Militancy convulsed Punjab from roughly 1984 to 1994. Afterwards, politicians, government spokespersons and assorted intellectuals declared that 'Khalistan' was gone and the state was 'returning to normalcy' as though the state would suddenly find itself in some pleasant place of bygone era. But that is far from the truth.
In reality, when the gunfire ceased, 10 years of turmoil left lasting scars and chronic afflictions.
This book recounts the no-holds-barred struggle to suppress militancy that morphed into an unrestricted abuse of power. It details how militancy affected the credibility of the judiciary, why trials dragged on for 25 years, how militancy influenced the popular culture and how the youth are still responding to conditions in today's Punjab.
Thirty-five years ago, one turned on the television or picked up the newspaper to find any number of 'talking heads' declaring that 'India is fighting a civil war in Punjab': This was a reasonable assertion since the army was deployed and hundreds of people had been arrested for 'waging war against the state'. As in any war zone, defeating the enemy eclipsed all other concerns. Those peacetime luxuries, rule of law and the processes of democracy, became inevitable sacrifices. And not to forget that wise saw from the days of World War I: `When war comes, truth is the first casualty'.
Then, at some hard-to-pinpoint moment in the mid-1990s, the `talking heads' changed their tune and decided that 'normalcy is returning to Punjab'.
Normalcy' is a comforting word; it conveys the idea that problems are solved and good times are back. But anyone who has lived through, or read about, post-war conditions anywhere in the world-Germany, Japan, Spain, Serbia, Ireland, Iraq, Nicaragua, anywhere-knows that the absence of gunfire is just that and nothing more.
If only the damage from violent conflict were confined to buildings, bridges and roads. Such things can be rebuilt in a matter of months. Unfortunately, violence changes many other things. Some things-lost loved ones or destroyed cultural treasures-can never be replaced. Others, for example, trust and an expectation of fair treatment under law, typically take a long time to regrow.
When Punjab's decade of violence wound down,
What was lost or damaged?
What was changed?
What was the new reality?
How did political parties, civil administration, the judiciary and the police respond?
How did the citizens of Punjab respond?
All of these were important questions but the one great question that subsumed them all was a question of preference:
Was it better to remember or better to forget?
No one response has been forthcoming, and many responses fit the definition of oxymoron: 'firmly ambiguous', turning this way and that depending on the situation.
For instance, numerous union government ministers addressed rallies in Punjab in which, in one breath, they called upon the people of the state to put the past behind them, and in the very next breath mentioned that the Punjab was under a mountain of debt to the Centre-the cost of anti-terrorist operations. In 2011, the debt burden on Punjab stood at over 69,000 crore. Since the 1990s, the state has been paying annual interest of more than 5,000 crore in debt servicing. The central government does not forget this debt, and time and again it has refused to let the state government forget it either.
Contradictory attitudes to the past ripple out in all directions, and Punjab perfectly illustrates the oft-quoted observation of Milan Kundera:
People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.
The past is particularly difficult to brush away when it involves defence of native land, home, tradition, way of life, etc.
One of the controversies roiling the United States at this moment concerns memorials to the Confederacy, the losing side in America's civil war (1861-1865). One of the chief reasons why the southern states seceded from the United States and formed their own government-the Confederacy-was a determination to preserve slavery. That is hardly a noble motive. The South surrendered 150 years ago, but the war has not exactly ended. To this day, many in the South still revere and romanticize their great-great-great-great-grandfathers who fell fighting the Union Army. In cities and towns throughout the American south, parks, intersections and college campuses are home to bronze generals on bronze horses, frozen in mid-charge.
But US demography has changed, and now there are just too many voters whose passions are roused by the memory that their cotton-picking great-great-great-great-grandfathers were bought and sold by those glorious-in-defeat Confederate heroes. These people want the statues removed and preferably melted down. Angry confrontations have broken out between people whose views of the past are very different. History comes in many flavours, and people have a tendency to prefer flavours they have grown up with. Over the past couple of years, strong action to remove these memorials has, in many cases, been met with equal and opposite action from those who want the memorials left alone.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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