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Bhindranwale's Ghost?

Kuldip Nayar has been many things in his life - reporter, editor, detainee during the Emergency (1975-1977), high commissioner to Great Britain, peacenik, Rajya Sabha [Upper House of the Indian Parliament] member - but what he does best is explore the byzantine maze of Indian politics to provide amplification and clarity of events, issues and personalities., Feb. 24, 2000

It was a short visit to Amritsar, Punjab's political capital. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee [S.G.P.C.] and the Akali Dal that control Sikh politics have their headquarters here. The Golden Temple, the Sikh Vatican, is situated in the city. It is here that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale blessed militancy some 20 years ago and Pakistan, which jumped into the arena at the time, is only 15 kilometres away.

Will or can militancy, which ended some eight years ago, come up again? I sought answers to the question while in Amritsar.

In some ways, the conditions are similar to the ones which prevailed before the birth of militancy. What were termed as the Sikh demands like more autonomy to the state (the Anandpur Sahib resolution), an equitable division of waters, and integration of Chandigarh with Punjab stay unresolved till today. The unemployment among youth has increased. And the administration is as corrupt and as unresponsive to people's needs as before. Professional agitators too have not stopped from initiating another bout of confrontation in the state.

For example, some Punjab newspapers carried a few days ago an advertisement for the celebration of Bhidranwale's 53rd birth anniversary. Subsequently, there was a gathering in front of the historic Fatehgarh Sahib Gurdwara, where inciting speeches were made.

This speaks well of democracy and freedom of expression that India has sustained, despite all vicissitudes. But this does not speak well of the three sponsors, Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Simranjit Singh Mann, both M.P.s, and Gurtej Singh, who writes I.A.S. against his name, even after having resigned from the service.

All the three have sworn to uphold the Constitution and the country's integrity, the first two before contesting the election and the third before joining the service. Still, they are flouting the letter and spirit of the Constitution by encouraging the separatists and fundamental forces.

Understandably, their fight is against Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who does not divide the Punjabis into Sikhs and Hindus, but who has failed to perform. He is a political force to reckon with. Since they cannot defeat him in that field, they have resorted to playing the religious card.

Had Tohra and Mann the courage of their conviction, they would have resigned from Parliament and come in the open to preach secession. But they hide themselves behind the slogan of Sikh identity or yudh (war) in defence of the Sikh religion. They do not say what they mean nor mean what they say.

They have hailed Bhindranwale as 'the great Sikh of the 20th century.' Surprisingly, the revolutionary Bhagat Singh and the great Punjabi writer, Bhai Vir Singh, do not figure in their reckoning.

Punjab and the Sikhs have suffered for one decade because of such persons who trade in hatred. In fact, the state has not yet fully recovered from the damage that militancy caused. There are already efforts to destroy whatever has been built so far. The Sikh community has got hurt because of the wrong impression created about it, not only in India but also abroad. It does not want Tohra or Mann. It wants to be left alone.

Bhindranwale's family said on the eve of his birth anniversary celebrations: 'It is the habit of political persons to talk politics whether the occasion is the birth or death. We keep out of all political matters.' Still so many persons have involved the family for their political ends.

Punjab's biggest problem is that its mainstay, agriculture, has hit a plateau. In fact, the standard of living is coming down. Other avenues like industry have to be opened to provide opportunities for employment and development. Investors have not yet returned to the state. They would be scared if there is even a whiff of suspicion that militancy can revive.

That the Sikhs should have a feeling of their identity is not something reprehensible. All communities in India fancy the same idea. Also, the effort to make the country a federal polity is understandable. All states are clamouring for more say in their own affairs. The Constitution Review Committee has the devolution of powers on the top of its agenda.

But when the threat of militancy is hanging on the head, even genuine demands are doubted. They get pushed from the realm of discussion for solving problems. If they are kept pending, disruptive forces get a boost.

Thankfully, the attention of people at present is not focussed on militancy. They want better governance and a cleaner administration. In their search, they may go from the Akalis to the Congress when the assembly election is held next year. But the elements representing Tohra and Mann will again be in the wilderness. They have nothing except fanaticism to sell.

It is wrong to assume that the scourge of terrorism that blighted the state for some eight years went because of the police action. The Sikhs themselves revolted against militancy. They themselves shut the door on the terrorists to whom many among them had given shelter in the belief that they would articulate the community's feeling of neglect and economic hardships.

Terrorists became oppressors and did not spare even the Sikhs. Political demands by the community were exploited to justify murder, loot and the like. When the popular support dwindled, the base of the terrorists cracked.

The real tragedy is that as soon as terrorism was defeated, the Centre turned its back on Punjab's genuine demands. Even the killers of 3,000 Sikhs at Delhi in 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination went unpunished. Belatedly, the Centre has agreed to constitute a commission to find out the real faces behind the 1984 rioting. Still there is no talk about the removing of other grievances.

In fact, the remnants of terrorists outfits have not yet reconciled themselves to the fact that they do not count with the public any more. This is clear from the alliance they are seeking with the militants in Kashmir. But this is ominous for Punjab. Both can one day pose a threat to the amity in the state.

Still it is unlikely that militancy will return to Punjab. The reason is the sufferings the people in the state have gone through. It was a long, dreary winter of many years. Thousands of innocents were killed and businesses worth crores of rupees ruined. The young skipped their youth and found themselves adults in the midst of guns. They wanted jobs, not guns.

There is yet another point ranking in the minds of the people of Punjab. If the government had punished the police and other public servants, who committed excesses, the pain of the aggrieved would have lessened. There would have been a feeling that the guilty did not go unpunished. But the politics of convenience had the better of the government. None has been touched. This remains a blot on the administration's face.

It does not, however, mean that the ground is getting fertile for militancy. All it means is that Punjab's problems are yet to be solved and that there are elements wanting to disturb peace and amity on one ground or the other. The Centre has to keep this in mind.

The controversy over the Sikh (Nanakshahi) calendar is an expression of accumulated grievances. That the dates of festivals and the birthdays of Sikh gurus will be different from those followed at present is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is that the mechanism for sorting out things is getting rusty. People want to air their differences and they use any method to do so. It may look as if they are washing their dirty linen in public. But what they are looking for is attention.