A year ago, the Aam Aadmi Party won only 20 seats in Punjab’s 117-member assembly, surprising itself and everyone else. It was supposed to be a near-walkover. After seeing its national ambitions dashed for the time being, the party resigned itself to playing a good opposition. But so far, it has occupied two alarmingly divergent orbits. Petty factionalism and looming obscurity at one level, and on the other, a contrarian stand on the one issue that cost it an election: Sikh radicalism.
The spectre had extracted a heavy price in the polls—80 seats less than what was predicted by AAP leaders till just before voting on March 11, 2017. In the context of a Punjab that looks back at the ’80s-90s with an overload of pain, dread and exhaustion, even allowing a whiff of separatism was akin to walking into a trap—and one not entirely lain by opponents. Yet, it walked right in with eyes wide open and got singed.
The experience should have served as a permanent cautionary note. After all, AAP had come as an alternative to the identity-peddling Akalis, with a blueprint for governance, not to rouse sleeping demons. And it should have returned to its core areas. But no such luck. Presently, some in AAP’s Punjab unit are accusing the mothership in Delhi of nothing less than sabotage, of letting stray leaders shoot their mouths off on separatism until the unit collapses. The charge is unproven, but that it even exists shows the state of play.
How did this happen? Basically, via the enthusiastic support (and funding) it had received from its new NRI converts, AAP waded into the grey swampy zones of radical Sikh politics—and got stuck. The Sikh diaspora has fraught, complicated sentiments towards India and Punjab. “There’s a culture of competitive radicalism among overseas Sikhs. They have prospered but something INSide them is unsettled, perhaps because they feel uprooted,” says social scientist Harish K. Puri. This restlessness they seek to assuage with dollar-contributions and by spreading the message that they know what’s better for Sikhs in India than those in the homeland.
“Ambitious NRI Sikhs also openly fight over who will control gurudwaras. To do this, they raise controversial issues,” adds Puri. The diaspora is least immune to communal propaganda for they live in a kind of vacuum, getting their information from TV news or social media spaces that are so hospitable to false propaganda. “We saw how even our crowds behave on the Padmaavat issue. People didn’t even want to see the film and just believed rumours. This is how the Sikh diaspora too is misled.”
AAP, during its Punjab campaign, garnered much support from NRI Sikhs. Political observers say liberal, secular Sikhs interested in a genuine, modern alternative predominated here. But rival parties successfully conveyed the sense that AAP had turned into a party of ‘radicals’. It’s a standing accusation—that it has not distanced itself from this politics—and the cause of much anxiety and confusion within. Some recent statements from within the ranks drove the wedge deeper: the Akalis and the ruling Congress presented it as fresh evidence of AAP flirting with extremists.
“The win in Delhi had enamoured AAP to all Punjabis and they wanted Kejriwal, but the party didn’t understand the basics of Punjab,” says an AAP insider who was very active during the elections. “Gurudwaras, temples, deras, panj pyaras, we went everywhere. In the process, some leaders ended up cozying up to radical types too. We were afraid that if we speak out against radicals, we’d lose people’s support. This fear persists.”
AAP has repeatedly denied charges of fraternising with the ‘Khalistanis’. Yet, the smear has stuck. There’s a touch of irony here because AAP’s appeal in Punjab lay in being the outsider—it did not exist before 2012 and hence has not even the remotest link to Punjab’s past, the least baggage among all parties.
“AAP’s outreach to this section cost it in 2017 but even now their advisors seem to think Punjab is of Sikhs only and that only radical politics appeals to Sikhs. This perception is contrary to reality,” says Puri. At the same time, according to him, Sikh identity overseas has been reshaped of late. “I’ve noted in recent years that overseas they rarely talk about being Indian first. They say they are Sikh first. This is a new way of looking at identity among NRI Sikhs. This way of seeing themselves has not come to Punjab, except among those in (radical) politics.”
Both AAP leaders recently in the eye of the storm—Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann and Kharar MLA Kanwar Sandhu—questioned the recent arrest of British national Jagtar Singh Johal aka Jaggi (see Panth And A Foreign Hand). Both explain why they did so. “I don’t say Jaggi should be set free. I say the state should contact the UK High Commission. That’s what any Indian would want if arrested overseas,” says Mann.
Mann also asks why the ‘radicalism’ debate targets AAP while neglecting to record similarities in political culture here and in other states. “See the Padmaavat issue. Across the country there was no law, only a culture of blood-for-blood. Such impunity exists among Punjab’s authorities too. They are trying to scare people with talk of terrorists,” he tells Outlook.
In Mann’s view, contrarian positions are increasingly difficult to take—the Shiv Sena burned his effigy last November—and targeting such voices offers an excellent distraction from promised development works for any regime. “That does not mean we should be quiet on what is right. We help Indian nationals trapped in Bahrain, Libya, Saudi Arabia. I feel Punjab should reciprocate.”
Sandhu, who was for long a mainstream journalist with no radical credentials, has now, as a politician, taken a tough line. He did not find the Punjab Police version of Jaggi’s arrest “convincing”, and said so. “In case there is no substantial evidence against him, he should be freed and an apology tendered. In case there is evidence…the information should be shared with UK police and the government,” he wrote on Facebook.
“We don’t toe the Khalistan line,” Sandhu explains. “The issue is that a lot of Punjabis feel alienated. Nobody got justice in 1984, yet they talk of radical fringe. The difference is we believe you can bring peace using legal means—a probe, proof, then punishment through courts.” Sandhu finds it tough to choose silence while the police are charged with torturing Jaggi. “Politically motivated agencies do catch people and torture them,” he says. One Canadian minister of Sikh origin spoke last year about being illegally detained in India during his youth, a story that circulated widely on social media.
In the highly charged pre-poll atmosphere in Punjab, a bomb had exploded near a Congress rally at Maur. This tipped the scales decisively against AAP, which was already under pressure after Kejriwal was accused of having used the house of an ex-militant (who was in London) to spend a night in Moga. “Nobody knows yet who was responsible for that lethal bomb—the police have not solved the case,” says Sandhu.
“AAP is in the past now,” says Ronki Ram, professor of political science at Panjab University, though he disagrees that the ‘radical’ tag cost it. “It lost its ground as an alternative by doing what other parties do. Sikh radicalism is being hyped up now—there is no feeling of separatism in Punjab.”
Observers say it’s not the way AAP presses the buttons on Sikh issues, but their lack of cohesion that spoils the pitch. Recently its Punjab unit demanded a separate bank account. The state leadership is also a virtual merry-go-round. “We told Delhi to give more independence to the local leadership but they don’t trust us. They feel Sikhs have a soft corner for separatists and ignore how parties like Simranjit Mann’s Akali faction are routed in every poll,” says an insider. “Maur was a trap. Yet, if they don’t denounce radical elements, people will get scared and opponents will use this against us.” In a potentially volatile context, it would make sense for AAP to come out and, well, separate ‘separatism’ from genuine justice issues.