The clash between the police and Amritpal Singh's supporters at Ajnala in Amritsar district on 23 February sparked a number of alarmist claims - Captain Amarinder Singh has called it "much more serious than a complete collapse of law and order", many television news channels have described it as "Khalistanis having a free run".
Yes, no doubt the Ajnala violence is a serious development and we will come to why it is important in just a bit.
But why were no such alarmist labels given when two Muslim men - Junaid and Nasir - were recently abducted and burnt alive in their own vehicle in neighbouring Haryana? Doesn't that constitute as a "free run of vigilantes" or a breakdown of law and order?
What such labels do is actually harm the cause of stability in Punjab.
The real story in Punjab is a rapid shrinking of the political middle ground in the state. The rise of Waris Punjab De's Amritpal Singh, the Ajnala violence and the reactions to them are all symptoms of this shrinking middle ground.
There are three aspects to this.
1. Rising Hindutva Assertion Nationally
What's happening in Punjab, is not in a vacuum and it needs to be seen in the context of increasing right wing assertion at the national level 2014 onwards.
While the media does play up pro-Khalistan events, the calls for Hindu Rashtra are considered par for the course.
Until a few years ago, the demand for Khalistan existed mainly in the social media and among elements within the Sikh diaspora. Despite some increase in activity within Punjab, the demand for Khalistan is still marginal and nowhere as common or mainstream as the call for a Hindu Rashtra. In the last one week alone, BJP MP from Khandwa Gyaneshwar Patil and Vijay Shah, a minister in the MP government, have spoken of a Hindu Rashtra.
No MP or MLA with the exception of Sangrur MP Simranjit Singh Mann has spoken of Khalistan.
Then there have been genocide calls against Muslims and Sikhs. BJP MLA from Bihar's Bisfi, Haribhushan Thakur, said "Muslims should be set ablaze" while BJP MLA from Bithoor in UP Abhijeet Sanga warned Sikhs "not to mistake Narendra Modi for Indira Gandhi or you won't get a paper to write or history to read".
Naturally, for a community which suffered a pogrom and the destruction of its holiest shrine in 1984, such threats are bound to cause alarm.
2. Churn Within Panthic Political Space
However, it would be incorrect to attribute shrinking of the middle ground only to the rise of Hindutva.
As we have written earlier, the 2015 Bargari Sacrilege and Kotkapura killings led to the delegitimisation of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), that had dominated Sikh politics in the post-conflict era. This set in motion a massive churn in Panthic politics, leading to the Sarbat Khalsa of 2015 and the Bargari Morcha.
The farm laws further increased the divide between Punjab and New Delhi and intensified the churn on the ground.
Until 2015, the Badals, with all their shortcomings, did manage to occupy this middle ground - balancing between federalism and the interests of the Centre as well as articulating Sikh concerns within a Constitutional framework. And keeping a check on Badals were individuals with stature, such as Gurcharan Singh Tohra within the Akali space and in the electoral space, Captain Amarinder Singh, till then a soft-Panthic politician.
But the vacuum following Tohra's demise, Captain's ideological shift towards New Delhi and the failure of any other mainstream leader to rise up to the occasion, further eroded Punjab's middle ground.
A key example of this is the Aam Aadmi Party.
3. Delegitimisation of an Elected Government and Increasing Central Interference
The Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab has had more than its share of troubles. Especially on matters like law and order, some of its decisions have defied logic.
For instance, the manner in which it publicised the downgrading of security cover of VIPs soon after coming to power, an act that may have rendered Sidhu Moose Wala vulnerable to assassination.
More recently, take the Ajnala case. The protest took place because the Punjab Police picked up Amritpal Singh's aide Lovepreet Singh aka Toofan Singh in connection with an abduction case. A few days later, on the day of the protest, the police issued a statement saying that Lovepreet had nothing to do with the abduction and will be discharged.
If that was the case, why was he picked up in the first place? Shouldn't the police have gathered more evidence before picking him up?
The police made a similar U-Turn in September-October 2022 when it first booked gangster-turned-activist Lakha Sidhana in a drug smuggling and extortion case only to declare him innocent a few weeks later, on the eve of his rally in Mehraj near Bathinda.
While there is no denying AAP's mistakes, the centre too has been interfering at various levels.
On 23 February, the same day as the Ajnala incident, the Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit refused the state government's request to call the budget session of the Punjab Assembly and cited a few allegedly derogatory tweets made by CM Bhagwant Mann towards him.
Now, in the Nabam Rebia case of 2016, the Supreme Court has clearly placed limits on the Governor's powers to summon the Assembly or decide its agenda. So it is not clear how the Punjab Governor can block something as basic as the Budget Session.
There are a few other examples of central interference - such as the Union government's threat to cut funds for Ayushman Bharat Wellness Health Centres as the state government wanted to turn them into Mohalla clinics.
The bigger problem for AAP in Punjab is that it is mostly falling short in the battle of narratives, partly due to the perception that the party's national leadership is calling the shots. The Centre on the other hand has its narrative clear - that there is a major national security problem in Punjab, the state is ruled by an inept government which has let pro-Khalistan elements run amok. It is this skewed narrative that is being amplified by a pliant media.
Under the same narrative, following the killing of Sidhu Moose Wala, the Centre has almost managed to hijack the war against gangsters by linking it to terrorism. This despite the fact that the Punjab government's anti-gang task force did achieve some successes.
Reclaiming the Middle Ground
It is not easy for Punjab to reclaim the middle ground, with the Centre aiding polarisation and the state government lacking political imagination. Even in the Sikh political sphere, Amritpal Singh has tended to favour shrill discourse over incremental change.
If there is political will on all sides, a beginning can be made on the issue of Sikh prisoners. An important protest led by Sikh organisations has been going on this issue at Punjab-Chandigarh border for the past seven weeks. The protest has by and large been peaceful.
There is scope for a genuine dialogue between the protesters and the government (most of the cases are with the Centre). If the cases of these prisoners are examined on their individual merits, it could lead to the release of some of the prisoners and provide relief to their families and supporters. It would also be a good confidence building measure to reinforce the political middle ground on Punjab.
However, given a choice between statesmanship and polarisation, the Centre has a clear track record on which option it has chosen.