There are disturbing signals emanating from the Punjab. Not that the situation is worrisome, but there is no room for complacency. The problem needs to be tackled imaginatively with sagacity and wisdom. It is well-known that Pakistan has been trying to revive the Khalistan movement and with that objective in view it has been supporting various militant organisations like the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and their collaborators in European and North American countries. The Government of India is fully in picture and well aware of ISI’s nefarious designs. Union minister of state for home Jitendra Singh said in the Rajya Sabha on May 9 and again in the Lok Sabha on September 4 that the ISI was giving patronage and assistance to various Sikh terrorist groups including the BKI to revive militancy in the Punjab. The then Union home minister P Chidambaram also stated on July 13 that the threat of terrorism remained in the Punjab, though he expressed his confidence in government’s ability to tackle any attempt to disrupt peace in the border state.
According to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, a total of 134 terrorists were arrested in Punjab over the past decade (2001-2011). Both the BKI and the KTF are said to be recruiting ‘hit men’ to perpetrate incidents. Cyberspace has meanwhile emerged as a fertile source of recruitment for Khalistani activists. There are over 40 websites and 200 groups on Facebook dedicated to keeping the movement for an independent Sikh homeland alive.
This year, there have been a series of disquieting events. It started with the agitation to suspend the hanging of Balwant Singh Rajoana, a BKI terrorist convicted for killing Beant Singh, the former chief minister of Punjab. There was an inexplicable popular outcry — so much so that the Punjab chief minister called on the President of India to plead mercy for Rajoana. The Centre buckled under pressure and the proposed hanging of Rajoana in the Patiala Central Jail on March 31 was not carried out. What was worse, the Sikh clerics conferred the title of ‘living martyr’ on him. This was not all. On June 6, which some Sikhs observe as Ghallughara Diwas, the five Singh Sahibs laid the foundation stone of a memorial for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his supporters who were killed during the Operation Blue Star in 1984. The state government has been downplaying the incident and contending that only a new gurudwara is coming up and that it would not be a memorial. Laxmikanta Chawla, the firebrand BJP leader, however, sees it as part of a dangerous conspiracy to revive the Khalistan movement.
The Union home minister has taken the stand that the Government of India would not interfere in the matter and that it respects the rights of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). The government’s nervousness in the matter can be understood. It is a case of once bitten twice shy. However, it is nobody’s case that the Army should be sent to the Golden Temple to stop the construction of the proposed memorial. There are laws on the subject to prevent the misuse of religious institutions, and what is needed is that those be enforced. The Punjab Police could very well carry out what would be a lawful operation.
On September 30, there was an attempt on the life of Lieutenant General (retd) Kuldeep Singh Brar in London. The general had played a leading role in the Operation Blue Star. The SGPC held an Akhand Path for three days from October 7-9 to honour the killers of General A S Vaidya, who was the Army Chief during the 1984 Operation. Harjinder Singh ‘Jinda’ and Sukhdev Singh ‘Sukha’, the two assassins who were executed on October 9, 1992, were honoured as martyrs. A spokesman of the SGPC had even the audacity to justify the killing of former Army Chief.
We have two Sikhs at the highest level in the government today — the prime minister and the Army Chief. The country would like to know how they propose to deal with the developing situation. Would the Army Chief be a silent spectator to the justification of the killing of one his predecessors? He could certainly lodge his protest and insist on the government playing its constitutional role. The PM has watched silently many of his colleagues looting the resources of the country. Would he remain silent even to the manifest attempts to revive militancy in the state? The Akali Dal should stop playing with fire. The BJP would also need to take a principled stand.
An important reason for the extremist Sikhs’ continuing angst has been our failure to prosecute the arch villains of the 1984 riots. The triumvirate of villains are known to every one. However, the Congress for reasons best known to it protected them all along. One of them is no more; the other two are still moving about under the protection of the state. Had they been given the punishment they deserved, the level of anger and frustration would have been very much less.
We have a history of resolving problems and then letting them slip out of our hands. It happened in Nagaland when, after the Shillong Accord in 1975, the extremists took advantage of the government’s weakness to form the NSCN(IM) and revive the demand for secession. It also happened in J&K when, following the liberation of Bangladesh, with more than 80,000 Pakistani POWs and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto virtually at the feet of Indira Gandhi at Shimla in 1972, we let Pakistan off the hook at a time when a final settlement of the Kashmir issue could have been dictated. If we do not nip in the bud the signs of trouble we are beginning to see in Punjab, the country may well witness another tragic period in the history of the frontier state.
Prakash Singh is a former Director General of the BSF, served in the Punjab from 1988 to 1991