History, as Karl Marx said, “repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. What we witnessed in the 1980s was a tragedy when, as has been rightly said, there was no such thing as government; there was the police and there were terrorists. It took more than ten years to defeat terrorism and, during that period, nearly twenty thousand lives were lost. What we are witnessing in Punjab today is some kind of a farce.
Do we have a government in Punjab? The answer would be ‘Yes’, but the question is how effective it is and how committed is it to national security? Every now and then we are told that it is remote-controlled by the AAP high command in Delhi and, as commented by a weekly, the chief minister’ “gaffes display the inexperience of a rookie”. There have been disturbing incidents on the law and order front. On May 9, 2022, there was a rocket attack on the Punjab Police Intelligence Headquarter. On May 29, singer-rapper Moosewala was murdered. On November 5, Shiv Sena leader Sudhir Suri was killed in Amritsar. What happened at Ajnala police station on February 23, 2023, however, sent shock waves across the country. The Waris Punjab De (WPD) goons, led by Amritpal Singh, who has been trying to project himself as Bhidranwale 2.0, laid siege to the police station, browbeat the police and pressurized it to release one of their colleagues, Lovepreet Singh Toofan. The police were present in good strength, but they meekly obliged. Later, we were told that Amritpal had carried a copy of Guru Granth Sahib to the police station and therefore the police did not take any action lest there was any unintentional act of sacrilege which would have meant greater trouble.
There has been all-round criticism of Punjab government for its pathetic handling of the law and order problems. However, when the state government eventually decided to take action against Amritpal and his gang on March 18, it was felt that it had at last woken up to the grave threat posed by the pro-Khalistan group. But hope soon gave way to disappointment and disappointment gave way to despair. These feelings were aptly expressed by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on March 21, when it asked: “What were 80,000 personnel doing when they (the absconder and his associates) were roaming about with weapons? How did he manage to flee despite you having all the (relevant) information about him and such heavy deployment of forces.”
It appears that the plan to strike at WPD was taken at a meeting held in the Ministry of Home Affairs on March 3. The meeting was attended by the chief minister and the police chief of Punjab and senior officers of the intelligence agencies. There was concern at the highest level over WPD’s state-wide Khalsa Vaheer campaign, which was scheduled to be launched on March 19; it was to be a religious procession which was to cover the entire state over the next few months with the objective of baptizing the youth into devout Sikhs. The government was also worried over Amritpal Singh’s plan to organise, what he called, the Anandpur Khalsa Force (AKF). Action was however delayed in view of the G-20 meetings which were to be held in Amritsar. Eighteen companies of the central armed police forces, including eight companies of the Rapid Action Force, were placed at the disposal of the state government.
What followed was a complete farce. We were told that Amritpal’s vehicle managed to dodge the police in Shahkot-Mehatpur area even though two other vehicles in the cavalcade were intercepted and seven of his associates were arrested. A massive cordon and search operation was thereafter launched. The Inspector General made a gloriously vague statement that “Punjab Police always works, keeping law and order in view”. People expected a result-oriented statement and not a homily. Amritpal is said to be “on the run” and the police are on his hot chase. Nobody knows how long will this charade go on. The sequence of events is quite unconvincing. Punjab is not Bastar or Nagaland where, once you escape the police dragnet, it is really difficult to locate and apprehend you.
Meanwhile seven FIRs have been registered against members of the WPD for “creating disharmony among classes, attempt to murder, attacking cops and preventing them from carrying out their duties”. Action under the National Security Act has also been initiated. A total of 114 persons have been arrested. Flag marches have been held in important towns. Internet services were suspended in the state till March 21. Amritpal, the ringleader, however remains absconding.
What went wrong? There are three possibilities. Firstly, the erstwhile transporter was faster and smarter than the Punjab Police. If true, it would be a matter of shame for the state police. Secondly, while the chief minister agreed to act perhaps under pressure from the Home Minister, it is possible that the party high command directed him to make a show of going all out against WPD without actually laying hands on Amritpal. Thirdly, as is being alleged, Amritpal Singh has been detained but the police are not disclosing that for whatever reasons. In either case, it is going to be counter productive for the state government and the police.
According to the police submission in court, Amritpal Singh had been “professing radical ideologies to demand secession of Punjab from India and using all means, including violence, to create Khalistan” and that he was “abetting, instigating, provoking, motivating and conspiring to wage war against the state”. And yet, the police action has been tardy. The Punjab Police claim that the operation so far has been successful in terms of breaking Amritpal’s “will and his network including his associates”. This may be true but unless Amritpal himself is arrested and booked under stringent provisions of law, the possibility of his reviving the WPD would always remain.
The Punjab Police today unfortunately is no longer what it was while battling against terrorism in the eighties. This is essentially due to increasing politicisation of the khaki. There have been four Directors General of Police in the state since September 2021. Instability at the top level affects the discipline and morale of the force. Besides, according to a recent report, government have decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings for the award of major penalty to four senior officers of the department including the then DGP for breach in security during the Prime Minister’s visit to Punjab on January 5, 2022. Senior retired police officers also say that there is a general feeling among the serving officers that in the event of a major problem with controversial overtones, it is safer not to take any action than to take action which is not likely to be defended by the political bosses later on. All these narratives go against the state government.
The Pak-based Khalistani groups would definitely be trying to fish in the troubled waters. At least four notorious terrorist leaders are said to be operating from Pakistan. They are, Wadhwa Singh Babbar of Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Lakhbir Singh of International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), Ranjit Singh of Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), and Paramjit Singh of Khalistan Commando Force (KCF). The Pak ISI would, of course, be playing the game it has mastered over the years – of creating disaffection and subversion in India.
Punjab is having a dangerous cocktail of problems. Apart from the well-organised, foreign-funded and aided attempt to revive terrorism in the state, there has been a proliferation of gangs in the state and it is estimated that about 70 gangs comprising 500 members are active. Besides, the drug menace is disrupting the social structure of the state. Forty percent of the youth is said to be using drugs and forty-eight percent of farmers and labourers are estimated to be drug addicts. Pakistan has been regularly sending drones across the border to drop drugs and weapons.
Not that these problems cannot be tackled. It is just a question of strong leadership and clear directions to the administrative and police officers. During my last visit to Chandigarh about six months back, a Sikh officer said: “Sir, we need a chief minister like Yogi Adityanath and a DGP like KPS Gill”. It remains to be seen if Bhagwant Mann will rise to the occasion.
The problem has unfortunately acquired an external dimension also. Pro-Khalistan elements are active in USA, UK, Canada and Australia. Government will have to mount diplomatic pressure on these countries to take action against these elements and ensure the security of the Indian missions in those countries. It should also consider the possibility of cancelling the OCI cards of identified Khalistani elements in foreign countries.
Punjab requires a comprehensive plan to tackle the multifarious problems it is facing. It will have to have three major components: disarming and neutralizing the criminal gang active in the state, tackling the drug menace internally and taking effective steps to curb smuggling of drugs from the Golden Crescent countries, and nipping in the bud the sinister attempts to revive terrorism in the State. We have seen much blood-letting in Punjab. The country cannot afford another spell of that mayhem.
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