My Viewpoint: Kanwar Sandhu;
The Bhagwant Mann-led AAP Government in Punjab can take solace in replacing the Patiala Range Inspector General of Police and the district SSP for their failure to prevent a communal flare-up in Patiala on Friday. But the Government can’t absolve itself for its share of the failure. After all, what were the directions to the district officials on the imminent situation which was unfolding for over one week prior to Friday’s clash? Undoubtedly, a recall of events clearly suggests that the district police goofed up.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, the US-based non-descript legal adviser of an organisation with an insignificant following in Punjab had given a call for observing “Khalistan Foundation Day” on April 29. An equally unknown self-styled head of a group of Shiv Sena, Harish Singla had announced a counter to the march the same day. This should have resulted in the Patiala district administration, including the police, to take remedial measures. In such cases, preventive arrests are usually made or the organisers are dissuaded from continuing the march. Based on the situation analysis, police reinforcements should still have been kept on stand-by, potential trouble spots barricaded and water cannons kept handy. The police intelligence cells should have been activated to ensure that an eye is kept on the miscreants and also to ensure that the likely points to clash are free of firearms, bricks and other missile-like objects. The district magistrate (DC) should have obviously overseen all this. That none of this appears to have been done shows that there was a gross miscalculation in threat perception and its handling at the district level.
But the buck does not stop there. Given the recent history of Punjab and the volatility of its people, it was incumbent upon the State Police Intelligence Chief to keep the Home Minister (in this case the Chief Minister) briefed at regular intervals on the ground situation and issue requisite instructions to the district administration. I am not sure this was done. Subsequent steps like arresting the miscreants like Singla, imposing a curfew and blocking the internet are routine steps that usually follow every situation after goof-ups. The responsibility of the Home Department and State Police Headquarters was particularly important in this case, given the history of communal flare-ups in Patiala.
The clashes on Friday have an uncanny resemblance to similar incidents of violence in April-May 1983. Hindus had taken out a procession in Patiala on Ram Navami Day on April 21, 1983, when some miscreants had brandished “trishuls” and raised anti-Sikh slogans. This was a result of the overall security situation in Punjab then, to which I will come to in a while. On April 30, the Sikhs took out a procession in Patiala on the Parkash Purab of Guru Teg Bahadur and during the procession, naked swords were displayed and anti-Hindu slogans were raised. Demographically, the Hindus and Sikhs in Patiala town are evenly placed, politically very aware with business rivalries being legendary. The tension between the two communities in Patiala continued for a few days and on May 2 things came to a boil over a minor incident. Some shopkeepers belonging to one community protested against the use of loudspeakers by another community. This led to a series of clashes. There were as many as 48 cases of arson, riots and looting of shops even during curfew hours. As many as 48 shops had been set on fire in Adalat Bazaar. A young man, Ashok Kumar had been killed in police firing. Though his Father, Vidya Sagar, was a political activist, the deceased was targeted for no reason.
The Government had then appointed a Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice KK Dube from Madhya Pradesh to inquire into violence at Patiala. The Commission was also asked to look into incidents of violence and police firing at 8 places during the Rasta Roko call given by Akali Dal on April 4, in which 14 persons had lost their lives. I recall being roughed up along with the photographer by the police near Rajpura while covering this Rasta Roko agitation that day. But that is another story.
The communal clash in Patiala on Friday also needs to be understood in the background of the overall situation in Punjab which developed following the April 13 Nirankari-Sikh clash of 1978. As a reaction to the Amritsar incident on Baisakhi, the Akalis took out a big procession in Patiala two days later and forced people to shut shops. During the procession and the ensuing tension in the city, certain shops were stoned which resulted in straining of the relationship between the communities. The Hindus in Patiala reacted by forming the Hindu Raksha Samiti under one Ashok Kumar. Its membership comprised mainly Congress(I) and BJP workers. Another organisation called Anti-Khalistan Youth front was formed in August 1981 under one Pawan Kumar Sharma. On 9th September, the newspaper baron, Lala Jagat Narain was killed. Two days after the killing, the Front was renamed Hindu Suraksha Samiti. As a reaction, Akali Dal cadres floated another organisation called Naujawan Khalsa Dal. Incidentally, amongst Akali Dal also there were two groups – one owing allegiance to former CM, Parkash Singh Badal and the other to former SGPC Chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Both had their own factions of the Naujwan Khalsa Dals too. Incidentally, Ajit Pal Singh Kohli, AAP MLA from Patiala (Urban) comes from an Akali family which was reportedly aligned to Jathedar Tohra. Incidentally, the name of the Kohli family figured prominently in the May 1983 developments in Patiala. The spokespersons of the Government and AAP who are blaming the Opposition parties for fanning the current violence in Patiala have no understanding of either the history or the ground situation! While the communal scenario in Patiala today has a sordid resemblance to the one in 1983, the key players and their organisations have new names!
Incidentally, the Dube Commission of Inquiry Report to which I was privy to, had gone into great detail into the April-May, 1983 incidents in Punjab, including Patiala. Unfortunately, after the Surjit Singh Barnala Government was formed in 1985, the Report was to be tabled in Vidhan Sabha first in 1985 and then in 1986. But, the then Government decided against it as the Report had indicted some senior police officers for the violence in Patiala. It had also justified the police firing in 7 of the 8 incidents on April 4, 1983, in Punjab. I am not sure if it was ever tabled in the House later. Perhaps, tabling the Report even now (or at least reading it) and imbibing lessons from it on communal violence could be beneficial. Friday’s incident in Patiala proves that history has a habit of repeating itself. So why not learn from it?