The victory of Simranjit Singh Mann, a known hardline Sikh leader and chief of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar (SAD-Amritsar), from Punjab’s Sangrur parliamentary constituency, may have far-reaching implications. Mr. Mann, who has time and again raised the bogey of ‘Khalistan’, the sovereign state for Sikhs, could by his unexpected win embolden radical elements and lead to a resurgence of the “Akali politics” in Punjab.
Observers of the State’s politics and law and order fear this dangerous trend will be a tough challenge for the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which would have to take concrete steps to deal firmly with the emerging situation.
Punjab went through a traumatic phase of militancy from the mid-1980s to early-1990s over the demand for Khalistan. The Khalistan movement has lost popular support but sporadic incidents that have taken place recently in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have re-ignited the debate over the movement’s revival.
In May this year, Mr. Mann raised the Khalistan issue at a meeting convened by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the body responsible for the management of gurdwaras, urging the SGPC to support the pro-Khalistan resolution that he claimed was unanimously passed by it in 1946. The meeting, convened in Amritsar, had been called to deliberate the release of Sikh prisoners.
“Simranjit Singh Mann’s victory shows the resurgence of Akali politics, with the dominance of the radical faction. Akali politics mainly involves the Panthic (Sikhs), peasantry, and provincial (anti-centrism approach) components. The Sangrur bypoll result shows that SAD-Amritsar led by Simranjit Mann got support from all three constituents,” Pramod Kumar, Director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh, said.
Dr. Kumar said the apparent radicalism in the backdrop of Sangrur byelection result could have been countered had the State government’s performance in governance and development been promising. “The ruling AAP has failed to take off on the development and governance front. It has a tough challenge on its hand. To counter and weaken radicalism, the incumbent government needs to make development and governance its main agenda. Secondly, the discourse of Punjabi identity has to be reinforced and strengthened. The Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) moderate politics has weakened and radical politics has become dominant, which is a dangerous signal,” he said.
Shashi Kant, former Director General of Police (DGP), Punjab, Mr. Mann’s win sends out the message that hardliners are becoming strong and the narrative surrounding Khalistan could get emboldened, which is dangerous. Pointing out that in the recent past, it has been seen that drones, drugs, money and explosives are being pushed into Punjab from Pakistan, Mr. Kant said, “The use of a rocket-propelled grenade to attack the police building at Mohali recently can’t be ignored. Also, the arrests at Karnal in Haryana with explosives, etc. is a serious matter. All of these and other such incidents involving terrorist backing from foreign soil show a dangerous trend. For the AAP, it’s going to be a massive challenge. Emboldened radicals are a cause of worry.”
Among recent incidents, on May 9, the headquarters of the Punjab Police’s Intelligence Wing, situated in Mohali in Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar district, was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade, with the police indicating the involvement of Babbar Khalsa International, a terror organisation striving for a separate Sikh state, in a nexus with gangsters and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). On May 5, four persons were arrested, with the recovery of three improvised explosive devices (IED) and one pistol from Karnal by the Haryana Police based on inputs from the Punjab Police, which claimed to have busted a Pakistan-based terror module run by gangster Harvinder Singh alias Rinda. These explosives were supplied to the accused by Rinda through drones from across the border from Pakistan, and they were to deliver the explosives to Adilabad in Telangana.
Mr. Mann, a third-time Member of Parliament, founded his party in 1994. He quit from the Indian Police Service in June 1984 as a mark of protest against Operation Bluestar, during which the Army had stormed the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex in Amritsar — Sikhism’s holiest shrine — to flush out extremists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In the same year, Mr. Mann was arrested on various charges, including involvement in a conspiracy to murder then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and jailed for five years.