Partisan political games, communal polarisation main threats in Punjab
The principal threat in Punjab is intentional partisan political destabilisation, the politics of communal polarisation.
Amritpal Singh landed in India in August 2022, after a 10-year absence, and with no prior political engagement beyond Twitter, particularly during the farmers’ agitation, when he tried to ride the Deep Sidhu and Waris Punjab De bandwagon. Few had heard of him before his return. His meteoric rise since then as the new face of the Khalistan movement is unprecedented—someone who was visibly not a practising Sikh just months earlier.
This rise has been facilitated by some elements within Punjab’s radical Sikh constituency, including Sangrur MP Simranjit Singh Mann, an open advocate of the Khalistan cause, as well as covertly by others, such as elements within the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). They have even chosen to sit on the fence despite the palpable beadbi (sacrilege) of putting the Guru Granth Sahib at the head of the rampage at the Ajnala Police Station on February 23. There are sweeping allegations that his support comes from Pakistan and from the Khalistani diaspora, but there is, yet, no publicly available evidence to back these claims.
None of these, however, can suffice to explain Amritpal’s rapid elevation within the Khalistani fringe in Punjab. Pakistan and the Khalistani diaspora have been trying to engineer mischief for decades, and Mann, despite his electoral win, and the SGPC, are floundering in the present political incoherence of Punjab. There are a number of factors that suggest partisan political games at play, including the comprehensive failure by both state and Central agencies, to take action against Amritpal for a succession of offences preceding Ajnala, and the silence over the murderous assault and injuries to policemen, including senior officers, there. The broad trajectory of events suggest domestic mischief, though this again will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Nevertheless, Punjab is now rife with conspiracy theories, and this can hardly help create an atmosphere of stability or trust.
These are all matters of grave concern. The Punjab ‘street’ is visibly volatile. Traditional political parties have been marginalised and the new players display little understanding, and have limited access to grassroot networks, particularly in rural and peri-urban Punjab, making the tasks of administration and grievance management difficult. Political mischief is visibly rife, evident in the relentless sniping between the AAP government and the Centre. The gaping political vacuum in the state is what is bringing fringe groups, such as Waris Punjab De, centre stage.
This, however, doesn’t imply any ‘return to the dark days of the 80s’ as many commentators have declared. The Khalistan movement had been defeated by the Punjab Police under KPS Gill’s command, and with the support of Central forces, by 1995. A research study by three professors of the Guru Nanak Dev University, published in 1999, observed, “Once the movement collapsed, one was left wondering how could it disappear so suddenly and without leaving any trace of cultural sympathy for the ‘fighters’”. The “defeated rump” of the terrorist leadership fled to Pakistan and to safe havens in the West, where they were given political asylum and encouraged to carry on their separatist campaigns. For decades now, with Pakistan’s ISI providing full support, they have tried to foment subversion and terrorism in Punjab, and have succeeded in limited measure.
Since 1996, there have been 124 Khalistani terrorism-linked fatalities in the state, including 59 in 1997 alone. Eleven of these years have recorded zero fatalities. An analysis of terrorist strikes indicates that a majority of them were executed by mercenaries, or by those lured by a promise of being taken abroad, and at least some of the perpetrators were non-Sikh petty criminals. More recently, most significant terrorist strikes have been carried out by gangsters, not ideologically motivated cadres. The evidence clearly indicates that efforts and substantial resources for terrorist mobilisation have failed to secure traction on the ground.
There has been widespread criticism of Amritpal after the Ajnala incident, a sharp change from the proclivity of politicians and civil society to hold their silence on the Khalistan issue. The principal threat in Punjab is intentional partisan political destabilisation, the politics of communal polarisation, and strident media distortions, all of which incline to exaggerated threat perceptions. The political, economic and social conditions in Punjab, the loss of faith in the traditional parties that dominated state politics in the past, and an environment of mistrust, have created conditions that the extremist fringe is exploiting to expand its disruptive influence.
Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal