The Live Wire Politics of Punjab
A Parliamentary by-poll in Jalandhar triggers political realignment
Politics in the border state of Punjab with its unique socio-political dimensions continues to be a live wire. The continuing failure of the state agencies to nab self styled radical preacher Amritpal Singh, even though the arrest of his associates continue to make headlines regularly, is just one aspect of simmering socio-political pot.
A parliamentary by-poll in Jalandhar has triggered a process of realignment of political forces. On the other hand, crop loss on account of unseasonal rains continues to keep the farmers and farm issues at the centre of the socio-economic and socio-political narratives.
And above all, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government that has been in office for the last one year is now facing assaults from its political rivals.
Starting with Amritpal Singh, the common perception among the masses remains that the cauldron around radicalism is being ‘allowed’ to simmer, to suit the political needs to various players, especially in the light of the failure of the law and order enforcement agencies to nab him ever since an operation was launched for the purpose on March 18.
At the same time his alleged aides continue to be nabbed at regular intervals. The common people continue to frown at the ‘planted stories’ being dished out by the embedded media about Amritpal with unabashed glee.
The latest in the series of arrests is the reported nabbing of his alleged aide and mentor Papalpreet Singh from Kathu Nangal area of Amritsar. He is known to be an accused in several offences including the infamous Ajnala episode where a radical mob had captured a Police Station last month using the palanquin carrying the Holy Guru Granth Sahib as a shield.
Inspector General of Police Sukhchain Singh Gill said that the Police teams were working on some vital clues amidst the ongoing special operation. He said that Papalpreet Singh was wanted by the Punjab Police in six criminal cases.
Sukhchain Singh Gill appealed to all Punjabis to continue maintaining peace and harmony in the state and not to pay any heed to fake news and rumours. He asserted that the law and order situation is completely under control and totally stable.
Amritpal in one of the video messages conveyed on the social media had called for convening a Sarbat Khalsa by the Akal Takht on April 13. There have also been rumours and speculations of his surrender on Baisakhi Day that have led to the beefing up of security arrangements at various religious shrines and seminaries.
In a couple of tweets Punjab’s Director General of Police (DGP) Gaurav Yadav after reviewing the arrangements at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda and the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar has stated, “@PunjabPoliceInd is working round the clock to ensure peace and harmony in the region.
Keeping #Punjabis safe is our number 1 priority. Reviewed security arrangements for the upcoming #Baisakhi celebrations, @PunjabPoliceInd will keep #Punjab safe and secure.”
Meanwhile Giani Harpreet Singh who is the Jathedar of Akal Takht has reportedly asked the government not to create panic by increasing the force presence in Talwandi Sabo where he has called for a ‘Gurmat Samagam’ (religious congregation) at Takht Damdama Sahib from April 12 to 15 which is not to be confused as ‘Sarbat Khalsa’.
During a visit to Talwandi Sabo on Friday he had appealed to Amritpal to surrender. Interestingly he had also called for creation of a mechanism to track and bust anti Sikh phobia and Punjab phobic content being peddled and propagated by a section of the media.
With Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) under the control of Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), the whole stand of the Jathedar has political connotations as well.
It needs to be pointed out that Baisakhi marks the creation of the Khalsa Panth by the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. The day sees mass congregations at various religious sites across the state.
Amritpal Singh’s demand for a Sarbat Khalsa (community congregation) has drawn reactions from other forces known for radical politics. Among them, Dal Khalsa has stated that the timing and ground situation is neither conducive nor appropriate to convene a Sarbat Khalsa.
Dal Khalsa leader Kanwar Pal Singh said that after the gathering under the nomenclature of Sarbat Khalsa was held at Chabba in November 2015, there was a vertical split in the community. “Today Sikhs are a divided house and divisions are at all levels be it political, social or religious levels, hence in such a fluid situation calling of a Sarbat Khalsa may further create controversy and divisions,” he said.
The group that claims to be pursuing radical politics through democratic means plans to mark the Sikh National Day also popularly called as Khalsa Sajna divas by taking out a Khalsa March and hoist the Sikh flag reminiscent of the Sarkar-e-Khalsa followed by a political conference on how to achieve ‘Azaadi’ through plebiscite under the United Nations. The event is scheduled to be held at Anandpur Sahib.
The event will witness paying homage to the 13 martyrs of the Sikh Nirankari clash of April 13, 1978 that had triggered the phase of militancy in Punjab over the next more than one and a half decades. There will be an Ardas (prayer) for the release of political prisoners at Takht Keshgarh Sahib.
The group has minced no words in attacking the centre as well as the state government for the prevailing situation in Punjab. In a statement it said, “Dal Khalsa is of the firm belief that with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the present dispensation led by Narendra Modi has cleverly pitted the rest of India against the Sikhs by engineering a volatile situation in Punjab, portraying Sikhs as a threat to national security and who deserve baton, bullets and prisons.
“This design by the union combined with Punjab government has been crafted and executed to keep Punjab on boil and we expect the coming times to spring more dangerous surprises in the run-up to the polls, observes Dal Khalsa leadership.”
The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) too made certain references after its core committee meeting held early this month where it announced a co-ordination committee with its ally Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). “The committee observed that efforts are afoot to spoil the peace of Punjab and AAP has become party to that mission. SAD holds Bhagwant Mann solely responsible for the current state of affairs,” said a statement issued by the party.
The party also condemned Bhagwant Mann for insulting Akal Takht Jathedar and gagging the voice of the media, intelligentsia and artists and said that it was ready to make any sacrifice necessary to ensure communal harmony in the state.
Party president Sukhbir Badal said that the SAD will continue to seek justice for all innocent Sikh youth arrested on trivial charges by the AAP government and demanded that all innocents be freed immediately.
The farmers stand at the receiving end on account of the unseasonal rains that lashed the state till a few days back. The wheat crop has suffered immense damage.
Having ordered a special girdawari to ensure compensation for crop loss to the farmers before the festival of Baisakhi, the government came out with statements about Bhagwant Mann asking the legislators and officers to enhance their field visits for expediting the process of girdawari and redress problems of farmers.
“The MLAs should meet the farmers and listen to their grievances, likewise the officers should make sure that the special Girdawari is completed soon so that we can disburse the compensation before Baisakhi” Mann said.
Mann said that he is personally monitoring the entire drive on a day to day basis to ensure that the affected farmers are compensated in a most transparent and expeditious manner. He categorically said that there will be a zero tolerance for any laxity or lapse found at any level in the government machinery during the Girdawari.
Going a step ahead agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal said, “My effort is that every farmer gets due compensation but if any farmer is facing inappropriate or unfair practice in the girdawari process then concerned farmer can register his complaint on 9309388088 without any hesitation.”
But the opposition has been contesting government claims. Sukhpal Singh Khaira who is the chairman of All India Kisan Congress came forward tweeting, “@BhagwantMann in conducting special Girdawari to assess wheat crop damage has cost the life of a farmer who had taken 25 acres on lease! It seems the government is running away to compensate for the colossal damage due to incessant rains. @INCIndia demands immediate compensation.” He was referring to media reports of a 65 year old farmer committing suicide near Doda village in Muktsar.
Sukhbir Badal has demanded an immediate release of compensation at the rate of Rs 50,000 per acre to farmers whose wheat crop has been destroyed by incessant rain, high velocity winds and hail storms across twenty lakh hectares.
Expressing shock at the ‘apathetic’ attitude of Bhagwant Mann, the SAD president said, “What is the Chief Minister waiting for? The complete destruction of the wheat crop in nearly half of the state is there for all to see.
“It has also been corroborated by agricultural experts. The AAP had also promised to give compensation immediately after crop damage on the ‘Delhi Model’ and should make good its promise instead of delaying the assessment procedure to deny relief to farmers as it had done last year also. Farmers have not received compensation for damage done to wheat and cotton crops last year which should also be given immediately.”
Warning the government not to indulge in anti- farmer policies, Sukhbir said the SAD would launch an agitation in case injustice was done to farmers. He also demanded that compensation for farm labourers be increased to Rs 10,000 per acre and losses suffered by leaseholders be taken into account.
“The central government should be asked not to put any value cuts on excess moisture and discoloration of grains due to the special circumstances,” he further said.
AAP’s Rajya Sabha member Raghav Chadha has written to Union Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman seeking compensation for losses incurred by farmers in Punjab due to unseasonal rains.
Chadha while describing the losses in detail informed the finance minister that the rains had impacted at least 14 lakh hectares (40%) of 34.9 lakh hectares of wheat sown in Punjab during the Rabi season leaving the farmers devastated.
He said the centre can’t absolve itself of its responsibility towards the farmers of Punjab, especially given the fact that the state has made an enormous contribution to the nation’s food security. He urged Sitharaman to consider providing a special package to Punjab to further and adequately compensate the farmers for their losses.
Former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh who is now with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too has demanded time bound compensation for the farmers. He said the government should also consider providing interim relief for the farmers till the actual compensation is worked out after special girdawari.
He said that the Rs 15,000 compensation announced by the government was too less as the losses to farmers were quite enormous and demanded that the compensation must be at least Rs 30,000 per acre.
But it is the Jalandhar Lok Sabha by-poll that is driving the high pitch politics in the state at this point of time. The poll was necessitated after the demise of the sitting Congress parliamentarian Santokh Singh Chaudhary who had died after suffering a cardiac arrest while he was participating in the Bharat Jodo Yatra undertaken by senior leader Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has fielded his wife Karamjit Kaur for the by-poll scheduled to be held on May 10.
This by-poll is being seen as a precursor to the Lok Sabha polls scheduled to be held early next year. What is interesting is the party hopping that is on at the moment. While the SAD-BSP along with the BJP are yet to announce their candidates on this prestigious seat, the AAP has fielded former Congress MLA Sushil Kumar Rinku a day after he jumped ship from the grand old party.
Rinku had joined the AAP in the presence of party's national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann. The latter while calling Kejriwal a revolutionary chief minister and a ray of hope for 130 crore people of India said, “We joined politics for education, health facilities, employment, infrastructure and development; we don't do politics of hatred."
Reacting to the development, Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, said, “Congress party never compromises on ethics and moral values. It respects its leaders as well as the workers but there is strictly no place for imposters.
“What surprises me is that the AAP that made government in Punjab with 92 MLAs, doesn’t have even a single candidate to fight the Jalandhar by-poll. Also, why is the party forced to buy tainted leaders of other parties by hook or by crook, that once boasted about being an honest party of like-minded people?
“The people of Punjab are aware of AAP’s anti-people face, their lies and their frauds and they will teach a lesson to the leadership in the Jalandhar by-poll.”
Asserting that the people of Doaba region were prepared to teach a befitting lesson to the corrupt and scam tainted Bhagwant Mann government which had failed on all fronts, Sukhbir Badal has stated that the said the SAD - BSP alliance would give voice to the grievances of farmers, Dalits, youth, businessmen and government employees, all of whom were fed up with the AAP government.
It is a contest where the Congress is trying to make a statement by retaining the seat.
The AAP that is still licking its wounds after losing Sangrur Lok Sabha seat that was represented by none other than Bhagwant Mann to Simranjit Singh Mann of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) is trying to win to make a statement that it is still a favourite of the masses of the state.
It needs to be underlined that the Sangrur loss had come as a shock to the party that had romped home winning 92 of the total 117 Assembly seats in the Vidhan Sabha polls barely two months back. For the Akalis it is an opportunity to gain some of the lost political ground.
The party which has been a traditional political powerhouse in the state besides being India’s oldest regional force has lost two consecutive assembly polls and has been pushed to the margins.
The BJP is trying to expand its footprints in the state that has been witnessing attempts at communal polarisation. The party is continuing with its drive to induct credible faces, particularly Sikh, into its folds.
Its latest catch is former Akali MLA Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal. He joined the BJP a couple of days ago along with his brother Jasjeet Singh Atwal. Observers feel that he is a major catch for the saffron party. He is the son of Charanjit Singh Atwal one of the senior most Akali leaders.
Charanjit had contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on Jalandhar seat unsuccessfully as the joint Akali-BJP candidate. The alliance had fallen apart under pressure from the farmers’ movement when the Akalis were compelled to walk out.
With almost a month to go for the by-poll and radical narratives also on the forefront, politics is expected to be a live wire in the times to come.
Cover Photograph from Facebook: Amritpal Singh and aide Papalprit Singh. While the former is still on the run, Papalprit Singh has just been arrested by the Punjab police.