Lighting the fuse in Punjab

Is history repeating itself in Punjab? Yes and no. Yes, because conditions like those which had given birth to the 1980s terrorism are again being created in the state. No, because neither the people of Punjab nor the country’s changed political environment would allow any full-scale return of terrorism.   

Before going into the forces and factors responsible for creating the pre-1980s like conditions, it is necessary to have a closer look at the situation that prevailed three decades ago. The diary of this correspondent during that period mentions:

'The Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale phenomenon is the tragic story of how the Congress and the Akali Dal leaders tried to use rabid religious and extremist forces in their fight for power at the cost of Punjab’s peace and political stability thus creating a fertile ground for the CIA-ISI-backed separatist-terrorists to unleash violence in Punjab.   

'It began with the out-of-power Giani Zail Singh promoting religious fundamentalists when he was Punjab Congress president during 1967-72. Gajinder Singh, chief of Dal Khalsa, then an obscure fundamentalist body, held a press conference in a Chandigarh hotel. The hotel bill was paid by Zail Singh’s right hand man Onkar Chand. The pro-Khalistani Gajinder Singh was among those who later hijacked an IA plane to Pakistan and was later named minister for agriculture in the clandestine government formed by West Germany-based Dal Khalsa’s Mukh Panch (chief) on 11 June 1984.  

'After taking over as chief minister in 1972, Zail Singh adopted Akalis’ panthic (religious) agenda to make inroads into their Sikh vote bank. He ordered   construction of some unconstructed stretches of the Anandpur Sahib-Talwandi Sabo road which Guru Gobind Singh had once traversed and named it Guru Gobind Singh Marg. He inaugurated the Marg by organising a religious procession on the route on 10 April  1973.

'Fearing that his adopting Panthic agenda might have adverse reaction among the Hindus, the Congress’ main support base, he ordered a search for the 'Sita (lord Rama’s wife) rasoi (kitchen)' believed to be located somewhere in Punjab. He also got renovated Ram Tirath at Amritsar, the place where, it was believed lord Rama’s sons Luv and Kush, were brought up by Sita.'   

Unnerved by the popular perception that they might lose the 30 January  assembly elections, the ruling Akali leadership also used emotive and divisive issues to evoke Sikhs religious passions. They inaugurated a number of religious memorials. They also sought and got the support of radical Sikh bodies like Bindranwale’s mother organisation Damdami Taksal and Sant Samaj in the 30 January assembly elections.

The Akali leaders have now submitted to the radicals demands for raising bluestar memorial and bestowing the title of zinda shaheed (living martyr) on Balwant Singh Rajoana, the assassin of former CM Beant Singh who had restored peace in the terrorist-hit Punjab. The Sikhs apex religious body shiromani gurdwara parbhandak committee, then headed by Gurcharan Singh Tohra, had earlier declared Bhindranwal as a martyr.

Facing mounting criticism against Bluestar memorial, Parkash Singh Badal last week told the assembly that the Bluestar memorial would be in the form of a 'small' gurdwara in the Golden Temple Complex and would be bereft of any photographs. He, however, has not explained the need for building a 'small gurdwara' and that too in the Golden Temple Complex where the Sikhs holiest religious shrine and highest temporal seat Akal Takht are already located. His deputy chief minister son and Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh had earlier defended the decision to build the memorial saying 'hundreds of innocent devotees who were trapped in the Golden Temple lost their lives during the army attack in 1984. What is wrong if a memorial is built for them?' He carefully omitted the fact that the army had raided the complex to flush out the militants who had converted it into their bastion to carry out killings in the state.  

While removing the ambiguity about their stand on the memorial, the father-son duo has, however, maintained a studied silence on the Rajoana issue. Politicians are known for their double standards.  

Fearing that Bluestar memorial and honouring of Rajoana would prove counter-productive for their social engineering strategy to expand the party’s base in their ally Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindu strongholds, the senior Badal is now, like Zail Singh, trying to placate the Hindus. He announced that a 'cow memorial' would be built for the cows slaughtered in Joga village in Mansa district. He also made the Punjab Vidhan Sabha a laughing stock by making it pass a condolence resolution for the slaughtered cows!

No doubt, slaughtering of cows not only hurt the Hindus religious sentiments but also violated the law. But instead of inviting ridicule by passing a condolence resolution for cows, the government should have taken preventive and stringent measures against those responsible for cow slaughtering in the state.  

The BJP has categorically condemned the bestowing of 'living martyr' title on Rajoana. After initially criticising the decision to build Bluestar memorial, the party has softened its stand against the memorial for reasons best known to its leaders. It is perhaps the compulsions of staying in power which has been forcing the party to acquiesce to the Badals stand on important issues including the rejection of the BJP demand for deputy chief minister’s post in the alliance’s first term and not honouring the commitment to give even the announced grants for the development of BJP’s urban strongholds. That the Akali Dal’s compulsions to give an ear to its ally have become less important after the party’s better performance in the assembly and municipal polls, the BJP leaders will either have to further acquiesce to its senior partner’s diktats or the wedge between the allies will widen.  

The BJP had long back lost its title of being a 'Party with a difference'. The joke doing the rounds in sections of Chandigarh politicians is that BJP should now be named as 'Bhartiya Bejan Party' or 'Bhartiya Jhagda Party'.

To sum up the situation, within 100 days of coming to power the Badal-led Akali-BJP II government has started losing its credibility.
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