A WEEK HAS PASSED since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team including Sikh ministers came and left India. Through the visit, I watched with rising dismay, how a diplomatic disaster unfolded between two friendly countries because of one word – Khalistan. My dismay was not at the powers that be, we know them. My dismay was towards how people like me, the liberals - committed to make democracy work, pursue justice, oppose the growing jingoistic saffronization of our nation - had behaved.
These days the liberals battle for Najeeb. Per a recent report, Punjab has 8257 Najeebs, or Singhs, or Kumars - the kind of enforced disappearances and killings going on right now Uttar Pradesh and earlier in Gujarat. The liberals battle for Judge Loya. Do they forget Advocate Khalra?
In 2013, at the Bangalore Literature Festival, in a panel discussion on The Gujarat Model: Is economic development a garb for hard Right politics? a senior journalist with years of experience in Punjab remarked, 'If India were to go towards Hindutva, I wonder why Sikhs fought against Khalistan.' The millennial software industry audience, starry eyed by Modi’s bid to power, roundly jeered the journalist. I schooled in Punjab during the militancy years. I know the violence, the fear, the reign of silence. I have remained haunted by Punjab. The haunting has now taken me back to explore Punjab a quarter century after the guns fell silent.
As I travel, I see Punjab’s discontent has grown - ecological, agrarian, industrial, caste, gender, drugs, unemployment and so on. On human development indices, today Punjab is doing much worse than when it became the bread basket of India in the 1960s and even when it went through its dark decade and half of Khalistan militancy - 1978-1993. While Punjab is doing worse, I had assumed the ties between India and Punjab have mended from when in the 1980s - while growing up - I had noticed my father loose the affectionate 'ji' as a suffix to Sardar-ji.
Don’t the liberals see Operation Blue Star as a blot on India’s conscience that needs addressing? Don’t they see the 1984 pogrom as a model for Babri and Godhra? Do they feel jealous on how some of the miniscule Sikhs manage to do well in spite of Partition in 1947, in spite of 1984?
Did the Sikhs take the ‘ji’ as an entitlement? No. India is a democracy; all its citizens are equal. Was the ‘ji’ a mark of respect? Yes. It was cultural and economic - a way the nation perceived its dynamic minority comprising 1.5 per cent of the nation’s population. In the 1970s India believed Sikhs were its ‘farmers and soldiers’. In the 1980s, Sikhs were ‘traitors and terrorists’. The second framing led to the Army attack on Durbar Sahib in Amritsar through Operation Blue Star and the pogrom against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
Since that time, the shadow of 1984 has loomed large over Punjab and the Sikhs. The events ruptured the trust between the people and the nation state. The question the Sikhs asked was: if the nation state can attack our sanctum sanctorum of faith, what guarantee do we have of our life? This sparked the militant Khalistan movement which in turn led to the breakdown of the structures of democracy in Punjab. The violence left at least 50,000 dead, many thousands uprooted. The legislative and judiciary were absent. The all powerful police, no doubt in a precarious situation, also committed gross human rights violations. Many of them for rewards and promotions.
The state curbed the militant Khalistan movement in the mid-nineties, pushed electoral democracy in 1992 through a vote with 23 percent turnout. But every political party since then has betrayed their mandate. India has still not addressed the lapsed trust – explained why Operation Blue Star took place or brought justice to the victims of 1984. Once politicians of all hues allow impunity for organized murder, other evils like corruption, nepotism and violation of systems follow. A quarter century later, a lumbering Punjab seeks to escape from the quagmire of poverty, farm debts, distress suicides, unemployment, and drugs. Yet, tiny Punjab with 1.5 percent of the nation’s land continues to be the farmer and soldier of the nation. In spite of its own ecological disaster – through over exploitation of its water table and pollution of its earth – Punjab continues to contribute 60 percent wheat and 40 percent rice to the central pool. Punjab continues to stand between not only between India and hunger but also between India and Pakistan – a role it has performed since 1965 when the Punjabi Suba movement raged.
Didn’t the liberals see how rival political parties had ganged up to avoid being answerable? Didn’t they see how media that panders to Hindutva nationalism had plastered Punjab and Sikhs into a corner? The gap between India and Punjab split wide open.
Seeing the systemic breakdown here and the possibility of better lives abroad, many Punjabis have escaped and are busy building better lives for themselves. Their emotional and familial ties with Panjab remain. Now a new generation has grown up abroad on stories of India’s apathy. Given the freedoms available abroad, a small number in the Sikh Diaspora continue to raise these issues. These voices are labelled as support for Khalistan. I am not absolving those who still seek an independent nation Khalistan but their numbers are few. However, their flashy presence is large and makes for media stories through which the political parties back home keep the lid on Punjab, don’t hear its voice, and keep it entangled in Khalistan. That is how they deflect from questions of development and keep a cover on the violations by the state.
No separatist movement ever ends only through police action. Punjab pulled back from militancy because Khalistan lost popular support. Punjab returned from violence, from sectarianism, but the liberals do not see Punjab.
These political parties, rarely together except to protect their turf and egos, played Khalistan in grotesque fashion when Trudeau’s entourage travelled India. Two years before the visit, before the Punjab election 2017, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had sought to visit Canada to meet the Sikh Diaspora. A maverick Diaspora group Sikhs For Justice blocked his visit. In turn, last spring, Amarinder refused to meet Canada Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan. This time Amarinder warmed up to Trudeau but the Canada PM stood by his minister. This led Delhi to cold shoulder the Canadians. The national media erupted in praise for India’s stance. I watched aghast how everyone had derived just one meaning of Khalistan – separatism – and ignored the other linked meaning that has a bearing on how Indian democracy functions – pursuit of justice.
Finally the meeting between Amarinder, Trudeau and Sajjan took place. After that Trudeau met Modi. There was that hug which - against official protocol - has come to symbolize everything that is whimsical with current India’s foreign policy. However, by now it was too little and too late. The countries had blown Khalistan out of proportion, even thrown in Jaspal Atwal as a red herring. Didn’t the liberals see how rival political parties had ganged up to avoid being answerable? Didn’t they see how media that panders to Hindutva nationalism had plastered Punjab and Sikhs into a corner? Did they not see how the people of Punjab were excited and had extended a grand welcome to their successful Diaspora? By solely critiquing Trudeau’s clothing, kurtas and sherwanis, the liberals allowed themselves to be ensnared in the web the politicians had woven. The gap between India and Punjab split wide open.
These days the liberals battle for Najeeb. Per a recent report, Panjab has 8257 Najeebs, or Singhs, or Kumars - the kind of enforced disappearances and killings going on right now Uttar Pradesh and earlier in Gujarat. The liberals battle for Judge Loya. Do they forget Advocate Khalra? Don’t the liberals see Operation Blue Star as a blot on India’s conscience that needs addressing? Don’t they see the 1984 pogrom as a model for Babri and Godhra? Are the liberals at a loss because they can’t decide whether Punjab is Udta on drugs or Khalistan on guns? Do they feel jealous on how some of the miniscule Sikhs manage to do well in spite of Partition in 1947, in spite of 1984? Is it fear of the brutal militancy that they still stereotype the Sikhs as traitors and terrorists? No separatist movement ever ends only through police action. Punjab pulled back from militancy because Khalistan lost popular support. Its composite society displayed this learning by standing together as recently as 2015 when Punjab was carpet-bombed with incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib and last year when Ram Rahim was arrested. Punjab returned from violence, from sectarianism, but the liberals do not see Punjab.
Though Punjab has returned from violence, it has a long way to go to heal. Healing needs trust. Trust needs solidarities. During Trudeau’s visit and the media spin on it the liberals had a chance to display their solidarity with the Sikhs. They had a chance to nuance the term Khalistan - to take the sting out of separatism by advocating the pursuit of justice. They failed. Sadly, Punjab, the laboratory of sectarian violence and human rights violations, is fairly accustomed to isolation. It no longer cares. . But the liberals needed to care, they didn’t. After Trudeau left, NITI Ayog brazenly told Punjab: the nation does not need its produce, the centre has refused aid. If in the future things turn haywire, let it be noted the liberals remained silent at this critical juncture in Punjab’s history.
(Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Roll of Honour, a novel on 1984, also adapted into Punjabi as "Gwah De Fanah Hon To Pehlan" by Daljit Ami. This article initially appeared in The Hindu Businessline, and is being reproduced here as per special arrangement with the author.)
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