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regular-article-logo Monday, 20 May 2024

Aam Aadmi Party treads with caution in Punjab

Beneficiary of any fear of return of militancy will be BJP, with Hindu voters being scared into voting for party in Lok Sabha polls, says AAP MLA

Pheroze L. Vincent New Delhi Published 01.03.23, 04:09 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File picture

The Punjab government is yet to act against separatist leader Amritpal Singh who stormed a police station near Amritsar last week and compelled the government to release one of his associates.

A senior MLA of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party explained the government’s go-slow, saying it “doesn’t want to make a hero” out of the 30-something, Dubai-returned engineering dropout.

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Ministers, senior government officials and AAP office-bearers did not respond to calls, messages or emails from this newspaper.

Singh has seen a meteoric rise since assuming the reins of the Waris Punjab De (Heirs of Punjab) separatist group last September in Rode, the native village of the 1980s separatist and militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The group was formed by actor Deep Sidhu, who was jailed for storming the Red Fort in 2021 during the farmers’ movement. Farmer groups accused him of being a BJP agent after pictures, taken in 2019, emerged of Sidhu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah.

On February 23, a mob carrying firearms and led by Singh broke through barricades and stormed Ajnala police station where an FIR against him and 30 others had been filed for allegedly abducting a Sikh preacher who disagreed with them.

Several policemenincluding two superintendents of police were injured in the attack. But the force did not retaliate as the mob was carrying the Guru Granth Sahib.

The misuse of the holy book was condemned by all parties. However, Amritpal’s associate Lovepreet Singh was released from jail the next day and the police are yet to reveal whether they have even filed an FIR.

“Incidents like these are normal in Punjab. The propaganda around this is to provoke a flare-up, which we won’t allow,” the MLA told The Telegraph.

“The beneficiary of any fear of the return of militancy will be the BJP, with Hindu voters being scared into voting for the party in the Lok Sabha polls. Such games can’t be played in Punjab any more, and this government won’t allow Amritpal Singh to gain any sympathy over his unholy act.”

He added: “As a result of our measured response, he is being condemned by allSikhs. If the police act immediately, there is a tradition in Punjab to stand with anyone who is perceived as being oppressed.”

Jagrup Singh Sekhon, co-author of Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality, said: “This (separatist) tendency was subdued during the farmers’ agitation because the Left played a strong role in it, and there was pressure from common farmers not to deviate from the core issue of the farm laws. But there was this narrative of Sikhs versus Comrades (communists) then too.”

Sekhon said the AAPhad raised the youths’ aspirations; and with the Congress and the Akalis now marginalised, the BJP was focused on attracting prominent leaders from other parties in the state to become a force to reckon with.

“Amritpal Singh has publicly threatened Modi and Shah but there is no FIR against him at a time when even much milder utterances against them are strongly prosecuted,” Sekhon, a professor of political science at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University, said.

“There appears an attempt to make him larger than life. However, by misusing the Guru Granth Sahib for such a limited objective, he may have used up his arsenal prematurely.”

Sekhon recommended that the Punjab government immediately cease its political bickering with the governor and start talks with the Centre to ensure peace in the state.

“As a party, the AAP needs to take the message of disapproval of Singh’s actions to the grassroots so that this person is isolated,” he said.

“But the AAP has no roots or organisational structure in Punjab and chief minister Bhagwant Mann is saddled with the responsibilities of running both government and party (as its state convener)…. He needs to take other parties into confidence on this issue.”

The storming of the police station took place while the state government was hosting an investors’ summit in Mohali.

A source involved in organising the event told this newspaper: “We had to tell the investors that this was an isolated incident and was being blown out of proportion. The government sees these incidents and some of the news coverage of them as attempts to derail its development agenda.”

This wasn’t the first such incident on Mann’s watch. On February 8, a group demanding the release of Sikh terror convicts clashed with the police in Mohali. A rocket-propelled grenade had been fired at a police installation in the same city in May last year.

Mann evaded reporters' questions about his strategy during a visit to Bhavnagar in Gujarat on February 26.

PTI quoted him as saying: “Do you think 1,000 people (who have been seen shouting pro-Khalistan slogans) represent the entire Punjab? You come to Punjab and see for yourself who are shouting such slogans….

“Though Rajasthan shares a much larger border with Pakistan, why do drones (from Pakistan) land in Punjab and not in Rajasthan? Because their (Khalistanis’) masters are sitting there (in Pakistan) and they want to disturb Punjab. But we will not let them succeed.”

Mann didn’t respond to an email from this newspaper or to a request for an interview sent through his aides.

His strategy isn’t cutting ice with the Opposition and the Congress has said it would hit the streets if the government doesn’t act soon.

Those like Barnala-based publisher and rationalist Amit Mitter who have been on the separatists’ hit-list for years are still supportive of the government despite the anxiety over its inaction. Amritpal Singh has spoken out against Christianity, alleged sacrileges against Sikhism and eulogised vigilante justice as well as Bhindranwale.

“What the police did was right by not allowing them (the raiders) to exploit any harm that may have come to the Guru Granth Sahib and incite more violence,” Mitter said.

“If this mobilisation had not been stopped in time, it could have spiralled out of control. But people are beginning to wonder when the police will act, which they will eventually have to.”

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