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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 31

Welcome Initiative

Saturday 21 July 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty

There is no dearth of critics of Chandra Shekhar, especially after the manner of his installation as the Prime Minister. The parliamentary majority for his government is tenuous, if not precarious. His electoral mandate is yet to be established.

For such a government to go in for a bold initiative in tackling any of the formidable problems facing the country today, seems daring, and may even look reckless. And this is precisely how the first reactions have come after his latest move to deal with the Punjab crisis. Many have attacked him, others have criticised him and still others have added a generous dose of warning. All these are by and large along expected lines of political postures of different parties and their leaders. And yet with all the risks that accompany it, Chandra Shekhar’s first round of formal talks with the Akali leader, Simranjit Singh Mann, deserves unqualified support. There are always hazards in crossing the no-man’s land that divides two warring sides, and yet the flag of peace has to be carried through that minefield if a settlement is to be reached, at least explored. If an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation has to be defused, if high tension has to be scaled down, somebody has to make the move and face the hazard. No doubt a gamble is implicit, but without venturing into it, how does one start the process of a settlement? If with all the handicaps that beset him Chandra Shekhar has taken an initiative on Punjab, it needs to be supported by all those who can look beyond the close confines of their respective policy postures.

Everybody agrees that the Punjab situation is the gravest faced by this country since independence. Political leaders engaged in Punjab are themselves conceding that the situation there is “fast slipping to a point of no return” as one of them put it in this very week. It is estimated that over ten thousand lives have been lost in the last twelve years of internecine clashes on the Akali demand. One has also to take into account how through sheer drift and reliance on intrigue as her key political weapons in Punjab, Indira Gandhi went in for the ‘Operation Bluestar’ that ultimately brought her own tragic end. As a matter of fact, no political leader at the Centre can claim to have adhered to a sustained political line with regard to the Punjab crisis. There was enthusiastic response to Rajiv Gandhi’s accord with Sant Longowal in the very first year of his prime ministership. But once that was signed, no worthwhile follow-up was pushed, not even the courtesy or honouring the provisions of that accord. What began as a token of a serious move for an earnest settlement finally came to be regarded by many as just a gimmick.

When Vishwanath Pratap Singh went to Amritsar in open jeep and touched with his forehead the soil of the Golden Temple, there was a fresh round of euphoria, which was reinforced by the appointment of an understanding Governor in the hope of going in for the elections for the State Assembly. But soon the policy petered out and a golden opportunity for reconciliation was frittered away which could by no means be recovered by open confession of having committed the mistake of cancelling an overdue election. There followed small-town politics to handle a major political tragedy that Punjab has come to represent in contemporary India. A new Governor was foisted on the State on the recommendation of Devi Lal, who claimed to be some sort of a Tau even to the Akali leader, Badal. But the Governor had no understanding whatsoever of the crisis and stayed comfortably passive barring occasional outbursts of clownish comments.

Meanwhile, for nearly five long years, the proud State was virtually handed over to the mercy of armed police as if it was just a question of law-and-order to deal with armed militants—the result was that from avenging the ‘Bluestar’ the lobby of Khalistani secessionism inevitably gained ground.

On the Akali side also the time has come for self-introspection. The decision of the different Akali factions to come together and nominate Mann as their accredited emissary has not come a day too soon. It is important that the militants were involved in the deliberations, because the time has long been past when the Akali moderates could have held their own and kept the militants out. Perhaps this could have been achieved had the moderates made common cause with Longowal in 1985 and persuaded, if not compelled, New Delhi to implement the Rajiv-Longowal accord. In the present circumstances, there could be no question of purposeful negotiations without involving the militants. This is a point which Chandra Shekhar can hardly afford to give in under pressure from other parties.

No doubt, there will be many criticisms on this score because many of the utterances at the Fatehgarh Sahib meeting—in which the Sikh right to self-determination was upheld—have been widely attacked by political parties. The point to note here is that in such negotiations it is absurd to expect the militants to come out in sack cloth and ashes. The rhetoric before such talks is necessarily of high voltage, but that does not mean that the final settlement could be only on conceding the maximum demand. The principle of give-and-take is inherent in such talks. Besides, the phrase “self-determination” is as vague and ambiguous as the Anandpur Sahib Resolution which Rajiv had denounced during the 1984 election campaign but agreed to consider when he signed the accord with Longowal seven months later.

There is also a line of argument which says that any concession to the Sikh militants in Punjab would give fresh impetus to the VHP’s demands on the Ayodhya issue. What is missed in this argument is the fact that the VHP’s Hindu Rashtra campaign has actually evoked concern among the Sikhs as well which in turn has encouraged the militant campaign that there could be no room for the minorities to live with honour and security in future India. It is significant that Mann himself declared at Fatehgarh Sahib that “the Sikhs would stand by the Muslims on the question of their status, their mosques including the Babri Masjid”.

It is obvious that Chandra Shekhar as well as the Akali leadership would have to face an almost superhuman task to hammer out an understanding. The path to a settlement in Punjab is not as straight as New Delhi’s Rajpath. But that’s no reason why it should be avoided. Rather, it is all the more urgent that it is taken up right now as Chandra Shekhar has done. One only hopes that this is worked out in all seriousness and not as a one-shot affair as has happened so often, with disastrous consequences, in the last few years in dealing with intractable challenges.

(Mainstream January 5, 1991)

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