These days the liberals battle for Najeeb Ahmed, the JNU student missing since October 2016 after an on-campus brawl with members of the right-wing students’ union ABVP. According to a recent report, Punjab has 8,257 Najeebs, or Singhs, or Kumars — the kind of enforced disappearances and killings being reported right now in Uttar Pradesh and earlier in Gujarat.
A week has passed since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team, including Sikh ministers, came and left India. Through the visit, I watched with rising dismay, how a diplomatic disaster unfolded between two friendly countries because of one word — Khalistan. My dismay was not at the powers-that-be, we know them. Rather, it was over how people like me, the liberals — committed to make democracy work, pursue justice, oppose the growing jingoistic polarisation of our nation — had behaved.
In 2013, at a Bangalore Literature Festival panel discussion on ‘The Gujarat Model: Is economic development a garb for hard Right politics?’ a journalist with years of experience in Punjab remarked, “If India were to go towards Hindutva, I wonder why Sikhs fought against Khalistan.” The mostly millennial software industry audience, starry-eyed over the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s bid for national power, roundly jeered the journalist. I was a schoolboy in Punjab during the militancy years. I know well the violence, the fear, the reign of silence. I have remained haunted by Punjab. The haunting has now taken me back to explore Punjab a quarter century after the guns fell silent.
As I travel, I see Punjab’s discontent has grown — ecological, agrarian, industrial, issues of caste, gender, drugs, unemployment, and so on.
On human development indices, Punjab is doing much worse than it did when it became the bread basket of India in the 1960s, and even during its dark decade-and-a-half of Khalistan militancy — 1978-93. While Punjab is doing worse, I had assumed its ties with India had mended from the 1980s — a period during which, growing up, I had noticed my father lose the affectionate ‘ji’ suffix from the ‘Sardar-ji’ he was usually addressed as.
Did Sikhs take the ‘ji’ as an entitlement? No. India is a democracy — all its citizens are equal. Was the ‘ji’ a mark of respect? Yes. It was cultural and economic — the way a nation perceived its dynamic minority comprising 1.5 per cent of the population. In the 1970s, India believed Sikhs were its ‘farmers and soldiers’. In the 1980s, they were framed as ‘traitors and terrorists’, which led to the Army attack on Durbar Sahib in Amritsar through Operation Blue Star and the pogrom against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
Since then, the shadow of 1984 has loomed large over Punjab and Sikhs. The developments ruptured the trust between the people and the nation-state. The question the Sikhs asked was: If the nation-state can attack our sanctum sanctorum of faith, what guarantee do we have of our life? This sparked off the militant Khalistan movement, which, in turn, led to the breakdown of the structures of democracy in Punjab. The violence left at least 50,000 dead, many thousands uprooted. The legislative and judiciary were absent. The all-powerful police, no doubt in a precarious situation, also committed gross human rights violations — many of these for rewards and promotions.
The state curbed the Khalistan movement in the mid-’90s, pushed through electoral democracy in 1992 with 23 per cent voter turnout. But every political party since then has betrayed their mandate. India has still not addressed the lapsed trust — explained why Operation Blue Star took place, or brought justice to the victims of 1984. Once politicians of all hues allow impunity for organised murder, other evils like corruption, nepotism and violation of systems follow. A quarter century later, a lumbering Punjab seeks to escape from the quagmire of poverty, farm debts, farmer suicides, unemployment, and drugs. Yet, tiny Punjab — with 1.5 per cent of the nation’s land — continues to be the farmer and soldier of the nation. In spite of its own ecological disaster — through the over-exploitation of its water table and pollution of earth — it continues to contribute 60 per cent wheat and 40 per cent rice to the Central pool. Punjab continues to stand between not just India and hunger, but also India and Pakistan — a role it has performed since 1965, when the Punjabi Suba movement raged for the creation of the State.
Seeing the systemic breakdown at home and the possibility of better lives abroad, many Punjabis have escaped and are busy making their overseas dreams come true. Their emotional and familial ties with Punjab remain. Now, a new generation has grown up abroad on stories of India’s apathy. Given the freedoms available abroad, a small number in the Sikh diaspora continue to raise these issues. These voices are labelled as support for Khalistan. Yes, there are also those who still seek an independent Khalistan, but their numbers are few. However, their flashy presence makes for media stories through which the political parties back home keep the lid on Punjab, don’t hear its voice, and keep it enmeshed in Khalistan. That is how they deflect from questions of development and keep a cover on the violations by the state.
These political parties, rarely together except to protect their turf and egos, played Khalistan in grotesque fashion when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s entourage travelled to India. Two years ago, ahead of the 2017 Punjab election, Congress leader and current chief minister Amarinder Singh had sought to visit Canada to meet the Sikh diaspora. The maverick Sikhs For Justice group blocked his visit. In his turn, last spring, Singh refused to meet Canada defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan. This time, the Punjab CM warmed up to Trudeau but the Canadian PM stood by his minister. This led Delhi to cold-shoulder the Canadians. The national media erupted in praise for India’s stance. I watched aghast as everyone sought to derive just one meaning of Khalistan — separatism — and ignored the other linked meaning that has a bearing on how Indian democracy functions — pursuit of justice.
Finally, the meeting between Amarinder Singh, Trudeau and Sajjan took place. After that, Trudeau met Modi. There was that hug which — against official protocol — has come to symbolise everything that is whimsical about India’s current foreign policy. However, by now it was too little and too late. The two countries had blown Khalistan out of proportion, even thrown in Jaspal Atwal — the Indian-origin businessman, with ties to the Khalistan movement, who was part of Trudeau’s entourage — as a red herring. Didn’t the liberals see how rival political parties had ganged up to avoid being answerable? Didn’t they see how media had plastered Punjab and Sikhs into a corner? Did they not see how the people of Punjab were excited and had extended a grand welcome to their successful diaspora? By solely critiquing Trudeau’s choice of clothing — kurtas and sherwanis — the liberals allowed themselves to be ensnared in the web the politicians had woven. The gap between Punjab and the rest of India split wide open.
These days the liberals battle for Najeeb Ahmed, the JNU student missing since October 2016 after an on-campus brawl with members of the right-wing students’ union ABVP. According to a recent report, Punjab has 8,257 Najeebs, or Singhs, or Kumars — the kind of enforced disappearances and killings being reported right now in Uttar Pradesh and earlier in Gujarat. The liberals battle for the CBI Judge BH Loya, who died under mysterious circumstances midway through the hearing in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case. Do they forget Advocate Khalra? Don’t the liberals see Operation Blue Star as a blot on India’s conscience that needs addressing? Don’t they see the 1984 pogrom as a model for Babri and Godhra? Are the liberals at a loss because they can’t decide whether Punjab is Udta on drugs or Khalistan on guns? Do they feel jealous as to how some of the minuscule Sikhs manage to do well in spite of Partition in 1947, in spite of 1984? Is it fear of the brutal militancy that they still stereotype the Sikhs as traitors and terrorists?
No separatist movement ever ends only through police action. Punjab pulled back from militancy because Khalistan lost popular support. Its composite society displayed this learning by standing together as recently as 2015 when Punjab was carpet-bombed with incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, and last year, when the controversial godman Ram Rahim was arrested.
Though Punjab has returned from violence, it has a long way to go to heal. Healing needs trust. Trust needs solidarities. During Trudeau’s visit, and the media spin on it, the liberals had a chance to display their solidarity with the Sikhs. They had a chance to nuance the term Khalistan — to take the sting out of separatism by advocating the pursuit of justice. They failed. Sadly, Punjab, a laboratory for sectarian violence and human rights violations, is fairly accustomed to isolation. It no longer cares. But the liberals needed to care, they didn’t.. After Trudeau left, NITI Ayog brazenly told Punjab: the nation does not need its produce, the Centre has refused aid. If in the future things turn haywire, let it be noted the liberals remained silent at this critical juncture in Punjab’s history.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Roll of Honour, a novel on 1984