shiv Sena and the Hindu Suraksha Samiti (HSS), will play the communal card.

For instance, on June 6 the 17th anniversary of Operation Bluestar was held at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Special prayers were held at the Akal Takht for militants who died in the Army operation in 1984. The situation became tense when the local units of the Shiv Sena and the HSS announced that they would hold prayers at a temple opposite the Golden Temple for people killed by militants and the soldiers who died in Operation Bluestar. Said Harish Sharma of the HSS: "The Golden Temple holds prayers for the (dead) militants. This year special prayers were held for (Jarnail Singh) Bhindranwale (the slain high priest of Sikh militancy). Therefore we decided to hold prayers for the security personnel who died in the operation." As tension mounted, the government stepped in to prevent the HSS from holding the prayer meeting in the temple. The HSS shifted the venue of the function.

This is not the first time that the situation reached boiling point. On April 1, the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal put up a marquee for an all-night religious function on the road, blocking the passage to the Golden Temple. The police were brought in to prevent the rioting that followed this (Frontline, June 8, 2001).

The fact of the matter is that the militants killed in Operation Bluestar are hailed as martyrs at the Akal Takht and at other gurdwaras. Although their names have not been officially added to ardas (the Sikh congregational prayer), devotional paeans about their 'sacrifice' put them on a a par with those who died in acts of persecution against Sikhs in the past. Not surprisingly, on June 6 the head of the Akal Takht, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, said that the day served to remind the Sikh community of the atrocities committed by the Indira Gandhi government. He regretted that Parliament had not condoled the deaths and said that caused a sense of alienation among Sikhs. As a result, a permanent Sikh-Hindu divide had been created where formerly none existed, he remarked.

If the support base of the BJP is deteriorating, the opponents of the Akali Dal (Badal) are having a field day, attacking the "sell-out of the Sikh faith" to the RSS. On June 6, the Khalsa Action Committee (KAC), an obscure communal organisation, distributed a pamphlet after the prayers in the Golden Temple, accusing the Badal government of ignoring the activities of the RSS. It said a group of 120 retired Indian Administrative Service officers operating in Guna, Madhya Pradesh, had prepared a 10-point formula for the RSS units in Punjab to infiltrate Sikh religious institutions, by taking on the appearance of Sikhs, if necessary, in order to weaken the religion.

RSS workers have also been asked to hold prayers at gurdwaras by Hindu groups, promote the sale of cigarettes outside Sikh religious places, and settle migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in Punjab in order to change the majority status of Sikhs in the State. The Ludhiana president of the KAC, Charanjeet Singh 'Channi', said: "Our target is to distribute 20 lakh posters all over Punjab by April next year exposing the dark deeds of the Akali Dal (Badal)-RSS combine."

Against this background, Badal's tacit support to the extremists is turning the situation from bad to worse, raising fears of a return of terrorism to Punjab. However, political observers point out that it would take more than tacit support to the radicals by the State government to push Punjab back to the days of militancy.

TO say that brutal state repression resulted in bringing militancy in Punjab under control would be too facile. It is true that the situation became normal only after the laws were made harsh and the police were given unprecedented immunity from legal and democratic accountability if they showed results. What was, however, more important was that the people of Punjab were fed up with the activities of the militants.

In other words, the battle for Khalistan ended when the militants destroyed their own ideological appeal. They resorted to settling local scores, committing crimes like underworld figures and accumulating wealth in primitive fashion, all in the name of the movement. The Indian state's task of putting down the activities of the militants became less difficult once they lost the people's support.

Hence, even if the former militants return to Punjab, they will need to do a lot to drive the State to the situation it found itself in in the 1980s. At the same time, the politics of communalism that the Akali Dal, the BJP and the Congress encourage does not augur well for the State.

Political leaders and police officials do not rule out the possibility of an escalation of terrorist activities with the return of the radicals. Said Communist Party of India leader Satyapal Dang: "With Badal's open invitation to the radicals to return to Punjab, terrorism will not come back in the way it had affected the State earlier. At the same time, open espousal of fundamentalism will ensure that there will be stray incidents of militant activity, of the kind that killed Congress(I) leader Beant Singh."

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