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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Decades ago, when Centre-Akalis stalemate plunged Punjab into violence

What are the 42 demands Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was alluding to? How did the failure of talks between the Centre and Akali Dal plunge the state into what is now called the dark decade of militancy?

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma | Chandigarh |
Updated: February 10, 2021 8:27:17 am
Curious devotess climb over the debris of Akal Takht built by Nihang Baba Santa Singh afer the Operation Blue Star. Express archive photo by Swadesh Talwar

Last week, addressing an all-party meeting on the farmers’ agitation, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh urged the Centre to resolve the issue speedily while recalling how prolonged negotiations over a list of 42-odd demands between the Centre and the Akali Dal had culminated in Operation Blue Star in 1984. “We have to work to resolve this issue before things go out of hand,” he warned.

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What are the 42 demands he was alluding to? How did the failure of talks between the Centre and Akali Dal plunge the state into what is now called the dark decade of militancy?

Canal controversy

In 1978, the Akali Dal formalised the Anandpur Sahib resolution seeking greater autonomy for Punjab after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government decided to divide the surplus waters of Ravi and Beas flowing in Punjab between Haryana and Rajasthan by building the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal. The Akalis, who were in power in Punjab, called it a gross violation of riparian principles, and an act of discrimination against the Sikh-majority state. The two sides did hold a few round of talks but without any results. Subsequently, the Akalis complained that the Centre was refusing to give them any concession.

Things came to a head when PM Gandhi inaugurated the canal at Kapoori village near Patiala in April 1982, two years after Congress came to power in the state. The Akalis, who were taken by surprise when she arrived four hours before the scheduled inauguration, started the Nehar Roko Morcha. Three months later, it turned into Dharam Yudh Morcha in which hardliners like Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale — chief of Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal, whose lieutenant Bhai Amrik Singh, president of the All India Sikh Students Federation, had been arrested by the government — joined the Akalis in seeking implementation of the Anandpur Sahib resolution. Akalis started a jail bharo movement in which 51 persons would court arrest every day. They also laid siege to the Punjab Assembly, after which they shifted their movement to Amritsar.

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Kar Sevaks pulling down the Akal Takht building built under the supervision of Nihang chief, Baba Santa Singh. Express archive photo by Swadesh Talwar

The 42 demands

The charter of 42 issues that Amarinder Singh referred to was first finalised during the World Sikh Convention in July 1981. Former IAS officer and author Gurtej Singh says these were 46, not 42, “grievances”. When PM Gandhi called the Akalis for talks in October 1981, they whittled these down to around 14.

Broadly, the demands, both before and after the Dharam Yudh Morcha, were constitutional, territorial, and religious. The Akalis sought greater autonomy for Punjab, and recognition of Sikhs as a separate religious group by amending Article 25 B of the Constitution. They also wanted the Centre to stop meddling in the affairs of the SGPC, the body managing Sikh shrines.

The Akalis sought the transfer of Chandigarh, a Union Territory and joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, to Punjab. This became a point of contention as the Centre said it would do so only if some predominantly Hindu areas in Punjab were transferred to Haryana. The Akalis also sought the transfer of Punjabi-speaking areas in Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal to Punjab, a demand termed communal by the Centre.

One of the most important demands was a share in the irrigation waters of neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan.

Religious demands included declaration of Amritsar as a holy city, installation of a radio transmitter at the Golden Temple to broadcast the daily prayers, permission to Sikhs to carry a small kirpan (ceremonial sword) on airplanes, and renaming of some trains.

While the Congress government accepted most of the religious demands, it termed the others, especially the demand for autonomy and territory, as secessionist.

Prime minister Narender Modi with former Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal (left) his son SAD president Sukhbir Badal and his daughter in law Harsimrat Kaur Badal in Mukatsar in 2018. (Express Photo by Gurmeet Singh)

The violent turn

Initially, the movement helmed by Akali leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and party chief Parkash Singh Badal adhered to the principle of non-violence. But gradually, as the talks lingered without any breakthrough, radicals led by Bhindranwale started dominating the agitation. Former bureaucrat and author Gurtej Singh says the Akalis thrice reached an agreement with the Centre but each time the latter made some last-minute changes unacceptable to them. Badal once sarcastically remarked, “Yes, Mrs Gandhi has often given us blank cheques. But she never signed them.”

In February 1984, there was a ray of hope when PM Gandhi offered tripartite talks, with the Opposition as the third side. Longowal famously said he sensed a change of mood, and PM Gandhi said she didn’t want a confrontation with the Akalis. But communal violence in both Punjab and Haryana in March muddied the waters, and extremists gained the upper hand. Finally, the spiral of violence led to Operation Blue Star that was launched to flush out militants from the Golden Temple in June 1984. Bhindranwale was killed in the operation. Four months later, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards to avenge the operation.

The anti-Sikh pogrom that followed further pushed the state into anarchy.

Ironically, Gandhi’s son Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi accepted the demands of the Akali Dal in July 1985 in what is called the Rajiv-Longowal accord, and the Akalis agreed to withdraw their agitation.

But the cycle of violence continued, and Longowal was gunned down a month after the accord in August 1985. It took many years and the loss of many lives, including that of Congress Chief Minister Beant Singh, killed in 1995, before peace returned to Punjab.

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