'Many times when Khalistan slogans are raised, it is from those who feel alienated, not because they want a separate state.'
In a stark reminder of the Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale years, members of Waris Punjab De, a group headed by truck-driver-in-Dubai-turned-radical-preacher Amritpal Singh, stormed the Ajnala police station with swords and weapons on Thursday, February 23 2023, demanding the release of Amritpal's aide Lovepreet Singh 'Toofan', who heads the Waris's Gurdaspur unit.
Outnumbered and under heavy stone pelting, the Punjab police caved in and requested the court to release 'Toofan', and an order to this effect was passed the next day.
The Punjab government headed by Aam Aadmi Party leader Bhagwant Mann has come under severe criticism after this move, as many felt it was like giving up law and order enforcement and surrendering before radical elements.
Waris Punjab De is an organisation formed by the late actor Deep Sidhu, who was arrested for hoisting the Sikh religious flag on the Red Fort during the farmers protest on January 26, 2021.
After Sidhu's death in February 2022, Amritpal Singh, a self-proclaimed follower of pro-Khalistan militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, is now openly challenging the Indian State, saying shockingly, 'When they could kill Indira Gandhi, they can do the same with Home Minister Amit Shah too.'
Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf spoke to former AAP MLA Kanwar Sandhu about the latest developments in the state. Mr Sandhu was a senior journalist -- editing the regional editions of the Indian Express and Hindustan Times befor entering politics.
Amritpal Singh's rise and his audacity at Ajnala is reminiscent of the Bhindranwale years. Is history being repeated in Punjab?
Yes and no. In some ways the rise of Amritpal Singh is a surprise. People are surprised that how, within 5-6 months, he has acquired such popularity.
But at the same time there are issues in Punjab that resonate with the masses, which he is highlighting and so people are flocking to him.
In the process, the government is making some mistakes that they made in the 1980s. For example, registering a case (against his close aide Lovepreet Singh 'Toofan') and then withdrawing it.
They arrested a person and then released him. If I remember correctly, this is how things started in the early '80s in Punjab (after which terrorism peaked).
We see lot of that happening again.
What issues is Amritpal highlighting that resonate with the people?
The people are fed up with the Akali Dal due to the manner in which they ruled and misruled Punjab.
They are fed up with the perpetual family rule of the Badals.
They were upset with the sacrilege incident in Punjab and felt that they did not get justice. They are also unhappy with the Congress as their government also did not perform during its time.
In this scenario, they see Amritpal as perhaps a new hope. Therefore, they look up to him and flock around him -- rightly or wrongly is a separate issue.
Punjab voters gave the AAP an overwhelming majority in the state elections last year. Has AAP already lost its appeal among Punjabi voters within a year?
AAP did get an overwhelming response. But the way they have functioned has disappointed the people. They made huge promises during the elections which have not been fulfilled.
The law and order situation has been found wanting. The incident in Ajnala is a typical example.
The way Siddhu Moosewala was killed after his security was withdrawn.
There was a clash in Goindwal jail where two gangsters were killed.
The drug problem is as strong as it ever was.
Because of all these things the people of Punjab are getting alienated from AAP very quickly.
Amritpal Singh has threatened India's home minister, stating that he will end up like Indira Gandhi, and yet no action is taken against him. Why? Neither the Punjab police nor the central agencies have moved to arrest him.
We have to observe and watch his lines very carefully. The Constitution grants freedom of expression to every citizen and, therefore, perhaps you cannot take action against him.
If you do, then you are treading a very dangerous path. In case he violates the law or threatens someone again or backs his threats with action, then the law must take its course and he must be taken to task.
Former Punjab DGP Julio Ribeiro has said action must be taken against Amrtipal right now. Why is the government hesitating?
I have always held that bringing in Ribeiro at that time was not of great help as it also alienated the people (of Punjab).
K P S Gill too came out with a strong hand against terrorists. And I think he used extra-Constitutional methods, a fact that continues to boomerang even now.
I feel we have to follow the rule of law as it is good for the best of times and even for the worst of times.
In Amritpal Singh's case too, we must follow rule of law and not take any kneejerk action.
Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann said 1,000 people, who charged at the police station, do not represent Punjab as it was being portrayed in the media. Does it mean this was not a very serious incident?
It was a serious incident. I have covered Punjab as a journalist for 40 years and even in those days I have not seen any accused being taken out of a police station by a mob.
Amritpal Singh misused the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield during the attack, in no way can it be condoned.
This reflects more on the Punjab police and government. As the home minister and chief minister of Punjab, Mann will have to answer a lot of questions. Like when Lovepreet Singh was not wanted, why was he arrested? And if he was arrested, why was he released?
The way the police dealt with the crowd was a gross mishandling of the situation. Their training in mob control was not reflecting.
Why did they not deploy water cannons? Why were commandos not deployed in Punjab? We have a highly trained SWAT team in Punjab. Where were they?
They are a 150-strong force and trained by the National Security Guard and Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Where were they when this incident happened? Where were they stationed? They are supposed to act in situations like this.
A lot of such questions need to be answered.
Even the Punjab clergy and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee were silent on the misuse of Guru Granth Sahib.
It is not a very happy situation in Punjab. Each institution owes its bit to do the utmost.
You were in the AAP earlier. It is said Arvind Kejriwal likes to have control and he is running Punjab from Delhi. Is that the reason why Mann is unable to take tough action?
Arvind Kejriwal may be a control freak, but Bhagwant Mann is the elected chief minister of Punjab. Why should he look left or right? He should do his job.
There are 11 portfolios with him that includes home and prisons. If there is a clash in a jail, then he owes an explanation to the people.
If you say Kerjiwal does not allow him to work, that does not explain his inaction and weak-kneed functioning.
So you feel the Khalistan movement will consolidate Hindus behind Hindutva, just like it happened in the 1980s when the Hindu vote shifted to the Congress after Indira Gandhi's assassination? Do you believe there is a larger conspiracy?
I don't believe in conspiracy theories. But yes, when polarisation happens, communities get divided. It does consolidate a vote bank.
After Operation Blue Star, the Sikh vote got consolidated in Punjab and in the national elections of 1984 the nation consolidated behind the Congress because those who voted for them felt India's sovereignty is threatened.
These actions have great effect on electoral politics and political parties will always do that, but when you are an elected chief minister and ruling the state, you owe it to the people of the state and the Constitution. We cannot ignore this fact.
Amritpal says when one can talk of Hindu Rashtra, why can't we talk about Khalistan. Do you feel a section of Sikhs agree with him?
People in Punjab are disturbed with the talk of Hindutva, though I am not sure they have taken for Khalistan.
Many times when Khalistan slogans are raised, it is from those who feel alienated, not because they want a separate state.
I don't think there are too many takers for Khalistan in Punjab, fortunately as of now.
Did the withdrawal of the three farm laws boost the morale of these people? Perhaps they felt they are superior to the State?
The farm laws were brought in without taking farmers into confidence. When they were withdrawn after a year-long successful agitation, the people felt empowered.
But then it is important for a political party to steer people in the right direction after they feel empowered. If you allow people to be steered into the wrong direction, that empowerment and strength can be very dangerous.
The Congress could not dismount the Bhindranwale tiger, similarly it is feared that the BJP won't be able to do it with Amritpal.
A lot of people feel that just like Bhindranwale was propped up by a certain political party in his initial days and later went out of control, similarly, if Amritpal is not kept in check, he may also free himself and become uncontrollable.
Did the storming of the Golden Temple by the army in June 1984 wound the Sikh psyche permanently? Do Sikh youngsters feel as strongly about this issue or is it a forgotten episode in Punjab?
No it is not a forgotten chapter. The storming of the Golden Temple is very much imprinted in Sikh minds.
They may not talk about it in their day to day lives. It may not manifest during the elections, but it is seeped deep within the Sikh psyche.
Because a proper remedy was not taken for closure, the action still resonates and it lingers on.
The Congress apologised. Then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh apologised. Was it not enough?
Dr Manmohan Singh's apology was not enough.
There should have been a proper inquiry and people responsible for the act should have been taken to task.
A hundred years ago, when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place, even the British government constituted an inquiry commission.
In this case there was no inquiry.
For years the Congress party tried to justify it. The 1984 riots in Delhi continue to be a black mark in our history which is not going to be erased so easily.