Thursday, April 18, 2024

Democratic voices continue to face persecution in Punjab

Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh, the supreme Sikh religious leader, addressing a gathering

In the post-Amritpal episode, there are two regimes whose functioning is needed to be studied in dealing with the people of Punjab, specifically the ongoing harassment of political activists and journalists and the atmosphere of uncertainty with the presence of the paramilitary personnel along with the Punjab police at the newly installed check-posts across the state. These regimes are the Modi government at the Centre and the AAP government in Punjab.

 There is a long list of activists, journalists and the media and human rights organisations whose Twitter accounts have been withheld and their premises raided with the cops even resorting to illegitimate actions like taking away the cellphones of the family members of those under the dictatorial scanner of the government. This act has invited heavy resentment from civil society.  

On 19 March 2023, the Government of India (GoI) requested Twitter to withhold 122 Twitter accounts. Twitter followed the instructions and withheld the handles of more than 100 media and human rights organisations, individual journalists and activists. They included Kamaldeep Singh Brar, principal correspondent of Indian Express in Amritsar, Babbu Mann, a popular Punjabi singer vocal on the current situation in Punjab, Bhavjit Singh who leads a team of social media activists that runs Tratctor2Twitter (this account is also withheld), Gagan of Pro Punjab news channel, US-based journalist Pieter Fredrich who wrote a book ‘Sikh Caucus’, Paramjit Singh Gazi, editor of Sikh Siyasat and many other such individuals active in mainstream journalism and on the social media platforms.

 On April 07, Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh reached Gurdwara Takht Damdama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo (near Bathinda) where he addressed a public meeting of journalists, activists and intellectuals, a first of its kind, deliberating on the current situation in the state that he described as “media censorship in Punjab”.

He also criticised the national media for “toeing the line of the government” and expressed his serious concern over certain news channels misinterpreting the political developments in Punjab. 

“Tell the government that we will not be hiding in our houses,” he said in his address from the dais. “This event indicates that we are aware and not scared of the state repression”. He appealed to the journalists not to give up and continue their “critical viewpoint in their reportage because the media is the voice of the people”.

“The government specifically cannot suppress the voices of the people, specifically of the people of Punjab and Haryana,” he said as he cited an example of how “the farmers’ movement also created several YouTubers as an independent army of journalists”. 

He also announced the formation of a team to “track and crack the “anti-Sikh and anti-Punjab phobia” as played up in the media.

“We will break this anti-Punjab narrative played on some channels,” he said.

“The ‘hakoomat’ (central government) has created panic on the issue of Amritpal and I want to tell the Punjab government to realise it as this brings a bad name to the state government as well,” he added.

Earlier on April, 03, the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU)- Ekta Ugrahan cadres across the state held district-level protest marches against both these governments, submitting a memorandum to the deputy commissioners in their districts which was titled- ‘A demand charter regarding the tricks of the governments of Punjab and at the Centre to ignite communalism in the state’.

The BKU- Ekta Ugrahan is a leading cadre-based organised farmers union in the country which led upfront the historic farmers’ protest on Delhi borders, forcing the Modi regime to withdraw its three laws on the farming and foodgrain policies.

Its cadres also reached Shaheen Bagh during the anti-CAA protests in December 2019.   

The BKU demanded in its memorandum addressed to Punjab Chief Minster Bhagwant Mann include: Withdrawal of the National Security Act imposed recently on the youth of Punjab and bring these arrested men back to the state (from the prison in Assam), withdrawal of the paramilitary forces from the state, oust the agencies like National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) from the state, immediately halt the propaganda of spreading false rumours about Khalistani movement, legal rights to defend their cases to all the accused arrested for the alleged illegal activities, the release of all the youth arrested for getting provoked by the nefarious designs of certain right-wing forces and strict action against the political parties and communal groups who ignite communal tension in the state.

 A police party in the wee hours of April, 03, knocked at the premises of Gazi his village in the Hoshiarpur district and took away the cellphones of his wife and brother after finding him not at home. The Times of India reported this matter the next day quoting the police version in which the concerned deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Kulwinder Singh said the police had “some secret information”.

Gazi however was not troubled after the TOI news report. Gazi, who has been vocal for the release of Sikh political prisoners and the rights of the minorities and the linguistic states, was however not troubled after the TOI news report.

 In another incident, Bharat Khanna, principal correspondent with Times of India in Patiala was verbally summoned by the ‘special branch’ office of the Punjab Police at Bathinda which is his home town. When he called up Bathinda SSP Gulneet Singh Khurana to know the locus standi of the cops for calling him on phone to appear at a police station, Khurana replied to him that there were “some inputs” as part of their investigation into some matter. 

When Bharat reached the police station along with a fellow veteran journalist, they were offered tea and the concerned SHO there told them that “all is well” and “all report about you is fine”. This journalist was however not informed what exactly was the matter in which he was called in this manner. “I think it was an intimidation that is happening all over the state,” Bharat told me later. 

 In another case, a human rights lawyer Gurmohan Preet Singh had a tough time when six policemen reached his house at Anandpur Sahib and asked his parents about him. “They argued with my father after he refused to give them my phone number without my consent,” Gurmohan told me. “They intimidated my father saying finding his son’s contact number was not difficult for them but could not explain for what they were looking for me,” he said. Gurmohan is a defence counsel for an accused in the case of the murder of Shiv Sena leader Sudhir Suri in Amritsar.

“My mother was at home when the cops led by the SHO (of Anandpur sahib police station) came on 29 March. She gave my father’s number to them and then they called him up insisting on my number which my father refused. The SHO then fell into an argument with my father,” Gurmohan told me. “It must have been my profile as a human rights lawyer that prevented them from further harassing us,” he said adding that he was vocal on social media on the “lapses of the police on occasions like an arrested gangster giving an interview while being in judicial custody and the double murder of two gangsters by a rival group inside the Goindwal central jail where they all were kept as accused in the Sidhu Moosewala killing case.

“I am raising awareness about the genocidal impulse of the Hindutva elements and this is irking the government,” he added.

 An interesting phenomenon that has emerged from the prevailing crisis is that the social and political groups with different ideologies, whether the Left or the Sikh religious and political factions have come out hell-bent against the central and state governments in their own manner. Though not converging on any common platform, their narrative remains the same, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the paramilitary from the state and stopping harassing the people through raids at their premises and withholding their social media accounts.

 The self-acclaimed Sikh activist Amritpal Singh, as per the version of the Punjab Police, is a fugitive now. Was his slogan of Khalistan an actual threat to the country’s national integrity or it was media hype? Was he a plant by the intelligence agencies or by any lobby of Khalistanis residing offshores? As these questions make rounds on social media and on the national TV news channels to suit their respective narratives, one thing is for sure the people of Punjab did not take any chance while negating the slogan of Khalistan as poohpoohed by Amritpal through the media.

 The AAP-led Punjab government is so far silent on the imposition of the NSA on the arrested associates of Amritpal Singh and hasn’t issued any statement on the silencing of over a hundred Twitter handles and certain YouTube channels by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) of the central government.

 On 26 March, the Punjab DGP Gayurav Yadav issued a statement that the police have released 197 of a total of 353 apprehended under the law and that seven of them have been arrested under the NSA. There has not been any update on this account since then.

Prabhjit Singh is a New Delhi based journalist.

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