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Much thicker than water

India has had a long history of avoidable violence since independence, violence that arises more out of political incompetence, opportunism, chicanery, corruption and brinkmanship, than out of objective circumstances of social or economic competition or conflict. Punjab is among the States that has suffered immensely as a result, and despite its extraordinary achievements, the sheer and unconstrained generosity of its people, and perhaps the most exemplary work ethic in the country, it was hurled into a virulent terrorist movement that consumed every aspect of life for the better part of a decade and a half.

It is a matter of amazement that, at the end of the period of terrorism in Punjab, none of the various ‘root causes’ or ‘issues’ which were put forward as ‘justifications’ for thousands of acts of murder and terrorism, had in fact been addressed or ‘resolved’. Indeed, as peace returned to the State, it was incomprehensible how these could ever have given rise to the torrents of terror that had swept across the Punjab, consuming over 22,000 lives, and devastating millions of others.

The current controversy on the SYL canal needs to be assessed within this context, and against the reality of decades of hysterical propaganda regarding the supposedly disastrous impact it will have on the farmers of Punjab. The Supreme Court is, of course, absolute correct in noting that the State Government cannot "resist the execution of the decree on the ground that it would have a political fall out", since all disputes between States "will invariably have a political impact." Nevertheless, such a purely formalistic position in law neglects the realities that currently prevail. It is no doubt the case that it is "the constitutional duty of those who wield power in the States to create the appropriate political climate to ensure a respect for the constitutional process." The truth, however, is that successive ‘wielders of power’ in Punjab – and not just the present administration – have consistently failed to ‘create the appropriate climate’ for a rational discourse on, and resolution of, the SYL issue. To suggest that an abrupt resolution is now possible through a simple Court directive, despite the continuous, polarized and frenetic politicization of the issue over the past decades, is to invite unfortunate and potentially violent consequences in the region.

Punjab, today, remains a predominantly agricultural community, and one that has been living off the harvests of a single wave of reforms in the Fifties and Sixties which produced the Green Revolution. This process is, however, approaching exhaustion, as the application of increasing doses of water and fertilizer to land under hybrid cultivation produces reducing marginal returns. Land, moreover, is a limited commodity, and continuous fragmentation as a result of division through inheritance had reduced the average size of landholdings in the State to an uneconomical 3.61 hectares by 1991, and increased the number of marginal farmers in the State by a steep 50 per cent over the preceding decade. Wide areas of the State have been reeling under recurring drought, or have come under the sweep of chronic and grinding poverty. Farmers, who refused to give up hope under the unrelenting violence of the Khalistani terror, are, today, being driven to suicide by debt and crop failure. As the rural-urban divide widens, communities that are being left behind – particularly the landed agriculturists who constituted the State’s elite in the past – are chafing under the changing socio-economic structures. The rural youth, poorly educated, largely unskilled, and increasingly frustrated, can think of little but to mortgage or sell off family holdings and flee to the West in search of an elusive paradise

These are the young minds that have been prey to the ideologies of violence, and to the continuous propaganda that convinces them that their troubles are located in a range of non-issues. No Government or political entity in Punjab has ever sought to counter this propaganda, and many regimes have, in fact, directly mobilized support on their basis.

The Punjab has seen three bouts of brutal bloodletting after the slaughters of Partition. In the late 1950s, when dacoity had become a State-wide menace, it was suppressed through a harsh and enormously successful campaign. In the early 1970s, the Naxalite movement spread into the Punjab, and particularly into the Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Sangrur districts, and there were many excesses committed against landowners, moneylenders and policemen till, once again, the movement was firmly suppressed. Within a few years, Sikh fundamentalists began to mobilize youth for violence, eventually dragging the State into the vortex of terrorism, till the Khalistani movement was comprehensively defeated in 1993.

We appear to be poised, now, on the threshold of circumstances that are reminiscent of those that prevailed in the end 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, I had travelled from Assam to the Punjab, and was aghast at the kind of propaganda that was being circulated among, and voraciously consumed by, the youth. I had reported this to friends in the Cabinet Secretariat, who had taken it up with the Cabinet Secretary, who eventually reported these observations to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA, however, dismissed the developments as mere ‘students’ antics’ – but a couple of years later, the State was hurtling into chaos, and Operation Blue Star eventually, carried it across the brink into high intensity terrorism, with the annual toll of lives in the thousands.

It is necessary, today, to approach issues with a measure of wisdom and compassion, and not to yield to a political expediency and brinkmanship that could transport us back into darkness. The interests of all States involved in the SYL dispute need to be considered within the context of a realistic assessment of existing political configurations. Each of the States has a point of view, and some of these appear mutually antagonistic. Viewed separately, there is an element of truth in each of these positions. If a resolution is to be approached, a mechanism must be devised to bring together the political leadership of the disputant States, to tone down the shrillness of the current discourse, and to avoid the imperatives of short-term political gains. This is a process that cannot, within the currently vitiated political atmosphere, be forced through on extraneously imposed time frames. If threats to the hard-earned peace and tranquillity in the region are to be neutralized, the political leadership, both in the States and at the Centre, must fulfil their ‘constitutional duty… to create the appropriate political climate’ that can lead to the resolution of the crisis in the best interests of national security.

(Published in Hindustan Times, August 10, 2004)





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