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Terrorism worries resurface in Punjab

By Aditi Phadnis
June 30, 2015 13:03 IST
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Pressures in the BJP-Akali Dal alliance have created grounds for a rise in extremism, Aditi Phadnis reports.

Has anyone noticed how Punjab is behaving?

In April, Punjab Shiv Sena state secretary Harvinder Soni was shot at in Gurdaspur. He is recovering from his injuries. A witness to the attempt said the assailant called Soni's name and, after shooting at him, attempted to escape through the adjoining street, brandishing his pistol in the air and raising religious slogans.

He was caught but it is clear he got material and moral support for the assassination bid.

The Badal government has contributed Rs 1.17 crore to raise a sports stadium commemorating Bhindranwale at his ancestral village Rode in Moga district. Sukhbir Badal might host some matches of the Kabaddi World Cup there this winter.

In March this year, Dal Khalsa released the original Nanakshahi Calendar for the New Year at the Operation Bluestar Memorial in the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar.

The calendar bears the photograph of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. It also mentions the death anniversaries of militants, who were either hanged or eliminated in police 'encounters' in the past, in a separate column.

Events related to some of these militants have been included in a calendar for the first time. Prominent among those listed are Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amrik Singh and Indira Gandhi's assassins (Beant Singh, Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh).

On June 5, Jammu was engulfed in tension as Sikh youths defied prohibitory orders and held protests in various areas as part of a three-day-old agitation, which saw a policeman being stabbed and his rifle taken away.

Sikh youths had been protesting against the removal of a picture of Bhindranwale ahead of the Operation Blue Star anniversary and as the police decided to disrupt protests, violence broke out.

Back to the 1980s?

Not yet, says Naresh Gujral, a Rajya Sabha member from the Akali Dal.

However, it could be getting there, he says, adding that the political alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab has kept the fringe elements in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in check.

But he concedes there are tensions at the local level.

"I have brought to their (BJP) notice the consequences if we (the SAD and the BJP) were to drift apart. There will be a risk of the Akalis getting radicalised; our fringe will become more powerful and our moderates will be sidelined. In short, we will go panthic," he had told Business Standard in an earlier interview.

He added: "And what is panthic? The first demand will be "please return Chandigarh" and the second, that we will not share water downstream (with Haryana). You (the Centre) will have to dismiss the government on these two issues. The moment you have done that, I hate to say it, but emotions would be surcharged, the army would be deployed and we would be back to the 1980s."

He said: "Parkash Singh Badal's main contribution has been to make a party like SAD mainstream and align with a national party. He has ensured that the extremist agenda has been kept in check."

There is another imponderable. With the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed government in the saddle in Jammu & Kashmir, there is a degree of restraint on militancy there. Therefore, the focus of those who foment militancy is now shifting back to Punjab.

The BJP at the Centre is doing its best to eliminate sources of friction between the Sikhs and the Hindus in Punjab -- so as to prevent troubled waters where others can fish. For example, recently, Anandpur Sahib member of Parliament Prem Singh Chandumajra raised the issue of those who are in jail for terrorism-related charges but need to be let off on compassionate grounds.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal as well as his government have been making loud demands for justice to prevent militant elements from taking up the issue. Chandumajra's intervention was part of this.

Almost immediately after he demanded the release of 'militants', Chandumajra was invited by Union home minister Rajnath Singh to provide the details of detainees. The MP contacted former militants for information. Subsequently, a meeting between R P Singh of the Sikh Organisation for Prisoner Welfare and Badal, who wanted to understand the issue, was arranged.

"I explained each and every case to Badal, and that is the basis of representations given by the SAD to the Centre," said R P Singh. The central issue is not that Badal took up the matter -- but that the BJP government heard him and acknowledged that there was a problem.

However, there is a difference in approach here between the party and government. While the government is ready to hear the SAD out, the party is absolutely clear it will oppose any leniency to those lodged on charges of abetting terrorism and aiding Pakistan in destabilising India.

Earlier this year, BJP chief Amit Shah said publicly that the party was opposed to the release of political prisoners in Punjab. Two days later, the local BJP chief Kamal Sharma said: "Out stand is very clear. We are opposed to their release as they were convicted in 'terror' cases."

This makes the situation more complicated. Should the BJP urge the Punjab government to crack down? Should it do so itself? If it does, the pressure on the alliance is bound to tell politically.

There seem no answers. But, ahead of the assembly elections in 2017, some resolution of the tensions in BJP-SAD relations is needed if the slide in Punjab is to be checked.

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Aditi Phadnis
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