July 2024

Dark side of the verdict

Modi may have secured victory in the recent election but, warns, MJ Akbar he still faces a challenge in dealing with the separatists rearmed

It is symptomatic of the dominance of drama over shades of relevance that the most dangerous results of the 2024 General Election were shifted to also-ran status in print or ignored by screen-screamers after EVMs revealed their secrets on June 4.

Three independent candidates have been elected to the new Parliament as the latest heirs of familiar separatist aspirations, two from Punjab and one from Kashmir.

Amritpal Singh Sandhu is a self-styled reinvention of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, leader of the violent secessionist insurrection who was killed in Operation Blue Star precisely four decades ago this June; Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa is the son of Beant Singh, assassin of Indira Gandhi. Sheikh Abdul Rashid, now 56, is the oldest. He is a maverick former engineer of the Public Works Department of Jammu & Kashmir. All three have been elected to Parliament as independents, an ironic verbal resonance since they represent variations of faith-based separatism.

Every candidate is interesting. But the story, as always, lies in the voters. Victory for a non-party candidate is rare in our system, and can happen only through viral support from a spontaneous network that has sprung up for an election. Which dangerous and dormant spirits have these three victories awakened?

Amritpal Singh Sandhu, born in 1993, preaches a volatile mix of faith and radical secession in the name of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who inspired an armed rebellion in search of Khalistan that bled Punjab and led to a sequence of tragedy from Operation Blue Star, an assault on the holy Golden Temple in Amritsar between June 1 and 10, 1984, to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31 that year. The death and havoc in Punjab in that blood-red decade are tattooed into my consciousness and memory. I was among the last journalists to interview the Sant; the rooftop where we met on a pleasant spring day in 1984 was stacked with AK-47 guns.

Amritpal Singh Sandhu, Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa and Sheikh Abdul Rashid
HEIRS TO SEPARATISM: (l to r) Amritpal Singh Sandhu, Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa &Sheikh Abdul Rashid, who have all been elected to the new Parliament

Sandhu, resident of Bakala tehsil in Amritsar, left for Dubai as a teenager in 2012 to join a transport business. He returned to Punjab a decade later to spearhead Waris Punjab De, with a militant wing known as Anandpur Khalsa Fauj. His ‘purification’, or reborn baptism, drive was modelled on Bhindranwale’s activism, to which he added a campaign to wean the young off drugs. Families were grateful. Growing support bred rising militancy; there were targeted attacks in December 2022. Two months later, in February, his supporters stormed the Ajnala police station using the holy book as a shield. On March 18, 2023, Punjab police began sustained action against Waris Punjab De. Sandhu was arrested on April 23, 2023 in Moga under the National Security Act, and sent to a jail in Assam. From this distant lock-up Sandhu won from the Khadur Sahib constituency by a margin of 197,130 votes. His father thanked the Almighty and the sangat for the victory.

Faridkot is about a hundred kilometres north of Khadur Sahib. The victor from Faridkot is Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa, with a comfortable margin of 70,053 votes over AAP nominee Karamjit Anmol, an actor and friend of the Punjab chief minister. His father Beant Singh, a bodyguard of Indira Gandhi, was deeply grieved by Operation Blue Star. Intelligence agencies warned her of potential danger but Indira Gandhi never abandoned her trust in Beant Singh. On October 31, 1984 at 9.30 in the morning, he and his colleague Satwant Singh sprayed bullets into Indira Gandhi’s helpless body at her residence on Safdarjung Road.

Victory for a non-party candidate is rare in our system

Engineer Rashid, founder of the Jammu & Kashmir Awami Ittehad Party (AIP) in 2013, was admired for a simple lifestyle that is in total contrast to how most politicians live. He would be seen taking a bus. In 2019 he was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and imprisoned in Delhi’s famous Tihar Jail, from where he defeated Kashmir’s most famous dynast Omar Abdullah, getting 472,481 votes against 268,339. As the numbers indicate, the victory was overwhelming. The quote of this election must surely be the remark by Abrar Rashid, the Engineer’s 22-year-old son, who pointed out that the total cost of the campaign was 27,000, which he needed for fuel for his vehicle. Contrast this with the spend-levels that have become normal in Indian elections. Abrar and his brother Asrar Rashid had an uncomplicated message: Jail ka badla vote sey (Your vote is the answer to jail).

There is one aspect which the three victors will now be forced to ponder on. Indian democracy, with freedom and free will at its heart, offers space for even secessionists in an election, but draws a line if they win. All three will have to swear an oath of allegiance to India before they can become members of Parliament. We shall see what happens.

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Are we witnessing a 1982 moment? This is the question that should be on the radar of national concern.

No one in government was particularly bothered in 1982 when Delhi Police began to frisk Sikhs in buses and cars entering Delhi before the scheduled Asian Games. The troubles of Punjab made all Sikhs suspect in the eyes of the Congress government in Delhi. If every passenger had been searched, as happens now at airports, there would have been no problem. That would not have been discrimination. But Sikhs were identified, and their self-respect demeaned. It led to anger in the community and spurred radicalisation within specific coteries or groups. Even Sikhs who had served in the Indian Army, and what could be better evidence of patriotism, were not spared. In a shocking incident, Major General Shabeg Singh, PVSM, AVSM, of the Garhwal Rifles, a hero of wars fought by India in 1947, 1962, 1965 and 1971, was forced to leave his Delhi home in 1982 because he was considered, astonishingly, a security risk. He joined Sant Bhindranwale as his military commander, and displayed his capability in the fighting during Operation Blue Star.

The rural vote-drop is the statistical equivalent of a 63-seat drop

History is in no hurry to exact the price of mistakes. But it does not forget.

These three results have to become a very high priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his core security team as he begins the third term. This danger can be resolved through wisdom, and a judicious combination of political and administrative measures. The delusion, the evasion of responsibility, or the rough partisan measures adopted by the thick-skinned and thin-brained establishment of 1982 will be counterproductive. A fresh mind, a different eye are required to gauge rapidly shifting perspectives. Business-as-usual is the recipe of the complacent.

Every result has a meaning. The economic well-being of hundreds of millions of Indians has improved beyond measure in the last decade. This is why the BJP got 240 seats. But gaps can be measured in statistics. The BJP’s vote share rose from 33 per cent in 2019 to 40 per cent in urban areas, which is extraordinary by any standards. But it dipped from 39.5 per cent to 35 per cent in rural India, despite the remarkable support that Prime Minister Modi received from rural women who thanked him for rations and saw better governance. But the young moved away because of stagnant employment opportunities, and disconnect.

Democracy is a daily relationship of trust, faith, interaction and learning between power and the people

The rural vote-drop is the statistical equivalent of a 63-seat drop. The defeat of Cabinet Minister Arjun Munda is another indication of slippage in the tribal areas of Jharkhand. There is much to repair. The greatest danger, however, lies in the northwest of our country. There is no quick fix. There is no magic mantra. There is immediate need for sympathy, clarity, concern and where required, strength. It is not good policy to be provoked by provocateurs; equally, the real enemy of the state required proportionate chastisement.

We witnessed the political earthquake which undermined Punjab in the 1980s. We watched as Jammu & Kashmir, restored to peace and democratic participation in the 1970s, slipped out of control by a colossal mistake in 1987, when Congress and the National Conference became allies and rigged the polls to continue in power. The people never forgave either party, but that was less important than the instant escalation of violence, mainly sponsored by elements in Pakistan, that destroyed the amity of the Valley and drove Kashmiri Pandits out of their homes. The repercussions continue to reverberate.

armed police during March 2023 crackdown against Waris Punjab De
On March 18, 2023, Punjab police began sustained action against Waris Punjab De

The outstanding fact of the 2024 elections is the triumph of the credibility of Indian democracy. No one disrupted the will of the people. No one wanted to even if they could. People in public life may become kings for five years, but the voter is true monarch on the day of the mandate. One of the most incongruous accusations against the government, fanned by the innate prejudices of many foreign journalists, was that India was no longer a democracy. You have to be blind, or stupid, to say this in the midst of the most vibrant and largest election in the annals of democracy.

Democracy demands delivery. Every book on politics has some advice somewhere on how to govern. The best thesis I have read is just a paragraph, not a book. It is attributed to a 7th-century Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya ibn Sufiyan, who ruled from Damascus: ‘I do not use my lash where my tongue suffices, nor my sword where my whip is enough. And if there be one hair binding me to my fellow men, I do not let it break. If they pull I loosen, and if they loosen I pull.’

In a democracy the day of the vote is only a culmination point. Democracy is a daily relationship of trust, faith, interaction and learning between power and the people. Democracy is not a dance, but it is a careful choreography of partnership in which the people show the way and the government charts the route map to that always elusive horizon where there is reasonable calm, sufficient food, and the promise of a better future.

MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, and Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns