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India can't afford a Punjab in unrest

December 20, 2021 07:36 IST

The Sikhs, especially in Punjab, are already angry and frustrated, cautions Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: Activists of various Sikh organisations gather outside the Golden Temple after a man was beaten to death on the temple premises for alleged sacrilege, December 18, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

What if I tell you that to understand the political impact of the crisis the Yogi Adityanath government conjured up in Lakhimpur Kheri, look away from Uttar Pradesh, check out Punjab?

Or to appreciate the meaning of the fallout in Punjab, count the targeted killings of minorities in the Kashmir Valley? And if I now add that to understand all of this, take your mind back three decades?

Before you call me nuts, sounding so mixed-up writing this on a Friday evening after a long, newsy week, let me join the dots for you.

Think about the state of our national security in 1990-1991.

Both Kashmir and Punjab were on the boil. Both were ruled by terrorists.

Pakistan's ISI was holding sway in our most sensitive states.

Most importantly, the Sikhs in Punjab were frustrated as much as the Muslims in the Valley were furious.

As now with the Taliban defeating the US, then the Mujahideen had just driven out the Soviets, leaving Pakistan and ISI feeling like masters of the universe.

India also had much political instability in this period, seeing two short-lived governments on daily wages led by V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar, then Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and P V Narasimha Rao leading a minority government.

This is how you define a perfect storm.

We aren't even close to that yet. There is much that is different from three decades ago. There is a stable, strong government in Delhi.

Pakistan is much weaker and with insignificant international leverage compared to 1988-93.

Punjab has been tranquil and Kashmir free of large-scale trouble.

But no country starts to worry about national security when the water rises to the chin.

You pick the breaches and the warnings early enough. Here are some of these.

The tragedy in Lakhimpur Kheri won't affect Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh too badly.

Since it has become so much a case of Sikhs versus the rest, it may actually suit him.

Sikhs are only a little under three per cent in Lakhimpur Kheri and this is by far their largest population for any district in the state. That is why he might think he can brazen it out.

But see the impact it has in Punjab.

It has lit up that poll-bound state's politics precisely because Sikhs are seen as the victims.

Besides being co-religionists, these Sikhs who migrated to colonise the hostile but fertile Terai and made it among the most productive agricultural zones in India also have deep ties of kinship back in their native state.

That is why every political party, from the Congress to Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party is sprinting to Lakhimpur Kheri.

IMAGE: Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, along with Deputy CM Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, visit the Golden Temple, December 19, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

The only party not bothered, has no stakes in Punjab.

It isn't a good thing. You don't want this read in Punjab as, who cares if a few Sikhs are killed in another state because we do not vote for the BJP.

Unfortunately, it is already being seen that way.

And don't blame other political parties if they capitalise on it.

Each of those three has stakes only in Punjab next year, little yet in Uttar Pradesh.

This comes at a time when for the first time after three decades Punjab lacks a political centre of gravity.

The Congress has just lit its own house on fire. It's seen as a doddering, confused and demoralised unit.

It doesn't fire the Punjabis' imagination at this point, even if some see it as less worse than the Akalis and AAP.

Akalis self-destructed some time back.

A stable, single-party government can't be foreseen at this point.

Punjab, by the way, is one state with no real culture of coalition rule.

It's been a two-party state and now both are diminishing.

In a few months, be mentally prepared for political instability in both the sensitive northern states.

What the terrorists are doing in the Kashmir Valley is clear.

They want to re-enact 1990, by selectively targeting the minorities and triggering another exodus.

It would undermine the credibility of central rule and inflame communal passions elsewhere in the country.

It's a low-cost, low-risk, high-return strategy for the new ISI chief, especially with crucial state elections coming in.

If Exodus-2 isn't prevented now, it will become that much tougher to hold an election in Jammu and Kashmir, carry out delimitation and ultimately restore it to statehood.

It will then be like a patient that the surgeon cut open, but forgot to stitch it back.

Former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has been warning us, but he's been ignored either because people think he's exaggerating or that it's all part of his supposedly jilted lover's outreach to the BJP.

Do we even need him to remind us that the Valley is awash with automatic weapons? And over the past year or so, loads have been dropped by drones coming into our Punjab? What's missing in the deadly mix yet is some young Sikhs angry enough to pick them up again.

And if even a handful of them did so in revenge?

Pilibhit, Lakhimpur Kheri, Udham Singh Nagar now in neighbouring Uttarakhand, are regions with sizeable and prosperous Sikh populations.

When their first generation came here, the region was the home of the most dangerous wildlife species, from snakes to big cats to malarial swamps.

They are used to rough living and firearms.

In the days of terror in Punjab there was much knock-on effect here, also encounters and some fake.

It was as recently as 2016 that 47 Uttar Pradesh policemen were handed out life sentences for one such where 10 returning Sikh pilgrims from Punjab were mowed down and passed off as terrorists in 1991.

Until the law caught up.

The Sikhs, especially in Punjab, are already angry and frustrated.

There is some truth to the argument that Punjab's Sikhs were the most powerful engine of the farmers' protests.

And Sikh votes do not count. But can you then ignore them, let that anger fester and respond in so cavalier a manner in Lakhimpur Kheri? Or keep painting them as Khalistanis? No healing touch, no kind word, no filial or fraternal hand on the shoulder?

I will now tell you what sparked this thought process in my head.

I was at an interview with the cast of Sardar Udham, a biopic being produced by Ronnie Lahiri and directed by Shoojit Sircar.

The martyr, played by Vicky Kaushal, has been deified by generations of Indians for avenging Jallianwala Bagh even after 21 years had passed, by assassinating Michael O'Dwyer in Britain.

It's to honour his memory and the Sikh settlers here that a district adjoining Lakhimpur Kheri has been named Udham Singh Nagar.

Let's say no more on this. Especially as I have said more than once, in Punjab's context, don't ever paint the devil on the wall.

It's just that the really smart generations do not risk lighting the fires they've seen burn India, and then put out in their own lifetime.

The key to handling the chronic troubles in Kashmir is a Punjab at peace.

Thirty years back, familiar and evil outside forces were given an opening to set fire to both.

India can't let this happen again.

Hope that connects the dots I scattered to begin this column with.

By Special Arrangement with The Print

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Shekhar Gupta
Source: source image