Over the past few months, the country has been through a series of needless and avoidable controversies on issues extremely critical to our national interest. Irresponsible statements from men in “responsible” positions have been adding to the anxiety of the common people, particularly those whose minds and bodies still carry deep scars from recent social tragedies. Add to this the inevitable inflammability given to even the smallest incidents by a wanton misuse of the electronic media and the internet. No one cares to think even once before pressing the key on the board, not knowing – and sometimes not even caring - what flames it can ignite elsewhere and everywhere.
Plus, television motor-mouthing and mere glorified anchors trying to arrogate to themselves the right to speak on behalf of a nation as vast and full of diversity as ours have shown gross insensitivity on issues of such gravity as religious conversions, Ghar Wapsi, Article 370, AFSPA, ‘Love Jihad’ and more recently, drugs and release and rehabilitation of those involved in militancy over 25 to 30 years ago.
Against this background, some events and political developments in Punjab have also caused some concern to people at large. Punjab has had a troubled recent legacy to deal with. To their credit, since the formation of the 1997 SAD-BJP government, the Punjabis have dealt with this legacy with the kind of response our national interest requires.
Normalcy in Punjab has at least in part been the result of politicians playing normal politics except a brief confrontationist interregnum from 2002-07. They have focused largely on issues of the people -- quarreling with one another over development, governance, accountability, corruption, etc, showing an extreme and refreshing restraint and cautiousness on issues of divisive nature. They have generally taken a sober and humane view to absorb or douse the smouldering leftovers of anger and anguish of the troubled past.
This has been best symbolised by the approach of the present chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s almost daily statements underlining that more than all other achievements of his life, he sees peace and communal harmony in the state as the greatest and also his most sacred goal. True, he has taken a Panthic route to this goal, aligning the objectives of secularism, peace and communal harmony with the liberal and cosmopolitan aspects of the gurus’ message – so that it is understood in the streets, homes and holy shrines in towns and villages. Politically, administratively, socially and even personally, he has never allowed his focus to dissolve or his determination in this regard to weaken. I can stake my conscience and credibility on this.
To their credit, his allies and the Opposition, too, have so far responded to his call most constructively, fully respecting the constraints within which every party works in shaping their agendas.
In this scenario, the content of the SAD-BJP alliance in Punjab, by which Badal – and now his son, Sukhbir – swear was taken beyond political arena and is perceived as the right political translation of the social theme of peace and communal harmony.
But suddenly, there is worry and anxiety in the voices of saner people across the political spectrum. The worry is not about whether the SAD-BJP coalition would last or not. It does not even matter if they are elected back to office or not. After all, it is just another coalition, and coalitions come and go. And so do governments. And why should the country worry about the political colour of the party in power? The reason for anxiety springs from the likely fallout which this political development can have on the social and psychological climate of a sensitive border state. Thus, even if for some reason, they had to part company, it would have required an extreme adroitness and sensitivity from both sides on the issue of peace and communal harmony.
The wounds of the recent past, still raw, still bleeding, still awaiting a healing touch, must never be allowed to become tempting ammunition for short-term political gains. Or else, the script of ’84 could loom disturbingly large and close before us. The temptation to play a communal card and hide it beneath a tough nationalist stance on the one end and ‘Sikh cause’ on the other must be resisted by both sides. The centerpiece of the ’84 script was “Power at all costs”. Dividing Sikhs among moderates and militants and, defaming a whole community on the one hand and terrorising the Hindus and then luring them with hard-line on the other were the other key chapters of that cold-blooded script.
The script was played out in Punjab and for 15 years, Punjab’s verdant landscape lay spattered with innocent human blood. This was interspersed by the horrors of October-November 1984. For 15 years, Punjab’s brave and youthful sons remained as hostages at home and as candidates for death and blackmail at the hands of the security forces or the militants. And our daughters and sisters became vulnerable to shame. One shudders even to think of the possibility of a return to that nightmare. There is a widespread belief in Punjab that the ’84 tragedy was scripted by a naked pursuit for power among key Congress leaders at that time. The game plan allegedly was to render the moderate Akalis irrelevant, divide the community along militant and moderate lines - and reap the electoral harvest in communal polarisation both in Punjab and the rest of the country. Events developed a mind of their own and spun out of everyone’s control, and the rest is history. I am sure that a responsible nationalist party like the BJP would never want to replace the Congress in a replay of the tragic ’84 script.
Opportunity for reconciliation
The stark truth is that the SAD and the BJP are not just ordinary political outfits. Each is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be a representative of a community. That complicates the situation but that also offers an opportunity for social reconciliation, provided naked political ambition is kept in check.
Since the famous and powerfully symbolic Badal-Vajpayee hug in 1996, bonds between the SAD and BJP have been the objective correlative for Hindu-Sikh relations in Punjab. But both parties have known all along that each has specific constraints, and nothing, which has communal fallout, should be done with these constraints.
Take, for instance, the issue of release of former militants. Everyone knows that no political party which has been in saddle for 15 years on a categorical mandate for peace and communal harmony can make a demand which can cost it that very mandate.
But “boys” started speaking out of turn and I guess some communication gap somewhere led to confusion. The point here was that if there is a national policy on rehabilitation of such people and that policy has been tried in parts of the country like Kashmir, Assam, Tamil Nadu etc, it makes no sense to exclude Punjab from it. Any arrogant and reckless “Yes–No” response must never be allowed to be seen as our national policy. Nothing is above national interest but it is always possible to align this interest with legitimate aspirations of a section of society. That was the moot point.
Both the SAD and the BJP must realise that in power or out of it, together in a coalition or on separate courses, both have a social responsibility which extends far beyond their political relevance and ambitions. There are enough good people on both sides who realise this.
That is at once a hope and a prayer.
(The writer is adviser, media and national affairs, to Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. The views expressed are personal)