Debating India

PUNJAB

1984 To 2004

Chander Suta DOGRA

Monday 14 June 2004, by DOGRA*Chander Suta

Ex-militants welcome Manmohan as PM and are willing to forgive Sonia, if not the Congress, entirely

Like everything else about the story of Manmohan Singh’s rise to the nation’s top post, the response in his native Punjab too is progressing true to the Congress script.

It’s not just bitter foes in state politics who find themselves embarrassingly united over his appointment-the strangest twist is the euphoric reaction his coronation as prime minister has drawn from former Khalistanis. It’s as if in that one shining moment when a turbaned Manmohan Singh took the oath, the traditional grouse the Sikhs nursed against the Congress evaporated.

For many a former Khalistani, Manmohan Singh is the best thing that could have happened to the Sikh community in decades. He has struck a chord among even the radical Sikhs who are still close to the Khalistan ideology, causing these once hardcore militant leaders to turn mushy at his appointment. Says Dr Jagjit Singh Chohan, who had set up a Khalistan government-in-exile in London during the ’80s: "It is a huge development for Sikhs and I am extremely happy. I expect great things from him. Though his appointment cannot wash away the bitter past, it has made a significant difference in the way Sikhs will be looked upon not only in India but also the world."

Though former Khalistanis-the militants and the ideologues-abound in Punjab, their movement took its last gasps a few years ago. And within this close circle of former militants and the families of comrades killed in police encounters, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been anathema all these years. Indira Gandhi’s Operation Bluestar, when the army stormed into the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, still brings bitter memories. And Rajiv Gandhi was there in Delhi when 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in the aftermath of his mother’s assassination. Till today, Indira Gandhi’s assassins are revered by the Khalistan support groups and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the architect of Sikh extremism killed during Bluestar, is still a talismanic figure for them. Wasan Singh Zaffarwal, the once dreaded chief of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), was a product of this very milieu. But ask him today, and he tells Outlook: "Sonia Gandhi has earned the right to be congratulated by us for making Manmohan Singh the prime minister. He is mature and can be relied upon to do some good for Punjab. His appointment will indeed assuage the hurt feelings of Sikhs to a large extent."

It’s about a month since Daljit Singh Bitto of the defunct Sikh Students Federation (currently in the Nabha jail as an accused in various murder charges and tada cases) formed the Shiromani Khalsa Dal. It basically comprises of drifters from the Khalistan movement, freed terrorists and some sympathisers. The Dal hopes to create some political space for itself among the Sikh community in the election to the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), a Sikh parliament of sorts. And as it joins the chorus of approval over Manmohan Singh, the Dal has gone to the magnanimous extent of distancing the Congress from the past atrocities on Sikhs. Bitto’s close associate Surinder Pal Singh told Outlook, "Atrocities on Sikhs, we realise, is not purely the doing of the Congress, but were the result of the overall set-up in the central government. In retrospect, we feel that if a BJP government were in power, the very same things would have happened." Surinder also feels that with Manmohan Singh as PM, the image of Sikhs as terrorists will be replaced. "When people see a brilliant and competent Sikh like Dr Manmohan Singh heading the government, our minority community will be taken more seriously," he says.

Kanwar Singh Dhami, another leading Khalistan ideologue of the Akal Federation, "differentiates" between those Congressmen who perpetrated genocide on Sikhs in the ’80s and Sonia Gandhi who has made a Sikh the country’s PM."As Sikhs, we are delighted at his elevation, even though we know that he can do very little to further our cause.On the contrary, the validity of the argument for a separate Sikh state will get diluted with a Sikh as the PM. But since we know that the movement is now dead, we have no hesitancy in praising the Congress or Sonia Gandhi," says Dhami.

Justice (retd) Ajit Singh Bains, who heads the Punjab Human Rights Organisation, which has for years been taking up cases of atrocities against Sikhs, voices much the same sentiment. "Sonia Gandhi’s sacrifice of the top post in favour of a Sikh is a good gesture. It will to a large extent bridge the alienation of Sikhs although the real test of whether Dr Manmohan Singh ensures justice for the Sikhs lies ahead," he says.

In a sense, the wheel has come full circle. Bhindranwale was once actively supported by the Congress which used him in its battle against the Akalis. Twenty years on, former Khalistanis are again looking towards the Congress to help them take on Parkash Singh Badal’s Akali Dal. It is the Akalis, not the Congress who are the enemy now. Points out Zaffarwal: "With time things change. The Congress too has changed its policies. It is difficult to forget the past but with Sonia Gandhi at the helm, we are willing to look ahead." Kanwarpal Singh Bitto, general-secretary of the Dal Khalsa, is more categorical. "These panthic groups are favourable towards the Congress as they want it to help them in the coming SGPC elections due in July."

Manmohan Singh has certainly succeeded in helping many former Khalistanis purge their past hatreds. They are now willing to be called radical Sikhs more than Khalistanis. With a Sikh as the PM, their assimilation into the democratic mainstream seems complete.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 14, 2004.

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