The people of Punjab are hurt and livid at the picture of the state being painted outside, and them being demonised after the Police operation against radical Amritpal Singh and his followers has taken centre stage. The hurt and anger stems from the manner in which sections of the embedded Delhi-based media in particular have been carrying planted and irresponsible reports on Punjab trying to make a ‘mountain of a molehill’.

There is a lot of anxiety over the tendency to look at everything through the prism of Khalistan and separatism while the people feel that both these issues have no support or presence on the ground. They feel there is a clear design to divert attention from more pressing issues. They point out that the Police operation is being sensationalised and dished out as a spectacle to serve forces aiming to reap political dividends from the misery of the people.

Former Patiala Lok Sabha member Dr Dharamvira Gandhi who had won the 2014 polls on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket and had later parted ways with the party minced no words when he told this reporter, “everything is normal in Punjab. No one wants anything other than peace. Those in the radical stream have a miniscule presence and it is being presented as if the situation is really serious in Punjab.

“The people, whether Sikhs or those from other communities, do not want trouble and there is no support for Amritpal or Khalistan on the ground. It is the forces who have been resorting to the politics of communalism and divisiveness that are creating trouble. Their game plan is very simple: they will browbeat Punjab and demonise the Sikh community to win the next elections.

“They will continue to foment such a narrative of separatism to capture the vote bank of the national majority if need be. If you have to launch a Police operation to arrest someone why create such a noise about it. I oppose the arrests of common people. I oppose the

Internet shutdown and the flag marches by the Police.”

A keen observer of developments, Gandhi said, “The message going out is dangerous for the Punjabis. A wrong image is being created of the state and its residents are being defamed. The premise is that where will a scared Hindu community go at a time when the Congress is divided, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) has been pushed to the margins and AAP’s credibility stands questioned.”

The local people contacted spelt out the problems they have faced on account of the internet shutdown. Many who had to deposit fees or make payments on various counts could not do so as the OTPs were not being generated.

Owners of restaurants and eating joints who are dependent on GPS based food delivery operations have suffered losses. Those whose professional operations depend solely on the internet and did not have access to broadband fibre services also suffered. People further pointed out that most communication suffered.

Many people feel that Punjab is being targeted for leading the farmers’ movement that was an unprecedented democratic movement. “Punjab has seen people coming out in large numbers to secure their political and economic rights in recent times. There have been so many different issues. This was on account of the consciousness that was generated by the farmers’ movement that was led by the progressive forces along with Sikhs and other communities.

“By fanning the growth of radical elements like Amritpal, the people understand that there is a clear motive to divide the people by bringing religion into the narrative. The whole motive is to create a gap between the Sikhs and others. At the ground level the people understand the designs and are hurt at the moves to target Punjabiyat. A secular movement that has been moving ahead is being countered,” pointed an observer who has been associated with many people’s movements in the past.

He further stated, “This is the first time Punjab has witnessed an internet shutdown of this scale, something that was previously reported mainly from the north eastern states and Jammu and Kashmir. We fear it is an attempt to test waters and maybe normalise the practice as there was no need to do so.

“The people of the state had already opposed the centre’s move to increase the limits of jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 km to 50 km along the international border in 2021. The state had reportedly approached the Supreme Court on the issue calling it an infringement of its federal rights. Now there is a fresh attempt to create differences between Sikhs and the Indian state.

“A very important thing to be kept in mind is that in the 2011 census a very high number of non Sikhs had mentioned Punjabi as their mother tongue. This number had been very low in the 1961 census. It is the secular fabric being targeted.”

One can see on the social media platforms how the cheerleaders of the majoritarian Right Wing are going ballistic on the issue of Khalistan and the Punjabis countering them on not to challenge their patriotism. Meanwhile, the sections of embedded media are busy playing ball and gleefully reporting developments in a dramatic manner that beats even the best of fiction thriller writers.

Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann asserted that the state is in safe hands, and that severest action is being taken against those conspiring to disturb peace, amity, communal harmony and brotherhood.

In a video message to the countrymen especially the Punjabis, the Chief Minister said that Punjab symbolises peace and progress, as from this sacred land the great Sikh Gurus have given the message of universal brotherhood and well being of every section to the people. He said that right from the national freedom struggle to making the country self-reliant in food grain production and then in safeguarding the borders of the nation, Punjabis have always led the country in every field.

Mann said that Punjabis are known for extending a helping hand to anyone who is in trouble, adding that this land has shown the path of love and peace to the world. He categorically said that no one will be allowed to cast a malicious eye on the peace, progress and prosperity of the state and stern action will be taken against them.

He underlined that some anti-national elements had hobnobbed with the ‘foreign forces’ to put the state on the boil by disturbing its hard earned peace. He claimed that strict action has been taken against them and they have been put behind the bars.

The CM further said that history is privy to the fact that anyone who has tried to disturb the basic social fabric of the state has been given a befitting answer by the Punjabis. He said that it is surprising that on one hand the state government is according priority to employment, education, laptops, books, healthcare, infrastructure and other facilities to people and on the other hand such anti-Punjab elements are inciting the youth to indulge in illegal activities against the country.

Bhagwant Mann said that this patriotic and secular government of the state cannot be a mute spectator to all such anti-national activities due to which strict action has been taken against them.

Hours after Mann’s address, Inspector General of Police (Headquarters) Sukhchain Singh Gill reaffirmed that the situation in the state is totally stable and under control. He said that a lookout circular and non-bailable warrant has been issued against Amritpal, who remains a fugitive and efforts are being made to arrest him. “Punjab Police are getting full cooperation from other states and central agencies in this action”, he added.

A total of 154 persons have been arrested for disturbing peace and harmony in the state till now. While sharing pictures of Amritpal in different looks, Gill appealed to the people to disclose the whereabouts of the fugitive.

Divulging more details about the operations, he said that Jalandhar Rural Police have recovered a Brezza car which was used by Amritpal to escape, when the Police teams were chasing his cavalcade on March 18. The Police have also arrested four persons for facilitating Amritpal’s escape.

“It has come to fore that Amritpal and his aides have also changed their clothes in one Gurdwara Sahib in village Nangal Ambia to change their attire and absconded from there on two motorcycles,” he said.

Gill further informed that the Police teams have also arrested and detained Kulwant Singh Raoke of Raoke village in Moga and Gurinderpal Singh alias Guri Aujla of Kapurthala under the National Security Act. He claimed that the protest at Mohali has also been lifted and 37 persons have been taken into preventive custody.

Gill’s statement followed Punjab and Haryana High Court reportedly coming down heavily on the Punjab government for its failure to apprehend the radical leader. The Court has sought a status report on the Police operations to nab Amritpal.The Court was hearing a Habeas Corpus writ filed by Amritpal’s legal advisor amid allegations of the Police keeping him in illegal confinement.

Many questions are being raised in the public domain with regards to the Police operation with many seeing it as a botched up act. The people are also questioning why drones were not pressed into surveillance during the operation as the governments both at the centre and the state have been making tall claims about the potential of drone technology.

The Court reportedly asked why the Police failed to nab Amritpal despite the force comprising 80,000 personnel and there being half a dozen first information reports (FIRs) in the matter. It also wanted to know how only he could escape when many of his aides were nabbed in the operation.

Observers say that the Police operation was launched by the state government that stood cornered over its delayed response to the capture of the Police Station in Ajnala and the attack on the Police personnel there. The Police have been stating that it refrained from using force at Ajnala since the radical mob had carried Guru Granth Sahib in a palanquin to the spot.

They have been pointing that all hell would have broken loose if any untoward incident had taken place with the holy book in close proximity. The people have largely denounced the act of the radicals to use the holy book as a shield.

On the political front there are voices being aired against the arrests of youth in the Police operations and have termed the operations as ‘unconstitutional crackdown’. Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) president Sukhbir Singh Badal has announced that his party has decided to provide complete legal assistance to all Sikh youth arrested in the ongoing ‘extra-constitutional crackdown in Punjab’ and ensure their rights are not trampled upon by the AAP government in power.

In a series of tweets he said, “Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) stands for Justice and the protection of the rights of the Punjabis in general and the Sikhs in particular within the federal framework, with more powers to the states, a demand echoed now by other political parties too. Sikhs are the most patriotic people and have made the greatest sacrifices for securing and safeguarding independence, unity and integrity of India and we'll do so again whenever the country needs it. This is our country and Sikhs need no certificate from anyone on their patriotism.

The government led by Parkash Singh Badal had pulled the state out of the bloody cycle of terror and repression and started an era of peace and progress. But the governments that followed have pushed Punjab back into the jaws of insecurity and repression reminiscent of the dark and tragic era. SAD strongly condemns the puppet AAP regime in Punjab for the undeclared emergency and reign of repression and terror let loose in the state. We warn the government against dangerous conspiracies to defame the most patriotic Sikh community for communal polarisation and electoral gains.”

State Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring too tweeted, “While those trying to disturb law and order must be dealt with strictly, it is equally important not to penalise our youngsters who had joined the movement with good intentions. They must be given a chance to reform and join the mainstream.”

The state government is also under fire for suspension of the twitter accounts of some journalists. Congress leader Pargat Singh has pointed, “Such a brazen act constitutes a direct assault on our cherished fourth pillar of democracy and right to free speech.”

The Congress has also reacted strongly to the acts of Khalistan supporters abroad. In a strongly worded reaction, senior Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa tweeted, “It is most-regrettable that a few elements pulled down the tricolour at the Indian High Commission in London yesterday. Sikhs were at the forefront of the Independence movement and fought for the freedom of India.”

Meanwhile, in an interesting development, Dal Khalsa which now claims to practise radical politics and pursue Khalistan issue through democratic means organised a Punjab Summit in Amritsar on Monday to present Punjab’s viewpoint on social, economy, education, agriculture, self-rule, human rights and religio-political aspects before G20 nations, The Punjab Summit which is being referred to as P20 coincided with the G20 summit held under India’s presidency in Amritsar.

At the event, 20 speakers representing 20 organisations, many of them known for their radical stance from various streams, presented their views on specific topics. The organisations that took part in the deliberations were Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, SAD (Amritsar), Damdami Taksal, Akhand Kirtani Jatha, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Krantikari), United Akali Dal, All India Sikh Students Federation, Students for Society, SATH, Sikh Youth of Punjab, Sikh Siyasat, Akal Federation, Panth Sewak, Punjab Lawyers, Khalra Mission Organization, Voices for Freedom and Majdoor Adhikar Sangathan.

According to Kanwar Pal Singh of Dal Khalsa, “They were all unanimous in their views that there would be no peace without rights and justice and no progress without peace.”

The Punjab Summit lashed out at the Punjab Police for the massive crackdown on Sikh youth and arresting them in large numbers to instil a fear in the minds of the population of Punjab.

The speakers said that equally deplorable is the suspension of internet services and civil liberties across the state. They pointed out that the whereabouts of Amritpal Singh, still a mystery, has created a lot of resentment and fear in the public given the past history.

According to a statement issued on the meet, “SGPC president Harjinder Singh Dhami chided the Indian state for meddling in Sikh religious affairs. He said earlier governments’ intervention was through the executive but now the government has taken the route of the judiciary to interfere and control the Sikh religious institutions.”

"Ours is a peaceful struggle. We have no grenades or guns in our hands. Pushing people to the wall would be dangerous,” said Kanwar Pal Singh.

The summit blamed the government for refusing to address the core issues of Punjab and the Sikhs and instead treating it as a pure law and order problem. The speakers said the latest crackdown is a prime example of the state assault on civil and political rights.

At present, Punjab presents more questions than answers. The people are clear that they want peace and want various political parties to rise above petty differences to ensure that peace reigns.