The clash that took place in Patiala on Friday, 29 April, is the first major law and order challenge for the newly elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab and especially for Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann.
All the Opposition parties – Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – are targeting AAP for what they claim is "failing law and order in the state."
The AAP government is also facing flak from Sikh outfits for failing to prevent the 'Khalistan Murdabad' rally called by Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) leader Harish Singla that led to the violence. Many Sikh activists have also criticised the arrest of Barjinder Singh Parwana as the alleged 'mastermind' behind the attack.
AAP on its part has put forward a standard response to the allegations: arrests have been made from both sides and that this was not a communal clash but a clash between Opposition political parties.
Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann alleged that it was a clash between the BJP and Shiv Sena on one side and Akali Dal and SAD (Amritsar) on the other. AAP's Punjab in-charge and Rajya Sabha MP Raghav Chadha made a similar allegation, accusing the Congress and Akali Dal of being behind the violence.
Two questions arise here as far as the AAP government is concerned:
Was there a failure on the part of the government?
What does the clash mean politically for the government?
Was There a Failure on the Part of the Government?
This was not the first time that there has been a friction between Parwana and Shiv Sena splinters in Punjab. In June 2021, the Shiv Sena Punjab had allegedly put up posters calling the anniversary of Operation Bluestar as "terrorism khaatma divas (end of terrorism day)." Now, since the operation involved military action on the holiest site of Sikhs, it is an occasion of mourning for many in the community.
The announcement by the Sena outfit was a red rag for many Sikhs. Soon after, a video went viral in which Parwana could be seen tearing posters of 'Terrorism Khaatma Divas."
Given this background, when Sena leader Harish Singla announced in April 2022 that 29 April would be observed as Khalistan Murdabad Divas, it was clear that this could be the beginning of a confrontation.
The AAP government may have erred in letting Singla hold such an event, that too near a religious place – the Kali Mata Mandir in Patiala. The Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib is also barely 1-2 kilometres from the spot.
The protest was known to the public. Several people, including Parwana himself, had requested the police to prevent the Khalistan Murdabad protest from happening. Yet, the protest did take place and provoked a reaction from Sikh activists, which culminated in a clash near the Kali Mata Mandir.
Ideally, the protest should have been disallowed in the first place. It is difficult to explain why it wasn't prevented.
Was the AAP government caught unawares? Or was it afraid of being tagged as "anti-Hindu" or "pro-Khalistan" if it cracked down on a protest labelled as 'Khalistan Murdabad'? Either possibility doesn't reflect well on its part.
What Does the Clash Mean Politically for AAP and Bhagwant Mann?
The clash should come as a lesson to Bhagwant Mann on at least three levels.
1. AAP's 'Delhi Model' has limited utility in Punjab: The 'Delhi Model,' which is basically centred around cheaper electricity, better education and healthcare, is largely focused on service delivery, which is an important but limited aspect of governance.
Key to ruling Punjab is balancing between competing social forces and anticipating and preventing any possible flare-ups. The nearly 25 years of dominance of Punjab politics by Parkash Singh Badal and Captain Amarinder Singh was largely a result of their ability to balance these forces and maintain stability, even if their governance track record may have been questionable.
What helped them deal with these challenges is the fact that both leaders enjoyed a great deal of political heft in Punjab. Though Mann has won a massive majority, he is yet to grow into that space. And the perception, whether justified or not, that he is being controlled by AAP's central leadership, isn't helping matters.
2. Understand social forces in Punjab: Elections are only one part of the political process in Punjab. A great deal of influence is also wielded by different interest groups, be it the Panthic outfits, Hindutva outfits, farm unions or labour unions.
AAP may have won a massive electoral majority in Punjab but it no way assures them of hegemony at the societal level.
AAP's diagnosis of problems should also be much more nuanced. For instance, it was highly simplistic for AAP to say that the Patiala violence was a conspiracy by Opposition parties. This may work as media bytes but can't be diagnosis for government policy because then the party would be looking for Opposition conspiracies for many things that go wrong in Punjab.
The efforts to incite tensions between Hindus and Sikhs have been underway for the past few years in Punjab, be it in the form of acts of sacrilege or target killings or mobilisation by vigilante outfits. In January this year, Sikhs had to face genocide threats after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's aborted visit to Punjab.
To prevent any such violence requires political will and a clear understanding of the forces at play. 'Sab mile hue hain (everyone is in cahoots)' is not a very useful line of thinking.
If at all, 'sab mile hue hain' applies to the manner in which almost every party tried to play the communal or national security card in the Assembly elections – from Modi claiming a threat to his life to Congress' Sunil Jakhar saying he was treated unfairly for being Hindu, Arvind Kejriwal saying that a Hindu told him that they are feeling afraid in Punjab and Rahul Gandhi accusing AAP of having links with militants.
With the Congress and the BJP both raising the national security bogey after the Patiala incident, it appears that no lessons have been learnt by these parties.
3. Don't misread the massive mandate: AAP won massive majority mainly because people were fed up of the Congress, SAD and the BJP. The verdict was not an unqualified endorsement of all the decisions of AAP at the central level.
The tenures of Parkash Singh Badal and Captain Amarinder Singh may have had several shortcomings, for which they had suffered a massive electoral defeat in the 2022 elections. But what did help them maintain their hold in Punjab for all these years is the fact that both were seen as reasonably independent of the central government as well as the central leadership of the NDA and Congress respectively.
Mann is widely seen as a humble, approachable leader who means well for Punjab and this was critical to AAP's win in the Assembly elections
But it doesn't help Mann's case that he is being perceived as a CM who has to deal with AAP's central leadership, mainly AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal and Raghav Chadha, as power centres.
This is very important in a state like Punjab where federalism and regional pride are important issues for people.
The constant trips to the high command in Delhi harmed the credibility of Mann's predecessor Charanjit Singh Channi and it won't be different if Mann follows the same pattern.
Therefore, it doesn't send the right signal that Kejriwal and Chadha are issuing statements on the Patiala violence, even if it was in response to media questions and not out of their own initiative.
Punjab-centric problems require Punjab-centric solutions. Quick fixes from Delhi may work for a few departments or schemes but it can't be the entire approach of governance.