Chandigarh, December 27
Towards the close of 2020, the farmers’ protest appeared to push everything else that happened in Punjab to the background.
The fight against COVID-19, for instance. Also, a hooch tragedy that claimed over 100 lives.
The state’s top bureaucrat was shunted out after two ministers went into a sulk over him. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and former cricketer-now politician Navjot Singh Sidhu patched up over lunch.
But the spotlight was on Punjab’s farmers, with thousands of them setting off to the national capital to protest against three agri-marketing laws. For a month now, they have blockaded key entry points to Delhi, with their unions asking the Narendra Modi government to repeal the new laws.
There is hardly any social distancing or face masks seen at the protest sites at Delhi’s borders. But the state itself has paid a heavy price during the pandemic so far: over 1.6 lakh people caught the virus and 5,200 died.
The couldn’t-care-less attitude by Punjab farmers at Delhi contrasts sharply with the harsh steps announced by their state government to fight the contagion. Night curfew still remains clamped on all towns and cities.
A police officer had his hand chopped off when he and his colleagues tried to stop a group of men from the Nihang sect from violating the lockdown orders in Patiala district.
The attackers were arrested after an exchange of fire at a gurdwara where they had fled after attacking the police team. Assistant Sub Inspector Harjeet Singh’s hand was reattached at PGI Chandigarh.
In July-August, a hooch tragedy struck Tarn Taran, Amritsar and Batala districts. Over 100 people died after consuming illicit liquor, as the police scrambled to make arrests and the Congress government fended off opposition attacks over the deaths.
Two Rajya Sabha MPs, Partap Singh Bajwa and Shamsher Singh Dullo, targeted their own government in the state over the tragedy, seeking a probe by a central agency.
The state Congress complained about them to party president Sonia Gandhi, seeking stern action for their “brazen indiscipline”.
At another time, Capt Amarinder Singh was embarrassed by two of his ministers. Manpreet Singh Badal and Charanjit Singh Channi took offence over some “curt remarks” by Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh at a meeting on the state’s excise policy.
They refused to attend any more meetings where the CS was present, virtually serving it’s-him-or-us ultimatum to the CM.
Two weeks into the standoff, the chief secretary expressed regret. A month after the controversy began, he was shunted out, replaced by 1987-batch IAS officer Vini Mahajan who became the first woman to head the Punjab bureaucracy.
She is now part of a power couple—her husband Dinkar Gupta is the state’s police boss.
But it has been a bad year for a former Director General of Police, Sumedh Singh Saini. He was charged with murder over the disappearance of a junior engineer three decades back. The missing man was allegedly picked up by police in 1991 after a terrorist attack on Saini.
Saini was also named an accused in a case related to a police firing in 2015 at Faridkot’s Behbal Kalan, where two people protesting over the alleged desecration of Guru Granth Sahib were shot dead.
The row over the three new farm ordinances, which turned into Acts in September, ignited politics in Punjab with its farmers fearing that over time these would lead to the dismantling of the minimum support price (MSP) system. Most of the wheat and paddy grown in the state is bought by government agencies under this assured price system.
Sensing the farmers’ mood, the Shiromani Akali Dal walked out of the NDA government at the Centre, ending a two-decade-old alliance with the BJP.
In a rare show of unity, over 30 Punjab farm bodies joined hands, organising first a series of sit-ins and then a “rail roko” that lasted for weeks.
With the railways deciding not to run even freight trains unless the blockade was completely lifted, stocks of coal for power plants and fertilisers for farms began running low. Industry suffered a big blow.
This was before the massive “Delhi Chalo” agitation in which Punjab farmers – as well as a sizeable number from Haryana – descended on Delhi’s borders.
Punjab’s Congress government has been quick to make it clear that it is with the farmers. In the Vidhan Sabha, it brought a resolution urging the BJP-led Centre to repeal the laws. The House also passed Bills meant to “negate” the central laws in the state.
Amritsar East MLA and former cricket Navjot Singh Sidhu took part in a tractor rally led by party leader Rahul Gandhi in October, attracting attention after months of keeping himself largely aloof from party activities.
Amarinder Singh invited Sidhu for a lunch at his home last month, over a year since the MLA resigned as a minister after being stripped of his local government portfolio. In 2021, he might be back in Captain’s team. — PTI