CHANDIGARH, India, May 10, Reuter: Politicians in Punjab view the world through barbed wires. Fences and machinegun emplacements surround the homes of political leaders in Chandigarh, State capital of the north Indian State of Punjab, symbolizing their isolation from power as Sikh freedom fighters fight for an independent homeland. Politics have been squeezed out by the freedom fighters Minister Rajiv Gandhi, bringing Punjab down to a straight battle between hundreds of freedom fighters and 700,000 police and paramilitary troops.
In the middle stand Punjab’s 17 million Sikhs and Hindus becoming increasingly polarized as separatist killings rise daily and the police response toughness. Thousands of Hindu families have fled their homes in separatist strongholds along the Pakistani border. Thousands of young Sikhs lie in jail for suspected links with freedom fighters, Members of Gandhi’s Congress
(I) Party from the State have asked him to declare an emergency in Punjab and send in the army.
Sikh leaders want him to dismiss the Governor he appointed a year ago to rule the state for New Delhi and hold elections,
The Governor, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, and his advisor former Police Chief Julio Ribeiro, are identified by many leaders with harsh policing they say is alienating Punjab’s fifteen million Sikhs.
Gandhi sacked the elected moderate Sikh Akali Dal government in May 1987 for what he called its failure to curb violence, one month before a crucial elections in neighbouring Hindu majority Haryana state, since then the number of killings has soared, and Congress lost the election.
“Political parties are slightly irrelevant in Punjab”, Ray told Reuters. “The battle seems to be between Sikh freedom fighters on one side and the Hindu government in Delhi on the other.
Akali Dal leaders believe Gandhi is not interested in a political solution and has not realized the implications of having engineered their downfall.
“There is now no political structure in the villages to cushion Sikhs from the police and administration and take up their grievances,” said one village headman from Gurdaspur district, a separatist hotbed.
“Villagers see the boys as the only people standing up to the police and taking their side,” he said.
Moderates sense a growing feeling of Sikh unity in the face of what many see as government repression and a tendency by Hindu opinion makers to lump moderate and militant Sikhs together.
“Sikhs are not in favour of a separate state”, said Balwant Singh, number two in the dismissed Akali government. “But Sikhs realize that this government is not going to give them justice but is pushing them up against the wall,” he told Reuters. “The Center (Delhi) has given the Sikhs an emotional unity”.
Many Sikhs believe Congress is exploiting the Punjab conflict to woo vital Hindu votes in North India. Gandhi must call an election by the end of next year and faces seven important byelections next month.
Some Sikhs think Gandhi is merely waiting for the right time to impose an emergency in the State to show Hindus he is dealing with separatism.
He armed himself with the power to call an emergency by amending the Constitution last month.
It allows for suspension of civil rights in Punjab and would permit police to arrest or shoot dead a suspect without accountability to a court. Ray said the amendment was to plug loopholes and did not mean an emergency would be introduced.
The amendment caused uproar in Punjab to deal with violence so who is the emergency aimed at? Balwant Singh asked.
Even some of Gandhi’s own party members are critical.
“Many people feel the amendment which suspends the right to life as a gross violation of inalienable human rights”, Gurbir Singh, former Punjab Congress General Secretary, said.
“People feel Parliament is now suborindate to an executive which is ruling arbitrarily in collusion with a pliant judiciary”, he said in an interview.
Sikhs complain loudly that all senior administrators under Governor Ray are nonSikh or even antiSikh, but top of a long list of grievances is the alleged killing by police of Sikh detainees in “fake encounters” —staged escapes or ambushes.
“Police will kill a man in broad daylight”, Balwant Singh said.
The accusations are most frequently aimed at Ribeiro who vowed to match the separatists “bullet for bullet” when he became police chief in March 1986.
Ribeiro rejects charges that Punjab Police are corrupt, brutal and inefficient.
“The police has a derivational role, it can never be popular,” he said.
Heavy policing, however, has failed to curb the killings which have soared to 900 so far this year compared with 1.228 in all of 1987 and 640 in 1986. “An emergency would be suicidal,” Balwant Singh said, “It would further alienate Sikhs and give a boost to freedom fighters”. Akali Member of Parliament Jagit Singh Aurora agrees: “The government has only tried to deal with violence in isolation, not in conjunction with politics”.
Article extracted from this publication >> May 13, 1988