Interview with the former MLA of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Kanwar Sandhu, a former MLA of the Aam Aadmi Party from Kharar, says the simmering situation of Punjab is a fall-out of good governance in the State and lack of empathy from the Centre, boosted by the year-long farmers’ agitation. The Punjabi masses, at home and abroad, share a deep-rooted feeling of being discriminated against, he says, but cautions that this should not be equated to approval for the Khalistani movement.
How has the anti-farm laws agitation affected the socio-political dynamics of Punjab?
The year-long farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws had an overwhelming effect on the socio-political scene in Punjab. Perhaps for the first time, the farming community, spread across the world but especially from Punjab, bonded as one to take on the might of the state. The agitation brought disparate farm bodies from Punjab [and some other States] under one umbrella—the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM). This grouping later split in the run-up to the Punjab Assembly election, but on some issues a broad “understanding” among various farm groups still persists.
Politically, the agitation led to fresh political alignments. The 25-year-old alliance between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to an end. The SAD forged a fresh alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for the 2022 election (the last such electoral understanding was in the 1996 Lok Sabha election). The BJP, too, tied up with the Punjab Lok Congress (a party floated by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh). Amarinder Singh merged his party with BJP after the election.
The farmers’ agitation had a debilitating effect on traditional political parties in Punjab—the Congress, the SAD and the BJP—which helped the AAP come to power. I wonder how the situation would have developed if all farm bodies had decided to take the political and electoral plunge together. The agitation also helped embolden the common man, a factor that helped the AAP to come to power. No wonder the government is avoiding a confrontationist approach towards various groups agitating in the State, including farmers.
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The Punjabi suba movement is seen by some as a forerunner of the Khalistani movement. Do you see any resemblances between the current situation in Punjab and the Punjabi suba developments of the past?
I don’t think the Punjabi Suba movement was a forerunner of the Khalistan movement. Yes, there were some pending issues which led the Akali Dal to launch an agitation (river waters issue, transfer of Chandigarh, transfer of Punjabi-speaking areas in other States to Punjab, and so on), which turned ugly. The situation was mishandled, resulting in the military storming the Golden Temple in June, 1984. I believe that it was this action which provided an impetus to the separatist movement, which simmers to this day.
The current mood of alienation is the result of whatever happened in the past. Yes, today the feeling of “discrimination”, real or perceived, runs wide at home and abroad among Sikhs. Yet, there are not many takers for Khalistan. But there is no one paying heed to this. What makes matters worse is the lack of good governance in the State and lack of empathy from the Centre.
The arrival of Amritpal Singh Sandhu as a self-styled ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’ is being seen as the inauguration of a new chapter in the State’s troubling story. How do you track his arrival and sudden clout?
Amritpal Singh’s phenomenal rise is indeed baffling. Many would like to imagine that he has been propped up by God knows who. But it is quite possible that he entered the scene and made the right noises when there was a void in Panthik Sikh politics. The SAD stands discredited due to its misrule for 10 years. The party’s loss of credibility is also due to the issue of the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib during its time. Whether Amritpal Singh can become “Bhindranwale 2.0” will depend on the handling of the situation. The rule of law needs to be enforced in letter and spirit. Let us not forget that beginning 1981, the situation was mishandled badly and repeatedly until he became unstoppable.
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How do you perceive the role of the Dera Sacha Sauda vis-a-vis the social tensions in Punjab, particularly in the context of the sacrilege row and how the political parties’ handled it?
The Dera Sacha Sauda indeed has a major role to play in how the situation has developed in Punjab. Various political parties, including the Congress, the Akali Dal and the BJP, had been courting the Dera for votes. Finally, it was the Akali Dal’s fatal miscalculation when it decided to overlook the Dera’s indiscretions, including impersonation of the 10th Sikh Guru by the Dera Chief and, later, sacrilege of the Holy Granth. People were also unhappy with the Congress’ handling of the inquiries into the sacrilege. Whichever party is able to meet people’s expectations on “justice” on sacrilege will get the Sikh sympathy [and perhaps vote].
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Did the SAD’s long association with the BJP, its initial indecisiveness during the anti-farm laws protest and its support to abolition of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, contribute to the panthic Sikh base’s search for a new figurehead/socio-political platform?
I would think so. In order to enjoy the fruits of power, the SAD forgot all about its basic ideology. But since the party jettisoned its “Panthik” and federal agenda during the regime Parkash Singh Badal, it is primarily the Badal family which is bearing the brunt of the Sikh wrath. The SAD, or any other Sikh platform minus the Badals, could inch back to relevance should they go back to the basics, including federalism.
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What factors led to the AAP’s meteoric rise in Punjab? How do you rate its handling of the State’s complex socio-religious structure? There are allegations that the party flirts with clandestine Khalistani elements.
The AAP’s meteoric rise is primarily, in my opinion, due to the failure of the traditional parties to provide good governance over the years. But the AAP is up against a very complex socio-religious scenario in Punjab, which is compounded by the baggage of the 1980s and 1990s. If it continues to follow dictates from Delhi, as is the allegation, it has a disaster waiting. Punjab needs to be handled the Punjab way. Instead of coming to grips with the complexities of the situation, the government is seen to be frittering away its resources on publicity and propaganda in far off lands.
Allegations that the AAP flirts with clandestine Khalistan elements are perhaps too simplistic an understanding of the party. My experience is that it flirts with anything and anybody if that can further its quest for power.
- The farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws had an overwhelming effect on the socio-political scene in Punjab. Politically, the agitation led to fresh political alignments.
- Today, the feeling of “discrimination”, real or perceived, runs wide at home and abroad among Sikhs. Yet, there are not many takers for Khalistan.
- The arrival of Amritpal Singh Sandhu as a self-styled ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’ is baffling.
- The AAP’s meteoric rise is primarily due to the failure of the traditional parties to provide good governance over the years.