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Punjab Haunted By The Past It Wants To Forget

This election season in Punjab, longstanding regional demands have taken a backseat

Dreams Die First
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Punjabis  are archetypically portrayed as people who have a penchant for raunak—and revelry. But this assembly election, many feel, is comparatively more like a mechanical exercise—and to some extent, even being perceived as banal as the spark of enthusiasm is missing, especially among the youth. This holds true for Amandeep Singh, 31, a Mohali-based cab driver. Just like almost every young man and woman in Punjab, he too wants to go abroad. But there is one hurdle: He needs Rs 18 lakh to pay the travel agent who would help him get a job in Canada. Disillusioned and restless, young people like him are willing to take any risk regardless of what Canada’s Brampton MP Ruby Sahota advised them during her Punjab visit in 2018, “Punjabi youths should not fall prey to the fraudulent travel agents.”

And Singh explains why: “Here, I barely earn enough to pay the car loan EMI. Whatever rem­ains, I spend on maintenance of the car. There is no reward, no matter how many hours you put into your work.” With a wry smile he reacts to one of the popular slogans which became a rallying point for assertion of regional aspirations— which are still at the heart of the power tussle in the Centre-state relationship, in late 1960s: Khidiya phull gulaab da, Chandigarh Punjab da! (Says the rose in full bloom: Chandi­garh belongs to Punjab).

Wounded psyche

Punjab has been urging the Centre that Chandigarh, which is the shared capital city of both Haryana and Punjab, be transferred to it. Similarly, it wants a separate high court. In 2018, former AAP parliamentarian Dharamvir Gandhi and former high court judge Ajit Singh Bains filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, seeking compensation of Rs 80,000 crore to Punjab for supplying water to Haryana and Rajasthan for free for the past 70 years. At present, it is estimated that the Punjab is saddled with a debt of around Rs 2.82 lakh crore.

In February 2015, the Amarinder Singh-led Punjab government moved the Supreme Court under Article 131 of the Constitution, seeking directions to the Centre to constitute a tribunal for reallocation in river water share. Again, on December 11, 2021, Punjab moved the top court challenging the decision of the Central government to increase the territorial jurisdiction of the Border Security Force from 15 km to 50 km of the international border.

But all these issues which seem so important for Punjab are either missing or are not being raised vociferously by political parties this election, according to observers. Prof Ronki Ram, who is the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair professor of political science at Panjab University, says, “Punjab has this deep hurt feeling that it didn’t get what was due to it on account of the Green Revolution. During the period of insurgency, it was the Centre that should have borne the security-related expenditure. But it burdened the state. Punjab got the status of state on linguistic basis after a long struggle and yet several Punjabi-speaking areas were left out.”

When Punjab was partitioned in 1947, it lost its capital city, Lahore. “But the Centre couldn’t give Punjab a full-fledged capital city,” he adds. Talking about the larger “mistrust” between the Centre and the state, he adds, “Because of these reasons people oppose whenever the Centre proposes to make Panjab University a Central university. They don’t want the varsity to come under the jurisdiction of the Union Territory of Chandigarh.”

Prof. Ashutosh Kumar, who heads the department of political science in Panjab University, says that Punjabis always look at the Centre or “Dilli Durbar” as a force inimical to their regional interests—something which defined the spirit of protest songs during  the farmers’ agitation last year. Claiming that the prime minister’s proposed Punjab visit raised hopes of “undoing injustice” done to the state by successive central governments, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Sukhbir Singh Badal had asked PM Narendra Modi on Twitter ahead of his visit earlier this year, “I urge Mr. Modi to make a difference on January 5 by transferring Chandigarh to Punjab. Punjabi-speaking areas which were left out of the state at the time of its reorganisation in 1966 should be transferred back to it. Similarly, the riparian rights of the state over its river waters should also be bestowed to it.”

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Fragrance of a Funeral by Riyas Komu, Recycled wood

Trust deficit

M. Rajivlochan, who teaches history at Panjab University says: “Some of the perennial issues that came up when Indira Gandhi partitioned Punjab in 1966 keep cropping up every time someone wants to stir the political pot. Like sharing of water resources with Haryana and Rajasthan— an issue which heats up each time someone wants to bash the ruling party in Punjab.” As far as Punjab’s relationship with the Centre is concerned, the professor says, “Punjab is perhaps the only state in India which actually obeys the diktats of the Central government almost unquestioningly. Punjab pre-1966 did so; Punjab post-1966 did so; Punjab of 2022 does so too.”

Referring to Amarinder Singh’s recent statement that Punjab—which had emerged as a model state soon after the Green Revolution—cannot survive without strong support from the Centre, he says, “whosoever governs Punjab should not create an acrimonious relationship with the Centre.”

While the Centre should respect the federal structure in the true spirit of the Indian Constitution, Prof Ronki Ram says, “Neither the national nor the regional parties have been contesting this election on the basis of real issues that represent Punjab’s regional interest.”

In the 2017 Assembly polls, the Congress ousted the SAD-BJP government, which had been in power for 10 years, after winning an absolute majority with 77 seats. During campaigning, recalls Prof Rajivlochan, “the AAP had started playing footsie with Khalistani separatists. But this time, in the elections of 2022, even the AAP has desisted from maligning the Centre in its campaign.” But over the years, the Khalistan sentiment “has turned to be a symbol for identity assertion rather than an urge for separatism or secession,” says Aarish Chabra, a journalist-turned-academic.

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There are only two groupings in Punjab which can be called “regional”— the  SAD and the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), according to Prof Rajivlochan. “(But) neither has any agenda— declared or otherwise— which is different from the Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party or the AAP. All are promising people-friendly, corruption-free governance. The only whiff of ‘regionalism’ is in their making a few additional noises about being farmer-friendly too. Beyond this, I don’t see any special regional aspiration being either articulated or desired by any of the regional parties.”

When Punjab was partitioned in 1947, it lost its capital city, Lahore. “But the Centre couldn’t give Punjab a full-fledged capital city,” says Professor Ronki Ram.

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The flashpoints in the Centre-state relationship date back to the Mughal era. After independence, he says, “The image of the ‘Daughter of Delhi’ doing horrible things to Punjab remains quite strong even today. That image might have been one of the major reasons why Narendra Modi hesitated in using strength to dislodge the protesting farmers from the borders of Delhi last year. After all, Modi used to be based in Punjab when the ‘Daughter of Delhi’ rhetoric was in full swing.”

“Do remember,” he stresses, “It was the strongly nationalist Amarinder Singh who tore up the water-sharing agreements that had been negotiated by the rulers from Delhi. ‘Unfair’ was the word used repeatedly in speeches in the state assembly on that occasion.”

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Political disillusionment

Stating that the SAD had been ruling for 10 years when the people of Punjab decided to throw them out and bring in Amarinder Singh, Prof Rajivlochan adds, “even in the 2017 elections, when the Congress won 77 seats—the first time after Kairon’s grand victory of 1962—and the AAP was left with 20, the SAD was the runner-up party in 44 seats and the BJP in 17. Many of the losses were quite narrow.”

Rejecting the common notion regarding the downfall of SAD, he says, “Even today the SAD seems to be giving a strong fight. Noteworthy though is that there is a major change in the public image of the SAD. In the 21st century it has matured into being a party of Punjab rather than being a party of the (Jat) Sikhs alone. Which actually is a welcome transformation considering that Jat Sikhs form but a small segment of the voters.”

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Only SAD and SSM in Punjab can be called ‘regional’. “(But) neither has any agenda which is different from the Congress, BJP or AAP,” says Prof Rajivlochan.

“If we go by the experience of the last 20-30 years, Punjab state is in decline. Agriculture sector and the industrial sector are in deep crisis. Punjab has the highest rate of farmer suicide,” says Prof. Ashutosh Kumar. “There is a lot of political disillusionment among average Punjabis. The blame goes to both the regional and the national parties. This time there could be a lower voter turnout despite the fact that the state has a very strong regional sentiment—Panjabiyat,” he says, asserting that, “this is the reason that a new party, AAP, which is untainted, has been able to make inroads in the state. But then they have also become a party of competitive populism that involves distribution of freebies.”

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After 1966 when Punjab was reorganised for the third time, the majority of the demands of the Anandpur Sahib declaration remained unfulfilled, he explains.

In October last year, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal shared a video statement on Twitter, reasserting “Anandpur Sahib resolution – Committed to ‘Sarbat da bhala’ (Welfare of All)”. Singh had claimed that the party’s resolution passed on August 28, 1977 was an outcome of perseverance (drdhata), ability (kaabiliyat) and prudence (siaanap).

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But over a period of time, Prof Kumar believes that SAD, which has forged a pre-poll alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party, has become a pragmatic party. “We have seen a dilution in the ideology and the party has become a catch-all electoral party,” he says, adding that this has disenchanted its traditional Sikh voters.

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Enumerating the issues at the centre of the assembly elections, he says, “the issues in this election include farm distress—as the Green Revolution has run its course, development, hopelessness among the youth, drugs, corruption, misgovernance and emergence of mafias in different sectors.”

The professor, who has been following political manifestos in Punjab since 2002—when Punjab was in debt of Rs 52,000 crore, says, “Those real issues that represent Punjab’s real interest and aspirations rarely find any space in political discourse. The parties have been talking about a second Green Revolution, development of agro-based industries, promotion of organic and smart farming. These poll promises remain on paper.”

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“All the ancillary factories have moved out of Punjab. On the other hand, Haryana—which was nowhere near Punjab in terms of economic development—was also a Green Revolution state but it has developed industry,” he adds.

Chasing mirages

When asked about his response to growing restlessness among young people to migrate abroad for greener pastures, Babbu Maan, noted Punjabi singer and Punjab’s youth icon, had retorted at a journalist recently, “Why shouldn’t people go abroad? Who wouldn’t like to go abroad? This is no issue at all. At least one person from every Punjabi family must go abroad to raise the living standard of his or her family.”

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And here lies the predicament of the aspirational youth like Amandeep Singh. In one of his celebrated poems, a prominent Punjabi poet, Padma Shri Surjit Patar, writes about the plight of most of the Punjabi youths stranded abroad:

Jo videshan ch rulde ne roji de lahi,
Oh jadon desh partan gaye apne kadi!
Kuj tan sekan gaye maa de seeve di agan,
Baki kabran de rukh heth jaa bain gaye!

(Those who chase mirages in the alien lands/ shall come back home one day/ A few may warm their hands by the mother’s pyre/and others shall go and sit under trees by the graves).

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Dreams Die First")

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