“You can take a Punjaban out of Punjab, but can’t take Punjab out of her, no matter where she’s in the world,” jokes my husband, trying to persuade me to relax as I continue to toss and turn in bed for yet another night.
“Elections in Punjab this year are far more dramatic and your being a sentimental Punjabi journalist only makes it worse for you. Your restlessness is understandable. But don’t lose sleep over it just yet,” he adds. Had he not added the “just yet” to his remonstration, I would not fret too much.
An NRI Punjaban’s Fears
Like other non-resident Indians, I am not voting to elect my state legislature. But this doesn’t stop me from worrying.
I need to be assured that whoever is at the helm of the state’s affairs would work for the whole of Punjab and all its people. None of those in the fray have been able to give me this assurance. Hence, the sleepless nights.
For months, the Punjab election has dominated public conversations, which have now reached a frenzied pitch. This is especially so in Southall, London’s mini-Punjab. Gurdwaras, parks and other public spaces have turned akin to village nukkads (street corners) where supporters of various parties debate the strengths of their leaders.
\Many gurdwara committees, including that of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall, are divided over support to the parties. Being a journalist, I’ve been privy to conversations of many a passionate party loyalist of the three main contenders: AAP, SAD-BJP and the Congress.
‘Badal Brought Communal Harmony to the State’
An elderly gentleman, who claims to be an Akali old guard, says:
Those who have a lot of property and businesses in Punjab will not openly oppose anyone because they need cooperation from whoever comes to power. I have been regularly calling people in my village to check who they are voting for. Ours is a Akali stronghold. My friends and other older people my age are likely to continue to vote for ‘takdi’ (weighing scales, the SAD symbol). But the younger generation has been misled by the comedians in the fray.
The 'comedian’ being alluded to is AAP leader Bhagwant Mann, who was a popular stand-up comic.
Then the elderly man suddenly goes very quiet, as if in deep thought. It’s a while before he speaks: “Parkash Singh Badal has achieved the unachievable in Punjab — ensuring communal harmony, which shouldn’t be lost at any cost. No one should rupture the harmony just to come to power. I think the supporters of a new party are doing just that.”
“How will various issues related to the Sikhs – such as pardoning Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and the continuous desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib – impact Sikhs, who are the key supporters of the SAD?” I ask.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda, had been pardoned by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs, in 2015 after he had outraged Sikhs by dressing up akin to Guru Gobind Singh.
But before the Akali supporter can reply, another senior citizen speaks out quite vehemently.
'The Broom Will Make a Clean Sweep'
Because of all the misery that Badals have caused in Punjab, ruining the Panth (Sikh community) and causing so much pain by killing Sikhs at every opportunity, hun taan jhadoo firega (the broom will make a clean sweep).An elderly AAP supporter
But, I ask him, does he really believe any ruling party would create trouble in its own state and risk losing power? There’s no response, not even a willingness to consider that prospect.
“Pardoning of the Dera chief would not have become such a big deal if all major panthic groups were taken into confidence before taking that decision,” opines a middle-aged gentleman who joins in the conversation, putting aside his newspaper.
“It appears the pardon was orchestrated by the Deputy Chief Minister (Sukhbir Singh Badal), because I believe Badal Senior (Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal) would not have made such a blunder. It backfired, eroding a lot of the respect and dignity of Sri Akal Takht Sahib and the jathedars (priests),” he says.
The man adds that the move should’ve been though through better. “While the state government did act against police officials over the killings of the Sikhs in Bargari over the Guru Granth Sahib desecration, it was never going to be enough for Sikhs, who strongly see an RSS hand in everything that happens in Punjab,”
‘AAP is Noise’
“People don’t want the Akalis any more. AAP is just noise, so Congress and Captain (Amarinder Singh) will benefit from it and will make a comeback,” says an elderly lady, who was listening quietly till now. She reveals that her husband and elder son have gone to Punjab to support the Congress.
The conversation takes another turn when a young man volunteers his opinion. “AAP has received a lot of financial support from the UK. Two of my friends have left recently with a group to campaign for AAP in Punjab. We want change and good Sikhs can bring that about. I’ve heard that at least 40 seats have been given to baptised Sikhs by AAP in different areas,” he declares proudly.
Don’t political qualification and public work also matter? To this, he says, “If one has the right intention, a lot can be achieved.”
My Questions to the Politicians and Voters
I hear them all and sigh wishfully. For me to feel reassured, I need answers to these questions – not only from the politicians, but also from their voting and non-voting supporters:
1) Why is it okay for the people to write and share vitriolic social media messages to malign others?
2) Why is it okay to manhandle someone, to attack and abuse someone, to remove someone’s turban, no matter who he/she is?
3) Why has no party leader asked their over-zealous supporters to not take the law in their own hands?
4) Why is it okay to honour or give importance to those who break the law, simply because they are supporting a party?
5) Why can’t the disagreement and anger be expressed on 4 February in a civilised way, by voting for whoever the people of Punjab want to bring to power?
6) Why is it okay to refuse to hear about the wrong-doings of your party, while you are taking the political discourse to a new low by levelling baseless allegations against others?
7) If everyone is going to give as many jobs, free housing, electricity, free this or free that, what will happen to the already debt-ridden state?
And the NRIs also need to answer some questions:
8) Drug addicts, drug availability and drug supply are quite common in the UK too, then why do we not blame our local MPs or councillors for it?
9) Why do some of us want special treatment, gun-men and all the other frills when we visit Punjab if the ‘VIP’ culture is so nauseating?
There are no easy answers to the Punjab quagmire. So why the double standards at all levels, at the cost of our state, our home? My home?
(Kamalpreet Kaur is a freelance journalist based in London, working with TV, radio, print and digital platforms. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)