We were warned by the police. However, it was close to 11pm and we had to reach Amritsar at the earliest. There was just one route. So we did what we had to – got our hands dirty in lifting the giant logs with which the protesters had blocked the road. Merely a minute and we heard an invisible group of men shout. This would have hardly alarmed us. Dealing with people, after all, is what a journalist is supposed to do and we had crossed many such barriers by coaxing, cajoling such protesters to reach Faridkot to which the current agitation in Punjab owes its roots.
But nightfall in an isolated patch in the wild is a different ball game. We froze. In the next fifteen minutes, we tried hard and won over a group of sword-brandishing Sikh youth who welcomed our presence there but refused to help us go ahead. We pulled back. Our desire to reach Amritsar in time lay in shreds.
To be sure, Punjab has been on the boil since a few months now.
On June 1 this year, there was tension over the theft of the holy book, Granth Sahib, from a gurudwara in Faridkot. When that subsided, though the book and culprit were never located, terrorists carried out a cross-border strike in Gurdaspur reviving memories of an era thankfully gone by. Emerging from that, farmers agitated crippling the movement of trains across north India. Finally, there occurred multiple instances of sacrilege leading to the current impasse where major highways remain blocked by protesting locals.
The blockades come at a price – police firing, lathi charge, burning of vehicles and an environment which drives away any meaningful activity be it business, tourism or the everyday routine.
No matter which direction we took while in Punjab, fingers were being pointed only in one – towards the Badal government. What differed was the accusation. Sadhu Singh, who lost his 26-year-old son Gurjeet in police firing on October 14 told us he was to marry his son soon but instead had to cremate him.
“Gurjeet was shot in the head. Is this a way to control crowd assuming my son was at fault?”
His father believes the government used excessive force and has forgotten to apply the healing touch. Some distance away, Gora Singh, the priest of the gurudwara where the holy book was stolen from in June says earlier the government didn’t do enough to trace the culprits and is now conjuring up a case and implicating youngsters who he personally knew as devout Sikhs. On the outrskirts of Amritsar, medical student Gursandeep stood with his friends blocking the bypass road. He doesn’t know either Gurjeet or those arrested.
“I am hurt at the government’s inaction when my religion was violated. And I also know that they are arresting the wrong people to quickly settle the case,” he said.
Other protesters blocking the National Highway-1 near Jalandhar felt that Akali Dal-BJP government was the one that had orchestrated these events to consolidate religious votes by stoking communal tension. In believing this, they aren’t alone.
The administration has to also take the blame for its repeated failure. Top sources confirmed that earlier this month, much before instances of sacrilege began, there were posters put up actually warning everyone about the soon-to-be-committed sacrilege. This was allowed to pass. In fact, many within the administration believe that the protests were “genuine and peaceful and the police should have known better”. That a police force which covered itself in glory in refusing army’s assistance and taking on terrorists directly in Gurdaspur this July appears so poorly led here is astounding.
While there are inquiries in place and they may result in some action, the police or the administration doesn’t have to contest elections, which, anyway, aren’t too far off. People are looking at the political cost and there is no action taken yet, which can shield the government.
To its credit, the Badal administration has succeeded in putting an end to the state’s power supply woes. It has vastly improved the ease of doing business and road networks in most places. Those from the business community say the government is also aggressively pushing Punjab as a commercial hub based on the above-mentioned strengths.
An irked businessman even questioned, “What more can they do?”
More than ten days into it, the protests are now thinning. Fatigue has set in. Everyone wants normalcy no matter how hurt. The roads are slowly opening up again. Do we assume the sentiment has waned? That would be a mistake.
No government has been re-elected based merely on development-related statistics. Sentiments, emotions, leadership, aspirations have an equally strong, if not stronger, place.
And it’s here that the unfolding tragedy has well and truly eclipsed the Badal government.