In a Facebook Live interview with ThePrint, Khaira talked about the ‘divisive politics’ being played by rivals in Punjab, and said Khalistan talk is a bid to divert attention from real issues.
New Delhi: AAP leader of the opposition in Punjab, Sukhpal Singh Khaira has been in the news since he was reported to have expressed support for a referendum on Khalistan in 2020.
In a Facebook Live interview with ThePrint’s Maneesh Chhibber, Khaira insisted that he did not support the Khalistan movement and talked about the AAP’s plan in Punjab ahead of the 2019 general election.
Here is the edited transcript of the interview:
Maneesh Chhibber (MC): Did you ever support the demand for the 2020 Khalistan referendum?
Sukhpal Singh Khaira: Not at all, not even once. No electronic media can produce any clip where I say that I support the 2020 referendum.
What I said was, in fact, that there is a very big and growing gap between the Punjabis and the Sikhs and the successive governments in Delhi.
If we start from the Partition, you would agree that Punjabis and Sikhs have made several sacrifices, including going to the gallows and andolans. They faced the maximum, what should I say [stammers], wrath when they were shifted from Pakistan. Like people in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, all Punjabis had to leave their homes and migrate to India. Thereafter, all Indian states were carved out on a linguistic basis. Punjab was even denied basic rights.
We Punjabis had to struggle for a separate state through morchas. People died, went to jail, and finally, in 1966, Punjab got a state where most Punjabi-speaking areas like Ambala, Kurukshetra were left out.
So this story of discrimination carried on and ultimately led to the 1984 riots, which I would call the Sikh genocide. Thousands of people were burnt alive, women were raped and even after 34 years, justice has been rendered to the grieved.
MC: But coming back to the referendum 2020, could you explain to our readers what it is?
Khaira: I swear upon God, even I don’t know what that is.
I only heard about it from the media on 14 June when I went to meet the governor of Punjab with the representation against the Delhi lieutenant-governor’s interference in the Kejriwal government. When I came out of the Raj Bhavan in Chandigarh, the media asked me if I support the 2020 referendum? I said no.
I do not know who started this referendum, and who are the organisers behind it, I have no knowledge of it at all. But, yes, I have read about the past of Punjab and that people have been hurt. Therefore, I was trying to argue that let’s bridge that gap and they (media) turned around the whole thing and all the three parties, the Congres, the BJP, and the SAD jumped in and called me divisive. The reason is that they are rattled by my opposition in Punjab.
Let me talk about (chief minister) Amarinder Singh, he has been trying to threaten me by saying he will slap cases. He is most welcome to do that, but he should first check his facts. Amarinder Singh was an Akali in 1994 and, before the Akal Takht building in Harmandir Sahib, Amarinder Singh declared that he was demanding the right to self-determination for Sikhs.
All of them have double standards, they speak against India to get votes and then later on swear by the Constitution and become the CM. Are they not divisive? The RSS and the BJP, when they talk about a Hindu rashtra, are they not divisive? Is India a country of just one religion?
MC: Arvind Kejriwal has a pet phrase – “Sab mile hue hai”. Do you think the Akali Dal, Congress, and the others are together in opposing you?
Khaira: In Punjab they are all combined in attacking me. They framed me in a maliciously false drug racket, though drugs were sold by (former SAD state revenue minister) Bikram Majithia, but the case was made against me. All the traditional parties – Akali, Congress, BJP – all of them play a friendly match. Once the Akali wins, once the Congress, and so on. So a soft opposition was very convenient for them. This is the first time they have met a stiff opposition in Punjab: I am questioning them on all issues, whether it’s corruption or the mining mafia, or unsafe drinking water. Now, Amarinder Singh doesn’t want such an opposition, he was used to the very friendly Akali one.
MC: Your leader Arvind Kejriwal has apologised to everyone…
Khaira: I have already made my stand very clear on that. It’s a thing of the past, and, not only me, a lot of people in Punjab opposed this. I would just like to put that behind and move forward as there are more burning issues in Punjab.
MC: The people of Punjab had high hopes from the AAP, and you made a lot of tall claims, so have you framed the people of Punjab?
Khaira: I was not a part of the main mechanism that fought elections in 2017 in Punjab. I was one of the candidates and I have made this categorically clear. Yes, of course, we made some mistakes and, unfortunately, we could not fill the space of Akali and Congress like people wanted, or win the confidence of the people. But, having said that, we are still the opposition party in Punjab and that’s not a small achievement. From here on, we can bounce back in Punjab and serve the state.
MC: Have you spoken to Arvind Kejriwal about the ongoing controversy?
Khaira: Yes, we met Manish Sisodia in Delhi and we had come here to support the dharna but it ended yesterday (19 June), so we talked about inner party affairs and discussed the 2020 referendum. I have clarified my position.
MC: Why is there such a mismatch between the expectations people had from the AAP, and why is the (party’s) state leadership so disenchanted with the leadership in Delhi? And there are also rumours that you might be on your way out of the AAP.
Khaira: There is nothing of this sort. These are all mechanisms of my opponents, and they can easily plant news. This whole 2020 thing gained no momentum when I met the media on 14 June. But, suddenly, one reporter from The Tribune plants a concocted story against me and then Captian, Badal, Harsimrat and Majithia pick up from that particular news. I have spoken to the editor-in-chief, Ramachandran, of The Tribune and filed a formal complaint that this is very unfair.
Why would I hide behind one journalist and then try and support the referendum discreetly? I am not a coward, I am not a liar.
MC: But is your constituency unhappy with you?
Khaira: No, I won’t say that. They have faith in me. That’s why they have put me as leader of opposition in Punjab.
MC: In your video on Facebook, you seem to be creating a Sikh NRI sentiment… through justifying referendum 2020 and then ask for donations to help your constituency.
Khaira: This is again a well-crafted allegation by Captain Amarinder Singh, Harsimrat Kaur, Bikram and Sukhbir, a joint allegation. I dare Harsimrat Kaur Badal, if she’s a Cabinet minister in the Modi government, why doesn’t she order a probe against us? Let her find one single penny of such a donation from an anti-national element like a Khalistani element and she can take action against us.
This is totally a cock-and-bull story. The reality is that we live in Punjab and we have to see to the interests of the state and all its communities. If I do not speak for the Sikhs, who will?
The other parties do not speak of the plight of Gujarat’s Sikh farmers, or the illegally detained Sikhs in Jodhpur jail or our water being taken away from us.
The Akali, the Congress and the BJP have raised this referendum 2020 to deflect the attention of the people. Let’s see the situation of the education system in Punjab, it has collapsed. You tell me about our government healthcare, it has collapsed. Unemployment is a big challenge to Punjab and all our best human resources, whether doctors, engineers, teachers, are going abroad.
If they had employment in Punjab, why would they go to countries like Iraq, cities like Mosul, where they are getting killed? They want to divert attention from these burning issues. Look at the farmers, look at the khet majdoors, farmers are committing suicide in Punjab every day. Do these parties have debates on these issues?
They’d rather deflect and bring up some emotional issue like 2020 referendum. The state that literally feeds the whole country has farmers who are dying of hunger. Is this not the issue to be discussed in Punjab?
MC: The AAP was seen quoting separatist elements in Punjab. So is there any…
Khaira: These are all lies. If you remember, during the elections, there was a blast in Bathinda that killed nine innocent people. Till today, there is no serious investigation into it. When the blast happened, the entire focus of the attack was the AAP. People said the AAP has brought the radicals, they will burn Punjab if you bring them to power.
Nothing ever happened like that. Now, after 13 months, we are fighting on issues like corruption, water, farmer suicides, but the entire system does not want such issues to be brought to the central stage of state politics. They would rather talk of Khalistan.
Actually, this is happening in the entire country, not only in Punjab.
MC: Every 3-4 months, we get to know that the BJP and the SAD will contest separately. What information do you have about it?
Khaira: They don’t match ideologically at all. It’s like a marriage of convenience. So, the SAD was a minority-supporting party and the BJP has a majoritarian point of view. That’s why they have a lot differences in their opinions but are forced to be together, because if they don’t do so, they can’t even win 14 seats in Punjab.
MC: Arvind Kejriwal has apologised to Bikram Majithia, but you were still adamant (about allegations against him). Why?
Khaira: We opposed it because even our volunteers from humble backgrounds had put up big billboards saying “Bikram Majithia is a drug smuggler, we will say it a thousand times”. It was my moral responsibility to show solidarity with the people who had stood up against him. The party MLAs, too, were not happy with this decision (apology).
MC: Balbir Singh from your party has shown dissent against your comment on referendum 2020. Why?
Khaira: Without even asking me or trying to verify facts, Balbir Singh directly gave a statement to the media that action will be taken against me. That is exactly the trap that the Akali Dal and the BJP had put and he fell for it.
Nearly 95 per cent to 99 per cent of the cadre have faith in me and know that I will not lie. If I had to support (the referendum), I would have done it openly. I have fought five elections in this country and I believe in the Constitution. I have never supported this before nor will I do it in the future.
MC: Arvind Kejriwal is staging a dharna at the lieutenant-governor’s house. Do you think he can do something beyond dharnas in Punjab?
Khaira: Arvind’s dharna was absolutely legitimate. The L-G is not letting them function. I believe Delhi should get full statehood and that his demands are justified. When L-G doesn’t let the government work, it is the public that suffers the most. School, hospital, daily welfare, social policies all had come to a halt.
MC: What will be the agenda of the AAP in 2019?
Khaira: I cannot single out one. There are three-four burning issues in Punjab. The largest of all is farmer and peasant suicides. According to my office sources, more than 450 farmers have died during Amarinder’s 13 months. The second biggest issue, according to me, is corruption.
Whatever amount the Punjab government sends to its villages for development, more than half is wiped out due to corruption. School buildings are broken and the dispensaries are empty.
Third is the mafia raj. The Congress used to complain about the land, sand, liquor, and transport mafia, but they never controlled a single one. Sukhbir Singh Badal’s earnings from transportation have increased during Amarinder’s tenure.
Fourth is unemployment. It’s such a gigantic task. We have to give our youth respectable jobs. The population of Punjab is about 2.7 crore and around 50 lakh people have fled the country.
The Dalits are being cheated, their scholarships aren’t being given. These things will be put in priority in 2019.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
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