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Sikhs no threat to Hindutva but politics has brought back the bogey of Khalistan

The breach of PM’s security has fuelled new political theme for upcoming elections — Khalistani plot to target a strong PM.

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The breach of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security on 5 January is unforgivable  and  unpardonable. Incompetence of the Punjab Police and the Special Protection Group were on full display. Both agencies lacked realtime situation awareness for preemptive action to stop/divert the PM’s cavalcade, well before being stuck in a bottleneck in proximity of the protestors blocking the highway. If that was not enough, the inaction for 15-20 minutes defies imagination. 

The first response should have been to get the PM out of a vulnerable situation. The SPG seemed to have been psychologically paralysed and did not act as per its standard contingency plan. Even the close proximity security detail of the SPG did not cocoon the PM from the front and rear. The Punjab Police was busy negotiating with the protestors rather than clearing them and failed to sanitise the area. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers on way to the Ferozpur rally were milling around 15-20 metres from the PM’s cavalcade

It was a bizarre and comical spectacle and one can only thank providence that no real threat manifested. Given the political blame game in a federal system and our cultural penchant for cover up, it is just as well that a Supreme Court monitored investigation has been ordered. This investigation shall hopefully comprehensively attribute and affix responsibility to the relevant parties, without fear or favour. 

Even more worrisome is a concerted political and TV media campaign launched to name, shame, blame and demonise the entire Sikh community, holding it responsible for allegedly targeting the PM.

Also read: Modi’s Punjab security breach shows SPG lacks real-time situational awareness

The gold standard for leaders

In times of crisis, strong leaders display calm and resolve. Historically, they make light of personal threats and ‘attempts on their lives’. The Prime Minister is known for these sterling qualities. He had 15-20 minutes at the flyover to decide his immediate course of action. He could have aborted the visit, or taken a diversion to avoid the blockade, or he could have walked up to the protesters and have a word with them. They would have certainly obliged. If not, as a last resort, the blockade could have been cleared by force. The PM decided to abort the visit, which gave him one more hour on his drive back to Bhatinda airport to decide his political response to the crisis.

On reaching Bhatinda, he allegedly passed a sarcastic remark to Punjab officials. News agency ANI tweeted at 15:40pm, quoting officials, that the PM said, “Apne CM ko thanks kehna, ki mein Bhatinda airport tak zinda laut paaya.” As opposed to “calm and resolve”, this was an angry and reckless political response. More so, when apart from all round incompetence, no physical threat as such had manifested. 

Also read: Sikh separatism fighting existential battle but mishandling farmer protest can add fuel

A campaign to target Sikh community

Until late in the evening, on the day PM was stranded, the main political focus was on incompetence and failure of the Punjab government and the Punjab Police to ensure security and safe passage for the prime minister. The PM’s alleged remarks were probably a cue for the BJP leaders and IT cell to change track. At 10:44pm, @BJP4India, the official handle of the party, tweeted: “Understand the chronology of the attack on PM Narendar Modi …(समझिए प्रधानमंत्री श्री नरेन्द्र मोदी पर हमले की क्रोनोलॉजी)” along with  a two-minute audio-visual. The clip began with a written script asking questions: “Whose plan it was? Pakistanis? Khalistanis? Assisted by Congress?” The video showed protestors talking of preventing the PM’s rally and stopping vehicles of BJP supporters and later the PM stranded on the flyover. The audio visual clip concludes – “Fail kar di Pakistani, Khalistani samarthakon aur Congress ki sazish. (the conspiracy hatched by Pakistan, Khalistan supporters and Congress was made to fail).” 

The tweet opened the floodgates for the neo-nationalist members/ supporters of the BJP to launch a vicious noholdsbarred campaign labelling the entire Sikh community as Khalistani terrorists and threatening a repeat of the 1984 riots. BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh’s Bithoor, Abhijeet Singh Sanga, tweeted: “Don’t make the mistake of considering him Indira Gandhi. Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi is his name. You won’t even get a paper to write on or history to read.” Another prominent Rightwing handle @sushilkedia tweeted: 1984 would be dwarfed in all memories, be aware clearly…” 

A section of media took the lead 6 January onwards, dwelling on a Khalistani conspiracy to target the PM. Khalistani labels for the protesting farmers were resurrected. “Hate and reward” videos of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the radical founder/leader of the banned Sikhs for Justice, were repeatedly played out and linked to the farmer agitation and the incident of 5 January.

Also read: PM Modi’s security failed in Punjab. Waste no time on conspiracies, it’s colossal incompetence

The motive of the campaign

External and internal national security of India has been a recurring electoral campaign theme of the BJP. It is intrinsically linked to the strongman image of PM Modi. Unsettled borders with China and Pakistan and the latter’s proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir were exploited with visible success up to May 2020. Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh and our failure to extract retribution, little or no effect of surgical Special Forces/Air Strikes  on Pakistan and the possibility of a collusive response in future, have limited the exploitation of external threats as national political issues

Absence of any Islamic terrorism in the hinterland left only the omnipresent threat of terrorism in J&K, which is also well under control. Targeting of Muslims and Christian minorities for conversion, beef and love jihad comes from a perceived threat to Hindutva and is not considered as a security threat per se. In any case, the BJP does not rely upon these vote banks. 

A new enemy had to be found or invented. Sikhs pose no threat to Hindutva. After the break up with the Akali Dal, the BJP is politically isolated in Punjab. The farmers’ agitation was perceived as a threat to the absolute political authority of Modi and hence antinational. The Juts of Punjab in alliance with the Jats of Haryana, Western UP and Rajasthan were also perceived as a potential political threat. This led to the creation of the bogey of Khalistani Farmers, which reached its peak after the unfortunate events of 26 January 2021, triggered by a handful of radicals. The social media and sections of TV/Print media continued with a relentless campaign until surprised by the PM’s decision to repeal the controversial farm laws in November. 

The breach of the PM’s security created an opportunity that could not be missed. The new political theme — Khalistani plot to target a strong PM — has been created for the upcoming elections. 

Also read: Human chains, doorstep campaigns, yajnas: How BJP is targeting Congress over PM ‘security lapse’

Ominous portents

The immediate reaction of the Sikhs in Punjab is one of amusement. The breach of PM Modi’s security is unequivocally condemned, but any mention of a conspiracy to target the PM is dismissed as a political gimmick. At this juncture, there are no takers for fundamentalism, let alone separatism in Punjab. Since 1995, the Khalistan movement has been fighting an existential battle. All efforts of the ISI and Khalistani groups based in Pakistan, USA, Canada, Germany and UK to revive the movement have failed. 

However, it is pertinent to quote from an article I wrote in these columns about a year ago: “Yet all ingredients of radicalisation are omnipresent — a border state, a religious community that revels in past glory and sacrifice, diminishing land holdings, shrinking incomes, loss of relative affluence, lack of industrialisation and unemployed youth lacking quality education with high rate of alcohol and drug dependency. Every family has one member abroad and thus becomes vulnerable to radicalisation from Khalistan supporters there.” One can add — a state with a debt of Rs 2.82 lakh crore with a revenue of only Rs70,000 crore per annum. 

It is pertinent to mention that the underlying message of Veer Bal Divas declared by PM Modi, to commemorate the martyrdom of the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh on 26 December,1705, is respect and tolerance for all religions. Yet, for short term political gains, the BJP has been desperately trying to create the bogey of Khalistan for last one year, and by implication alienating the Sikh community. The conspiracy theories about the 5 January breach of security of the PM even before the Supreme Court monitored inquiry has begun have given a fresh impetus to these efforts. This unfortunate trend in domestic politics may end up creating a tailor-made situation for the ISI, Khalistani radicals abroad and their runt in Punjab, to exploit. It is time for political introspection and sagacity to ward off a national calamity.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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