This will puzzle me to infinity: how did Punjab overcome terrorism? If I remember correctly, the common refrain in Punjab at the height of militancy was: you can only contain terror but cannot stamp it out.
Did the nihilist creed – bereft of ideology and any achievable agenda – burn itself out? Or did it drown itself in liquor, loot and squalor, before it delegitimised itself in the eyes of the masses? Or did subterfuge succeed where legitimate use of force by the State had failed: ‘death squads’ of young men in khaki infiltrated the terror cells, preventing them from ‘fragmenting and proliferating’? Or did the secessionist movement run aground because it had no popular support? Or did it, in the first place, have no chance against the might of the State? All of these, possibly?
These questions need to be answered because Kashmir is today facing a similar dystopian reality: a ‘paradise’ at war with itself. Of course, Kashmir is not Punjab. Experts tell us the “terrain is very different in both states, the dynamics of the insurgency is very different, its composition and, most important, the response of the State.” True. Even at the height of militancy in Punjab the entire population was not feeling terrorised as is the case in the Valley today. A sense of extreme disquiet and utter helplessness, yes, but not terrorised!
The political and social impulses in the two states might have been different but there were two lethal common denominators: the desire among the marginalised youth to self-destruct and religious absolutism, which essentially means “a loyalty to an absolute that excludes accommodation of other realities.”
Sure, the fault lines were exposed in Punjab, too – the Hindu-Sikh cleavages – both communities saw terror from their respective standpoint, and in private at least each pointed out the inconsistencies in the other’s stand. But the social fabric was such that pretensions were kept in public. More important, the Hindus did not flee Punjab, there were hardly any communal skirmishes, and both communities, by mutual consent, decided to stay in a state of self-denial.
Or let me be charitable and say that the two communities exhibited an uncanny maturity. In such situations, the onus is often on the majority community – in Punjab it was on the Sikhs just as in Kashmir it was on the Muslims. Maybe only a Kashmiri Muslim can answer the question: why did they allow the Pandits to be hustled out of their homeland? Or were they just helpless: some of the most enigmatic questions, seemingly inexplicable, often have a simple and obvious explanation. I write this in complete naïveté: correct me if I am wrong.
Nor did the insurgency in Punjab turn into some kind of a groundswell of civil protest – the kind of dissonance we are witnessing in the Valley. It is not as if the Centre did not make mistakes in Punjab – it committed blunders. The manner in which Bhindranwale was indulged was nothing short of harakiri in a sensitive border state; equally foolish was the reckless policy of drift that ensued and which later transformed into one of sledgehammer; and, most important, the attack on Golden Temple which perhaps would never have happened had the forces acted the day DIG AS Atwal was shot dead on the doorstep of the Harmandir Sahib. The police contingent that stood a few yards away had reportedly fled from the spot – that day the State handed over the movement to the terrorist on a platter.
Kashmir, too, has witnessed similar acts of omission and commission. A part of the problem is that we fail to recognise them as blunders until it is too late. There is no point looking back from cross-roads in history and wandering in hindsight where we went wrong. But then State action against terrorism is always a ‘slippery slope’, more so when the wanton acts of slaughter are being abetted from across the border. Even more so when there are ethnic affinities that transcend the border, as is the case in the Valley but was never so in Punjab.
Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs – at least the Khatris – had nuptial ties, that played an important role in defusing social tension. But the relations between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits went even beyond matrimony: there were many instances of common ancestry? And what happened to the highly overrated tradition of Sufism and Kashmiriyat: why did it not act as a social glue? Or did the social fabric come apart at the first burst of ethnic cleansing?
There are glaring similarities, too. In both states the political class had abdicated its responsibility; in Punjab there was hardly a terrorist who did not have a political patron. Likewise, the chattering classes maintained a stupefying silence, even in the face of the indiscriminate slaughter. One of the most absurd remarks one would hear after the slaying of bus passengers was: “Oh! Sikhs too died in the massacre,” as if that put the killings on an even keel.
But let me put the killings in perspective here: 60% of the victims of terror in Punjab were indeed Sikhs. Yet the Sikh intelligentsia came out of the woodwork and expressed its outrage only after the 1984 riots.
The rag-tag violent ‘secessionist’ movement in Punjab had anchored itself in the general cynicism, the disenchantment with the political class, the social inequities and certain genuine and perceived grievances. This despite the fact that Sikhs had been able to carve out a Punjabi ‘sooba’ and the affluent Sikh peasantry had always presided over the state’s destiny. Only the colour of the turban was different – it all depended on whether the Akali Dal or the Congress was at the helm. But the affluent landed gentry had not bothered to bring the marginalised sections of the peasantry into the mainstream. Later these very marginalised sections – especially in the Majha region – became fodder for the militancy.
Interestingly, the futility of the mindless violence in Punjab can be gauged from the fact that none of these genuine or perceived differences were ever addressed. It was drilled into the community that the state had been cheated out of a state capital by the Congress which had made the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab contingent on the transfer of some of the rich cotton growing areas of Fazilka-Abohar to Haryana; another raw nerve was the receding water table in the State: the community was made acutely aware of the fact that the granary of India was being denied its rightful share of water, even though it happened to be a riparian state; there were bizarre claims, too: water pilferage.
That the Bhakra Nangal dam was under Centre’s control and that the Congress had taken the ‘electricity out of the water’ and given it to Delhi and Haryana and so on and so forth. None of these demands were addressed then and there is little likelihood of these being addressed at any time in the future. Even the terrorists meandered and forgot all about their political agenda with new demands surfacing as the contours of the movement altered.
There is another common strand: both states have more than their share of idle educated youth. In Punjab, for instance, the prosperity had made the farmer lethargic and he was not inclined to work on the farm anymore; he would rather hire cheap migrant labour. Idle for most time of the year and educated but not competent to take up white collared jobs, the youth became easy prey for the terror-minded.
In Kashmir, too, if we wish to reclaim the paradise the youth must be retrieved; this can be done only by creating economic linkages between the Valley and the rest of the country. If Punjab was able to overcome terror despite the religious absolutism, there is no reason why the Valley should continue to flounder. But there is one proviso, an important one: the police is best equipped to tackle the civilian population, so strengthen its hands. The police should not be made to relinquish its responsibility of maintaining law and order and hand it over to the Army.
This piece has been written by a person who is a rank outsider in both states, but believes that he has an insider’s perspective of what happened in Punjab, at least. It is written in good faith but do make an allowance for naïveté.
The author is a former editor of The Free Press Journal.