Disruptive protests over the orchestrated “desecration crisis” in Punjab are now inevitably losing traction. These were engineered disorders though, as has been widely acknowledged, they tapped into a cumulative rage at the endemic failure of governance, rampant corruption and an enveloping social crisis rooted in an epidemic of drug abuse, which itself rides on a drug trade in which the state’s political elites are complicit.
The political agenda of the Khalistani sympathisers who sought to spearhead the protests against the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib simply has no credibility among the larger population of Sikhs in Punjab today, and the contrived mobilisation on this emotive issue was naturally and quickly exhausted. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of public grievance and frustration remain intact, and with elections approaching and political machinations mounting apace, are likely to find repeated articulation in violent protests over the coming year.
This is critical. What is happening in Punjab today has to be seen in the context of the forthcoming elections, the instrumentalisation of the Sikh faith for political ends, and the objectives of a range of mischief-makers who seek to benefit from instability in the state. The desecration crisis is on a continuum with the precedent protests by distressed farmers and the ongoing farce within the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) over the “pardon” handed out to Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh for his act of alleged “blasphemy”.
The pardon was quickly withdrawn in the face of protests, but not before it became evident that it had been motivated by the Akali Dal leadership’s desire to corner the substantial chunk of votes controlled by Ram Rahim Singh and his Dera Sacha Sauda. This has provoked a power struggle within the SGPC, as the longstanding hegemony of the increasingly discredited Badal leadership is challenged.
The farmer agitation was overshadowed by the “desecration crisis”, at least initially fuelling speculation that the latter may have been engineered by the Akalis to divert attention from the rising misfortunes of the farmers. Whoever may have been responsible for the diversion, it appears to have worked, and the farmers’ issue has been pushed to the background without being addressed. The consequent frustration will inevitably find expression in the next cycle of mobilisation.
Within this context, it is useful to note that many in the media have been quick to dismiss the Punjab Police claim that some of the conspirators in the incidents of desecration were linked to elements abroad. The argument here is that these elements — callers from Dubai and Australia — have “voluntarily” identified themselves and claimed that their conversations with the accused related only to the provision of assistance for medical relief for protesters injured in police action. Such a claim, however, is impossible to reconcile with the actual taped conversations, which make clear references to the possession of pages from the Guru Granth Sahib, and to a plot that “would be exposed” if discussed in detail over the phone.
It is a measure of either the incompetence or gullibility of some in the press that they have failed to take the actual content of these conversations into account, quickly accepting the justifications of the accused, who had already been identified by the police.
More importantly however, the role of the diaspora in the troubles in Punjab is once again underlined by this incident. The Khalistani fantasy stands utterly discredited in Punjab but continues to inflame the imaginations of radicalised elements within the Sikh diaspora, and is kept alive by Pakistan’s ISI, which continues to host the surviving leadership of Khalistani terrorism more than two decades after their comprehensive defeat. These include Wadhawa Singh, chief of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI); Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the Khalistan Commando Force-Panjwar; Lakhbir Singh Rode of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF)-Rode; Ranjit Singh Neeta of the Khalistan Zindabad Force; Gajinder Singh “Hijacker” of the Dal Khalsa International; and Balbir Singh Sandhu of the Council of Khalistan.
The ISI also supports and coordinates the activities of a number of Khalistani diaspora groups, such as the Council of Khalistan, the Khalistan Affairs Centre, the Sikh Youth of America and the American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in the US, and the World Sikh Organisation, the Komagata Maru Dal of Khalistan, the Sikh Youth of Belgium and a number of other splinters of the BKI and ISYF in Germany, the UK, France, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. These groups periodically organise demonstrations, engage in propaganda and petition governments and international organisations with grossly distorted allegations.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to link every cycle of disorder within Punjab to the possibilities of a “revival” of the Khalistani movement. The radical Sikh diaspora has little more than nuisance value today, and the Khalistanis have few sympathisers in the state. While it would be a mistake to ignore the long-term intent and objectives of radical diaspora groups and their sponsors in the ISI, our assessments must be tempered by realities of the ground.
The dangers in Punjab are dangers that are manifesting themselves across India today. They arise out of corruption and misgovernance, the explosive mix of religion and politics, the growing pauperisation of the rural population, rising inequalities in a system blinded by myopic and crony capitalism, and a failure of the state to provide a modicum of visible justice — social and political — to the overwhelming majority of its people. The resultant and growing discontent is articulated through a variety of devices, including rising religious and political radicalisation, street violence and, in extreme cases, armed militancy.
These symptoms are easily suppressed by the use of force or marginalised by opportunistic political stratagems, and this has become part of the problem, allowing an unprincipled and devious political establishment to neglect its base over decades. There is, however, an unpredictable turning point beyond which such approaches and deceit begin to fail with increasing frequency, and the state system shows signs of increasing fragmentation. There is significant cumulative evidence to suggest that we are approaching this point. And India’s enemies are waiting and watching.
The writer, former DGP, Punjab, is president, Institute for Conflict Management, and publisher, ‘South Asia Intelligence Review’