Events Raise the Heckles - The Absence of a Counter Narrative in Punjab

Three disparate events have occurred that seem disconnected on the surface but should worry us all.

Arshdeep Singh, the left arm bowler representing India in the Asia Cup cricket tournament, was subject to information and psychological warfare of the worst kind. A vilification campaign was run from across the border, positing him as a Khalistani cricketer. Unfortunately, in the current simmering environment, there were quite a few people who walked right into the trap set. What was absolutely appalling was also the fact that popular reference intermediaries like Wikipedia were caught flashing such narratives. 


Questions on accountability apart, the narrative setting effort was considerable, with known anti-India baiters inside India also trying to talk the same language as these elements of anarchy, clearly betraying signs of a well orchestrated intelligence operation. There has been a desperate effort for a while across the section to show all Sikhs as enemies of the state, which is far from the truth. Such a narrative war took place in the seventies and eighties as well, and its biggest endorsers sit today in the global Sikh diaspora who make unsubstantiated claims around it. Mercifully, an overwhelming majority of Sikhs in India don’t subscribe to this narrative, but the absence of a counter narrative in the public barring a few isolated voices needs urgent attention, lest the situation of the cycle preceding the Khalistan terrorism era is recreated unnecessarily. 


In those days, it was common to claim that Sikhs were being unfairly targeted across the spectrum for being Sikhs. This narrative, propped by the Panthic politics of the time, was a deliberate attempt to create the ground for a pan-India ‘panth’ leadership pattern and gain political prominence at all costs. Despite several goodwill measures, the narrative warfare on the ground was an absolute failure, leading many to believe the false narrative. Similar narratives are being attempted today, even though there has been no Prime Minister apart from Mr. Narendra Modi who has gone out of his or her way to address Sikh concerns. 


On the same lines was an equally worrying incident that took place over the weekend. The Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), one of the largest spiritual movements globally headquartered inside Punjab came into the spotlight. Some Nihangs who were grazing cows got barred from entering the dera premises in Beas Punjab, leading to a grievous alteration that even saw gunshots being fired. While the issue may seem trivial, the larger context needs to be factored in correctly to get the worrying signs. 


Radha Soamis have been a target of extremist Sikhs for a long time. Even the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has had a rather stormy relationship with RSSB, even going to the extent of not calling them Sikhs. Theological differences to the extent of beign accused of blasphemy for believing in a living guru tradition has been a contentious point taken to extremes. There was an attempt to kill the then head of the Dera, Baba Gurinder Singh in Austria in 2010, for which four people were also arrested. The personal relations of Baba with the Badal and Majithia families who call the shots in Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) has also been a sore point for a section of the core Panthiks, who considered the family as a betrayer of the Panth. The flash points have always existed around this ‘Dera’ due to which there have also been incidents in the past where RSSB was accused of beadbi around a gurdwara’s demolition, raising the heckles. 


It remains to be seen which faction of the Nihang grouping may have been behind this action. Also, the local administration’s inability to defuse the matter pre-escalation has also invited criticism for it. However, there are larger signs of a repeat of the situation of the past. When the Nirankaris were attacked by the Akhand Kirtani Jatha which resulted in the death of a dozen Jatha members in ‘self-defence’, the event had been preceded by a vicious atmosphere created to villainize the Nirankari Mission followers. The villainization of the Radha Soami followers has in fact been going on for decades now, with social media full of virulent hate filled content against the dera. For the matter to flare up into a violent conflagration across the state would not take much from here.


As if on cue, a third phenomenon has been going on. We are seeing the rise of a panthic radical who goes by the name of Amritpal Sandhu. As the head of the organization Waris Punjab De, his antecedents are rather questionable - it seems he was living a rather fancy lifestyle in Dubai and has turned up with a load of religiosity all of a sudden. But the kind of rhetoric he has been using is nothing less than seditious on occasions. For instance, a rather popular short video of his doing the rounds is showing him claiming that Sikhs are slaves and under oppression, asking people to "be ready" for the right occasion to rise up 





In another short video, one can see him clearly saying that Raj doesn't mean "waziri" or Chief Ministership but "Sampuran Raj" or secession. 





Clearly, the man is playing a front on information warfare, on which there seems to be total failure of the Indian state in setting up a counter narrative. Given how Simranjit Mann has been seen as a man fading in the background, there is an attempt to make a schism open up wider than ever.


All these instances are essentially today staring back at us from the proverbial mirror of time. The reflection of the past, the lack of effective response by the local and state administration of the time and the lack of a narrative fight back at all fronts had essentially ended up creating the perfect storm in the past. There are furious efforts to recreate the same environment all over again to stir the boiling pot all over again. History does rhyme, but are we ready to listen to the rhyming and prevent the dance of death and terror from repeating itself all over again?


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