Millennium Post

Bring them back home

Devinderpal Singh Bhullar’s release, after more than 20 years in jail for the 1993 Delhi blasts, was widely covered by the media. It was a significant development. Parole to convicts is a routine affair but it is not a matter of right. It may be granted to those convicts who exhibit exemplary conduct while serving their sentence. But for those convicts who are incarcerated for waging war against the country or participating in terrorist campaigns, the same yardstick of “good conduct” does not apply. It is indeed a bold decision on the government’s part, indicating a humane and pragmatic approach towards (Sikh) militants serving long sentences.

The Indian state has shown great “flexibility” in dealing with various kinds of extremist and militant movements across the country. The government has never shunned dialogue with those who have gone astray. In fact, the government has worked overtime to bring such elements back into the mainstream through dialogue and negotiations. Track II diplomacy has been initiated and interlocutors with domain expertise have been deployed to end violence and establish democratic processes. Reins of some states, particularly in the North East, were handed over to the chiefs of extremist groups to end decades of violence and mistrust.

However, the same cannot be said about Punjab militancy. After almost two decades of mayhem and much damage, Punjab police, under the able leadership of first Julio Ribeiro and then KPS Gill, got the better of militancy. These astute strategists were given a free hand and institutional support to uproot militancy in Punjab. The brave and doughty people of Punjab also deserve credit for defeating militancy and the nefarious designs of our neighbour. Everyone realised the futility of having a separate state called Khalistan and the idea was buried deep. 

During the 1980s and 90s, thousands of Sikhs from Punjab and elsewhere fled the country and sought asylum primarily in three countries – the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. There were largely three types of escapees. First, those who had actively participated in the militancy and had cases pending against them. Second, those who feared torture at the hands of the Punjab police because they espoused the idea of Khalistan, albeit passively. And lastly, there was a section of youth who cashed on the bogey of militancy to seek asylum abroad and get jobs in their chosen land of promise. They, in fact, had gone purely for economic reasons.

Police and intelligence establishments in India were genuinely worried about a relapse of the militancy and to deter these escapees from coming back home, exhaustive “Blacklists” were prepared. As it happens within bureaucratic circles, these lists were never reviewed and no door was left open for those who wanted to return. In fact, two generations of Indian citizens have suffered due to this rigid stand over the last three decades. Our missions abroad are alleged to have created their own “Blacklists” to deny visas to even the deserving ones. This has further aggravated the situation and spurred alienation even among the moderate elements of the Sikh diaspora. After a lot of hue and cry, many people have been removed from these lists in the last few years. 

The extant laws and rules in India do not allow for consular assistance to those who have sought asylum in other countries. Their virtual status is that of persona non grata. There is an urgent need to revisit this policy. Many of our citizens are left disillusioned with the motherland due to such a policy. In fact, some are being swayed by hardliners who run a hate-India industry in those countries. These people rake in a lot of money from gullible Sikhs by espousing the cause of Khalistan. The money collected is partly spent on this “industry of hate”. Our neighbor (Pakistan) is also gleefully stoking discontent among the prime warrior qaum of our nation. It is a travesty of justice that those who founded organisations like All India Sikh Students Federation and should have been brought to book are today on the rolls of the UK government and enjoying public awards.

The official “Blacklist” may now have just sixteen names on it. But those on local blacklists often face indifference and continued denial of visas. It is for the government to analyse the number of delisted Sikhs who have availed of the new-found freedom to visit their motherland. If many have not paid a visit home, the government or the intelligence agencies must look into the reasons behind that and clear the air of mistrust to facilitate at least one visit to Punjab. In fact, we should woo our Sikh brethren stranded or settled abroad due to two decades of militancy to come back home. It would allay the fears and misconceptions they have of India.

It is no secret that Pakistan wants to resurrect the ghost of Khalistan and keep the pot boiling in Kashmir. Prevailing socio-economic conditions, rampant unemployment, drug addiction and its flourishing trade, and charges of widespread corruption provide fertile ground for sowing the seeds of discontentment in Punjab. The shrill anti-India pitch of some Punjabi TV channels in the UK and their adulatory references to militancy and its protagonists are also denying the young generation a chance at understanding the truth back home. A bold policy initiative can pave the way for it and that should be the way forward. If any of the returnees indulge in any anti-national activities, strictest possible legal action must be initiated against them. But they deserve an opportunity to establish a fresh bond with their motherland. India cannot afford a recurrence of militancy in both the crucial border states of Punjab and J&K. In fact, special attention must be paid to insulate the people of these states from such wanton propaganda.  

Prime Minister Modi struck the right cords immediately after his touch down in the UK in November last year when he addressed the Sikhs and lauded their role in the freedom struggle and nation-building. He also promised to dismantle the “Blacklist” regime. True to his word the list has been revised and 36 names were further dropped in April this year before his visit to the US. Now the need is to create an environment of trust to facilitate the Sikh NRIs to visit their motherland, and in a good number of cases the motherland of their parents.

(Somesh Goyal is Director General of Police, Prisons & Correctional Services, Himachal Pradesh. The
 views expressed are strictly personal.)
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