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Hanging in balance

Bad politics over Rajoana’s execution may cede ground to extremist forces

Written by K P S Gill |
April 3, 2012 2:55:55 am

Bad politics over Rajoana’s execution may cede ground to extremist forces

Public memory in India is short. Few,today,remember the circumstances that created the Khalistani terrorism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fewer still will have the capacity to recognise the resurgence of a perverse,deeply communalised,opportunistic and unprincipled politics in present-day Punjab,reminiscent of the mischief that encouraged and established Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the 1970s and early 1980s,and sparked a movement of virulent terror that rampaged across the state for more than 13 years,resulting in the killing of nearly 22,000 people. Despite the comprehensive defeat of this terrorism by 1993,a surviving rump of extremist leaders — located in,and supported by,Pakistan,as well as some diaspora in the West — has sought,constantly,to exploit transient disturbances in Punjab to stage a revival of their movement. In this,they have been aided by a tiny fringe of radicalised front organisations within Punjab,but these were easy to ignore or marginalise as long as the major political parties and successive governments in the state maintained a certain distance from the politics of these extremist dregs.

There was reason to believe that the trend away from sectarian politics would be sharply reinforced after the recent and dramatic Akali victory,especially since the preceding election campaign had been led by the party’s new face,Sukhbir Singh Badal,on a developmental,rather than communal,platform. All this has,however,abruptly crumbled,as Sikh extremist elements return to the centrestage of politics in Punjab,on the back of the orchestrated controversy over the execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana,the “back-up” suicide bomber in the assassination of then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995. The Akalis,as was their wont throughout the age of terrorism in the state,have capitulated and lapsed into a craven politics of appeasement that will only encourage further radicalisation.

It is significant Rajoana was sentenced to death as far back as July 31,2007,and has,since,refused to appeal his sentence,and has repeatedly demanded that he be hanged. In nearly five years,moreover,not one of the many organisations that are now rushing about demanding the commutation of his sentence,saw fit to file an appeal “on his behalf”. It is only after a Chandigarh court issued a warrant for his execution on March 31,2012,that the present political farce was initiated. Evidently,the political capital to be harvested is greater for an intervention in the run-up to the execution than would have been the case if the appeal had come earlier.

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It is significant the Akal Takht has,in the interim,declared Dilawar Singh Babbar,the suicide bomber who killed Beant Singh,a shaheed (martyr) of the faith,and Rajoana,a “zinda shaheed” (living martyr),even as Rajoana has heaped contempt on the opportunistic politics of the “blue turbans” (Akali politicians who dominate both Gurdwara and state politics). It is the misfortune of the Sikhs that,in their quest for religious leadership,they have voted to empower those of the lowest intelligence,competence and morality within the community. Indeed,through the period of terrorism — and most visibly during Operation Black Thunder in 1988 — members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) behaved in a remarkably feckless and asinine manner,and this apex body appears to have reverted to the same conduct now.

This is not unexpected. Entities that draw their power from communal identity politics gravitate naturally towards extremist positions,mobilising support by provoking public passions within their natural sectarian constituencies. It is,however,far more difficult to understand the attitudes of the state Akali,BJP and Congress leaderships,considering the degree to which these suffered through terrorism,and the tremendous personal losses many among them endured during that phase.

Indeed,as the clamour for intervention to block off Rajoana’s execution was initiated,the Akali leadership initially appeared to demonstrate some evidence of a spine — though not for long — declaring that the matter was out of the Punjab government’s hands and that the process of justice would take its own course. As a few disruptive demonstrations were orchestrated in the state,however,this resolve quickly dissipated. The police was found to be incapable of effectively handling even small crowds,and the image of a senior superintendent of police lying prostrate on the ground,protected by three police constables holding up their wooden shields,is reminiscent of the haste and disarray in which an SSP withdrew from the scene of carnage,after a clash between Bhindranwale’s cohorts and the Nirankaris left several dead in the run-up to terrorism more than three decades ago. It is clear that over the past decades,the Punjab Police,which had demonstrated its capabilities as one of the finest counter-terrorism forces in the world,has lost much of its edge.

Worse,there are clear signs of subversion within the force as well. The superintendent of Central Jail,Patiala,with the support of the director general-prisons,chose to repeatedly challenge the court’s order of execution on a range of specious grounds,provoking the court to observe that he had “not once,but on two occasions,refused to execute the warrants of sentence of death”,and that he was interfering with judicial proceedings,obstructing the administration of justice and attempting to lower the authority of the court. It is to be recalled that the Punjab Police had to be virtually resurrected from the ashes of communal subversion before it was forged into an effective instrument to fight Khalistani terrorists. Jail and police officials have colluded with extremists and terrorists in a number of cases since the defeat of terrorism — most prominently in the escape of Jagtar Singh Hawara,another co-accused in the Beant Singh assassination,from Burail Jail. For the state to create spaces for a renewed subversion of the force is nothing less than suicidal.

There is a sense of déjà vu in what is happening today. Political parties are,once again,ceding space to extremist formations in Punjab,even as surviving terrorist elements located outside the country look for an opening to revive Khalistani terror. A few small lapses,in these circumstances,can create the conditions of a new conflagration that can only bring renewed suffering to the people of Punjab,and to India at large.

The writer is a former director general of police,Punjab

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