Punjab has no nostalgia or death-wish to return to its really bad days. Trudeau needs to impress this upon his Sikh colleagues and voters.
Punjab’s history is littered with the shattered hopes of powerful and smart people, even nations, who misread its mind and politics. From Pakistan’s ISI, to radical Sikh parties (some of which fought elections) to our own political neophyte AAP and now Canadian liberal politicians, all have made the same three miscalculations:
- That Punjab is predominantly a Sikh state.
- That most, or at least a critical mass of Sikhs are religiously radical and have separatist sympathies, even if these vary in strength at various points of time.
- That it is possible to create such a major polarisation between Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab that you can run a purely “Sikh” politics and achieve your objectives there.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the latest to pay for this folly. Back in Canada, he obviously spent all his time learning about India and the “Sikh problem” from his own partymen who draw their power from radical gurudwaras. They wouldn’t remind him that the worst terror attack in the history of civil aviation until 9/11 (Air India jumbo ‘Kanishka’, with 329 people dead) was carried out by Canadian Sikh radicals from his country’s soil. And also that his country’s law and “system” had treated the perpetrators relatively lightly and it leaves a bad feeling in India and Punjab, among Hindus and Sikhs. You can’t believe that he won’t know that the majority of those killed in the bombing were Sikh families.
He is a smart politician and he also knows how to win elections. In his small and polarised electorate the block votes of minorities tip the balance. Sikh immigrants are an important vote bank. But, for all his brilliance and charm, he also bought the lemon that most Sikhs are radical, that he could ignore Indian sensitivities. More importantly, that he and his Sikh cabinet colleagues could establish a relationship of their own with Punjab, ignoring and humiliating its duly elected chief minister. Never mind that Punjab is a state in a sovereign nation called India.
I hesitate and hate to say this about a powerful G-7 nation’s young leader so admired around the world. He has to be nuts to land himself in this jam. He has now been made to seek a meeting with Amarinder for himself first and then his ministers, make the statements on India’s unity that he could have made while setting out and avoided the humiliation. He may now also end up losing a bunch of the same coveted Sikh vote back to a rising young Sikh leader Jagmeet Singh who has claims to be more liberal, and more radical (as an immigrant Sikh) than Trudeau. So it’s poor politics and a lousy optics. In India, the only word of sympathy he has received is from Punjab leaders of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party and that too is muted.
The same mistake has been made in the past by many British Labour politicians, on Kashmir as well as Punjab, former foreign secretary Robin Cook being a good example. Between him and that usual suspect, the Duke of Edinburgh, they ruined the Queen’s 1997 visit to India. Other Labour politicians patronised Khalistani groups in Britain at various points of time, unless these vanished.
The last of the great separatists in Britain was Jagjit Singh Chohan, who styled himself as the President of the “Government of Republic of Khalistan” in exile. He spoke with me in a detailed interview on a freezing November 1993 afternoon at his “Council” (welfare) home in Kent and regretted the bloodshed, disowned the myth of Khalistan and said he wanted to return. Which he did, to die in his own motherland, a man chastened but not before tens of thousands of innocent lives were consumed by the madness he fuelled.
That India, in forgiveness, let him come back and live like a free man is a matter of pride for our country. There were many other such. Of the people you might be more familiar with is Harinder Singh Khalsa, elected to the Lok Sabha on an AAP ticket from Fatehgarh Sahib reserved constituency. He is a former IFS officer who quit and sought asylum in Oslo, where he was then posted, protesting against Operation Blue Star. Now a brilliant MP and you can’t imagine him doing anything awful, least of all to his nation.
Former IPS officer Simranjit Singh Mann, who took up the radical agenda, and once elected in 1989 refused to attend Parliament because he wasn’t allowed to take his kirpan inside, has been routinely losing his deposit since. But he lives a peaceful life and the state lets him be. By the way, he and Capt. Amarinder Singh are brothers-in-law.
Punjab has come a very, very long way from the really bad days. Just how bad, I will remind you of in some writings I will share over these couple of days. Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus have all moved on now. The pre-eminent Sikh Party, Shiromani Akali Dal, has shared power thrice in a two-decade-long alliance with India’s biggest Hindu party, BJP. Punjab has elected Congress twice after the end of terrorism.
There are a few nutcases here and there, a few acolytes of the Bhindranwale cult, they do occasionally wave a flag or kirpans. Which are purely ceremonial and blunt, literally and metaphorically. Nobody in India gets neurotic about these. Punjabis do not hate Canada, they actually love it so much they’d love to migrate there. And if the writings on the wall advertising easy visas spell it with a K, not C, it is just phonetic Punjabi spelling.
Punjab now is a state as normal as any other in India. The last thing anybody wants is a return to the bad old times. It’s a nightmare Punjabis want buried forever. If Trudeau returns wiser from this visit, he would impress just this upon his Sikh colleagues and voters.