Khalistani activists clashing with the police are alarming, and Thursday's was the second this month – after the February 9 incident between the Chandigarh police and Qaumi Insaf Morcha – the fact is that so far there is no evidence of links to any organised militant group. (PTI)
The Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab finds itself facing charges of being ineffective against Khalistani elements in the state – or worse, unwilling to act against them – after it buckled quickly as supporters of a radical leader overran a police station near Ajnala on Thursday.
The charge has trailed the AAP since it made its first forays into Punjab in the 2017 Assembly elections. While that made no dent in the landslide the party got in the 2022 Assembly elections, a series of incidents since have put the party on the backfoot.
A month after Bhagwant Mann took over as head of the AAP government, Patiala was witness to a clash between pro-Khalistan activists and right-wing Hindu organisations.
Days later, the parliamentary seat of Sangrur that Mann had vacated was won by pro-Khalistan leader Simranjit Singh Mann, president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar).
In November last year, a ‘Shiv Sena Hindustan’ leader was killed, with police blaming a “self-radicalised pro-Khalistani” youth.
The past few months have seen the sudden rise of Amritpal Singh, who returned from Dubai last year and now heads Waris Punjab De, an organisation founded by the late actor-activist Deep Sidhu. It were Amritpal’s supporters who forced the police hand in the protest on Thursday.
Meanwhile, an agitation on the lines of the Singhu farmer stir – with tents planted for the long haul – has taken shape in Mohali, seeking the release of Sikh militants “who have completed their sentence”.
All this coincides with regular pro-Khalistan marches and rallies across the state.
While Opposition parties keep citing the above to accuse the Mann government of playing with fire when it comes to Khalistan – former CM and BJP leader Amarinder Singh was among those who issued dire warnings after the Amritpal incident Thursday – the fact is that many of the factors that have fuelled increased activities of pro-Khalistan groups in Punjab date back to before the 11 months of the AAP government.
In its chargesheet in the Tarn Taran blast case of 2019, in which two people were killed in a blast, the NIA said that Sikh youths in Punjab had been radicalised after the incidents of “sacrilege” of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015, which happened under the Akali Dal-BJP government.
With the Akali Dal-BJP government unable to make much headway in the case, it had been the main election issue both in the 2017 polls (where the AAP made its debut and the Congress won) and the 2022 Assembly elections (swept by the AAP).
In the run-up to the 2022 polls, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal had said that justice in sacrilege cases could be delivered “within 24 hours”. Now, the face of the AAP’s demands on the sacrilege issue, Kunwar Vijay Partap, the MLA from Amritsar North, is himself unhappy with the failure of his party’s government to crack it.
Consequently, the unsolved sacrilege issue remains one of the main arguments forwarded by pro-Khalistan groups to push their agenda.
Among the issues Amritpal Singh has taken up is the unabated smuggling of drugs into the state, linking it to a conspiracy to reduce the Sikhs to “slaves”, or even to “eliminate” them. While rampant drug infiltration and use has been recognised as a crisis in the state for years now, earlier governments, and now the AAP’s, have failed to make any significant dent in it.
The allegations of links of Akali leaders with the drug mafia, as well as the consistent failure of governments of different parties to check drug smuggling, have cemented impression among the people of a deliberate neglect on the issue — which is being cashed in by pro-Khalistan groups.
If the AAP created its space in Punjab, and elsewhere, through clever use of the social media, so has the pro-Khalistan lobby. It is via this that the Khalistan narrative has been kept alive and simmering, especially among the newer generation, apart from songs by popular Punjabi singers which have long flirted with themes of violence. In June 2022, the Centre had stepped in to ensure a ban on the ‘SYL’ song of Sidhu Moosewala, which was seen as glorifying Khalistani militants. But the murder of the popular singer since has served to enlarge his myth.
Besides, a lot more pro-Khalistan content remains floating on social media, over which in fact the AAP government has no control. It is the Union government under whose domain this largely falls.
While visuals of armed pro-Khalistani activists clashing with the police are alarming, and Thursday’s was the second this month – after the February 9 incident between the Chandigarh police and Qaumi Insaf Morcha – the fact is that so far there is no evidence of links to any organised militant group. It is mostly gangsters and even some non-Sikhs who have been booked in the recent incidents of violence in which the UAPA has been invoked.
While the police blame mostly foreign-based Khalistani groups for executing attacks like the RPG strike on the Intelligence Headquarters in Mohali in May 2022, such one-off incidents also took place under previous governments.
Besides, even the active pro-Khalistan groups in Punjab are more into strident activism, rather than any agenda of organised militancy as in the ’80s and ’90s, which makes it difficult for a government to act against them. Even Amritpal talks of reactionary violence and says it is up to the government on which path it wants to push him.
“Until 2015, it was normal for the police to book us under sedition for raising pro-Khalistan slogans. Though there were judgments against it, we had to fight in courts repeatedly for the right to raise slogans and make the demand for Khalistan peacefully. Today’s youth are taking advantage of our long fight to talk about Khalistan peacefully. Governments can’t do much due to court judgments,” says Kanwar Pal Singh Khalsa, chief of the pro-Khalistan Dal Khalsa.
The Hindu Rashtra demand
Another factor which is not under the control of the AAP government is the growing narrative around a “Hindu Rashtra”, pushed by elements with links to the RSS-BJP. This further plays into the insecurity among sections of the Sikh community over its implications for minorities like them.
“If one can talk about a Hindu Rashtra and raise slogans for it, if Communists can aspire to create a Communist state and raise slogans of inquilab (revolution), then why have peaceful aspirations of Khalistan been criminalised? Some leaders want to put me in jail for demanding Khalistan, and at the same time India claims to be the biggest democracy in the world,” Amritpal said at the press conference he held to give the call for the Thursday protest.
A Sikh AAP leader in Amritsar admitted the government was caught in a bind. “If the AAP government throws Amritpal in jail for just demanding Khalistan, we will be called a Hindutva party, for there are people who demand Hindu Rashtra and can our central leadership risk putting someone in jail for that?”
AAP’s high promises
Punjab had wholeheartedly bought into the AAP’s promise of change and a break from the old, entrenched parties in the state. However, so far, the expectations have proved hard to meet. Despite his huge personal following, even CM Mann is struggling to establish himself as a dependable leader, while his mostly first-time MLAs are yet to settle in.
The Mann government’s quick buckling to concede Amritpal’s demand will further the impression that it is too raw for crises such as this.
If the AAP is fortunate in the sense that other political parties are also in the midst of leadership throes, especially the Akali Dal, it means there is a void at the top that the pro-Khalistan leaders are exploiting.
Former CM Amarinder Singh, who has consistently talked of a threat of the rise of Khalistani elements and warned of Pakistan’s designs, repeated Thursday that what happened at the Ajnala police station was not a mere law and order problem. He said it had “serious security implications for the state and the country”, and the Mann government was not equipped to handle the same.