The attack on a Kali Devi Mandir (more than two centuries-old) in Patiala, Punjab, by Khalistani elements is the latest incident in a series of communal events that began in the State almost two years ago. Low-intensity targeting of Hindu leadership in Punjab has been going on for a while; however, the police had not been up to the mark when it comes to arrests and investigations, till very recently.
Of course, there is also a need to qualify the context of the situation with some background.
The people responsible for the entire fiasco include people from both the sides, so to speak.
It is not a matter of surprise really that there was an attempt at arson in Punjab that was driven by religious interests. It would surprise many that even Christians have been on rampage in the state on more than one occasion.
In that context, a 'free-for-all' situation has been prevalent for a while in the State.
Harish Singla, formerly a Shiv Sena member and the person who was among those arrested by the Punjab Police for the Patiala violence, had been seeking to gain attention in the State post the withdrawal of his security cover.
To the credit of the police force, they have arrested even serial offender and Khalistan supporter Barjinder Singh Parwana, who had in the past also justified the lynching of an Army soldier in Gurdaspur on allegations of ‘be-adbi’.
However, even as members of the Sikh community have visited the temple to express solidarity, there were a few worrisome facts that emerged from the entire episode and its aftermath.
For one, the police did well to control the situation despite the intelligence failure that it is being blamed for rightly.
While there was some level of conflict, the police did get the situation under control rather fast, and loss of life was entirely avoided in this case.
In such a situation, the transfer of senior police officers who were operational on the ground to defuse tensions sends a mixed signal. It can have the bad effect of demoralising the police force as well.
If one examines the past trends that accompanied the emergence of the Khalistani terror movement in the '80s, we note a similarity of patterns coming through. This pattern is being termed as the Five Stages to Terror, for want of a better terminology:
In Stage I, in the presence of the ‘intellectual’ environment, instances of desecrations of both Sikh and Hindu institutions start to rise. It happened in the early Eighties as well, and this has been gathering steam for a couple of years now.
In Stage II, communal conflict between the Sikhs and Hindus takes place. It was witnessed during the early Eighties on the issue of desecrations. While there has been more sensibility on display in current times, the tinderbox remains, and we saw it blow up in Patiala.
In Stage III, there is an attempt to create a hero figure whose martyrdom eventually becomes a rallying point. A similar narrative was attempted to be created around Deep Sidhu, though the success has been partial. With bodies like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee putting their weight behind Parwana right now, reminisces of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale are however clear.
In Stage IV, we see the emergence of an incident where a major Gurdwara becomes a centre, a flashpoint. Of course, you will never see an Operation Bluestar today, but the threat by mischief-makers remains.
In Stage V, the violence picks up in a big way. Driven by panthic sympathisers, it gains traction in several pockets, and leads to massive, mindless bloodshed.
As of now, there is an attempt to activate the second and the third stage simultaneously by nefarious elements. If one is not careful, the stages are like a downward slide, and you can hurtle towards the last stage without any breaks whatsoever in a short span of time.
This is not to say that things cannot be brought under control; however, what happens with Barjinder Parwana and other Khalistani elements from here on will pretty much determine the future scenario.
If there is a serious crackdown now, it could nip the situation in the bud, given how these element are essentially a vocal fringe that get away at the expense of the larger majority.
The PM’s exaggerated outreach needs to be seen in context
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been accused of pandering to the Sikhs at the expense of the national interest by several voters of the BJP. Of course, many of the steps in recent years like removing blacklisting, withdrawing the farm laws, or celebrating Parkash Purabs of three eminent Sikh Gurus at a grand, unprecedented scale, do seem like an attempt to appease the Sikh community. At the same time, the context to all these is that there are things happening behind the scenes as well; a few of which are being mentioned here to explain the bigger picture.
In December 2021, the German authorities had arrested Jaswinder Singh Multani, after the Indian government put significant pressure following the court blasts that took place in Punjab.
As Hudson Institute’s Aparna Pande and Sam Westrop have pointed out, Khalistani sympathisers inside the Sikh diaspora, especially in North America and Europe, continue attempting to resuscitate the movement. Multani in fact also faces charges for terror-related incidents carried out earlier, including an alleged plot to kill Bharatiya Kisan (Indian Farmers) Union President Balbir Singh Rajewal. Multani is also a leading member of the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) movement.
His arrest suggests that the heat is being put by India on countries where significant bases of such elements exist.
In fact, this is increasingly becoming the norm, albeit quietly. In perhaps the first reference to the Khalistani issue in public, in a long time, the bilateral visit of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson concluded with the announcement of an anti-extremism task force which will also look into Khalistani extremism.
Though this went under the radar, its importance cannot be underestimated, given the big base of Khalistani supporters and sympathisers living in Britain.
A second important point of late is the situation on narcotics. In February this year, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) Director-General S N Pradhan had stated that there has been a threefold increase in the seizure of heroin from 2,146 kg in 2017 to 7,282 kg in 2021.
There is an important Khalistani angle to it that many people tend to overlook. Such activities are essentially meant to raise money for terror.
In Canada, it is well known that many prominent Sikh criminal gangs are actively involved in the drug syndicate. April 2021 saw a huge gang bust taking place as part of Project Cheetah, where ties of the busted gang were traced to India as well. Given that the information that drugs were being used to finance the terror movement was well known since July 2020, the increased activity by Indian authorities is likely to have played a role here too.
A third point to explain the context is the decision of the Centre to create the contentious 50km operational zone for the Border Security Force. Of course, while the element of homogenisation is not entirely wrong, in the context of Punjab it needs to be seen in a different light.
The areas that now see increased BSF jurisdiction intersect with two important areas – what were once the supposed 'liberated' areas; and the water routes for smuggling in weapons and drugs. This area is also coinciding with the zone where increased drone activity of drugs and arms-drops from across the border have been witnessed increasingly. The Centre's decision allows hostile activity to be easily monitored and acted upon in coordination with the local police force.
One interesting insight in all of this was seen with Bhagwant Mann’s statement about the Patiala incident. When seen in context of arrests that took place, and the pace of action that we witnessed, one cannot help but wonder if there was some communication from the Centre on the subject to the state government.
While he blamed the BJP and Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray), Bhagwant Mann interestingly named the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and Simranjit Singh Mann’s Akali Dal faction as responsible for the violence.
Similarly, Raghav Chadha, who seems to be carrying much weight in the Punjab administration, had come out to name the Congress and Akali Dal (Badal) directly for the violence. This is indicative of a broader understanding being present between the Centre and the state, at some level, on keeping law and order under check, and exchanging notes. Of course, this may never be acknowledged publicly by either party, but this could be a much needed reprieve on the issue that everyone had been nervous about.
Where does the RSS stand in all of this?
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was at its peak in terms of activity during the Khalistani militancy, and had even seen many volunteers become victims to the Khalistani terror attacks.
RSS’ viewpoint however has been that there is no difference between Hindus and Sikhs.
In recent times although, with their workers and volunteers being targeted in an attempt to stoke fires in Punjab, the organisation seems to have taken the approach of silently waiting out the challenge.
This of course has not sent a positive message among many Hindus.
All that they seek is that their security and wellbeing is ensured. If that implies Hindu organisations being blunt in criticising the Khalistani terror movement, then that is what they want.
This is pretty much why despite the arrest of Singla, the Hindus had threatened a bandh in Patiala if action was not taken against Khalistani elements. Hindus were also critical of the fact that the BJP chose to talk about releasing Khalistani terrorists, sending a wave of discomfort which the RSS surely would have felt on the ground.
There already was a section of ground level workers of the RSS that was certainly not pleased with what is seen as blackmail around the issue of the farm laws. Even the rebuff on the Veer Bal Divas announcement, saying that it is ‘”not fitting the sentiment of their martyrdoms and Sikh traditions” or the rather uncharitable statement following Guru Tegh Bahadur’s 400th Parkash Purab celebration, caught the RSS and BJP by surprise. Even the outreach of the Sangh Parivar and BJP towards the Ravidasias in Punjab or Radha Soami Satsang Beas has not been received well, and is viewed with suspicion.
RSS’ outreach towards the Sikh community has received repeated rebuffs. The Panthic community has always seen everything from the prism of a 'RSS conspiracy' when it comes to explaining away critical social issues. Be it the issue of evangelical mass conversions in the state, or Hindutva, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee's and the extremist elements’ attitude is one of utter hostility. Given this kind of sentiment, it is only a matter of time when the RSS is compelled to re-evaluate its strategy of engagement and the path that it wants to pursue in Punjab.
There is a major churn happening at all levels in the State. A door has opened that could solve many problems in one go, while important players are now being compelled to think the direction of their strategies and plans.
Will it change things substantially on the ground though? Wait and watch.
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