The Knights of Falsehood
Nanak, such are
The people of Punjab are still struggling to come to terms with the terrifying memories of a tragic decade-and-a-half of turbulence and terror; but already, strange and unsettling reverberations of that malevolent past can be heard again..
If we cast our minds back to 1981 and 1982, when terrorism in Punjab was already being perceived as a serious threat to the authority of the State, we discover that 13 persons were killed by the terrorists in each of these years. 1983, which was described by contemporary commentators as "The Year of the Armageddon"2 saw the number of deaths inflicted by terrorist violence rise to 75.
Almost four years after the terrorist scourge had decisively been eliminated, there was a sudden rash of terrorist incidents: between March 14 and July 10, 1997, fifty-five persons lost their lives to the militant bomb and bullet in Punjab.
When does terrorist violence cross the threshold at which it is recognised and confronted in its true guise - as terrorism? Recently, the World Health Organisation issued a statement to the effect that even one case of polio constitutes an ‘epidemic’. It would be immeasurably beneficial if we were to apply the same definition to incidents of terrorism. A single terrorist act, if it does not meet with the appropriate State response, will reflexively multiply itself till the point where it attains the objectives of its perpetrators; or the point at which these perpetrators are comprehensively defeated in their purpose.
Unfortunately, certain inveterate delusions that preclude the possibility of a fitting response to militant violence have established themselves in the minds of the political leadership of Punjab. A group of ‘interested’ politicians and activists, whose role during the period of the ascendancy of terror was more than ambiguous, are now vigorously projecting, and seeking to popularise, a myth that terrorism was defeated in Punjab, not by police action, not by the force of arms, but because it simply ‘lost popular support’. This fable has been repeated so often, at every available opportunity and forum, that its advocates, if no one else, now appear to place all their faith in its explanatory efficacy. But are we to understand, on this argument, that terrorism ‘returned’ to Punjab because it had, in the first few months of 1997, inexplicably regained ‘popular support’?
There are several dangers inherent in this manifestly specious argument. The first of these is the insidious suggestion that terrorism did, at one time, enjoy overwhelming ‘popular support’ in Punjab. Despite the comprehensive disruption of the entire machinery of the State, and of the normal lives of the people that the terrorists successfully engineered for over ten years, there is no reason to believe that a majority, or even a substantial proportion, of the common people, were ever behind them. Certainly, there was a measure of support in the area along the borders of Pakistan. This was largely restricted to what is referred to as the Majha region, comprising mainly the tract lying between the river Beas and the Pakistan border, and essentially covering only two districts - Amritsar and Gurdaspur. Even within these confines, support was only partial and restricted to rural areas; though submission to the terror was - at least for some time - absolute. The peculiar susceptibility of the people of this region to the creed of the Kalashnikov raises important questions; history, culture, economics and a unique constellation of political forces will all have a part in any answer to these questions, but the search for such answers is not our present purpose. I am sure that scholars from these various disciplines will eventually be able to provide a satisfactory explanation for this conundrum. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that this was the terrorist heartland; and even here, the large number of dissenting voices that had to be mercilessly silenced by the terrorists are evidence to the fact that their support was far - I would assert, immeasurably far - from unanimous.
The second perversity is the implicit proposition that terrorism does, in some sense, represent the ‘democratic will’; that it expresses - possibly by illegitimate means - the legitimate aspirations of the people; and that, when the political agenda of the masses somehow [fortuitously? spontaneously?] changes, terrorism simply ‘withers away’, or the terrorists adopt the methods and objectives sanctioned by the masses. Nothing could be more patently absurd.
But the greatest hazard, in the present circumstances, is not the intellectual deceit, the evident falsehood, of this thesis; it lies in the complacence that such a belief, or such a pretence, encourages on the part of the State; the sense of misplaced confidence, of mistaken security, that it induces in a gullible public - the belief that, without their ‘support’, militancy cannot return, despite the still recent memory of the terror inflicted upon them without the least regard to their own fervent desires.
The fact is that terrorism and its executioners have their own agenda, entirely independent of the popular will, of democratic considerations or institutions, or of the aspirations and desires of the community they claim to represent. They are defeated, not by the operation of some mystical force called ‘popular will’, but by the force of arms. Their activities are not some convenient substitute for the ballot box; they are an absolute rejection of every value integral to democracy. The people themselves have no defence against them, other than the power they confer on those who govern on their part. Their ‘will’ is expressed, at best, through the extent to which they extend or withhold co-operation, especially in the form of information, to those who fight the scourge on their behalf. It is the security forces of the state and of the nation who bear the burden of the actual responsibility for the war against terror and anarchy.
No security force in the world can, of course, provide an absolute guarantee against a random terrorist strike; what is critical in this context, however, is the State’s response to such a strike. It is on the basis of their perceptions and evaluation of these reactions that terrorists shape their own future strategies. An individual victory, even if it claims a critical target, signifies little, as long as it is meets with a commensurate response. But if the response systems of the State fail, or are perceived by the terrorist to have failed, the ‘movement’ inevitably gains sustenance. And nothing encourages the terrorists to greater audacity than the spectacle of weakness in the political leadership, and of confusion in the security forces.
Unfortunately, both these circumstances appear, once again, to prevail in the Punjab as they did when the movement for the despicable fiction of ‘Khalistan’ took birth. The response of the Akali Government to the new, if limited, eruption of violence has been as predictable as it has been inappropriate. Far from projecting a certain toughness in dealing with the situation, or an adequate understanding of the problem, most of the public pronouncements of the state leadership in the wake of the spate of killings since March 1997 have been restricted to blaming ‘Kashmiri terrorists’, or the ‘ISI’, or some vague forces ‘inimical to peace in Punjab’ or to ‘Hindu-Sikh amity’. Is the State’s responsibility to protect its citizens against the depredations of terrorists somehow diminished if they come from some other state? Or from another country? Or if they are motivated by the desire to disrupt peace or communal harmony? Unless they are confronted with firm, effective and immediate countermeasures, the terrorists, whatever their inspiration or nationality, will only return to visit greater destruction on a hapless people.
Terrorism in Punjab had been brought under complete control in 1993; however, an announcement to this effect was only made much later, in 1994, after an entire six months had passed without a single terrorist incident. The State’s preceding response was sufficient guarantee of another two years of unbroken peace, marred only by one major, and tragic, breach: the assassination of the Chief Minister, Beant Singh, on August 31, 1995. After this grave lapse, the state and, indeed, even the central government was rife with speculation about the revival of terrorism in the wake of what was certainly a major ‘breakthrough’ for the militants. A firm response, a swift investigation, and the exposure and arrest of the main conspirators in the shortest possible time constituted both the police reaction and the Government’s declaration of intent: terrorism would not be tolerated; nothing would be permitted to destroy the hard-won peace. The lack of enthusiasm among terrorists to repeat their ‘success’ is evidence that the message was received with ample clarity.
Force levels in Punjab did not undergo any significant change between 1994 and 1997. Officers who had taken part in combating terrorism and in providing an almost fool-proof security umbrella to the people continue to serve in the state and are still available for the task. The only thing lacking is the leadership’s ability and the wisdom to analyse the experience of the past decade and a half, to draw appropriate conclusions, and to apply them to the maintenance of law and order. As long as the leadership continues to delude itself on the nature of terrorism and of the war against terrorism, as long as their basic perceptions are incorrect, their prescriptions cannot be effective.
Having seen both war and peace in Punjab, I am firmly of the opinion that, with a certain minimal effort, peace can be made a permanent feature of the life of the average citizen in the state. But that requires intellectual honesty and moral courage; not the habitual cynicism that has been a feature of political discourse in the state over the past decades. For too long have too many people been running with the hares and hunting with the hounds; this is often described as the ‘art of politics’ among those who subscribe to the views attributed to Machiavelli in the West, and to Chanakya in India. Of course, no single political party, or segment of the Punjab leadership, or individual leader, can be singled out for blame in this regard - the failure of leadership in the state has been comprehensive.
In the late Forties and early Fifties there was nobody in Punjab who could have foreseen the advent of terror. Punjab had just emerged from a nightmare of communal violence; an estimated half a million had been killed and millions of others were displaced in what was probably the largest enforced transfer of populations in the history of man. It was the extent and severity of violence directed against them that impelled the people to abandon their homes and all their possessions, and to trek in desperate circumstances, often defenceless against the depredations of murderous gangs, out of the land peopled by their forefathers for centuries, and into an alien land. The Partition is now so routinely reduced to statistics about death and migration that it is difficult to imagine the sheer enormity of what each individual and family - even among those who did not suffer a loss of life among those they loved - had endured. After World War I, the League of Nations had, as part of a plan to settle outstanding territorial disputes in Europe, attempted to bring about a transfer of populations across borders; the plan failed comprehensively, evidence of the deep attachment that people have to the soil of their birth. The brutality and violence of the Partition of India left not only the people of Punjab, but the entire nation numb with shock. It was only the hopes raised by Independence, after centuries of subjugation, that allowed the people to cope with their losses and to concentrate their energies on rebuilding their own lives and the fractured nation.
There was, in the first decade after Independence, very little violence anywhere in the country, with the exception of the Naga Hill District [then part of Assam], and sporadic Leftist violence in pockets in the South and in the East. The Congress enjoyed an unbroken spell of power at the Centre and in most of the states, including Punjab. The Punjab Congress, however, was a house divided from the very outset, with chief ministers replacing one another with unseemly frequency - interspersed with spells of President’s rule - amidst an unending and unashamed scramble for personal power. This ignoble spectacle continued until Partap Singh Kairon took over as Chief Minister of Punjab and set it resolutely on the path of economic development.
It was during Kairon’s years in power, however, that the Punjabi Suba agitation came to a head. The underpinnings of the movement were always communal, but it was the obduracy and a policy of procrastination on the part both of the state and central government that created conditions of open hostility between the communities. It is idle speculation now to wonder what the shape of Punjab’s history would have been if the Punjabi Suba agitation had been handled with greater sensitivity, and if the demand for a Punjabi language state had been acceded to before it acquired a virulently communal character. The past, however, is a reality that cannot be wished away. It is sufficient to note that it was from these apparently innocuous seeds that the poisonous weed of terror eventually sprung.
Although Kairon’s handling of the Punjabi Suba agitation, and the reactionary escalation of communal rhetoric by the Akali Dal had created a palpable Hindu-Sikh divide, the Fifties and the Sixties were still untouched by the bigotry, the fundamentalism and the religious frenzy that was to overwhelm Sikh and Punjab politics before the advent of the Eighties. Right through the Sixties, simply no one could imagine or accept the possibility of a people subjected to such horrific bloodletting during Partition, inflicting new and hideous wounds upon themselves in a frenzy of terrorist violence less than four decades later.
I had left Punjab for Police Training at Mount Abu in 1957, and subsequently for my posting in Assam. The little contact I had with my home state over the next two decades was restricted to the brief and occasional vacations at home that an extremely demanding schedule in Assam permitted. It was only in the late Seventies and early Eighties that I was able to spend more time in Punjab, and I was alarmed by the mindset that had established itself among a substantial number of the people I met. Disingenuous theories were being invented, facts and history distorted to bolster these absurd theses, and a peculiar, though still suppressed, hysteria was increasingly evident even among some of those who believed themselves to be educated.
None of this happened suddenly. But a politically perceptive leadership would have, should have, confronted these trends even as they emerged. Instead, the entire leadership in Punjab, without any notable exceptions, preferred to ride the very wave that was to devastate the state.
There are none so blind, it has been remarked, as those who will not see. Even after over a decade of unremitting violence, denial appears to persist as the pre-eminent strategy of political survival in Punjab. The self-inflicted myopia of the political leadership that is presently charged with the responsibility of guiding the destinies of the state, has once again put all the gains of the victory against the forces of fundamentalism and disruption in jeopardy.
The war against terror in Punjab has been comprehensively won; but no society, no nation, is ever proof against the intentions and the amoral inventiveness of the criminally ambitious. Democracies are, in this, peculiarly vulnerable; political instability, wide cultural differences and economic disparities - such as those that characterise the entire Indian subcontinent - heighten such susceptibilities.
The conditions specific to Punjab, moreover, do not justify excessive optimism - certainly not the kind of Panglossian obduracy that is reflected in the "no popular support for terrorists" thesis. Freedom from fear has been won at great costs in the state; it is not self-sustaining, and will have to be defended constantly if it is to survive. There are several factors that make such a defence an urgent necessity.
In the first instance, there is still a small residual potential for terrorism within the state: a fringe of lunacy among politicians and among the religiously bigoted, and substantial economic incentives for the purely criminalised. Over 200 listed terrorists, including roughly 30 in the ‘hard-core’ category, escaped the security net in Punjab; while most of them are now comfortably lodged at a variety of safe-havens abroad, some of them are still believed to be in India; a small army of sympathisers, comprising in a large part the families of terrorists, and a substantial force of professional criminals are still available to any group that can come up with a coherent and low-risk strategy for the revival of terrorism. The financial aspects of terrorism cannot be ignored; while the survival prospects of hard-core terrorists had been reduced to a point where personal financial gain would appear irrelevant, it is a fact that a majority of those who joined the movement, certainly after the mid-Eighties, were motivated by the ‘benefits’, both pecuniary and of a more lurid nature, that accrued in a ‘career’ in militancy.3 Great fortunes were made by many people both in the leadership and on the periphery of the movement for Khalistan, and by their families. It was only when the ‘active life’ of the average terrorist in Punjab had been reduced to under six months that all these inducements began to fail. However any situation of acute political instability and of interference, weakness or lack of direction in the functioning of the security forces would immediately revive these motives. In such a situation, moreover, even without outside support, a substantial cache of arms and explosives is readily available to subversive elements in the state. A significant proportion of the arsenal pumped into the state during the period of militancy still lies buried around the countryside and can be swiftly recovered and redeployed if conditions once again become ‘favourable’ to terrorist activity.
Pakistan’s perception of its ‘strategic interests’ in the region, moreover, make Punjab a target in perpetuity for its machinations. The danger of open conventional warfare between India and Pakistan is now negligible, but support to and provocation of what has come to be known as ‘low intensity warfare’ will remain part of Pakistan’s strategic objectives for a long time to come. The Inter Services Intelligence [ISI], Pakistan’s primary Agency for covert operations, even today runs a number of terrorist training camps for Sikh militants, including those in Bahawalpur, Sialkot and Lahore; the surviving scraps of most of the major terrorist groups of Punjab, including the Babbar Khalsa, the Bhindranwale Tiger Force for Khalistan [BTFK], the International Sikh Youth Federation [ISYF], factions of the Khalistan Commando Force [KCF], and the Dal Khalsa, have found sanctuary in these camps. The flow of recruits to these camps from India has now completely dried up. But there is evidence that the ISI is presently focusing a recruitment drive on ‘Khalistan’ sympathisers in Canada, the United States, England and Germany, for training at these camps. The ISI is also in possession of a vast arsenal, including some three million Kalashnikov rifles, some Stinger missiles, and large supplies of RDX explosives, which were obtained from the USA, and were diverted from their intended recipients in Afghanistan to the discretionary stocks of the Agency. Their deployment is, today, determined independently by the ISI, and is believed to be even beyond the review of the elected Government of Pakistan. Any evidence of political instability or of increased public discontent in Punjab will, consequently, certainly see a re-injection, both of these dormant militants and of a substantial proportion of these arms, across the border.
The ‘ideology’ of Khalistan, moreover, is certain to be kept on an artificial life support system by an extremely active group of non-resident Indians [NRIs], primarily based in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The flow of propaganda and financial support from this alienated coterie, out of touch with the ground realities of Punjab, their vision clouded by their own preconceptions and, worse, their own personal ambitions, remains at a high level even now, despite peace in Punjab. Subversive activities spearheaded by these groups include a barrage of pamphlets and letters - displaying little regard for facts, but high on emotion and an invented ‘history’ of persecution - to the governments of western nations and to international bodies, specially the United Nations. Petitioning the legislatures, and securing, through a variety of methods - not excluding sizeable ‘contributions’ to election funds - the support of members of these legislatures, and of a variety of influential committees, sub-committees and caucuses, particularly in America, are some of the strategies adopted to keep the ‘Khalistan issue’ alive. Their activities, however, go well beyond propaganda. A number of ‘militant co-ordinators’ currently operate from various European countries, America, Canada, Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai. Their activities include the organisation of shaheedi samagams - ‘societies of martyrs’ - from Gurudwaras; fund raising drives; and the propagation of the ‘ideology of Khalistan’ through the electronic and print media. The terrorist leadership presently based in Pakistan is totally dependant on these co-ordinators for communications, feedback, as well as substantial material support. These co-ordinators have also, over the past years, been regularly ‘sponsoring’ several groups to India to evaluate the ground conditions for the revival of militancy, to establish contacts with shaheedi parivars - families of dead terrorists - pro-militant human rights groups, and a range of old sympathisers in order to keep the infrastructure for future militant operations alive. Militant co-ordinators have also been motivating and funding youngsters in Punjab to cross over into Pakistan for short-duration training and for ‘briefings’ by militants there; this strategy, however, has been meeting with minimal success in the recent past. These ‘nodal activists’ explore contacts with sympathetic ‘intellectuals’, as well as with other militant groups in the country. Apart from Kashmir, their activities in the North East, as well as along the Bangladesh border, are increasingly in evidence; there is also reason to believe that covert encouragement is also extended to a variety of discontented groupings, including caste and other communal cabals, with an overall intent to exploit every available opportunity for disruption within India.
Militant ideologues have, recently, favoured a shift in their strategy, advocating the creation of over-ground fronts and political organisations to spearhead their immediate campaigns. While ‘Khalistan’ remains their exclusive ideological platform, they now consider it expedient to exploit the democratic structure and institutions of the Indian State to pursue their goal in the immediate future. Their projected strategy is based on building up substantial public opinion through a variety of ‘Human Rights’ fora and sustained litigation, to be backed up, later, by a strong over-ground movement of agitations, demonstrations, gheraos and protest rallies. When, and if, these strategies bear sufficient fruit to make the situation favourable to a revival of militancy, violence will once again erupt.
Dr. Sohan Singh, a prominent ‘ideologue’ of the Khalistan movement, and the chief of his own faction of the ‘Panthic Committee’, was arrested in November 1993. He was one of the leaders of the movement whom I interrogated personally. Despite his bigotry, his muddle-headedness, his absolute distortion of history and political fact, the swelling hatred of his heart, he nevertheless succeeded in articulating what I believe is still the essential strategy of those who currently supervise the itinerant garbage of the movement for Khalistan.
The ISI men told me in Pakistan that to promote terrorism in Punjab was their national policy irrespective of change of political leadership. They also said that supply of weapons to terrorists in India was not a problem as they could deliver them in Delhi. They are very serious to reactivate terrorist activities in Punjab to the extent they put even Heads of terrorist outfits camping in Pakistan to rigorous training like other trainees. These included Wadhawa Singh and Mehal Singh of the Babbar Khalsa, Dr Pritam Singh Sekhon of the KLF, Panjwar of the KCF(P) and Narain Singh of the KLA. Current Pak directed strategy is to avoid confrontation with the security forces as they are keen to avoid further killing of the terrorists.... Punjab terrorism is down but not out.4
These dangers must not be underestimated. Neither, on the other hand, must they be magnified beyond their actual proportions.
The Indian State is more than sufficiently equipped to counter and contain the designs of all these inimical forces - as long as the communal virus does not erupt into an epidemic. The greatest danger, in this regard, is the threat from within. The entire structure and leadership that gave rise to Sikh fundamentalism, and eventually to terrorism, in the decades since independence is still in place. Worse still, the logic that fuelled the events of the Seventies and the Eighties has not even been confronted. This logic is integrally linked with fundamental aspects of modern democracies [particularly in culturally and religiously diverse societies such as India] and specifically with the problems of the creation and cultivation of communal ‘vote banks’ which distort political, economic and developmental goals, even as they warp the essential nature of religion. In every aspect, it is the lowest common denominator that prevails. As religions become a tool for political mobilisation, there is a skewed emphasis on conformity and religious identity; on the isolation of, and loyalty to, the community; to the exclusion of the spiritual and moral content of religion. All religious practices are transformed into ritual; ceremonies and celebrations marking religious events are metamorphosed into organised shows of strength. This distortion, moreover, works systematically against any effort of reform; those who seek to restore the original intent and purity, the immaculate and primary mystical impulse of the religious enterprise, are not only rejected, but are treated with hostility as ‘enemies of the Faith’. A form of what is known as the ‘hecklers veto’, the ability of a vociferous, often violent, minority, to silence all dissent, stifles the primal search for spiritual salvation.
This process fulfils complex needs among those who seek identity, respect and fulfilment through their association with communal groups. Unfortunately, it simultaneously creates gross distortions of reality, crude simplifications that permit an unconditional glorification of their own group, even as they create a caricature of a definite ‘other’ as the enemy, the oppressor, the epitome of evil. It is in this process that we discover the emergence of the ‘ghetto mentality’, the constant ritual lamentation, the invention and exclusive focus on alleged grievances, the creation, in other words, of the myth of a ‘victim community’. The psychological failures of key individuals in such a community are then projected, increasingly, on the hostile ‘other’ - in the case of this category of Sikhs, the ‘other’ is the ‘deceitful Hindus’ and their ‘Brahmanical conspiracy’. This is the process that led the Sikh political and religious leadership, and at least those Sikhs who accepted their warped message as their gospel, into the fruitless wilderness of communal antipathies, into futile rivalries between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’; into attitudes and relationships that create deadlocks, that nourish, rather than remedy, existing frustrations, suffering and injustice.
The architects of this distorted worldview, however, are once more in control of the destinies of Punjab. One may hope that the lessons of the past have not entirely been lost to them. Unfortunately, the reactions of the current Akali regime to the sudden spate of terrorist violence in 1997 gives little grounds for optimism and are reminiscent of what happened in the first half of 1986, when the Akali Dal Government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala kept on denying and underplaying the threat of terrorism. The 1985 Assembly Elections in Punjab had been pushed through with undue haste by Rajiv Gandhi’s government at the Centre. The general thesis, according to the ‘think tanks’ who advised the Prime Minister at that time, was that, just as the Marxists had brought an end to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, the Akalis would bring an end to terror in Punjab. I was, then, as I am now, utterly convinced of the basic error of this thesis, and had repeatedly advised the Government to delay the elections till they had a better grip over the terrorist movement. There were fundamental ideological contradictions between the positions held by the ruling CPI[M] in West Bengal and the CPI[ML] or Naxalites; it was this basic conflict that make it possible for the Marxist Government to fight and subdue Naxalism. As far as the Akalis are concerned, however, they are on the same ideological continuum as the terrorists; any differences they have with them, are, at best, distances between the points at which they stand on that continuum, or disputes over methods.
If, consequently, we are to neutralise the impact of disruptive forces in Punjab over a long term, it is essential to expose and understand the dynamics of the genesis of fundamentalist terrorism in the state, and its integral link with entrenched political forces in the state. Peace is the best time to prepare our defences against these forces; events in the past have repeatedly demonstrated that, once the crisis is upon us, hysteria inevitably triumphs - with disastrous consequences. And peace currently survives in Punjab. Unfortunately, opportunism appears to be the only political strategy that manifests itself in times of peace in our country. This has been the pattern of failures in the past. It is the gravest danger even today.
The arguments expounded, the examples selected, the perspectives and analysis of this book may appear inordinately biased against the Akali leadership. It is a well known and well documented fact that the flames of terrorism were fanned by the Congress (I), that the Akalis, if anything, initially opposed the ‘Bhindranwale card’ that the Centre and the State Congress leadership was playing. It is not the intention of this work to defend or exonerate any specific political grouping or leader for its role in the Punjab tragedy. Not a single party that was involved in this protracted catastrophe conducted itself with honour.
It was, however, the Sikh religious leadership - and prominently among them, the Akalis - that picked up the fundamentalist card; moreover, it was this very leadership that had, over the past at least four decades, been preparing the soil in which the seed of bigotry and communal violence would thrive. And eventually, it was this very religious leadership that either participated in, encouraged, or failed to oppose or dissociate itself from, the campaign of terror for Khalistan.
It is this leadership, finally, and not any cynical external grouping, that claims to represent and to protect the Faith; when innumerable acts of cruelty, the slaughter of innocents, the barbarity of terrorism, were inflicted upon the people of Punjab in the name of Sikhism, the silence of these ‘guardians of the faith’ was deafening; they failed, again, to protect the Faith from the outrageous distortion of the message of the Sikh Gurus, and from the dishonour the activities of the terrorists brought upon it.
Their silence alone, in the face of this onslaught, would be sufficient to condemn them. Their complicity is unforgivable.
NOTES & REFERENCES