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The new Khalistan movement is a challenge for India’s political establishment

Every single time, I interviewed Amarinder Singh when he was chief minister of Punjab, he came back, again and again, to the same point.

There was, he said, a concerted attempt to revive the Khalistan movement. The campaign had very little to do with Sikhs in Punjab but was financed from abroad.


There were, he suggested, extremist Sikh groups in such countries as Canada who were backing this campaign. And of course, Pakistan was providing support. It was probably the mastermind of the strategy.


   His concern, he said, was that we were not paying enough attention. And though he had cried himself hoarse about the growth of an imported Khalistan movement, nobody recognised how serious the issue was.


   Well, we are certainly paying attention now. But it’s not clear that we finally understand how serious the issue is.


   Perhaps Amritpal Singh will be arrested by the time you read this. And perhaps he is just a convenient figurehead. But what is certainly clear is that Amarinder was right. And sadly, there is very little reason to believe that the current Punjab government is up to the task of combating this campaign. It has already taken too long to act.


   Anyone who has been targeted by Khalistani tweets from Pakistani handles (as many journalists have been) will be left in no doubt about the Islamabad connection that Amarinder worried about. But there is no agreement over what exactly is going on.


   The Government of India believes that Pakistan (possibly the ISI or an organisation like it) picked up Amritpal Singh in the Gulf, where he was an inconsequential figure, and sent him to Punjab to be the front man for the agitation. It draws parallels with the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had a remarkable rise in a short period of time and was clearly assisted by Pakistan.


   Ajit Doval who now oversees India’s security and intelligence services as National Security Advisor should know. He had smuggled himself into the Golden Temple in the 1980s during the Punjab militancy and operated as an undercover Indian agent, persuading the militants that he was on their side. (They believed that he had been sent by Pakistan.)


   If this is indeed a Pakistan-run operation, as most intelligence experts appear to believe, we could be in deep trouble. Pakistan can keep training militants and infiltrating them into India. Given the current state of affairs in Pakistan; it is not clear that those organising this operation will necessarily listen to the political establishment even if it promises India that Pakistan will stop supporting the militants.


  "It would be a shame if such a serious threat to peace and stability in India becomes the subject of party political battles." 

   There is, of course, another point of view offered up by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sympathisers. They argue that Amritpal Singh has been propped up by elements in the Indian government itself. The intention is to create trouble for the AAP government and to eventually dismiss it, arguing that it cannot be trusted to handle a sensitive state. This, say the APP supporters, is designed to restrict AAP to Delhi and prevent the party from emerging as a national alternative.


   When you point out that this seems absurdly far-fetched, the response is: Isn’t this exactly what the Congress did with Bhindranwale? Way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Congress politicians in Punjab (backed presumably by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi) propped up Sikh religious leaders as a counter to the Akali Dal. Eventually Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, one of those promoted from behind the scenes by the Congress, grew so strong that he broke free of his original mentors.


   Personally, I find it hard to believe that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is behind the current turmoil; as Amarinder’s repeated warnings, long before AAP took office in Punjab, demonstrate, this campaign has been in the works for a long time.


   But the fact that this theory is being offered up by AAP supporters suggests that the Centre and the state government are not on the same page. And if the Punjab government is eventually dismissed, this will create its own problems in a state where the BJP is neither very popular with the Sikh community nor has much credibility. (Though perhaps that could now change with the entry of Amarinder and others in the BJP.)


   It would be a shame if such a serious threat to peace and stability in India becomes the subject of party political battles. And yet, this is exactly what might happen. If the Khalistan agitation turns more violent (so far, unlike the 1980s, there has been no specific targeting of Hindus and Hindu targets), then the most likely consequence, following the worsening of relations between Hindus and Sikhs, is a huge divide in Punjab.


   History tells us that the police usually respond to militancies with overkill. This alienates peaceful ordinary citizens and ends up helping the extremists. It can also become a vote-winning opportunity for politicians. Already, the Akali Dal has condemned what it calls a crackdown on Punjab youth as the police struggle to find Amritpal Singh. This divide may grow bigger.


   There are also national consequences. All Indians are particularly unforgiving of separatist movements. If such movements are framed in religious terms then communal tensions all over India are inevitable.


   If Hindus are abused or specifically targeted, there is certain to be a national backlash that politicians will exploit. This is what happened in the 1980s when Congress leaders raised tensions to a level that led to the eventual massacres of innocent Sikhs in the streets of Delhi. There is almost always a Hindu wave in these situations. In 1984 the Congress reaped the electoral benefit. This time it could be the BJP that will benefit.


   There is also the security situation to consider. State police forces can’t always handle potential insurgencies on their own. In the 1980s, the Congress was in power in the state of Punjab and at the Centre and even then Mrs Gandhi found it necessary to dismiss the Congress government and let the Centre take charge.


   Can AAP and the BJP at the Centre work together to avoid a return of an 1980s-like situation? It is not clear that they can. On the other hand, dismissing the AAP government sends out the wrong signals about India’s democratic, federal structure.


   For all of these reasons, the situation in Punjab is even more dangerous than it seems. With a bit of luck, Amritpal Singh will be arrested and his agitation controlled. But I doubt if those backing the emergence of the new Khalistan movement will give up. This is a challenge India’s political establishment will have to face unitedly, without looking for electoral benefit.


   But will politicians place national interest ahead of electoral gain?



Posted On: 23 Mar 2023 07:48 PM
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