Spare the tinderbox!
Resurfacing of militancy in Punjab calls for a retrospective glance on history which indicates that solution lies in an inclusive approach, and not in socio-political ‘othering’
Popular belief is rife about countries like Israel and Russia effectively handling insurgency movements, as opposed to the supposedly ‘weak’ ways of a pacifist India (at least historically). Reality is, India was amongst the few countries that had resolved powerful insurgency movements with its optimum combination of militaristic wherewithal, inclusivist outreach and thawing accords e.g., Punjab Accord (1985), Mizo Accord (1986) etc. Importantly, violent insurgencies in the Northern Russian Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia etc.) or in the Israeli-Palestinian swathes which have only relied on the militaristic lever have persisted violently and relentlessly, and remain essentially unresolved.
Muscular politics and galvanising rouse like ‘breaking the backbone, once and for all’ may legitimise the majoritarian and aggressive appeal of the likes of Putin or Netanyahu amongst the polarised electorate, but the disaffected populace (often the minorities) in the insurgency-struck areas remain dangerously and increasingly disconnected with the sovereign. Whereas, even the Northern Ireland peace process, which had led to the ceasefire with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, was structured on an accommodative spirit of a ‘benign’ state that shunned officialised ‘othering’ and targeting, as is still the preferred mode in Israel or Russia.
The forgotten lesson in insurgency-management is that a militaristic solution by itself is never enough, as a larger framework of political-social-administrative accommodation to win the larger mood out of its sense of despondency and perceived ‘othering’ is irreplaceable and invaluable. Many of those who had once opposed the ‘Idea of India’ were forced to take the political route to address their regional or religious grievances, and they went on to adorn the highest offices of these States. That is the restorative, reassuring and embracing power of a democracy, however pusillanimous or ‘weak’ it may seem, initially.
Factually, all insurgencies have a genealogical and unaddressed socio-economic tension besetting the same which has subliminal resonation amongst the masses. Sovereign’s initial insensitivity towards those underlying grievances then gets hijacked by unhinged politicians or even by ‘independent’ players who dial up that sense of alienation and discrimination towards extremist moorings. In this regressive journey of dissonance and unrest, polarisation becomes a boon for parties that practice the colonial curse of divide-and-rule, or for ‘independent’ local players who do their bidding for their unseen masters in ‘Delhi’. Very often the deliberately created disrupters in extremist garbs outgrow their sense of initial purpose and metastasize into Frankensteinian forms — it happened so with the petty regional politics played by ‘Delhi’ with an eye on controlling Punjab in the 70’s, that quickly went out of control and morphed into full-fledged insurgency.
People forget, Punjab insurgency was ultimately overcome by Punjabis themselves (as was the case with Mizos), as the overwhelming masses did not agree with the violent ways of terror groups, and the state had ultimately offered them the dignity of expressing themselves within the expansive contours of the Indian Constitution. Post-Emergency period of the 80’s & 90’s was also a liberal era in terms of public discourse and media landscape, with many publications questioning the dispensations (thus allowing space for contrarian opinions of disgruntled civilians) — also, the absence of social media meant the limited scope for troll armies to heap vitriol, bigotry, and reckless insinuations of ‘othering’, that solidifies alienation. That a State like Punjab which had given the maximum blood for the nation — be it before/at independence, or in the ‘Uniform’ in 1965, 1971, or at all times in protecting the territorial integrity of India — was never forgotten. No one could question the sacrifice of Punjabis in general, or the Sikhs in specific, for their unmatched contribution and valour towards the Tricolour – the common Punjabi who had nothing to do with terror groups could never be ‘othered’, then.
Cut to 2023, Punjab is in trouble, again, and familiar dark clouds loom. Multiple conspiracy theories abound of vested interests, China-Pakistan angle, ‘created’ disrupters and even ham-handed management – truth is, no one knows for sure. But the brew of ‘othering’ has been simmering for some time, as just a couple of years back during the farmer’s agitation, instead of it getting treated as an agrarian concern, it was instinctively given to the most despicable, vile, and thoughtless barbs of ‘anti-nationals’, ‘Khalistanis’. It is true that many elements and incidents that occurred during the 16 months of agitation were indeed improper, but the overall civic restraint (besides the tractor rally incident) maintained by over a lakh farmers who were subjected to daily barbs, must also be recognised. Similar slamming of ‘Go to Pakistan’ automatically awaited another minority community that protested proposed laws that they perceived to be discriminatory and insulting. Wounds of ‘othering’ were not just reserved for those who participated in those societal protests but were afforded on each member of the said community if they dare opine a contrarian view to that of the dispensation. Imposed silence of the graveyard is sadly equated to normalcy restored.
Nonetheless, for Punjab, absolute sensitivity must be maintained to avoid finger-happy insults and insinuations on the social media or from those conveniently ascribed ‘fringe elements’ who paint an entire community with a singular brush, with utter impunity. Polarisation of society is toxically tempting for many politicians of all hues and persuasions, but history of the 70’s and 80’s is instructive of the consequences of pandering to political short termism. Politics can never be allowed to get the better of civilisational and constitutional harmony, as has got normalised in the last couple of decades. Similarly, inevitable reactions to empty promises and muscular rhetoric in Ladakh (which too is given to minorities) is coming home to roost. Instead of celebrating the idyll of ‘Unity in Diversity’, a reverse project of templatising is leading to much discomfiture that is wholly avoidable. Telling silences, dogwhistling and nudging of ‘fringe elements’ may have created a winning narrative, but it is now railing and becoming increasingly counterproductive – inclusivist, accommodative and constitutional ‘Idea of India’ must triumph electoral considerations. Punjab is a tinderbox that needs no matchsticks.
The writer is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are personal