Punjab: Frankenstein amidst Witches Brew
Brig (retd) Rahul Bhonsle

Punjab - the front line border state of India has seen fragility in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the form of a bloody terrorist campaign memories of which returned to haunt with images from Ajnala (near Amritsar) where followers of a radical extremists ‘gheraoed’ a police station armed with swords and sticks.

The rise of Frankenstein in the form of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the 1980’s has been well documented. The belief that the era is gone by permeated over the past two and a half decades yet it is clear that the atypical socio-religious and economic admix of Punjab which can be seen as a “witches brew,” has the potential for the rise of another anarchist this time in the form of Amritpal Singh, who led the Ajnala mayhem.

This is not to say that this Frankenstein of today [Amritpal Singh] has assumed the proportions of a Bhindranwale but the potential for the same exists due to the curious socio political ferment that is continuing in the State.

Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Pakistan Army’s dubious intelligence agency whose K 2 [Kashmir and Khalistan] project remains active has sensed this opportunity in Punjab a second time after the 1980’s is tweaking the fissures.

A capricious Punjabi diaspora spread across the World but concentrated in pockets in Canada and the United States has been harnessed by the ISI to create the baloney of a Khalistani separatist movement an idea which finds little traction in the Punjab of today.

Taking advantage of administrations that in the garb of liberalism have scant respect for sovereignty of other members of the international community, as India, the ISI is creating diaspora groups to fan Sikh [and Kashmiri] separatism abroad. In a characteristically “noisy” democracy finding issues that can fan hate is not difficult and in the case Punjab where leadership has faltered in the past decade or so all the more easier.

The immediate “concern,” in Punjab to choose words carefully as it is not yet a “challenge,” is to quell vigilantism represented by Amritpal Singh and “Waris Punjab De” movement as well as its ilk. The Indian security establishment has the capability to do so and yet the typical centre-state division in law and order implies that some deft management from the apex to egg on the Punjab administration to nip the main actors and their conspiracy in the bud is essential.

How this unfolds remains to be seen?

Turning his desecration of the Holy Book Guru Granth Sahib flashing the same in the Ajnala protests is one such kink which can be exploited. On the large plane it is now known that the Punjab Police was well aware of the rise of divisive elements in the State. Punjab Director General of Police Gaurav Yadav is said to have notified the rise of Amritpal Singh, as the chief of Waris Punjab De (‘Heirs of Punjab) at the DGP Conference held in the month of January this year.

Intelligence agencies are reported to have a dossier ready of his hate and anti national speeches which are enough to place him behind the bars. [iv]What is however important is to avoid an Ajnala like flare up by his supporters given the cult status that he has assumed and one that may have got a boost due to tactical surrender of the police administration by releasing his henchman, Lovepreet Singh or Toofan.

The larger challenge is to defuse the Witches Brew and here there is no light at the end of the tunnel given multiple drivers of instability that have not only unfolded but have been entrenched in Punjab in the past decade which has given rise to entities as Amritpal Singh. Support from Pakistan is the obvious one while the issue needs to be flagged very prominently in an appropriate forum notwithstanding the denial and covering of tracks that follow by Islamabad.

Clearly, support to groups as the Waris De and its leadership from abroad is a red line that needs to be flagged in London and Ottawa as well. There are challenges to be addressed internally in Punjab in the political, economic, social and religious spheres. The failure of governance in Punjab is more than evident in the past few months if not years. Management of the farmers local agitations which has continued despite the national one having subsided over a year ago should be given priority

Creating employment is another. The vibrant MSME culture of the State in the past has to be re-harnessed. Clearly, there will be much benefit for supporting the Government in the State despite the political affiliation which is weak to say the least filled with greenhorns. A centre state harmonious model is not unknown and Left Wing Extremism has been very effectively tackled in states in Central India which have opposition [Non BJP] parties in power. Such a model can work in Punjab and is the need of the hour. Who will take the first step remains to be seen?

Reining in social groups such as the Bandi Sanghis and weaning away the youth from drugs needs a whole of society approach. This cannot be done by the State alone. Punjabi civil society has to rise up but it will only do so once the vigilantes like Amritpal Singh and Toofan are reined in thus removing the fear of targeting.

Above all the vacuum in political, social and moderate religious leadership in Punjab will have to be addressed by the society, the public intellectuals and sane elements in Punjabi diaspora. It’s a long road ahead, but one which the Indian state and Punjabi society is capable of having done so once in the past.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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