Election in Pincodes: Decades after militancy, separatist strain shrouds Punjab border seat | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election in Pincodes: Decades after militancy, separatist strain shrouds Punjab border seat

May 29, 2024 08:47 AM IST

HT looks at some key constituencies across the country that encapsulate the issues shaping the ongoing Lok Sabha electoral contest

Standing outside an imposing gurdwara in Nijjar village on the outskirts of Amritsar, Gurdeep Singh is visibly irritated. In his late seventies, wearing a white kurta-pyjama and a blue turban, he is irked by the searing heat that bites through the cotton fabric; by the constant noise of traffic that upends any quiet as he prays; but most of all, by the electoral discourse around him that forces him to engage with a question he thought Khadoor Sahib had long left behind — who wants Khalistan?

A poster is put up in Jallupur Khera in support of Amritpal Singh, the independent candidate from Khadoor Sahib seat. (Sameer Sehgal/HTPhoto)
A poster is put up in Jallupur Khera in support of Amritpal Singh, the independent candidate from Khadoor Sahib seat. (Sameer Sehgal/HTPhoto)

As Singh both asks and answers the question, framing his response are memories, now unfortunately refreshed. Memories of violence that plagued Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s, when Nijjar, just 30km from the international border with Pakistan, lived with fear in its heart. It was an emotional time; when religiosity, separatism, national security, and terror dominated Punjab’s everyday. As Union and state governments attempted to quell the growing influence of separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered forces to enter the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar as part of the controversial Operation Bluestar, resulting in a shoot-out that left Bhindranwale dead.

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Punjab, and India, was quickly in ferment. 145 days later, on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, prompting one of India’s worst riots in recorded history; angry mobs hunting Sikhs across North India leaving at least 3,500 dead. In Punjab, there was alienation and hurt, wounds that have only healed by a combination of time and a fierce crackdown against separatism.

Gurdeep Singh does not want to return to those days. “Navey jawana ney ugarwaad de kaley din nahi dekhey (The young have not seen the black days of separatism). There was an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, and the worst hit were border areas like ours. The peace must not be broken,” Singh said.

The reason for Singh’s anger and concern is just one man – 32-year-old Amritpal Singh. A man who was a complete unknown even two years ago; who went from being a transporter in Dubai to stunning security agencies with his meteoric rise in Punjab’s villages; who fed off the discontent that stemmed from the farmer protests that roiled north India for a year; who fashioned himself on Bhindranwale and seemed to generate pockets of support for the misguided argument that Sikh values were incompatible within India; who played hide-and-seek with the Indian security apparatus for months even as they were convinced that he was fermenting unrest at the behest of foreign forces; who on April 23,2023, after a 35-day manhunt, was arrested under sections of the National Security Act and, in a tacit admission of his influence, was shifted to a prison in Dibrugarh, Assam. A man who, even from behind bars, is now seeking to upend Punjab’s politics by fighting the polls as an independent candidate.

In Punjab, the broader battle for crucial 13 Lok Sabha seats is a battle between the Aam Aadmi Party which is the incumbent state government, the Congress which is desperate to hold on to its eight seats in 2019, the Shiromani Akali Dal, and the BJP.

But in Khadoor Sahib, much of the conversation revolves around independent candidate Amritpal Singh.

In Jallupur Khera, 2km from Nijjar and Singh’s ancestral home, there is evidence of support and conviction. At 7.30am, men in saffron and blue turbans swarm the village, small groups of people readying themselves for the day’s campaign, large SUVs at the ready. One young man, 29 years old, who lives in Canada but has returned just to campaign, says, “Whatever people might think, I believe he [Amritpal] will win.”

Campaign run by parents

It is 11.30am, and in a blazing 44 degrees Celsius, a group of 150 men, women and children sits in a group, braving the sweltering heat in Khabe Rajputtan village. Framing the group are at least two dozen vehicles, some sedans but mostly SUVs. From one of these, Balwinder Kaur emerges in a salwar kameez, a black patka, and a dupatta that she uses to wipe the sweat off her brow. Amritpal’s mother, Balwinder has helmed her son’s maiden electoral campaign for two months, slowly sharpening her oratory. She speaks commandingly, and tells the group that Amritpal’s symbol is a microphone, and he is number 12 on the electronic voting machine that will be in front of them on June 1. She speaks quickly and gives very few interviews; there is little time she says. “There are 10 public meetings lined up for the day, and other arrangements to be made.”

At every meeting, she tells the audience that her son will take their voices to Parliament, and every speech is bookended with religiosity.

Importantly, she tells people to vote for her son not for civic issues, but for Punjabiyat. “Please do not come to us for galliyan and nalliyan (roads and drains). We have larger issues to address. Vote for us to save Punjab and Punjabiyat, to save our youth from falling prey to drugs.”

This emphasis on “Punjab” and “Punjabiyat” is key, because it carries within it Amritpal’s imagination of the state as separate from the Indian Union. For the brief few months that he dominated national headlines, Amritpal’s utterances espoused a “permanent solution” to Punjab’s problems — from the erosion of Sikh culture, to water disputes, to the rampant drug abuse problem that has engulfed the hinterland.

Khadoor Sahib, on the India-Pakistan border, has always been a so-called panthic seat with a smattering of traction for Khalistan due to local villages being at the centre of the violence that cleaved Punjab in the four decades ago.

The Lok Sabha seat cuts across the districts of Tarn Taran, Amritsar, Ferozepur and Kapurthala. These are the districts where the wave of support for Amritpal seemed to emanate; where his supporters stormed a police station in Ajnala, demanding the release of an arrested aide in February 2023; where he was appointed the head of Waris-De-Punjab, an organisation once headed by actor Deep Sidhu in Bhindranwale’s village of Rode; and where groups of young men, all dressed in Bhindranwale’s likeness, swarmed the villages rousing support.

There is also recent electoral evidence that issues of broader nationalism get more traction in Khaddor Sahib than in other parts of Punjab. In 1996, Jaswant Singh Khalra, who campaigned for years on the alleged quiet cremation of unidentified bodies by the state police during militancy, mysteriously disappeared from his Amritsar home. The Central Bureau of Investigation probed the case, and in November 2005, 10 Punjab Police officers were prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison. In 2019, Paramjit Singh Khalra, his widow, contested the Khadoor Sahib seat, and finished third behind the Congress and the SAD candidates on a Punjab Ekta Party ticket, winning over 20% of the vote.

This time, Khalra is backing Amritpal, and her demands now headline his campaign. Tarsem Singh, Amritpal’s father, said that while his son was initially reluctant to fight the elections, he changed his mind at the insistence of the sangat (Sikh community). “If elected, my son will seek the release of Bandhi Sikh (Sikh detenues who have completed their jail terms),” Tarsem said.

But in Khadoor Sahib, there are many who believe these conversations should be relics of the past; that elections must be won and lost on developmental planks; that an aspirational Punjab must look forward and not behind. In Dyalgarh, 50-year-old Manjit Kaur, the mother of two teenage boys, said, “His (Amritpal’s) campaign can exist, but we need our issues to be addressed. We need better amenities — better power supply, better education and health. Our children should have the tools to study and be successful, not brandish swords.”

The politics

The Khadoor Sahib seat was born out of the delimitation exercise in 2008, and in the three Lok Sabha elections since then, the SAD has won twice -- in 2009 and 2014 -- while the Congress’s Jasbir Singh Gill won in 2019.

But in 2017, Punjab’s politics saw the entry of a new player — the Aam Aadmi Party, which first became the principal Opposition, and five years later, in 2022, breached the SAD-Congress duopoly by forming the government. In the 2019 elections, the AAP finished a distant fourth, its candidate Manjinder Singh Sandhu winning just 1.3% of the vote. Three years later in assembly elections, reflective of a broader rise in the rest of the state, the party won seven of Khadoor Sahib’s nine segments.

In 2024, the Congress and AAP candidates for the Lok Sabha are both experienced politicians from the area; the former’s Kulbir Singh is the MLA from Zira, and the latter’s Laljit Singh Bhullar is the legislator from Patti. Both parties have kept their election campaigns far away from any mention of Amritpal. “Our focus is our government’s development programmes since we formed the government in March 2022. Khadoor Sahib has been left backward after the partition in 1947, and we will ensure a surge of development,” one AAP leader said, asking not to be named.

Rana Inder Singh, the Congress’s Kapurthala MLA, said, “All our party leaders and workers are united and supporting the party candidate. Our campaign strategy is clear; what the region needs is development and education for the youth so they do not fall into the trap of separatism.”

Experts, however, say that there are encouraging signs in Amritpal’s tilt towards electoral democracy. “The constitutional mechanisms in our country are powerful, and have brought back many who showed signs of deviating. If Amritpal Singh wants to be a part of the mainstream, it is a good sign,” said Amanpreet Singh, professor of politics at Delhi University’s Khalsa college.

Even within groups that once fought India’s security apparatus four decades ago, there is confusion on Amritpal.

Tarlochan Singh, 65, is among those known locally as a “dharmi fauji”, an army jawan who deserted the forces in protest against Operation Bluestar, serving 14 years in prison for the crime. His brother, Gurbachan Singh Manochahal, once headed the Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan, and was killed in 1993 in an encounter. “Amritpal Singh should tread with caution, and should not be going as fast as he is. Once someone is elected democratically, there is no need to hide in the jungles. I am for Amritpal Singh, but cannot campaign because of my health,” he said.

Back in Jallupur Khera, 40-year-old Gurjit Kaur is irate, almost dismissive of Amritpal Singh’s credentials to espouse “Punjabiyat”. He is too young, too inexperienced, and has no battle scars.

Gurjit Kaur’s husband, Gurdeep Singh Khera, 65, is called a “bandhi sikh” in the village, but on record, he is a man convicted in two different cases under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) in 1996. He has been in jail since then. Amritpal Singh, in comparison, has faced nothing. “He is a nobody. He is not a bandhi Sikh, no charges have been framed and he has not been convicted. He has only spent a year in jail. My husband suffered for 40 years,” she said.

As she talks, Gurjit Kaur’s voice begins to crack, tears beginning to flow. Her husband may be feted in some quarters every time he is released on parole, but she is clear of its futility. “Everyone needs to be vigilant so the youth of the state is not pushed into war again. Our family is an example,” he said. “The black days of militancy are a curse that we have not been able to leave behind.We are stuck in time.”

(This is the 32nd in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.)

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