Punjab cannot afford a return to the 1980s

Mar 20, 2023 06:53 PM IST

It is clear that separatist elements and Pakistan are trying to rake up trouble in Punjab. But to battle the cocktail of problems the state is facing, the government and police need a long-term plan

The crackdown on Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh and his followers is as dramatic as it is mysterious. The state government appears to have woken up belatedly to the gravity of the threat posed by the separatist preacher, which was building up for quite some time. The Ajnala incident of February 23 was a disaster for the police. The Khalistanis called the shots, browbeat the police, and managed to secure the release of Singh’s aide, Lovepreet Singh Toofan. It was distressing to see the police almost surrender to the separatists. After facing sustained criticism, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government appeared to have finally decided on March 18 to act against Singh and his supporters.

Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh’s reputation has taken a big hit. The Sikh clergy have questioned his decision to take the Guru Granth Sahib to Ajnala police station and use it as a shield (ANI) PREMIUM
Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh’s reputation has taken a big hit. The Sikh clergy have questioned his decision to take the Guru Granth Sahib to Ajnala police station and use it as a shield (ANI)

Any police operation of this nature should be backed by good intelligence, comprehensive planning, and careful selection of the team to execute the plan. The Punjab Police, however, appear to have slipped up somewhat. Singh should have been one of the first to be arrested. If he were taken into custody publicly, his following would have disintegrated. However, while the police arrested several of his followers, Singh is said to be still on the run. This is difficult to comprehend. Punjab inspector general Sukhchain Singh Gill’s statement that “Punjab police always works, keeping law and order in view” is vague and not entirely convincing. Punjab is not Nagaland or Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, where it is difficult to trace a person in the hinterland once he escapes. So, the conclusion is that either the police messed up or he may have already been detained but is not being publicly produced in court. Either way, it may prove to be counter-productive for the state government and the police.

Four criminal cases have been registered against Waris Punjab De followers. These are for spreading disharmony, attempted murder, attack on police, and obstruction in public servants’ lawful discharge of duties. So far, so good. But if the man pretending to be Bhindranwale 2.0 is not apprehended publicly, the peripheral action taken will not have much impact.

The state police are taking due precautions. In Bhatinda, 16 pro-Khalistan supporters were arrested; in Ludhiana, 21 people taken into custody; in Ajnala, seven people rounded up; in all, 112 arrests were made. Security forces took out flag marches at several places, including Ferozepur, Bathinda, Rupnagar, Faridkot, Batala, Fazilka, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur, Moga and Jalandhar in a show of strength. All mobile internet services have been suspended till March 21.

All this is welcome, but over the past few months, the Punjab Police have not lived up to their reputation as a robust force capable of giving hell to the most potent adversary. The only explanation could be that they were advised to go slow. Many have also pointed out that the political leadership of Punjab did not specifically name Singh while talking about the subversive activities of Waris Punjab De. It is also true that there is a general impression in the Punjab Police today, thanks to the politics of the day, that inaction is safer than action, which may lead to controversy and may not be upheld by those in power. These factors hurt the state government’s credibility and seriousness.

There is no doubt, however, that Singh’s reputation has taken a big hit. The Sikh clergy questioned his decision to take the Guru Granth Sahib to Ajnala police station and use it as a shield. And now, his apparent disappearance is also being adversely commented upon, contrasted against the Sikh tradition of facing any threat squarely and meeting a challenge head-on.

There are two things to note. One is Singh’s link to Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence, as claimed by a senior Punjab Police officer. It is now clear that like a leopard that cannot change its spots, Pakistan will never give up its nefarious designs to foment trouble in India even when its people are hungry and its treasury, bankrupt. The government must plan for this. The second is the role of the central government when such separatism raises its head, even though police and law and order remain within the domain of the state. Punjab has been going downhill for the last 10 years. In 2014, Damdami Taksal built a memorial for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and other militants killed during Operation Blue Star within the premises of the Golden Temple. Khalistan posters and Bhindranwale’s images were openly displayed on the streets of Punjab on different occasions. Yet, both the state and central governments preferred to look away.

Punjab today battles a cocktail of problems. Apart from Islamabad’s well-orchestrated plan to revive terrorism in the state, there is the problem of smuggling of drugs from across the border, the dropping of weapons by drones from Pakistan, the proliferation of gangs within the state, and the dangerous nexus between gangsters and elements backing the creation of Khalistan. All these need to be tackled with a well-crafted, long-term plan. Ad-hoc responses or knee-jerk reactions will not suffice.

The Government of India will also have to mount diplomatic pressure on Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia to place effective curbs on the activities of Khalistan supporters in those countries. The urgency of such a step was underlined by protesters chanting pro-Khalistan slogans who took down the Tricolour outside the Indian High Commission in London. The government would do well to tackle this on a war footing. The country cannot afford a recurrence of the nights of terror which haunted Punjab in the 1980s.

Prakash Singh is a retired senior police officer who commanded the Border Security Force in Punjab during 1987-91 The views expressed are personal

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