The possibility of the involvement of ISI-trained terrorists cannot be ruled out, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has said after a grenade attack on a congregation of the Nirankari sect on the outskirts of Amritsar left three dead and 21 injured. Singh has promised swift action to nab those responsible for Sunday’s attack. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has also said that “strongest possible action will be taken against the perpetrators of this crime”. The apparently shared resolve by the Centre and state government to not let their political differences come in the way is reassuring. Everything must be done to protect what CM Amarinder Singh described as Punjab’s “hard-earned peace”. For, though the Punjab of today is a far cry from the militancy-ravaged state of the 1980s, there is much in its political milieu that demands that the situation be treated with utmost caution.
The attack on the Nirankari congregation is bound to evoke memories of the clash between the followers of this sect and Sikhs in 1978. At least 16 people, most of them Sikhs, were killed in the incident that is regarded as one of the flashpoints of militancy in Punjab. A revenge killing of the head of the Nirankari sect, Gurbachan Singh, in 1980, is acknowledged to be a critical moment in the rise of Khalistani groups. Today most of these groups are either extinct, or on the fringes — or on foreign shores. However, attempts to stoke communal embers are becoming disturbingly frequent in the state. In 2015, incidents involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib led to outcry among Sikhs. The then Akali Dal government allowed this issue to simmer and the current Congress government has not managed to do much even as radical Sikh groups have used it as a pretext to regroup. With the Akali Dal out of power, the internecine politics of the party has become intertwined with this sensitive issue: The party’s rebels have blamed Sukhbir Badal for “mishandling” of the incidents of the desecration of the holy book.
The Aam Aadmi Party was accused of giving hardliners a safe passage to the mainstream during last year’s elections to the Punjab assembly. Now, H S Phoolka, a prominent AAP leader, hasn’t done the party’s image much good by accusing Army chief General Bipin Rawat of orchestrating Sunday’s attack. Phoolka has claimed since that he was misunderstood, and regretted his comment. The AAP and other political actors in the state should be aware that social media often gives a life of its own to provocative comments and amplifies the voices of fringe groups. That is why they must tread especially carefully to ensure that Punjab’s “hard-earned peace” is not frittered away.