Updated: April 30, 2022 8:03:11 am
The violent clash between two groups in Patiala, with protesters waving swords and pelting stones, is the first major test for the 43-day-old Bhagwant Singh Mann government.
On Friday evening, Mann held a meeting with top officials to take stock of the situation and underline that he will not let anyone disrupt peace and harmony in the state.
The government appears to have been taken by surprise at the scale of the violence. Neither police nor the administration seemed prepared despite Harish Singla of the Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) announcing the “anti-Khalistan” procession a fortnight ago. An application by the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) to hold a counter procession was denied.
Following Friday’s incidents, the Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) announced it was expelling Singla.
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It’s not the first time that the many different outfits in Punjab with Shiv Sena tagged to their name have had a run-in with either Sikh hardline groups or Dalits in the state. In April 2018, a clash with Dalit activists in Phagwara had resulted in the death of a Dalit youth. In 2012, a Sikh youth was killed in a clash over the release of political prisoners, jailed in connection with the Khalistan agitation.
The Congress government had to contend with a similar crisis soon after it came to power in 2017, when there were targeted killings of RSS leaders. Then Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had called it a major conspiracy by Pakistan’s ISI to fan communal disturbance.
The Opposition had tacitly supported the government at the time in going after the killers and troublemakers. But the Aam Aadmi Party, a newcomer to Punjab, cannot take this support for granted. And the blame game has already begun.
There are growing murmurs that the situation can only be handled by someone who understands the interplay of politics and religion in the state, and not by “outsiders”, as AAP is often dubbed. Earlier this week, the Opposition parties accused Mann of “surrendering to Delhi” when he signed an MOU for “exchange of best practices” with the Delhi government.
In the run-up to the recent Assembly polls, there had been a concerted attempt to paint the party as partial to separatists abroad.
The clash provides a ready handle to the Opposition, which has been raising the pitch on law and order situation in the state. Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa, the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, alleged “complete anarchy” in the state, while Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal said there was “administrative paralysis’’.
BJP president Ashwani Sharma said it was a matter of grave concern that an incident of this magnitude was allowed to take place. “There was tension in the city for the last 10 days. It is unfortunate that people like Pannu (Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, who heads the banned outfit Sikhs for Justice) have become so vocal in the last few days… We have lived through militancy, we will not let peace be disrupted.”
Singla, the now-expelled Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) leader, has said that he had called the procession to counter the call for ‘Khalistan Sthapna Diwas’ given by Pannu.
The incident coincides with other crises in the state, including a heat wave, made more unbearable by long power cuts, and a poor harvest — the procurement of wheat in the state is at a 15-year-low.
Calling it a very sensitive situation, Dr J S Sekhon, a veteran political observer, said, “There are so many outfits in the state with no work, they would love to see this government fall on its face. Add to it, fringe elements on either side.”
AAP MP Sandeep Pathak sought to downplay the communal angle, calling it a clash between “two political groups in Patiala”. “We’ll not allow anyone to disturb peace and harmony. All miscreants must be brought to book and punished.”
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