CHANDIGARH: Over the last few days the central government has taken some important decisions in the context of Punjab. The first one was the scrapping of the ‘Black List’ that contained the names of 312 Sikhs who have been living abroad. Now they can visit Punjab and the rest of India.

The second was the decision to release eight Sikh prisoners lodged in different jails across India for committing crimes during the militancy in Punjab. The government has announced that they will be released on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev in November as a humanitarian gesture.

This has been followed by the reported decision to commute the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted in the case pertaining to the assassination of former Chief Minister Beant Singh, to life imprisonment.

These were amongst the most important demands of the Sikhs for the last several years. Though the community has welcomed these decisions, there is considerable speculation and discussion about the reasons for the gestures.

Senior Dal Khalsa leader Kanwar Pal Singh told this reporter, “It’s the timing that matters most in politics. The BJP seems to have adopted a clear cut dual edged policy. On one side it wants to take on Kashmir hands on, and on the other it is working to keep the Sikhs and Punjab happy. The closeness between Punjab and Kashmiris is troubling them.” It needs to be underlined that Dal Khalsa is an organization known for practicing radical politics but as they say through democratic means.

Singh said that one needs to look at the sequence of events connected with these decisions. The first announcement came before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s departure to the United States for the Houston rally alongside US President Donald Trump and his subsequent address at the United Nations General Assembly. “But it failed to achieve desired results as Sikhs and Kashmiris jointly held massive protests outside both the venues. On coming back, they have come out with the other two decisions which were the political cards they were keeping close but could not hold back any longer,” he said.

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has meanwhile said that his government had no role in the decision regarding Rajoana.

Talking to reporters at Dakha assembly constituency which is headed for a bypoll, he said that his government had merely sent the list of long term prisoners under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and had no role in the centre’s reported decision to release Rajoana or any other prisoner. He said that the centre had taken an independent decision on the release of the prisoners. He further added that the Punjab government is yet to receive the names of the nine prisoners whom the union home ministry has decided to grant special exemption.

He further said, “I had said in 2012 that I am against death penalty and all death penalty cases should be moved to life imprisonment. This has remained my stand because I even today do not agree with death penalty.”

His interaction with the reporters was shared by his twitter handle. He also tweeted, “If anyone thinks that the release of prisoners as a goodwill gesture on the 550th Prakash Purb will lead to a law & order problem, let me make it absolutely very clear; I am a Fauji and I will make sure that the hard-earned peace of Punjab is not disturbed by anyone.”

He had earlier welcomed the centre’s move on the scrapping of the black list and also the centre accepting his proposal for special remission to nine Sikh prisoners since they have completed their sentence,

Meanwhile the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal has expressed ‘profound gratitude’ to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah along with the central government for commuting the death sentence of one Sikh prisoner into life sentence and releasing eight others prematurely as a special humanitarian gesture from the NDA Government.

He further expressed hope that this is just the starting point of the process to the review and release of all Sikh prisoners who had either served their full term or had been forced into unlawfulness under extenuating religious and emotional circumstances.

In a statement Sukhbir Badal has also requested Modi and BJP President Amit Shah to continue this psychological initiative to heal the wounds of the Sikh community and to expeditiously release all other Sikh prisoners who have completed their sentence but are still languishing in various jails across the country.

Other Sikh community leaders however, have been pointing out that the centre has refrained from spelling out the names of those appearing in the scrapped black list. They are sceptical about the eight prisoners scheduled to be released, as many point out that at least three prisoners Baj Singh, Waryam Singh and Hardip Singh whose names are being circulated are already out of jail. Besides, the plea in case of Rajoana is seven years old and despite the Akal Takht coming into the picture nothing was done till now. Ironically, the BJP’s Punjab unit had reportedly distanced itself from the issue when the then Akali Dal Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal who is an ally of the saffron party had taken up the matter with the centre - seven years ago.

“It needs to be understood that barring a few intellectuals across India, nobody has spoken for Kashmiris since the abrogation of Article 370 and 35 A. The centre does not want a ‘Bolta Punjab’. Their problem is that ‘Punjab Bolta Hai,”Punjab Lok Sabhyacharak Manch leader Amolakh Singh said.

“There is a lot that is going on. How would one explain the erasing of history and heritage of Jallianwala Bagh in the name of beautification? Nobody has even bothered to reply to the issues that we have been erasing again and again. How would one interpret the raising of saffron slogans at Bhagat Singh’s birthplace on September 28 and the narrative that Bhagat Singh had sacrificed his life for ‘Bharat Mata’,” he said.

The Sikh diaspora led and participated actively in protests against the Indian government in Kashmir in Houston and New York recently. This has created ripples as is evident in the mainstream political parties here.

Many also see the recent decisions taken by the centre as a bid by BJP to secure a larger number of seats for itself in the 2022 assembly polls. The grapevine is that the BJP will not settle for anything less than 40 of the total 117 assembly constituencies. Or the other possibility is it that it may decide to go it out all alone in the long run.

Veteran political observer Jagtar Singh told this reporter, “The Akalis today are in no position to resist the BJP.”

Another interesting development over the last few days has been the demand raised by Sikhs reportedly during a meeting with Modi in Houston to rename Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi after Guru Nanak Dev.

Sikhs in Punjab have vociferously raised reservations against any move to reduce Guru Nanak to the level of Indira Gandhi and dragging the name of the revered first Guru into petty politics.

The crux of the matter is that tremors are once again being felt in the religio-political discourse on the matrix of Punjab politics. It remains to be seen which way the wind blows in the days to come.