On returning as Punjab chief minister last year, Captain Amarinder Singh found the state reeling under a drug problem and attempts to revive Khalistani extremism. In this interview with Ushinor Majumdar, he explains the role of the ‘foreign hand’ and how the state is dealing with it. Edited excerpts:
Is there a resurgence of Khalistani extremism, considering the number of recent incidents and killings?
There has been no resurgence. In fact, since the Congress took over, the Punjab Police has cracked the “targeted killings” and busted several terrorist modules, with no fresh cases in the past several weeks. For the supply of weapons and other logistics, the radicals had started using the criminal gangs that had mushroomed over the past decade. Vicky Gounder, killed in a recent encounter, was an example. Unemployment and the drug menace emerged over the past 10 years, making Punjab’s youth vulnerable to external influences and pressures. Various external forces are constantly trying to ruin our nation’s peaceful fabric. As a border state, Punjab is particularly susceptible to forces such as the ISI. The Akalis were too busy promoting their vested interests to secure Punjab. The police were pressured not to act against organised crime.
Was there an intelligence failure?
The gangster-radical nexus is not new; it grew during the Akali regime. So there’s no question of there being an intelligence failure. The Vicky Gounder operation shows that intelligence has been strengthened multifold in the past few months. To break the nexus, we issued strict instructions to prison officials to prevent gangster activities. We have INStalled mobile jammers in jails, conducted surprise prison raids to seize mobile phones and installed more CCTVs. When I took over, we gave an option to all criminals to surrender, but I also made it clear that anybody who uses firearms will be met with firearms. As a result, most criminals are off the streets now. Weapon supply is being choked. We cannot undo the problems of the past 10 years in just 10 months, but things are under control and will improve in the months ahead. My government will not allow this nexus to grow. I have personally ensured that the police and other agencies have a free hand in cracking down on such elements. We need development, for which we must have stability in law and order for investments and industries to come in.
Doesn’t the proposed PCOCA law give the police too much power?
PCOCA doesn’t grant unbridled powers but enough authority to the police to take action against criminals and gangsters. It is targeted at criminals and gangsters, and we have ensured sufficient checks and balances under the Act to prevent misuse or excesses. Tough problems need tough solutions and PCOCA is our answer to a festering problem that has grown out of proportion in the past 10 years of Akali misrule.
One cannot blame the ISI alone. Is it clear which ‘foreign hand’ is driving this entire nexus?
It is not about blaming the ISI or anyone else. Evidence gathered by the police and other agencies points to the ISI as the key perpetrator of extremism in Punjab. Increasingly, as investigations have revealed, the ISI is using foreign soil to promote its anti-India agenda. So we have seen the names of countries such as the UK, Canada and Italy crop up in connection with probes into various cases. Extremist groups in these countries could be working in tandem with the ISI or independently. These things are under investigation by Punjab and national agencies.
Is there a clear link to Canada?
In one case currently under investigation, the police have found a link for money that was used to buy an Uzi submachine gun for extremists. It will be revealed once foreign authorities cooperate with Indian and Punjab agencies. On the face of it, there seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathisers in (Canadian PM) Trudeau’s cabinet.
Why are youth in Punjab today attracted towards religious extremism?
I would not say that the youth are attracted to religious extremism. They have become vulnerable due to drugs and unemployment. History shows that unemployment is likely to lead to drug addiction and provokes fascist tendencies among youth. We have broken the back of the drugs network in the state and have successfully weaned away most of the youth who had become addicted to drugs during the rule of the Akalis. We issued 25,000 job letters through job fairs and more will follow in the coming months. Industrial development is a prime focus area for us and it will also help end unemployment.
Important issues that need to be worked out—labour, agriculture and farm loan waiver, river water-sharing, language—are being drawn into the larger demand for Khalistan....
While these issues trigger passion, the majority of the people do not see them from the Khalistani lens, but as problems that their elected government should resolve. People know how to distinguish between Punjabi identity and extremism; and between issues of individuality and of livelihood. Language, for instance, is an issue of identity and individuality, while labour and agriculture are relevant for survival. All these issues cannot be clubbed together to generalise on that basis.
Water-sharing, which once aroused passions, is today an issue related to the survival of Punjab and its people. We cannot share what we don’t have; hence, for our survival, we are fighting on every possible forum, be it legal or dialogue, to protect the water rights of our citizens. At our behest, and on the directives of the court, the central government is facilitating talks on the issue among all stakeholders, and I am hopeful of its resolution in our favour.
There is a strong demand for a separate religious identity for Sikhs....
The Akalis raise the pitch on Sikh religious identity every time they are out of office. But we are all Indians and the Sikhs, with their five ‘Ks’, are already recognised with a separate identity among Indians. So what new will a legislation do? This is just a way to disturb peace. Had Sikh identity really been an issue, why did the Shiromani Akali Dal not pursue it when they were in power in the state? In fact, they are in power at the Centre right now.
Trudeau is scheduled to visit in February. Will you personally welcome him or accompany him during his visit?
Neither I nor my government has received any official communication so far from Canada or from our own Ministry of External Affairs on such a visit. But I have made it clear on several occasions that if and when we received any such communication, I would be happy to meet Justin Trudeau or welcome him as per the protocol accorded to any state guest of his stature.
You have reached out to the Sikh diaspora to “connect with your roots”. At the same time, you have spurned Sikh political leaders such as the Canadian defence minister last year....
There is no question of spurning genuine Sikh political leaders. It is only the radicals and the Khalistani sympathisers with whom I have a problem, just as every person who loves Punjab and India should have.
The “connect with your roots” programme has no political agenda. It is aimed at specifically connecting with the Punjabi youth settled in other countries, whom we want to apprise about their or their ancestors’ historical links and rich cultural traditions. I do not see how protesting against extremist elements sends a wrong message to the Sikh diaspora. In fact, it sends the correct message–that Punjab is a strong state that is fully capable of protecting its people from disruptive forces.
The day may not be far when an Indian-origin Sikh is elected as the PM of Canada. Can we afford to have a less-than-warm relationship between Canada and Punjab?
Tomorrow, if an Indian-origin Sikh becomes the prime minister of Pakistan, would that be a good enough reason for us to change our approach towards the neighbouring country? Relations between two countries are guided not by the colour of the skin or the turbans on the heads of their leaders. They are guided by mutual trust. Every Sikh settled in Canada does not have pro-extremist leanings. So if an Indian-origin Sikh who is concerned about the interests of India takes over, I see no problem in forging close relations with him. But if the person has antagonistic approach towards Punjab or India, then naturally I will not engage with him, be it a Sikh or anyone else.