Panjab's Khalistan destiny

Panjab: Journeys Through Faultlines | Author: Amandeep Sandhu | Publisher: Westland Books | Price: Rs 899

Wise men say never trust an Indian to write the story of India. An outsider, the man who doesn’t belong, bereft of tendentiousness, partisanship and pre-conceptions is the one to be trusted to chronicle histories of civilisations without infecting it with distortions of a jaundiced mind. Amandeep Sandhu could well have been that man. As he himself says, “Unlike people born in Panjab who have a direct connection with, and hence a memory of the land, I have no liminal or tangible marker of belonging to Panjab. While my family did hail from Panjab, I was neither born here, nor do I live here. I have no address, bank statement, Aadhaar card, passport or land ownership to prove my connection to Panjab.”

Mr Sandhu’s “outsider” status, as he realises innumerable times during his journeys through the state has turned out to be a boon. For Mr Sandhu’sPanjab. This is essential reading for all those who wish to understand the state as it stands in 2019. 

A near constant throughout the book is references to Punjab’s militancy days, the Khalistan movement and its protagonist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. It extensively details the crisis the Sikh faith is facing; the very fight among Sikhs to define who can be called a Sikh. Mr Sandhu is ruthless in highlighting the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee’s (SGPC) role in fomenting a crisis in Sikhism through its exclusionary politics. The SGPC has over the years tried to keep Sikhs who have cut or trimmed their hair out of the organisation that manages religious affairs. Mr Sandhu reasons that this narrow definition of a Sikh was hurting the religion and polarising Punjab’s society. Mr Sandhu even offers a tantalising theory with a Hindutva design.  He writes, “The RSS strategy in Panjab is not to get confrontational but facelessly permeate the Sikh ethos in such a way that one can’t make out if a phenomena is because of Hindutva influence or because of Sikhs not knowing their own code of religion well. Through history, the Sikhs have been known to do well against an enemy with a face. Now the opposition — Hindutva thought — has entered the Akali Dal leadership, the working of the SGPC and the very practice and day to day living of Sikhs, and the Sikhs are at a loss on how to deal with this new onslaught.” Mr Sandhu’s words may sound alarming but the recent killings of some RSS and fringe Hindutva group leaders indicate the existence of a threat perception against Sikhism. 

While caste and faith are an important part of Mr Sandhu’s work, his observations on the state’s agricultural sector that delves into issues pertaining to land, labour, water, caste and migration are illuminating. He reveals through human stories the deep links between caste, class, debt, suicides and social alienation. He scrutinises the politics of water in the state, writes about the issues faced by those farming along the border fence and highlights the perpetual conflicts between Jatt Sikhs and the lower castes in a state that has the highest proportion of Dalits in India. 

The reader cannot miss the fact that Mr Sandhu grew up listening to tales of forced disappearances, state brutalities and anti-Sikh riots and felt devastated by it. But that anguish takes a dangerous turn towards the end when he writes about the Sikh Referendum 2020 — an event being organised by US-based fringe group Sikhs for Justice. This referendum calling for Sikhs across the world including India to vote for a separate Sikh state in 2020 has been termed an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) conspiracy by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and called bogus by Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s ambassador to the US. Google took down an application created for the referendum earlier this year.  Mr Sandhu writes, “Despite the questions on the viability of such nation states, any ethnicity, community or religion should have the freedom to decide on the constitution of its nation state. Nations are imagined communities and there is no point in living in a nation in which one does not feel that he or she belongs or where they feel their dignity self-respect, sense of justice and resources for a better life are not met. Khalistan is an aspirational nation state and there is no harm in conducting the referendum.” At a time when the idea of India is under siege, this is a risky position to hold.

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