One man's fast reminds Punjab what it could easily have done

When Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa began his indefinite fast nearly a month and a half ago, barely anyone knew him. Even state intelligence agencies paid little heed to his fast and demand that six former militants, who had completed their sentences, be released. The authorities woke up when the crowds began swelling at the Amb Sahib Gurdwara in Mohali where he had chosen to sit on fast. It was found that he was attracting attention following announcements made at gurdwaras around the area that the devout should visit Gurbaksh Singh and support his cause. Fringe militant groups and Khalistan ideologues too began supporting him.

This resulted in the government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal, which claims to represent the Sikhs, taking note of his demands and urging him to give up his fast. An adamant Gurbaksh, surviving on karha parshad (prepared with wheat flour, desi ghee and sugar), stuck to his demands. The SAD-BJP government found itself in a bind with the support being attracted by Gurbaksh, himself a former militant who has faced dozens of cases and been in and out of jail over the last 15 years. The government not only sought parole and release of the six former militants, including one each lodged in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, but roped in the highest temporal authority of the Sikhs, the Akal Takht, to issue a directive to Gurbaksh to end the fast. The Sikh clergy pointed out that four of the six former militants had been released on parole and the state government had already taken up the case of the other two with the respective state governments.

The alacrity with which the state government acted exposes the fact that all six former militants could have been released on parole or otherwise and that the government had chosen to sleep over the issue. One of the prisoners, an accused in the conspiracy to assassinate former chief minister Beant Singh, was not allowed parole even once in 18 years. All the others had completed their sentences and could have been released had the state governments concerned taken steps. Usually a recommendation from the authorities of the district where the prisoner belongs suffices to complete the process of release. It was expected of the government, particularly when it is led by the SAD, to have been more sensitive to the issue. Instead it chose to look the other way until Gurbaksh attracted support and there were indications of the situation spiralling out of control.

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