From Terrorism to Gangsterism: Punjab’s Journey through Uncertain Times

With rival parties in power at the Centre and Punjab and both the BJP and AAP locked in ferocious political battle in the upcoming elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, what the people fear most is the return of 1980s like situation, observes Soroor Ahmed

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Soroor Ahmed

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With rival parties in power at the Centre and Punjab and both the BJP and AAP locked in ferocious political battle in the upcoming elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, what the people fear most is the return of 1980s like situation, observes Soroor Ahmed

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is a bit lucky man because the police department is in the hands of the Union home minister and not the state government. No doubt he is demanding a full-fledged state status for Delhi, but in private he might have been thankful to God, especially after the May 29 broad day light murder of singer Sidhu Musewala near his native village in Mansa district of Punjab, which is now earning notoriety for gangsterism somewhat in the way terrorism took it into its grip in early 1980s.

Perhaps maintaining good law and order is a more challenging job than initiating developmental work for any state. There is no dearth of state governments which got bad name just because they failed on this front though the record in other sectors was better.

Kejriwal might have done well in health, education and several other fields, and thus received a lot of laurels. However, the law and order situation in Delhi is not worth boasting. But the chief minister washes his hands of by stating that the Union home minister Amit Shah should be held responsible on this count. Had police department been in the control of Delhi government (as in other states) much of Kejriwal’s appreciation would have been neutralised.

Law and order is one subject on which any state government rarely gets credit even if it tries to do something better. Sometimes it has been noticed that the government is unduly blamed for any crime-related incident. The Opposition parties and the media get ample opportunity to criticise it.

Actually Punjab, not Delhi, is the first state where the Aam Aadmi Party really came to power and that too with a thumping majority in March last. In that way it would not be fully appropriate to compare its performance with Delhi’s.

Besides, it is a bordering state with a very tumultuous history. After the bloodbath on the eve of Partition and the movement for Sikh-dominated Punjabi Suba, the state witnessed a spate of terrorism throughout 1980s and early 1990s. In between it saw Green Revolution to be followed by industrialisation, which brought prosperity among the masses. It is the only state where Sikhs form the majority with the population of 58 per cent to be followed by 38 per cent Hindus.

The rise of terrorism in 1980 coincided with the return to power of Indira Gandhi at the Centre in January the same year. In the post-Emergency Lok Sabha election of March 1977, Indira Gandhi-led Congress was voted out of power by the newly-formed Janata Party. In the subsequently held Assembly poll in Punjab in June 1977 an alliance of Shiromani Akali Dal and Janata Party came to power.

In 2022, it is the state which witnessed change of government with the ruling Congress losing to AAP. The alliance of the former CM Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party could win only two seats in the House of 117. The SAD got only three.

When terrorism was at its height in Punjab in early 1980s many public opinion-makers were of the view that Indira Gandhi too was no less responsible for it. It was only when things went out of control that she swung into action.

According to them, the then Prime Minister initially tried to promote the hardline Sikh religious leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to cancel out the influence of Shrimoni Akali Dal. In those days she had never realised that the situation would go out of hand and four years later on June 6, 1984 she would have to send army into the Golden Temple. In a two-day long fierce battle not only Bhindranwale and his top commanders and many devotees were killed, the army too lost a number of soldiers. The Sikhs never forgave Indira Gandhi for the destruction of Golden Temple. She was ultimately gunned down by her own bodyguard inside her bungalow on October 31, 1984. This was followed by massacres of Sikhs in Delhi and many other places in India.

But the attack on Golden Temple did not bring to an end terrorism in Punjab. It continued for almost a decade.

Some four decades later Punjab is once again in the news, but not for any good reason. While some hardline Sikhs are trying to regroup themselves, it is the emergence of gangsterism which is posing a big challenge to the new state government led by inexperienced Bhagwant Singh Mann.

The AAP perhaps thought that ruling Punjab would be like governing Delhi. Unlike Delhi it is a relatively big state with a vast rural area and the nature of problem is quite different. When AAP took over the people had the expectation that the new government, besides initiating development works, would tone up the law and order situation. More than anything the drug menace has been wreaking havoc. The farmers’ distress was clearly reflected in the way the people of Punjab played a leading role in the year-long movement on the outskirts of the national capital.

The small and medium scale industries in the state have been facing slowdown ever since the demonetisation on November 8, 2016 and the lockdown further hit them hard.

What is often forgotten is the contributions of labour-force from Bihar, East Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in bringing in the Green Revolution as well as industrialisation of Punjab.

The advent of terrorism and counter police crackdown, in which sometimes innocent youths too were targeted, compelled the neo-rich parents , particularly Sikhs, to send their children abroad, especially to Canada, Australia, the United States and England. The remittance earning of the state increased, but at the same time it widened the economic gap among different sections of society.

Many youths of the neo-affluent class resorted to drug. Instead of an image of hard-working and enterprising Sikh, a sizeable number of them became pleasure-loving and soft. The rise in crime is its natural corollary.

Captain Amarinder Singh led the Congress party to victory in 2017 with the promise to bring to an end to this drug culture, which actually cannot be accomplished without the help of the Centre because Punjab is situated on the international border with Pakistan. The Narendra Modi government late last year extended the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force up to 50 km along the international boundary. The then ruling Congress and AAP strongly criticised this move and charged that it amounts to the virtual central control over Punjab.

On the eve of the 2017 poll Amarinder also assured the voters to bring to book all those responsible for the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib. The then SAD-BJP government was blamed for its failure on these fronts. But the Captain too failed leading to his replacement late last year by Charanjit Singh Channi.

With rival parties in power at the Centre and Punjab and both the BJP and AAP locked in ferocious political battle in the upcoming elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, what the people fear most is the return of 1980s like situation.

Some days before the killing of Sidhu the office of Intelligence Bureau in Chandigarh was attacked with rocket-propelled grenade. Recovery of heroin and arms and ammunition has become common. Drug-lords who reportedly enjoy the support of politicians at some level , are calling the shots in the hinterland.

The Congress, to which Sidhu belonged, is repeatedly charging chief minister Mann with wasting more time in other states to expand the base of AAP than on paying attention towards the problems of Punjab. They are also alleging that Arvind Kejriwal is functioning like the super chief minister.