Punjab's Search For Heroes In Tumultuous Times
The state is unique in a demographic sense as a national religious minority is in majority here
The state of Punjab is now once again finding itself in the eye of a tornado. There is disillusionment and unrest alongside a spiralling law and order problem. The state is once again witnessing a surge in radicalism among the youth, which till now remains unchecked and unchallenged.
While there are different views and perceptions on how and why the youth is getting influenced by the radical narratives, with some people also dismissing this as a manufactured phenomenon, the fact remains that at present Punjab’s socio political domain is facing more questions to which there are no answers being spelt yet.
There has been an interesting phenomenon at work in this sensitive border state for decades. The state is also unique in demographic sense as it is a state where a national religious minority is in majority. It previously shared this trait with the neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir but things changed there after the abrogation of Article 370 and the state getting converted into union territories.
Coming back to Punjab’s phenomenon, it has been recorded over the last several decades that the youth has been constantly looking out for heroes. These ‘heroes’ have caught its fancy from time to time. Most importantly, of late these heroes have been coming from the radical stream.
This poses an interesting question as to why is it that the radical elements have emerged as heroes that have not only been followed but also eulogised? Secondly, why is it that a section of the youth has been looking out towards the radical elements and not sticking to the ideals of Bhagat Singh or other heroes that have continued to be alive in the collective consciousness of the Punjabi society?
These questions have been raising their head as Punjab has continued to witness socio-political and socio-economic upheavals over the decades. This has often left the people with memories of a trauma and scar that many feel refuse to fade away.
When one talks of radical characters to which the youth has looked up to, the name of former militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale remains at the top. For many he continues to be the ‘Sant’ (saint) who sacrificed himself for the cause of Punjab and the issues listed in the all-important Anandpur Sahib resolution while others see him as a separatist and militant who led and fueled a violent movement in Punjab.
But the fact remains that he remains an icon for a large number whose memorial stands within the Golden Temple Complex which is the holiest of shrines for the Sikh community. His posters and stickers continue to adorn public spaces at times and can also be seen pasted on the cars or on flags. He remains the most popular of the radicals.
In the last couple of years Punjab has seen its youth eulogising men like Deep Sidhu who came into limelight after the hoisting of Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort on January 26, at the height of the farmers’ movement against the three controversial farm laws passed by the Narendra Modi led central government.
The laws had to be eventually withdrawn by the government after the historic farmers’ movement. But many feel that Deep Sidhu’s act had put the farmers on the back foot, and from that point onwards the farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana came to the forefront. Still many see things in a different light and regard him as a hero. Initially an actor, Deep Sidhu had later turned to ‘activism’ before founding the socio political organisation ‘Waris Punjab de’. He was later killed in an accident.
A few months later, it was singer Sidhu Moosewala who suddenly exploded in the imagination of the youth after his assassination. No doubt he was popular amongst a section of the youth that were his core audience but it was only after his assassination that he assumed an iconic status.
Sidhu Moosewala was a controversial man, due to the lyrics of his songs, dabbling in politics and at times his public conduct. There are different views around him as well with many contesting that he was always viewed in a wrong perspective.
And now it is radical preacher Amritpal Singh whom many see as the second version of Bhindranwale. The 29-year-old returned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and has mannerisms that starkly resemble those of Bhindranwale. An advantage that he has is that he can speak impeccable English.
Hailing from Jallupur Kheda village in Amritsar had his ‘Dastarbandi’ (turban tying ceremony) at Bhindranwale’s village and has been talking about the victimisation of Sikhs talking in terms of concepts like ‘slavery’ and ‘Azadi’ while reportedly raising the issue of Khalistan time and again. Many feel that his role in the recent capture of Ajnala Police Station and the release of an accused in a kidnapping case has established him as a top leader in the radical stream.
Yet many think otherwise, on account of the criticism he has drawn over the issue of carrying Guru Granth Sahib in a palanquin to the spot. A large number of people have been criticising those responsible for the act accusing them of using the holy book as a shield against a possible Police action.
Several policemen had sustained injuries in the attack and the Police version for not taking any action and showing restraint was that had they taken any action with the palanquin at the spot, all hell would have broken loose had any untoward thing happened.
While many describe Amritpal to be a creation of agencies, he has been contesting this allegation vociferously. Still many see him as having crossed the point of no return after the Ajnala incident.
But the moot question remains who is behind the turning of the radical wheel in Punjab and why are the people, particularly the youth, constantly on the lookout for heroes that continue to emerge from the radical stream, no matter even if for a shorter duration.
Political analyst and academic expert Sumail Sidhu sees the present or recurring scenario of turmoil among the masses as a ‘crippling failure and destruction of the society’. He said that the people have nothing to look forward to and stand deeply disillusioned. Talking about the characters whom the youth have taken as icons of late he said that the media totally missed the point on Moosewala who was critical of religious fundamentalism and was politically very well aware. He, according to Sumail, had broken on the international scene and was deeply influenced by rapper Tupac Shakur.
At the same time Sumail feels that Deep was never popular and it was much later that his persona was promoted by his followers. Sumail also drew attention to yet another important factor at work in the Punjabi social domain and that is promotion of personalities and creation of heroes in the digital space. He pointed out that it is all about ‘shares’ on social media and a ‘systematic campaign’ for promoting a personality that often derails the youth. This is being done in case of several persons who otherwise have no pull.
“At the same time people are also looking towards sensation and also want to be constantly entertained. This is also a factor while not writing off the seriousness of issues,” he pointed out. “It is not true that the people or youth have only shown support for the radical stream of late.
They supported leaders like Jagmeet Singh Brar, Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, Manpreet Badal and his People’s Party of Punjab and also Bhagwant Mann till recently. They continue to seek the answer to why all of them failed. There is a vacuum created by these failures and political betrayals. The people are clearly on the edge,” he explained.
He feels that the people are looking for those who empathise with them, help them live a dignified life and rebuild villages, “In a scenario where agriculture is a loss making vocation with low remunerations, the majority of the youth who can afford to is moving abroad. Those who continue to live here do not have anything to be happy about or look forward to.”
Even in such a situation, according to him, the youth showed tremendous restraint and foresight during the farmers’ agitation while defying all the stereotypes about it being totally into drugs and others.
Referring to the Ajnala incident and Amritpal he said, “The state government did not play its part. When he had declared his intentions in advance, he should have been dealt with then and there. He has an arms licence that is only issued by the centre. Who provided him with this? His comments are aimed at polarisation and this is putting the Hindus behind the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). He is a show boy being projected as a charismatic figure.”
Reacting to a query about youth going the radical way and not taking the path shown by Bhagat Singh, he asserted, “Bhagat Singh does not appear by himself. He has been repositioned by the Left. But the Left has very orthodox and dogmatic ideas. Bhagat Singh has been betrayed by those organising regular programmes at Khatkar Kalan and wearing turbans symbolising him. He needs better representation.”
Shedding more light on the issue Professor Jagmohan Singh who is Bhagat Singh’s nephew said, “It is only those semi literate and illiterate elements mainly in rural areas having a medieval mindset who get mobilised by radical sentiments. These are people whose consciousness has not developed.”
He added that people with greater levels of consciousness and awareness are showing deeper interest in Bhagat Singh and what he stood for. At the same time, he underlined that the radical leaders of the present era do not have a wide appeal. “Their appeal is manufactured and they do not have scientific methods to address issues like the menace of drugs which they claim to be doing,” he said.
There are people who have not only witnessed the days of militancy in the decades of the eighties and the nineties but have also played different roles during those turbulent times who have very interesting takes on the emergence of elements like Amritpal.
Captain Chanan Singh is one such man who was closely associated with the political players of those times. He believes that a following of a couple of thousand youth does not make someone a youth icon. He sees Amritpal as a ‘planted person ahead of the 2024 elections’.
“Figures are created to create fear among the people and then these very same figures are done away with to project the powers that be as saviours of the masses. The same process was witnessed in the decades of 1980s as well,” he explained while claiming that Operation Bluestar could have been averted but was not.
He further referred to his own interaction with Bhindranwale before Operation Bluestar and disclosed, “The Sant was shocked when I told him that separatists had a false illusion about Pakistani forces launching any military operation to help create Khalistan. I told him that there is a planning and preparation that goes on for months before an operation is launched.
“I told him that the separatists were harbouring false illusions while the Pakistani forces on whom they were depending upon were happily enjoying their meals in Rawalpindi. The agencies had a role in all of this.”
He too questioned the centre’s role in the emergence of Amritpal along with the grant of arms licence to him. Referring to the youth, he said, “The youth icons emerge according to the prevailing scenarios. During our days it was the famous athlete Milkha Singh who used to be our icon.”
People associated with the separatist movement of those times point out that emergence of Amritpal is a phenomenon of one generation passing the baton to another, since the issues of those times continue to be unresolved and the wounds were never healed with neither there being any effort by the authorities to do so.
Recalling the chronology of the events they say that it is not that Amritpal has simply emerged over all these years after Bhindranwale. There were people or ‘heroes’ in between also who continued the movement after the demise of the latter in 1984. Many of them were not political in their functioning. They elaborate that the majority of the present day journalists negate the history over the last 30 years and have no inkling of what all had happened between 1978 and 1995.
They describe the era in three phases beginning 1978 when the bloody Sikh Nirankari clash of April 13, 1978 saw the emergence of Bhindranwale who was killed in Operation Bluestar in 1984. This was followed by the second phase of militancy that continued up to 1995 till the assassination of former Congress Chief Minister Beant Singh.
After that a vacuum had emerged that saw an Akali government being voted to power under Parkash Singh Badal. The people had voted out the Congress holding it responsible for ‘Punjab’s trauma’ since it was also in power at the centre.
These players of yesteryears explain, “The separatists claim that 30,000 militants were killed in the struggle. The other side claims that 30,000 innocent people were killed during the militancy. The question is who were these 60,000 people. They were Punjabis including those who underwent trauma in Delhi and other places as well.
“Nobody takes into account how many of the people lost their homes and underwent extreme economic hardships. There was massive destruction and how can normalcy be expected. The open wounds simply get passed on to the new generation. Amritpal is the byproduct of such a process.”
An interesting dimension to the whole issue was explained by Dal Khalsa leader Kanwar Pal Singh. An organisation known for radical action during the era of militancy in Punjab, Dal Khalsa now claims to pursue the Khalistan issue through democratic means.
“The democratically elected governments throughout the world give a slogan in militancy hit areas ‘leave guns and come to the table for talks’. But once these organisations give up arms the governments refuse to recognise them. Some of the issues could have been resolved if they had talked and showed willingness in the late 1990s. But the political forces refused to recognize us. Things move ahead when the state shows a willingness to address the aspirations of the people,” he said.
It needs to be pointed out here that the federal sentiment runs high in Punjab. With India as President of the G-20 and a side summit of the same being organised in Amritsar from March 15 to 17, the Dal Khalsa has written to the heads of the foreign missions in Delhi presenting an overview of the social and political life of the region and its peoples from the Sikh perspective.
The letter states, “We are well aware that the discussions during the G-20 summit will focus on trade, energy, climate change, education, health, security and economic issues amongst the 19 member countries and the European Union. The point that we seek to emphasize is that like G-7, even the G-20, especially with its rotational presidency, has not been able to delve into the root causes of discontinuity and hindrances to trade and commerce between member countries.”
It further states, “While many countries, including India, emphasise a conducive environment for economic progress, it is our perspective that most of the countries including India have failed to see that while peace and progress go hand in hand, peace follows justice and equity.” The letter has also raised concerns over the protection of democratic and human rights of the masses in Punjab along with other parts of India.