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l June 2004 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 4, No 2 l


What's Punjab got to do with Iraq?
Siddharth Srivastava

Whatís Punjab got to do with Iraq? Observers here have been drawing comparisons between the hostile situation that reached a flashpoint recently at Falluja and the terrorism that had infested the western state of Punjab during the eighties.

The discussions (specially in the seminar circuit) were set off by a recent article written by noted columnist Swaminathan S Anklesharia Aiyar in the Times of India that draws a comparison between the situation at Falluja (and by extension, the rest of Iraq) and what was in Punjab. Needless to say, given the volatile situation that the coalition troops face in Iraq and by comparison peace reigning in Punjab, there are lessons to be learnt about dealing with an increasingly sensitive population. Below are some jottings from the ideas doing the rounds:

Terror and religious shrines: This is a tricky situation as an attack on a religious shrine translates into an assault on the entire community. Reports from Falluja indicate that the minaret of a mosque was destroyed by the US forces when it was suspected that armed rebels were holed up inside. These are the kind of actions that provide grist to people looking to influence young minds into joining the ranks of Islamic militancy. Such a mistake was made in Punjab in 1984 when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered troops into the most religious shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Code-named Operation Bluestar, the Army successfully flushed out the terrorists but at a huge cost --- scores of pilgrims trapped inside were killed in the crossfire and the sanctum sanctorum of the temple was damaged. The Sikhs saw the assault as an attack on their dignity. Gandhi paid the ultimate price when two of her own personal security guards (both Sikhs) assassinated her. What followed were mass killings of Sikhs by Hindus that fuelled terrorism in Punjab to its worst levels. A similar situation happened again in 1988 under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv, however, did not repeat the mistake of his mother. Code-named Operation Black Thunder, pilgrims were given time to move out, the morale of the militants was broken by cutting off food, water and electricity supplies while care was taken not to damage any portion of the temple. The Operation was hailed as a victory. Religious shrines hold immense symbolic value and terrorists should not be allowed to gain sanctuary inside them.

Violation of Civil Rights: In an operation of the scale in Iraq, the innocent are bound to suffer. With tempers frayed, a sense of insecurity and people dying on both sides, mistakes of the kind that have happened at the Abu Ghraib prison are waiting to take place. This is not to condone or justify such behavior, but the fact it was perpetrated by US soldiers (read outsiders), makes it worse. Terrorism in Punjab was finally tackled by a police officer called K P S Gill, a Sikh, who achieved cult status as a man who literally browbeat the malaise. As head of the Punjab police force, he was given a free run by the political establishment. He turned Punjab police into a group of henchmen owing personal loyalty to him and resorting to extra-judicial killings and torture. Many innocents died, but so did terrorism and the mass public opinion slowly turned in Gillís favor as normalcy returned. The crucial factor over here is the fact that Gill was a Sikh and hence had an acceptance level that no person of an outside community could have enjoyed. In his book Punjab: Knights of Falsehood, Gill argues strongly that terrorism in Punjab was defeated not by some mystical force called popular will but by force of arms. Voices emerging from Iraq suggest that people would have preferred to be tortured under the Saddam regime rather than by US forces. This is a significant psychological factor. There seems to be a realization of this fact at Falluja where Saddamís former policemen have been entrusted with the authority to bring order. You need local thugs to handle local thugs.

Military versus Police strategy: Terrorism in Punjab was solved when the military pulled back and the police was handed the authority to maintain law and order. There are several differences between the methods of operation of the military and the police. The personnel of the military do not belong to the local community and hence unaware of cultural and social sensitivities. The police force, on the other hand is recruited from within the area, with members sharing filiations as friends and relatives. The mode of operation of the military is through tanks and rocket-launchers that may kill a militant but cost the lives of scores of civilians as well. The police rely on local intelligence, word-of-mouth to pin down the adversary. As long as tanks and armored vehicles patrolled the streets of Punjab, militancy only became worse. The police under Gill developed a very strong intelligence network. They may have gone wrong several times, but there was a fear in everybodyís mind that the next-door neighbor was an informer. No terrorist could melt into the crowds and feel secure. This is the kind of local networking that will be needed in Iraq for the coalition forces to succeed, even if it requires the re-nomination of security personnel under the Saddam regime. One of the reasons attributed to the failure to tackle terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir is the large presence of the Army and paramilitary forces considered as aliens.

Institutions matter: While the police went about their business in Punjab a strong democratic foundation was being simultaneously laid. Despite years of Presidentís rule when the state was under central control, elections were held periodically in order to allow the people to choose the government of their liking. The Akalis who enjoyed popular support of the Sikhs as having a true understanding of aspirations of the people of the state were elected. So was the Congress party, the other main political force in the state. In the past decade both the Akalis and the Congress have intermittently enjoyed power. Both the parties know that the people of Punjab will not tolerate terrorism or atrocities by the police. Development is the keyword and Gill has retired and since returned to Delhi. A similar exercise needs to be implemented in Iraq wherein a tough police force (that harks back to the Saddam regime) will play an interim role until true democratic institutions take over. Only then will the forced nostalgia associated with the supposed good times with Saddam be exorcised for good.

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