Led by Sikh hardliners based abroad, Referendum 2020 ‘aims to gage (sic) will of Punjabis to re-establish Punjab as a nation state’.
Chandigarh: Cooped up in Delhi’s Raj Niwas, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal finds himself at the receiving end of a raging opposition onslaught in Punjab.
At the centre of the row is ‘Referendum 2020’, a campaign led by Sikh hardliners based abroad that is aimed at “liberating Punjab from India’s occupation”.
On Thursday, a week after the anniversary of Operation Blue Star, when asked about the referendum, AAP MLA and leader of opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira said its organisers were “within their rights” to carry it out.
“If people living in independent nations choose to do such a referendum, they are doing it within their rights,” the leader of the opposition in the assembly said, adding, “And they are doing all this because the justice system in India is so flawed that it has led to such emotions.”
The AAP is the second largest party in the 117-member assembly of Punjab, the only other state apart from Delhi where the party has established itself as a major player.
Throughout the assembly election campaign last year, the AAP was accused of courting Sikh hardliners, a “flirtation” former MP candidate Gul Panag said she had warned the party against.
Less than a week before the elections, scores of Sikh NRIs landed in Punjab to campaign for the AAP. Punjabi NRIs had also helped fund the AAP’s election campaign in the state, and a section of these campaigners was said to be convinced that the AAP was sympathetic to the cause of the separatists.
The party paid a price for this, with the claims costing the AAP what was believed to be a sure victory in 2017, but its leaders are not likely to give up the support of a prominent section of the Sikh diaspora that wants secession.
Khaira’s statement has brought the Khalistan bogey back to life for the AAP, and led the brass of the Congress, which is in power in the state, and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to ask party founder Kejriwal: Does he support the secessionist campaign?
“If Kejriwal does not support Referendum 2020,” former state minister Bikram Singh Majithia of the SAD said, “then he should take immediate action against Khaira.”
What is ‘Referendum 2020’
Led by Sikh hardliners based in the UK, Canada and the USA, Referendum 2020 “aims to gage (sic) the will of the Punjabi people with regards to re-establishing Punjab as a nation state”.
“Once we establish consensus on the question of independence, we will then present the case to the United Nations for reestablishing the country of Punjab,” a statement on its website adds.
A day after his statement, Khaira said he stood by it. “If some organisations want to have a referendum in their countries, how can we stop them? The referendum is a result of the pain and anguish suffered by the Sikhs,” he said Friday.
However, asked if he backed the referendum, Khaira retorted: “When did I say I was backing the referendum? I am a citizen of this country and I fight elections under the Constitution of India”
On Saturday, chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh dismissed the statement as “sheer hypocrisy”, saying it was a classic case of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.
Asking his Delhi counterpart to make his stand clear, he added, “This is important considering the fact that Kejriwal himself hobnobbed with pro-Khalistanis when he was campaigning in Punjab in the run-up to the assembly elections last year.”
The SAD demanded that a criminal case be filed against Khaira. Majithia said not only was Khaira advocating Punjab’s secession, but also “inciting communal passions and threatening the hard-won peace of Punjab.”
Asking Kejriwal why he was quiet on the issue, Majithia said Kejriwal should come out clean if he supported Khaira’s statement. “If not, he should tell Punjabis why he has not taken action against Khaira yet,” he added.
His personal view, says AAP Punjab
As the opposition attack intensified, the AAP’s Punjab unit issued a statement Saturday evening saying it did not support the referendum. “The Aam Aadmi Party directly or indirectly does not support ‘Referendum 2020’. The party totally believes in the Constitution of India… The party does not support any activity against the unity and federal structure of the country,” it added.
Leaders of the party said they would seek a clarification from Khaira, adding that the AAP “will not hesitate to take action against volunteers and leaders who have views against the Constitution of the country”.
Look within: Khaira to SAD and Congress
Khaira, however, remains defiant, answering the SAD’s criticism with a list of instances when the Sukhbir Singh Badal-led party itself seemed to lean towards secessionists.
“SAD patron Parkash Singh Badal was not only a signatory to the original Anandpur Sahib resolution of 1972 (that sought greater autonomy for Punjab and other states) but also burnt copies of the Constitution of India before Parliament in 1983. Badal was also a part of the delegation that met the then visiting United Nations Secretary General at Delhi in 1992, to demand the ‘right to self determination for Sikhs’, which is similar to the 2020 referendum,” he said in a statement issued Saturday.
To the CM’s tweet against him, Khaira retorted through a series of tweets: “I am not a votary of (Referendum) 2020 but I don’t hesitate to point out a consistent policy of discrimination against Sikhs by central governments! Be it the attack on Darbar Sahib, genocide of Sikhs leading to 2020.”
“If I highlight the grievances of Punjabis and Sikhs, I’m anti-national and if you address a gathering in Dixsy (sic) Gurudwara in Toronto on invitation by hardliners with a Khalistan banner, you’re a nationalist. Captain Amarinder Singh ji, wow what double standards!” he added.
Khaira was referring to Amarinder’s 2005 trip to Toronto, where a visit to Dixie Gurdwara raised a storm after he made an address in front of a banner that read “Khalistan zindabad”.
The MLA said he would hold a press conference Sunday afternoon “at Jalandhar to expose the anti-national deeds of @capt_amarinder and senior Badal akin to the 2020 referendum”.