Punjab Election 2017: Rahul Gandhi's terrorism speech in Lambi belies his 'secular' claims

For a leader who never fails to describe the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva philosophy as divisive, it is indeed shocking, and perturbing, that Rahul Gandhi should have given a communal twist to Punjab politics 48 hours before it began to vote. This he did by raising the spectre of terrorism returning to haunt Punjab should the Congress not be voted to power.

Worse, in a display of arrant irresponsibility that has hitherto been the hallmark of BJP MLAs and MPs from Uttar Pradesh, Rahul linked the bomb blast on 31 January in Maur constituency in Bathinda district to the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party as a contender for power in Punjab.

No evidence has yet surfaced to even speculate on the identity of those responsible for the blast. Was it the handiwork of a shadowy Khalistani militant group seeking to spread terror for subverting the democratic process? Or did the blast fall in that typical category called 'election violence'? Or was it a form of retribution, for whatever reasons, directed against the Congress candidate?

Such questions could have deterred a responsible politician from hurling wild charges or making sweeping statements. But not so Rahul, who declared on 2 February in Lambi, where Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal appears hard-pressed to notch up yet another electoral victory, “The blast in Bathinda killed six people and many got injured. It is sad that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is helping the forces behind this blast. Such ideology will never do Punjab any good.”

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with PPCC president Captain Amarinder Singh at an election rally. PTI

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with PPCC president Captain Amarinder Singh at an election rally. PTI

For good measure, Rahul went on to warn, “If these forces raise their heads again, the entire agenda will be hijacked and Punjab will look in some other direction.” He did not spell out what that direction could be, but it was clear to his listeners, as media analyses bear out, that he was alluding to the possibility of Punjab returning to the darkled days of militancy and mayhem.

His allegation, levelled with tremendous certitude, is of the same order that BJP legislators have been voicing over the last year — that Hindus from Kairana and other towns in Uttar Pradesh have been compelled to migrate under pressure from Muslim goons. It is no less dangerous than the rumour which was deliberately fanned that Mohammed Akhlaq of Dadri had consumed and stocked beef before he was lynched.

No doubt, over the past year, there have been concerted efforts at triggering a religious polarisation. For one, it still remains a mystery as to who tore the pages from Guru Granth Sahib and strewed these around at several places in Punjab. But what wasn’t mysterious was the motive behind the sacrilegious action: It was aimed at diverting the attention of a people from the rampant drug and liquor abuse, declining agricultural productivity, and rising unemployment.

Against this backdrop, Rahul’s allusion to terrorism was aimed at scaring the Hindus, who constitute nearly 43 percent of Punjab’s population, of what might lie ahead should they not vote the Congress. Although armed militancy in Punjab during the 1980s claimed both Sikh and Hindu victims, the fear among the latter was of a greater magnitude because they happened to be a religious minority. After all, it was assumed, not unreasonably, that Hindus couldn’t possibly endorse the idea of Khalistan as an independent homeland of Sikhs.

It is this past memory of Hindus that Rahul sought to revive through a forging of link between terrorism and AAP. It is a memory in which fear and insecurity are paramount.

As such, in the bipolar nature of Punjab’s politics, the Congress could have swept the Akali Dal out of power, facing as it does double incumbency and discontent among the masses. But AAP’s concerted attempts to consolidate its astonishing performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections have palpably turned the Congress nervous over its prospects in Punjab.

From this perspective, Rahul’s Lambi speech is a classic example of inducing fear among the Hindus for communal consolidation. The Congress assumes Sikh votes will be split between the Akali Dal, AAP, and itself. However, the Congress hopes the terror bogey can dissuade Hindus from switching to AAP from the Akali Dal-BJP alliance, which is unlikely to return to power.

This is indeed the import of Rahul’s statement in Lambi. It is one thing to claim that AAP lacks in administrative experience, even that its central leaders are not steeped in Punjab’s Sikh tradition (nor is Rahul, it can be said). It is undeniably communal to claim that Kejriwal is “helping forces behind the blast” in Bathinda, implying that violence will once again tear apart Punjab should AAP ride to power.

Perhaps Rahul would have refrained from making such a sweeping statement had he been well versed in history. Other than die-hard Congress activists, few can deny that then prime minister Indira Gandhi imparted a communal colour to Punjab’s disquiet over issues such as language, sharing of river waters, and making Chandigarh as the exclusive state capital etc. Worse, to counter the Akali Dal, the Congress mollycoddled Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, turning against him only after he veered out of its control to leave behind a trail of blood.

Perhaps Rahul’s love for his family blinds him to the role his grandmother played in the rise of religious extremism in Punjab. Forget Sikh militancy, which has many overlapping layers of complexity. Rahul has even obstinately refused to accept that Congressmen were involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Nor is he willing to believe that the government of his father, Rajiv Gandhi, deliberately allowed mobs to hunt and kill Sikhs, of all places, in Delhi.

For instance, in an interview to Times Now in 2014, Rahul said, “I remember, I was a child then, I remember the government was doing everything it could to stop the riots. In Gujarat, the opposite was the case. (It was a reference to the allegation that Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister did not try to control the 2002 riots against Muslims.)” There can’t be a better example of what is called willing suspension of disbelief.

Rahul has perhaps accused Kejriwal of supporting the Khalistani forces on the evidence of the Punjabi Diaspora coming out overwhelmingly in support of AAP. It is possible the Diaspora consists of those who may have been sympathisers of the idea of Khalistan once.

But it is moot whether their political beliefs of 30 years ago should be invoked to treat them as pariah. People’s political ideas change over time. If anything, their engagement with Punjab’s democracy, their fervent participation in the election campaign, should be welcomed. After all, the Indian State repeatedly allows ultra Left radicals as well as secessionists of all hues to engage in the battle of ballot to influence politics and policies.

For all these reasons, Rahul's remark in Lambi is at best a thoughtless but dangerous remark. At worst, it is akin to playing the Hindu card.

The author is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.


Published Date: Feb 04, 2017 10:53 am | Updated Date: Feb 04, 2017 10:56 am


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