Punjab’s history has cautionary lessons for New Delhi, farm unions
From the 1980s through the mid-1990s, India pushed back the secessionist Khalistani thrust on the strength of three factors — creative diplomacy, a resolute security response and an accommodative, albeit belated, political outreach. The strategy worked because unlike in Kashmir, the insurgency’s external backer, Pakistan, had no historical-territorial claim to India’s side of the Punjab.
The road to peace was as arduous as it was bloody. The late Arjun Singh, as the state’s governor, midwifed the Punjab accord between Rajiv Gandhi and HS Longowal, but it couldn’t prove to be the antidote it was meant to be. The pact, nevertheless, set the stage for the 1985 assembly elections. Longowal was assassinated during the campaign, with the slain leader’s confidante, SS Barnala becoming chief minister (CM). The violence that continued unabated under the new incumbent took a deeper communal overtone, rendering governance dysfunctional and President’s Rule inevitable. The state’s walk to normalcy cost another election and a political assassination. In 1995, Congress CM Beant Singh was killed by a suicide bomber. In tandem with the doughty police chief, KPS Gill, he was rooting out militancy from the state. Also killed in the intervening period (1990) was Balwant Singh. Besides Longowal and Barnala, he constituted the Akali trinity that had initialed the Punjab accord.
The flashback to the insurgency’s peak period holds lessons for New Delhi. The satyagraha template the farm unions so assiduously constructed undoubtedly lay asunder after the Republic Day mayhem. But that cannot be the basis for tarring all opponents of the reform legislations as votaries of Khalistan. That cause, if it ever was one, was defeated in the 1990s. Its vestiges survived on the margins of the diasporic Sikh identity, not as much in the community’s mainstream.
The protests have a national security dimension. It’s imperative, however, for official India to be conscious of the perils of conflating the inveterate separatist goals with those of the wider farm protests. The political establishment has to be mindful of the proclivity of its probe agencies to over-hype the Khalistani threat to discredit the broader agitation.
Punjab’s history dictates that the effort should be to isolate and punish miscreants. Blaming everyone for the misdeeds of motley groups could foment social divides, possibly fetching the popularly discarded K-word a wider communal-political traction.
Synonymous words of caution could be of as much use for the farm unions. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha’s hydra-headed construct, and the maximalist position it has against the reforms, made talks with the government unwieldy and the outcome difficult. How? Even while talking from a position of strength in multiple sessions before the Red Fort bedlam, a consensus on exploring some middle-ground with the Centre seemed impossible. The dialogue dynamics ran counter to the established rules of engagement.
A veteran of many complex negotiations, former national security adviser, JN Dixit, would often say that for a deal to happen and get executed, one has to give the other side a stake to make it work. That’s deeply instructive for the farmers. The government, for its part, must appreciate the opposite side’s predicament. Given the multiplicity of the unions, the farmers had engaged with it in a complicated, multilateral format.
The impasse lingered also because the farmers were less than diplomatic and the government short on statesmanship. The latter’s offer of placing the laws on hold for 18 months and talk through a bipartisan panel came when the trust levels between them had touched the nadir. On the flip side, the Centre’s offer that seemed a “good bargain” to many adherents of the farm cause fell afoul of the Morcha because its leaders lacked the mandate to accept anything short of a repeal of the laws.
If the stalemate continues, there is a grave risk of the saner talking heads losing control to potentially militant elements. The farmers must not return defeated to their villages. For a bumper crop of peace, a way has to be found to make them look the winners. The government must think hard about how to steal a victory in defeat, for that’ll be statesmanship.
The views expressed are personal
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