Inderjit Singh Jaijee & Dona Suri – Legacy of Militancy in Punjab

P Jaijee and Dona Suri LE Thinkers Dec 2019

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Legacy of Militancy in Punjab: the long road to ‘normalcy’:
Inderjit Singh Jaijee & Dona Suri.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee is well known in Punjab for his work to ensure education for rural children whose fathers have committed suicide as well as for his advocacy of civil rights and human rights. In the course of this work he has been arrested 17 times and imprisoned five times. He remains active in this cause. The organizations with which he is associated – the Baba Nanak Educational Society and the Movement Against State Repression – are both scrupulously a-political and non-sectarian. Until 1983, he was a marketing executive for Dunlops India Ltd. In that year, as the situation in Punjab deteriorated, he took voluntary retirement and returned to Punjab. He was elected to the Punjab Vidhan Sabha on the Akali ticket in 1985 but resigned in 1986 in a protest against government actions at the Golden Temple.

Dona Suri came to India at the age of 22 and has remained here ever since. She looks back on 35 years as an editor, starting her career in India Today and subsequently working for The Tribune, Indian Express and Hindustan Times. She retired as associate editor from Hindustan Times. She provided editorial and research assistance in Inderjit Singh Jaijee’s previous two books and has written two books of science history for young readers (The Story of Iron and The Story of Copper).

Published by SAGE :

Some 40 years ago political temperature was rising all over the region:

Iran and Iraq were at war. In Pakistan, the generals were getting rich thanks to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan since that conflict compelled the USA to pour money into its loyal ally.  The generals felt sufficiently secure to roll back martial law and allow Pakistan to once again play at democracy.  The Afghanistan adventure bled the Soviets white and by the end of the decade the tottering Soviet Union came down, burying the USSR Communist Party in the wreckage – with consequences for leftist movements all over the world.

During these years India was struggling to cope economically. To be sure, the ‘80s were a decade of economic growth but the price for it was massive expansion of the country’s fiscal deficit and rapidly worsening balance of payments. By the end of the ‘80s the Indian government took out a a $1.8 billion IMF loan. It was take the loan or watch the country collapse.

India would be much easier to understand if there were only one political pot but in fact there are many. All pots are boiling but at any given time, some are boiling more vigorously than others.  The decade of the ‘80s saw the Assam pot gradually return to a simmer. The Punjab pot burst into flames following the 1984 assault on the Golden Temple. Three years later, following the dubious election of 1987, the Kashmir pot also caught fire.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee could have watched the conflagration in Punjab from the comfort of a company executive’s office in Delhi but instead resigned from his job and returned to Punjab. He started on his first file of newspaper clippings in 1982. Fourteen year-by-year files later, those thousands of clippings became the basis of Jaijee first book– Politics of Genocide.  Explaining the focus of that book, Jaijee wrote

I do not condone acts of violence or disregard of law from any side. I focused on State terrorism in this book because the State with its great resources is capable of violence far exceeding anything that an individual or a handful of individuals can do ….

Taking an emotional approach is not helpful. I have done my best to remain objective and hammer away at the basic thesis that the confusion and conflicting versions of what happened in Punjab – and to the Sikhs in other parts of the country – must be replaced by accurate information and that it is in the interest of all Indians to learn the truth as a first step toward guaranteeing for themselves a just and responsible government.

Violent incidents waned after about 1993 but developments connected to the era of militancy continued to unfold and newspaper clippings continued to accumulate in file after file. Originally, the idea was to bring out an updated and expanded edition of Politics of Genocide but the wise editors at Sage suggested writing a “Volume II” which would take up where the first book left off and deal with events of the past 27 years – the years of “normal” Punjab.

Twenty-seven years adds up to a mountain of information to process. That’s where Dona Suri came in. Suri’s background is in editing – ten years working for The Tribune, another ten with the Indian Express and ten more with the Hindustan Times … and all this time in Chandigarh where the media is saturated with news from Punjab. Moreover, she had edited Jaijee’s first book.

In the course of this processing, the record of events and developments gradually sifted out into four basic headings, namely Political. Legal, Administrative and Cultural and each of these categories in turn could be broken down into a number of aspects.

For instance, one aspect of politics was the rise and fall of political parties and leaders within the state as well as the evolution of perception on the part of the citizens of Punjab. Another aspect was the attitude of the Central government and its ruling parties. In the era before militancy, the ruling party at the Centre treated Punjab as a “card” to be played for nationwide electoral advantage. If that had changed, how had it changed?

Developments connected with the law and the courts were an obvious category. On television and in the press, distinguished commentators declared that the trouble in Punjab was over and done with … the chapter was closed. But hundreds of serious cases had been brought before the courts – criminal charges of murder, abduction, extortion, rape, arson, rioting and wrongful arrest. In many cases, the accused were politically connected, or they were police officers. The “Bullets Flying” chapter had closed but its closure in fact enabled the opening of the “Fiat Justicia” chapter. Cases brought by victims in Delhi, Haryana, UP, Uttarkhand, Kashmir and Punjab occupied the courts for decades after normalcy supposedly returned to Punjab. Some cases are still going on. We knew of no other research that followed the twists and turns of centrally appointed inquiry commissions, cases connected to the November 1984 riots and cases brought before various high courts and CBI courts. The judgments in these cases were powerful lamps that illuminated a bloodstained past.

Militancy shook the government of Punjab and when a government is shaken it will admit of no questioning. A shaky government dare not even consider an accusation of error, lapse or malfeasance. It’s a slippery slope. The government’s grip depends on sticking to the position that everything it does is not only right but absolutely necessary. Back in the eighties this meant immunity for every sort of government officer, but most particularly for officers of the police. Absolute power is highly addictive – and usually highly enriching; mere stabilisation of the law and order situation is not enough to break the habit.

Practices that took hold in the era of terror and counter-terror continued for years after ‘normalcy’ supposedly returned to Punjab. The most obvious and widespread of these practices was property-grabbing. Some of this was outright grab and some of it was grab by means of subverting land-use regulations. All such grabbing flourished because the power of citizens had been diminshed and fear of consequences had been extinguished.

A great deal of medical research is devoted to post traumatic stress disorder. It is now widely accepted that war or natural disasters can leave deep and lasting mental scars of those who survive. The reactions of some people who found themselves in the thick of violence during Punjab’s decade of militancy fitted perfectly into the PTSD textbook descriptions.

In his earlier book, Jaijee had observed

[After Blue Star] Many Sikhs reacted by withdrawing from all sorts of social activities and going into a sort of mourning, others took it as a call to martyrdom and saffron-coloured turbans sprouted everywhere; others –  especially women – responded hysterically and fantastic stories circulated: hawks (the mascot of the Tenth Guru) were reported to be roosting in various gurdwaras; there was talk of prophesies and curses that would befall  whosoever desecrated the shrine. Many elderly people who had been reasonably healthy for their ages before Bluestar, seemed to lose the will to live and died within a few months.

Conflict leaves scars not only on vulnerable individuals but on societies and on culture generally. In Punjab the residue of militancy is easy to see. The chapter on culture examined the many ways in which militancy (and the government’s response to it) had a long-lasting impact on culture. Responses are seen in books, cinema and music – three standard manifestations of culture. Just as significant are the non-standard manifestations. Think of these as pop culture responses. One instance takes the form of a brisk and growing market for militant memorabilia – things such as T-shirts, bumper stickers and car decals, recordings of Bhindranwala speeches.

Since Operation Bluestar itself is now 35 years in the past, even those people who are today in their 40s would have only a vague memory of the era. People with clear memories of those days would be in their 60s and 70s. As a general rule, elderly shoppers do not buy a lot of militant-themed merchandise. One may conclude that most of those who buy Bhindranwala T-shirts, etc, are acquainted with the militancy era through what they have heard or read or watched on broadcast media. For this post Bluestar generation, Sikh militancy is a sort of abstraction. This is not to say that militancy as a concept is weaker than militancy as a lived experience – it can be quite the opposite.

Sifting through nearly three decades of clippings also revealed that in all this long period at no time was “Khalistan” ever completely out of the media. Khalistan stories were reported in every single year. There were many reports of arrests of suspected militants but even more numerous were stories that insisted that a Khalistan revival was right around the corner. ‘Dire Warning’ stories typically appeared some weeks or months before an election giving rise to the suspicion of a political motive behind their publication. We also found it interesting to juxtapose the “looming threat” stories with the dismal electoral record of radical Sikh candidates in state and general elections.

All in all, our overview of the past 27 years since normalcy supposed returned to Punjab showed an obvious disconnect between what politicians and commentators were saying and the lived reality of Punjab for ordinary people.

In Punjab combating terrorism provided an iron-clad excuse for a wide range of wrong-doing. It excused police raj with the attendant abduction, extrajudicial killing and extortion. Abuses did not stop when the decade of militancy wound down. Police raj morphed into goonda raj which was indispensable for grabbing property or otherwise acquiring wealth by illegal means. Combating terrorism justified draconian laws that violated the rights of the individual and it justified attempts to establish secretive central agencies in contravention of state’s rights.

As a subject for speeches, campaigning and party manoeuvering, terror, foreign and domestic, is a staple. This is particularly so at national level. Meanwhile, at the grassroots level, the citizen, irrespective of region or religion, is concerned about employment and job security, running the home on a tight budget, paying school fees, praying that none of their family will require medical treatment and seething with anger over the bribes they must pay to get even simple jobs done. There is simply no connect between these two levels.

Addressing corruption, lack of employment,   the ever-widening wealth gap, agricultural prices, or any of the issues that impinge on people’s lives would give the impression that the leader or party is prepared to actually do something.  Fulminating about terrorists, in Punjab or elsewhere, is a much better option: it requires no great political will or political courage to vow war on terror. From time to time, it may be necessary to spin statements, articles or even arrest dramas to keep the appearance of imminent danger alive but that is cheaply and easily managed.

Here’s an interesting world record: A man in Britain, John Prestwich, MBE, died at the age of 67, after a Guinness Book certified 50 years on artificial respiration.   One wouldn’t be surprised if Khalistan surpasses that record

© Inderjit Singh Jaijee & Dona Suri