Patiala tense
Police personnel patrol the streets after clashes that took place near Kali Devi Temple in Patiala, Punjab, India Image Credit: ANI

Uncomfortable events in Punjab, India were witnessed last week with scenes of brandishing swords harking back to a painful past. Police fired in the air after violent clashes in Patiala.

An outfit called the Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) – with no links to the party in power in Maharashtra, took to the streets to oppose a call by the US based banned group, Sikhs for Justice to mark April 29 as ‘foundation day of Khalistan.’

In a game of circles played by radical groups, an extremist organisation countered the march with a violent confrontation taking place outside the temple.

This was the first litmus test in Punjab for the 50- day old AAP government and it more than stumbled.

The party has blamed the clashes on the opposition, saying workers of Shiv Sena and Congress clashed with the Shiromani Akali Dal- and even if there was some truth, the mere hint of instability in Punjab is never as black and white as this.

Any security lapse in the state has national repercussions. The Mann government acted swiftly in making arrests, but the stable gate was locked after the horse had bolted.

No permission was given for the processions and yet the police stood by without any protective gear as the groups zeroed in on each other. Why was there no police bandobast despite Harish Singla, the so- called chief of the sena outfit (there are countless right wing sena organisations in Punjab with no affiliations to Udhav Thackeray’s party) and the alleged mastermind Barjinder Singh Parwana rabidly challenging each other on social media and mobilising support for days ahead of the clashes. Not just that, their route was also public and yet there were no barricades put near the temple where the violence erupted.

Provocation is an easy tool

While people like Sangla have made creating mischief an industry where provocation is an easy tool to stay relevant (Sangla himself had state security), this is also not the first time that Parwana has come under the scanner.

There are several cases already against him and although both the perpetrators have been arrested, the intelligence and government failure give a fillip to the detractors who are only waiting to point out that AAP is too inexperienced to deal with a state as complex as Punjab.

AAP’s thumping victory had less to do with the Delhi model that the party prides itself on than simply a desperate crushing vote against the traditional parties that had failed to take Punjab out of the morass of unemployment, debt, and drugs.

But despite the gloom what was taken for granted by the Punjabi in all these years has been stability. Whether it was Amarinder Singh or Parkash Singh Badal’s Akali Dal, both parties failed on many fronts but ensured that security remained a priority.

Despite attempts to fan a communal divide mostly by outsiders there are no takers for Khalistan in Punjab and least of all for Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, the founder of Justice for Sikhs - designated a terrorist outfit.

Like some obscure elements in Canada, he tries to keep the Khalistan issue churning while living in the US and far removed from the ground reality of Punjab. After the clashes local Sikhs were seen visiting the temple.

The challenge though for the government is to keep the temptations away from the jobless youth (Punjab’s unemployment rate of 7.85% is higher than the national average) who could be lured with promises of easy money. 

Creating sporadic mischief

With Punjab’s past, any government ruling the state has the unofficial memo- to be a step ahead of miscreants creating sporadic mischief, these are not new fault lines.

The night before the Patiala clashes, the Khalistan flag was hoisted in the town of Malerkotla. Caught napping, AAP will need to always remember that security and development are not at the expense of the other.

Incidents of weapons, drugs and tiffin bombs have been flagged a few times. In, February 4 kg of RDX, bomb making devices and some weapons were dropped into an Indian farm along the Punjab border.

Unlike Delhi, where the police are under the Home Ministry, AAP in Punjab does not have any such excuse and what took place in Patiala was its complete failure.

Instead, questions have been raised about settling personal scores after Punjab Police’s alacrity in filing an FIR against AAP president Arvind Kejriwal’s detractors Alka Lamba and Kumar Vishwas, who had before the elections accused Kejriwal of supporting separatists. The High Court has stayed Vishwas’s arrest but not before the Punjab Police had visited Vishwas’s house in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad.

AAP’s national ambitions including in the states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh to a large extent will be judged by how it plays out in Punjab. The Delhi model has a limited shelf life here and the promised 300 units of free power during a severe power outage may be a poll promise but is all the same jarring.

Populism has a very limited place in a state rolling in a debt of almost 3 lakh crore nor does Punjab have the kind of budget like Delhi which will put to test the implementation of even the party’s trump cards of Mohalla clinics and education.

These may be early days but unfortunately in Punjab there is no warm-up time and inheriting a sensitive state means Bhagwant Mann must hit the ground running. He cannot expect much support from the centre.

Hiccups in governance as seen in Patiala only reinforce the impression that Mann is a puppet CM with strings in the hands of AAP Delhi.

Mann’s frequent trips to Delhi and a roadshow in Gujarat have not gone down well in the state. “Delhi and Punjab sorted, now we are preparing for Gujarat,” said the Punjab chief minister in Ahmedabad last month.

The people of his state are watching.