Punjab — beware the Ides of March

In tackling the threat posed by radicalised forces, as in Punjab, India should not yield to the temptation of resorting to strong-arm measures without understanding the true causes

Updated - April 12, 2023 04:11 pm IST

Published - April 12, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘All serious threats develop from misreading sentiments that remain unheeded by those in authority’

‘All serious threats develop from misreading sentiments that remain unheeded by those in authority’ | Photo Credit: AFP

Three decades after sectarian violence mauled Punjab, the radicalist threat appears to be raising its head again. Eddies of this are already visible in areas of the globe where a sizeable concentration of the Sikh diaspora exists. Sectarian violence is hardly unknown to India, but what is not clear is why Sikh extremism has, of late, gained a new lease of life. The emergence of a self-styled Sikh extremist preacher, Amritpal Singh, modelling himself on Bhindranwale of yore is, hence, to be seen at best as a cover for something that has deeper roots.

Inaction will be dangerous

Resemblance of the ‘impostor’ to Bhindranwale is, at present, limited to style, lacking in substance, but it seems to be galvanising the extremist fringe among the Sikh youth, including the Sikh diaspora in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. The ‘imposter’s’ attempts to revive the Bhindranwale mystique may be doomed to fail as the inner circle of the Bhindranwale coterie has declared that “there is no successor to Bhindranwale as yet”. Yet, it cannot be denied that links have been established by this ‘core group’ with pro-Khalistan groups such as the ‘Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), the Babbar Khalsa, and the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF)’. Hence, it would be a grave mistake to ignore what is happening.

In a country with a diverse population that has different religions, there is hardly any segment that has not, at one time or the other, displayed concern about feeling neglected, or even worse, discriminated against. What adds grist to the current situation, even though it is confined to a few districts in the Punjab, is memories of the ‘dark days’, from the late 1970s to the 1990s, which witnessed an orgy of violence, and of a Prime Minister of India having to pay the price for it with her life.

The real cause for concern is that the current security dispensation does not appear to have learnt the right lessons from past mistakes. The Bhindranwale phenomenon was not a sudden development, which, if properly handled, could have been checkmated well before 1984, and the subsequent violence leading to ‘Operation Blue Star’ and the damage caused to Akal Takht avoided. This was what inflamed Sikh opinion and the lesson was to ensure that this is not repeated any time in the future. Effecting the arrest of Amritpal Singh is but an initial step. More important is how to deal with him and his coterie.

Most important is to avoid treating all that is happening now as evidence of a foreign conspiracy — of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other like-minded forces — instead of facing up to the reality that this may be more than a mere emotional outburst of the Sikh extremist fringe, and that it could have deeper underpinnings.

All serious threats develop from misreading sentiments that remain unheeded by those in authority. Blaming the current violence on the drug mafia with links to Pakistan can at best be a proximate, but not the real cause. Hence, good intelligence is the key.

Prioritise intelligence analysis

One of the tragedies of intelligence today is that intelligence analysis has low priority. Modern gadgetry and the portrayal of intelligence agencies in the celluloid world as being peopled by swashbuckling heroes, employing futuristic weapons and carrying out impossible missions, are possibly a contributory cause for this. The real world of intelligence demands hours of painstaking hard work in difficult conditions to pick up nuggets of information, which then have to be carefully assessed and analysed by experts before being projected to policymakers.

Against this backdrop, it still bears mentioning that central and State intelligence agencies cannot have missed signs of growing insecurity among sections of Sikh youth and discontent prevailing among the Sikh peasantry essentially over the decline in their economic conditions, as also the threat posed to the Sikh religion from conversions to other religions, such as Christianity.

At the very least, Amritpal Singh’s escapade of leading a mob armed with guns and other weapons to attack a well-protected police station (Ajnala, a few kilometres from the border of Pakistan) in February this year, should have alerted the authorities to what was taking place just below the surface. Amritpal Singh’s anointment as the head of ‘Waris Punjab De’ last year again was a highly publicised event, which intelligence agencies and the authorities would have known and docketed for future consideration. In the normal course, all this would also have been shared with friendly intelligence agencies abroad, specially in countries where the Sikh diaspora is present in strength.

The events of January 2021, which witnessed violent protests over the now repealed farm laws also clearly mattered, for it was not merely a visible symbol of agrarian protest but also implicitly carried the seeds of self-determination that India believed it had put to rest by the late 1990s. What transpired in 2021 on the outskirts of the National Capital, thus needs to be revisited to determine whether there were also other factors leading to the protests and violence.

The sentiment for Khalistan has, no doubt, long existed among Sikh radicals residing abroad, but it is also important now to introspect as to whether there are incipient signs of a revival of the idea of Khalistan within the country. External forces such as the ISI can at best exploit a situation when such ideas are present. Merely repeating, ad nauseam, that Pakistan and the ISI are behind all the trouble could exacerbate a situation which possibly needs better handling, rather than resorting to strong-arm methods. The government and its agencies must, hence, avoid the temptation of conjuring up sinister designs and indirectly encourage ‘fake news’ of a worldwide conspiracy involving disparate elements of the Sikh community. There is much ground work to be done within the country.

Convincing the world is key

Where India, however, has conspicuously stumbled is that despite its vaunted claims of being in the forefront in fighting terrorism and radicalisation, both within the United Nations and outside, it has clearly failed by means of painstaking diplomatic efforts to convince much of the world of the true nature of the radicalist Khalistan threat, and its close links with terrorist groups. India constantly claims to bring to the notice of the world issues of global principles and not that of India alone. However, its diplomats and intelligence agencies conspicuously failed to carry conviction about the omnipresent threat posed by Sikh extremist groups abroad, notwithstanding intelligence liaison arrangements being in place with several countries to exchange crucial intelligence. Criticising foreign governments after the violent events took place, and resorting to ham-handed steps by way of retaliation will not help. India needs to effectively convince the rest of the world of the threat posed by radicalised forces such as the KLF and the SFJ.

In large parts of the world, liberal values are already embattled; India should not yield to the temptation of resorting to hard measures without understanding the true causes and join the ranks of nations that solely believe in strong-arm methods, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Mullahs in Iran. India needs to find the ways and means to defeat the ‘siren call’ of radical extremists of every hue, whether they be Khalistanis or other kinds of extremists. It needs to steer between the extremes of the right and left, and ensure a greater sense of unity within the country, according due respect for individual dignity and human progress, and demonstrating leadership in the comity of nations.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser, and a former Governor of West Bengal

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