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Mainsteam, Vol XLIX, No 12, March 12, 2011

The Akali Accord

Wednesday 16 March 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty


(On March 4, 2011 former Union HRD Minister Arjun Singh, 81, passed away in New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Besides being an ardent loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family, he was a sturdy secularist and cast in the classic socialist-secular mould of Jawaharlal Nehru. Arjun Singh played a major role behind-the-scenes before the signing of the Rajiv-Longowal accord which, however, was short-lived due to the brutal assassination of the Akali leader. The following editorial of N.C. in Mainstream immediately after the accord brings out Arjun Singh’s valuable contribution behind the exercise.)

After five long years of bitter wranglings and bloody killings threatening to spill over into a civil war, the crisis in Punjab has taken a new turn which promises to usher in peace and order. With the signing of the Memorandum of Settlement between the Akali Dal chief Harchand Singh Longowal and the Prime Minister of India on July 24, there is justifiably a widespread feeling that the Punjab situation has passed the stage of crisis and may come back to normalcy in the near future. The light seems to have been sighted at the end of the tunnel.

The eleven-point Memorandum of Settlement is a carefully-worded document which, if it can disarm Akali intransigence, will serve its purpose. If it enables Sant Longowal to unify Akali opinion to hound out terrorists and secessionists from within its camp and bring it back into the national mainstream, then it will certainly be regarded as a major contribution towards national integration. The entire country will now watch closely whether Sant Longowal can rally Sikh opinion behind his present committed stand and thereby help to wipe out the ignominy that came to it in the wake of the dastardly killing of Indira Gandhi, a heinous act which the Akali leadership failed to condemn unequivocally at the time, having placed themselves under the virtual captivity of the Bhindranwale gang.

Any careful examination of the eleven points of the Memorandum which Sant Longowal signed, will make it amply clear that practically all these concessions were available to the Akali leadership at least fifteen months ago, if not earlier. Through public statements and confidential communications, Indira Gandhi repeatedly made it clear that most of these demands could be met once the Akali leadership ceased shifting its positions and came to the conference table. At that time, the Akali leadership, riding on the back of the Bhindranwale extremism, preferred the dangerous path of confrontation to the tenets of statesmanship, thereby leaving no option to the government but to use the Army to put down the Bhindranwale gangsterism operating from within the Golden Temple. It was a grim step but the Akali leadership, having voluntarily surrendered to the extremists, kept no door open for an honourable settlement. It paid the price for having played with fire.

It was this failure of the Akali leadership to demarcate itself from Bhindranwale—not to speak of combating him—which emboldened the extremists to go in for more terrorist actions culminating in the ghastly killing of Indira Gandhi, which in turn provoked the pogrom against thousands of innocent Sikhs all over the country. But it took another eight months for the Akali leaders to wake up. Although there were signs of Sant Longowal’s uneasiness in the company of the extremists when he visited the Capital in April, there was as yet no clear indication that he and his colleagues were in a position to disown the extremists unequivocally. It was only after the spate of cowardly “transistor” bomb explosions in June, that the Akali leadership had to come out with the first outright condemnation of terrorist violence. The crash of the Air India jumbo in the Atlantic Ocean killing hundreds of innocent lives, brought out the linkage between the Bhindranwale terrorists and the Khalistani secessionists, operating from the sanctuary of Pakistan and the Western powers, and it was at this late hour that the Akali leadership could discover the wisdom of negotiation with the Centre instead of throwing angry challenges.

However belated, this return to the path of sanity on the part of Sant Longowal needs to be welcomed. The coming weeks and months will be the testing time for his claim to leadership. Squabbles within the Akali hierarchy have to be put down, while outside, the terrorists have to be hounded out. No easy task for a leadership which for so long dithered dangerously.

The understanding with Sant Longowal will no doubt be regarded as a well-deserved achievement for Rajiv Gandhi’s government. In the midst of many outstanding problems facing it, this is in fact the first major breakthrough achieved by his regime. Significantly this was made possible by the labours put in by his political colleagues more than the secretarial managers. And in this category of the Prime Minister’s political team, Arjun Singh deserves accolades. Accepting the surprise assignment as the Governor of Punjab, he with single-minded application—abjuring limelight—not only helped to tone up the overstrained administration of the State, but could persuade, through silent diplomacy, the Akali leaders to engage themselves in sorting out all the points at issue. Nobody can fail to recognise Arjun Singh’s contribution towards bridge-building between the government and the Akali leaders.

While at this moment of relief from tension, it is neither proper nor possible to make an objective appraisal of the present exercise at winning over the Akalis, there are certain aspects of the settlement which are worth noting.

First the entire negotiation and its culmination in bringing about a settlement with Sant Longowal gives the impression that little notice seems to have been taken about the position of those Sikhs who, opposing the Akalis, remained loyal to the Congress throughout. One gets the impression that the central leadership of the Congress is inclined, by and large, to hand over to the Akalis the key to Punjab politics as it had done to the DMK in Tamil Nadu fourteen years ago. Without passing any value-judgement on such a development, one has to seriously ask if the Congress leadership had carefully thought out the implications of such a formal agreement with the Akali leadership.

Secondly, while Bhajan Lal was formally consulted before the agreement was signed, no such consultation seems to have taken place with the Chief Ministers of other neighbouring States, contiguous to Punjab, particularly Rajasthan. It is true it was Bhajan Lal who repeatedly in the past had come in the way of an understanding with the Akalis. This time perhaps he dared not use his veto with his own fate hanging in the balance in the wake of the open charges of corruption levelled against him by the Opposition. At the same time, there are quite a few points of dispute between Rajasthan and Punjab, and a formal consultation with the Rajasthan Chief Minister might have saved him from some embarrassment as he would have to face from the Opposition as well as dissidents within his legislature party.

An extraordinary feature of the Memorandum of Settlement is that it has been formally signed by Rajiv Gandhi in his capacity as the Prime Minister. Never before in the annals of the Republic, the Prime Minister of India has himself signed a document with a section of the Indian public. The understanding with Sheikh Abdullah was formally signed not by Indira Gandhi herself but by a distinguished public figure having the confidence of the Prime Minister. The underground Naga leaders reached a settlement with Jayaprakash Narayan and his peace team, which the government, both Central and the State, supported. Earlier still, in 1951, when the chief executive of the then Hyderabad state came to an understanding with the underground Communists, Jawaharlal Nehru supported the initiative but as the Prime Minister of India he did not permit any official signing a formal truce. It is a moot point if the departure from precedent on the part of Rajiv Gandhi is a wholesome initiative. It may encourage leaders of other movements in the future to demand the Prime Minister’s signed commitment. The point involved here is how the exercise of power is viewed by the present Establishment. Or, is this just an act in a hurry without careful consideration of its long-range implications? However, at the moment, the overall feeling in the country is one of relief and also of watchful expectation if Sant Harchand Singh Longowal will be able to deliver the goods.

(Mainstream, July 27, 1985)

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