Punjab: One generation lost to terrorism, losing another to drugs
It was 1972 and the green revolution was in full bloom, the harvest was bountiful, the crop remuneration was good, and the nascent Naxalite movement had been nipped in the bud. Punjab was happening. The trifurcation of the state in 1966 had transformed the current Punjab into a Sikh-majority state under the linguistic cloak of an ostensible Punjabi suba. It was seen as a reward for the gallant role played by the Punjab regiments and the people in containing and, repelling the Pakistani aggression in 1965.
The trauma of Partition 25 years before, when more than 500,000 people perished between July and September of 1947 on the borders between the two Punjabs, seemed to be finally receding. Then catastrophe struck again in the form of the Anandpur Sahib resolution, adopted by the working committee of the Akali Dal on October 16 and 17 in 1973. It laid the foundations of the sectarian violence that claimed more than 20,000 lives over the next two decades.
By 1978 the contours of an emerging socio-economic crisis were becoming visible. The edifice of the rural employment structure had started crumbling. Earlier if there were four brothers in a family one or two would join the armed forces or get a sarkari naukri, one would go abroad and the remaining brother would till the land.
After the Janata government took office in 1977, the defence ministry started actively implementing the recruitable male population policy. Broadly the policy envisages that recruitment in the Indian Army at the persons below officer rank (PBOR) level would be on the basis of a state’s share in the population of India. Punjab is just 2-2.5% of India’s demographics and, therefore, is entitled to a minuscule share of the pie. The following numbers contextualise the impact of this decision.
In 2012, Punjab, with 2.4% of India’s people, contributed 16.6% to the armed forces. On the face of it, this seems to be a classical case of over-representation. However, when you juxtapose it against the fact that by the advent of World War I, Sikhs from Punjab constituted 20% of the British Indian Army. Between 1914 and 1977, this number grew exponentially and every household had one-three males serving in the armed forces.
Then came the sudden freeze. Coupled with that, the overstaffing of both the central and state governments at the Class III and IV levels led to government hiring slowing down. Simultaneously, immigration barriers started going up and it became increasingly difficult to emigrate or even find employment in the UK, the US, Canada and Europe, the favourite hunting grounds of the aspirational Punjabi. Employment dried up. Suddenly that piece of land of about four acres, on an average, had to feed four families instead of one.
Militancy followed in 1980 and thousands of political activists who opposed the fundamentalist and sectarian brand of politics or, for that matter, even mere bystanders were mowed down in cold blood by terrorists parading as religious zealots.
Young Sikh men fearful of police reprisals fled in droves to whichever country was prepared to grant them asylum, often entering illegally. Others got swept away by the romance of the gun and paid for it with their lives. Enforced disappearances, staged encounter killings and other extra-judicial justice paradigms became the rule rather than the exception.
The alleged transfer of wealth from the people to state officials as a result of rampant extortion is estimated at more than Rs 10,000 crore. Society was convulsed and a whole generation destroyed in the 15 years of senseless and mind-numbing brutality.
Peace finally returned in 1995 but that did not resolve the socio-economic crisis that militancy had swept under the carpet. The public debt of the government due to militancy-related expenditure became another headache.
After the 1997 assembly elections, the Akali-BJP alliance came to power. While Parkash Singh Badal needs to be acknowledged for consolidating the peace dividend in the state despite pressure from the bigots, his government miserably failed to lift Punjab from the socio-economic morass that it had sunk into.
In 17 years, the state has evolved from being tyrannical to extractive and exploitative. The governance processes were not mended and the ubiquitous Punjab police continued to have a disproportionate influence in the public affairs of Punjab, which unfortunately endures till today. While in other states politicians have pet officers, in the Punjab police officers have ‘kept’ politicians.
By the time the millennium turned, minuscule farm incomes, no industry worth the name, a non-existent service sector, and impossible immigration barriers, coupled with extravagant spending habits, created collective frustration. It brought a new ogre — narcotics.
Punjab has traditionally had a high level of opium addiction and a drinking culture to boot, despite the presence of myriad religious sects with vast followings preaching abstinence.
However, synthetic drugs have added a new dimension to the problem. In village after village young men and even women are wasting away their lives and many have died because of drug overdose. Estimates suggest that more 70% of people below 25 in Punjab are hooked to one narcotic substance or the other.
There is a widespread belief that the state apparatus from the top downwards is deeply entrenched in this illegal proliferation. The Army has started running anti-doping tests during its recruitment drives in Punjab to weed out substance users and abusers.
They find them by the scores. Punjab is dying and the Neros of Punjab are fiddling, if not colluding in this process. Punjab lost one generation to terrorism and is losing another to drugs. Pakistan’s proxy war — its retribution for Bangladesh — has unfortunately succeeded.
Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister from Punjab
The views expressed are personal