Editorial: The threat of sub-nationalism
By any reckoning, the happenings of the past fortnight in Punjab are bizarre. Police have been unable to explain how they caved in to a self-styled Khalistan leader and his bandolier-wearing companions when they stormed a police station in Ajnala, on the outskirts of Amritsar, and forced the release of an associate. They say the mob led by Bhindranwale-wannabe Amritpal Singh used the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield when they broke through the barricades. Policemen were constrained from using force to repel the invasion lest the sanctity of the holy book be tarnished. Going further in their deep deference, they submitted in a court that they had all along been wrong, very wrong, in detaining the suspect, may he kindly be discharged.
Setting aside the fact that it is highly unusual for the police to own up any error, leave alone a grave one, it is alarming that Amritpal Singh has been openly styling himself as Bhindranwale 2.0 and issuing challenges to the Indian state while the State and Central governments are engaged in other things. Were it not such a serious matter, this could be mistaken for a college caper.
Thirty-year-old Amritpal Singh surfaced in rural Punjab six months ago after a decade-long stay in Dubai, and mysteriously inveigled himself into the leadership of a ‘social organisation’ named Waris Punjab De, launched by Deep Sidhu, an actor who was accused, before his death in a road accident, of flying the Khalistan flag from the Red Fort back in August 2021. The latter’s family say they have no idea how the organisation fell into the hands of this man.
Unchallenged by every sociopolitical institution in Punjab and the Centre—the Akal Takht, the Akali Dal, the security agencies, the State and Central governments — he has proceeded to assume the Bhindranwale persona: his attire mimics the slain militant, his anointment took place in the latter’s native village of Rode and he has conducted initiation ceremonies for followers in the holy city of Anandpur Sahib, mirroring the deeds of his idol in the 1980s.
It requires no great insight to say that someone is promoting Amritpal Singh, just as Giani Zail Singh and Indira Gandhi had a hand in the rise of Bhindranwale in the 1980s. The consequences of that case of playing with fire in a border State and the cost it extracted in terms of lives lost, including that of a PM, are well-known. Pundits say Khalistani stirrings increase whenever there is a weak administration in Punjab. The BJP-led government at the Centre would jump at this opportunity to run down the AAP government headed by Bhagwant Mann as a weak and inept government.
However, we must pause to consider this: Assertive neo-nationalism risks a counter assertion of sub-nationalisms, or in the context of Punjab, neo-Khalistanism. If religious symbols are used as cover for subversive or anti-national activities in border states, the neo-nationalist regime at New Delhi need not look farther than itself to know the source of inspiration. We have witnessed vigilantes using the cover of cow worship to intimidate Muslims; authorities looking the other way when Hindu nationalists call for a pogrom against Muslims.
If Bhagwant Mann looks like someone who can be toyed with, who is the puppeteer? While Amritpal Singh was going about rousing ghouls from the past, Governor Banwari Lal Purohit has been engaging the CM in a wrangle over appointments, refusing even to call the budget session of the Assembly. What is the purpose of appointing quarrelsome Governors, a recurring motif in States not ruled by the BJP, if not to weaken the State administration?
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