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Waking up Southall, a mini-Punjab

One palpable result of peace returning to Punjab in the 1990s was that the hotheads immediately calmed down in the suburb of Southall - as much a mini-Punjab as Little India. Arjun Singh's death reminded of that. Dipankar De Sarkar reports.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2011 00:11 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

One palpable result of peace returning to Punjab in the 1990s was that the hotheads immediately calmed down in the suburb of Southall - as much a mini-Punjab as Little India. Arjun Singh's death reminded of that.

Up until then, men with muscular links to Punjab militants bullied their way around Southall, brazenly bringing their war into a foreign land and killing moderates.

I remembered too an extraordinary event in September 1985. Chandigarh was a security nightmare: curfews lent Le Corbusier's orderly city a ghoulish air after dark, bombs went off with alarming frequency and the grim human toll just kept mounting.

But there was a touch of witty flamboyance about the way Governor Singh handled security in those dark days.

On the night before the Assembly election, Singh's office called up a small group of journalists in Chandigarh - we were asked to prepare for a midnight rendezvous with the Governor.

Weary and jaded from months of counting terror's toll, we welcomed the opportunity to savour Punjab's 'night life.'

We - a mix of domestic and foreign correspondents - were to accompany Singh on a personal mission to check the security preparedness of Punjab police.

In a part of the world where many journalists appeared to be sinking into a state of alcohol-fuelled depression, this was a story to die for.

As the governor's motorcade sped its way through faceless towns and villages in pitch

dark, Singh, dressed in his trademark white safari suit, barged into police station after police station, waking up and scolding bleary-eyed thaanedars who had slept off on duty. Demanding attention, he checked their duty rosters asked for their names.

The first light of day broke when Arjun Singh was done. Perhaps it was no more than inspired PR - certainly, years of political instability lay ahead in Punjab and Southall - but as the world watched ordinary Punjabis line up outside polling booths the next day, we found ourselves counting votes and margins, rather than dead bodies. It felt briefly as if this nervous state had woken up to a kind of dawn.