NEW DELHI, India: The Indian government imposed direct rule on the northern State of Punjab ostensibly to suppress the growing movement by the Sikh freedom fighters for an independent homeland but actually to boost its chances in Haryana elections, newspapers reported today.
The Hindustan Times and the Punjab based Tribune dailies said the Central government believed that Barnala government had failed to control the freedom fighters. They said the reposition of direct rule was already in the air.
The direct rule followed an upsurge in killings and growing criticism by leading political parties of Barnala’s 20month administration.
Fifteen people were killed over the week and more than 315 people have been killed since January.
In the Punjab State capital Chandigarh, Barnala told reporters the Central government had dismissed his government to boost Congress (I) Party chances in the forthcoming Haryana elections, state-run AllIndia radio said.
Akali Dal State Assembly Members supporting the dismissed Chief Minister met in Chandigarh and called the imposition of direct rule a “betrayal”.
In a resolution echoing Barnala’s charges, they said the imposition of direct rule was taken for “purely partisan motives of promoting the Congress Party’s electoral interest in the Haryana elections.
Junior Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, speaking in Parliament this afternoon, described as ridiculous the Opposition charges that direct rule was imposed because of the Haryana election.
Chidabaram said Barnala “is a well-intentioned man” who had lost the will to fight against the freedom fighters”.
The Press Trust of India (PTI) said the Barnala’s nameplate had already been removed from the Chief Minister’s office in the State Secretariat building, as had the names of his State Cabinet Members.
Direct rule puts 60,000 State police and paramilitary troops under the control of a Governor appointed by Delhi. The Governor, Sidhartha Shankar Ray, can also call out the army if necessary.
Ray told reporters in Chandigarh that law and order had completely broken down under Barnala.
In a report to Gandhi yesterday Ray also accused Akali leaders of “unwarranted attempted interference” with police operations.
He said Sikh freedom fighters in Amnitsar’s Golden Temple, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine, had set up parallel authority in the State.
Direct rule has been imposed nine times in the past 20 years in Sikh majority Punjab. It was lifted after two years in September 1985 when the Akali Dal won elections held after Gandhi signed a peace accord with moderate Sikhs in July that year.
That accord has stalled mainly because of opposition by Hindus, a minority in Punjab but a majority throughout the rest of north India, where Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party draws its major support.
Opposition leaders today accused Gandhi of sacking Barnala to appease Hindu sentiments in Hindu dominated Haryana state where Congress faces crucial elections on June 17.
Gandhi, his image badly tarnished by corruption scandals this year, needs to do well in Haryana, a state wedged between Punjab and Delhi. Thousands of Hindu families have fled there in the face of violence in Punjab.
Lok Dal Opposition Party General Secretary S.P. Malaviya said: “Making Barnala a scapegoat is an eyewash”.
He said Gandhi him set was much to blame for the Punjab crisis because he had failed to implement the peace accord.
Police in the state capital Chandigarh told Reuters paramilitary troops had moved into Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts along the Pakistani border. Scene of some of the bloodiest attacks.
The imposition of direct rule follows an upsurge in killings and growing criticism by leading political parties of the State’s Sikh Akali Dal Party led by Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala.
Direct rule was lifted after two years in September 1985 when Barnala came to power in elections engineered by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and moderate Sikh leaders.
Since then Hindu leaders, Opposition Parties and Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party have accused the beleaguered Chief Minister of being too weak.