By Ashis Biswas
Even his critics would admit that indecisiveness is not among the attributes one associates with Assam Chief Minister Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma’s brand of politics. But he has surprised friends and critics alike by not responding to an offensive warning from the pro-secessionist Sikh lobby.
Nonetheless, reaction followed swiftly in Assam to the veiled threat issued against Mr Sarma by people claiming to be spokesmen for the banned Sikhs for Justice(SFJ) organisation: one Gurpatwant Singh Pannun alleged that Sikh prisoners currently being held in Assam jails following their arrest from Punjab were being mistreated. Pro-Khalistani Sikhs in Assam too were being harassed.
Speaking on behalf of the SFJ and by implication for the Sikh community, he warned Mr Sarma that he would be answerable for the safety of those arrested. The chilling message circulated in a video clip has gone viral.
Further, Mr Sarma was reminded that the present fight concerned the Sikhs and the Central Government, implying that the Assam government should not be involved.
The state administration has already taken steps to increase the Chief Minister’s security. Police officials in all districts have been alerted. There has followed no official comment from Dispur on the matter till the time of writing this account.
However, a fairly comprehensive response has come from an entirely unexpected quarter: the pro-secession faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA-I), led by Mr Paresh Barua.
Mr Barua, who has been involved in negotiations with the central government for years and operates from neighbouring countries, strongly pulled up Mr Singh for picking on the Chief Minister as a target. He criticised the SFJ’s message to Mr Sarma as ‘unfortunate’, its wording ‘undesired’, the result of some misunderstanding.
Observers feel the response from the ULFA has been a nuanced manoeuvre endorsed by the State Government. Dispur authorities cannot properly communicate with a banned organisation like the foreign-based SFJ or its supporters in India. On the other hand, the hostile propaganda implicit in the SFJ’s unexpected warning, had to be dealt with.
State Police authorities told Assam-based mediapersons that they were looking into the origins of the video clip to learn more about the self-styled Mr G. Singh and others involved. They were in close touch with Central government authorities.
They took serious exception to the unsubstantiated suggestion that the Sikh community had been harassed in Assam.
No one doubts that an organisation like the ULFA-I, also a banned outfit , would not have spoken out on a sensitive matter without backroom consultation with the ruling establishment in Assam — perhaps even with central agencies ! But its’ open letter’ to the SFJ was proper in the circumstances as it involved one secession-minded banned group addressing another, on equal level/footing.
The state Government, by letting ULFA do the talking, had effectively skirted round a difficult area involving undefined norms /protocol used in communications with banned organisations. To have the ruling BJP or other recognised parties like the AGP, Congress, the CPI or the AIUDF responding officially would not have been correct as the procedure would have magnified the SFJ’s importance.
Further, if the SFJ had sought to whip up larger Sikh sentiments with its aggressive, none-too-polite address to Mr Sarma, Mr Barua’s carefully crafted response mentioned the consideration and co-operation the beleaguered Sikhs had received from the Assamiyas during the 1984 riots.
In an almost point-by-point rebuttal, Mr Barua reminded the as yet shadowy Mr Gurpatwant Singh that the ULFA too stood for revolution and valued the struggle for freedom, while deploring the words and tone of the SFJ’s message.
Through this move, the state Government sent its own firm, larger message to the SFJ and the Sikh community in general. The grave accusation of mistreatment of the Sikhs was firmly rejected as something not in tune with the traditional culture and values of Assam. The Sikh, the ULFA statement implied should not forget the peace they had enjoyed in Assam back in 1984 even while most of North India had erupted in violence!
Incidentally, Assam has a sizable Sikh resident community numbering over 50,000 people and several functioning gurdwaras. Most resident Sikhs are fluent in their use of Assamiya as a language of communication. They have been participating enthusiastically in major local festivals and cultural activities for generations. From the direct, abrupt nature of the SFJ’s warning to Mr Sarma it seemed some Sikh separatists do not value the harmonious relationship existing between the Assamiyas and the Sikhs.
If the SFJ had claims to represent the larger interest of Sikhs, on the basis of support it enjoyed among a section of aspirant Indian Sikh youths and NRI- community members, the ULFA-I too had a similar following among Assamiyas. There were still occasional reports in the local media of educated youths quitting their studies to join the ULFA-I from some districts in Assam. Besides pressing for an independent Assam over the years, the ULFA had energetically participated in debates on ethnic, cultural or other issues involving Assamiya interests.
Political circles are keen to see if the SFJ chooses to continue its exchange with political circles in Assam/the Northeast regarding their agitation for an independent Punjab. (IPA Service)