*Bullet to Ballot

Prabhjot Singh

How different is the election scene in Punjab today? In a way this is the first time in many years that genuine elections are being held in the State since the participation in the previous one, held under the shadow of militancy, was selective. In 1989, candidates supported by militants swept the poll, while three years later in February 1992, it was mainly confined to the Congress and small-time political parties.

But the 1992 election was the beginning of a fresh phase in the revival of democratic process in this trouble-torn food bowl of the country where the fear of the gun had directly and indirectly silenced all those who had been actively engaged in the electoral exercise.

Most Congressmen were more active outside than inside Punjab. The voice of the Akalis had virtually got lost in the “thud” of the bullet. Seasoned leaders like Parkash Singh Badal were occasionally seen and heard. Even otherwise, most of the leaders were speaking different languages for different purposes in their desperate bid to survive politically.

The plight of the political leadership was understandable. A lot of things and issues had got mixed up. The only sound heard in Punjab before the 1992 elections was the roar of the gun. Killings and counter-killings were the order of the day.

The common man was caught between fire power of militants on the one hand and the state on the other. All this has changed today. Though the fear of the gun may still be haunting some people, the overall situation in the State has undergone a refreshing change. It is business as usual.

The holding of the Wills World Cup semi-final at SAS Nagar last month (March, 1996) bears ample testimony to normalcy prevailing in the State today.

SAS Nagar, once hotbed of militant activity, emerged on international scenario as one of the best cricketing centers. It was a refreshing scene to watch a large number of VIPs, enjoying the exciting finish between Australia and West Indies together during a day and night match. The security environment was relaxed. After the game, when the VVIP caravan left, there were no traffic blockades. Spectators and the VIPs moved freely. Punjab, which was known for its vibrant zest for life was to be seen again.

Looking around the State, one finds several stalwarts in the election fray now. These include the BSP Chief Kanshi Ram, former union agriculture minister Surjit Singh Barnala, besides Simranjit Singh Mann, Raghunandan Lal Bhatia, Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, and others. It is different matter that the fear of TN Seshan has replaced the fear of the gun.

The new fear does not dilute the real significance of the elections. The candidates from various political parties are now talking in a language which is democratic and orderly. No one is raising the issue which in the recent past was raised by the militants.

A new phase, which was set in the State by Beant Singh symbolically, has brought cheer and normalcy here. It is, of course, a different matter that Beant Singh himself became a target of militancy.

Harcharan Singh Brar, who is now at the helm of affairs in the State, is known for his sobriety and gives stress on peace and development in the State. Apparently, people, too, see a new purpose in life. They want the process of peace to be consolidated and strengthened, development to pick up and all this to happen without corruption and corrupt practices.

A senior colleague back from once militants-infested Tarn Taren parliamentary constituency, finds a sea change in security environment since 1992. “Security men are not to be seen anywhere,” he says.

Between 1992 and 1996, ballots have blunted bullets. The change, set in motion byelections to 105 Assembly and 11 Lok Sabha seats from the State on February 21, 1992, and fraught with apprehensions about the success of a democratic setup, has come a full circle on a happy note. Normalcy has been restored and Punjab is once again the same “proud, dancing, growing and prosperous soldier son of the country”.

One is baffled if one looks back at the pre-poll scenario in the State four years ago. There were 31 divisions of Army, more than 700 companies of paramilitary forces in addition to 55,000 strong state police and 45,000 men of home guards and special police officers.

Each of the 582 candidates for Assembly seats and 81 for Lok Sabha seats were provided with a minimum of 30 security guards. Candidates from recognized parties not only got a platoon, comprising 30 paramilitary personnel, but also two vehicles — one for pilot duty and another for escort duty.

Gunmen would not leave the candidates, even if they wanted to retire at the end of “unprecedented door to door” campaigning late at night. Election rallies paved the way for corner and indoor meetings which were heavily guarded. The election staff was given a heavy security and insurance cover. Election material moved from distribution center to actual polling booths under heavy escort.

There was an “invisible” threat not only to those who ventured to defy the diktat of the militants by filing their nomination papers but also to those who stepped out of their houses to go to polling booths to exercise franchise. At a large number of polling booths, where thereat was “move serious,” not even a single vote was cast. The overall polling was just a little above 20 per cent.

Disturbed conditions, killings, and other factors notwithstanding, the Election Commission had at that time given six weeks for campaigning. This period witnessed an escalation in militant violence. The elections, which were once cancelled earlier in June the previous year were precluded by not only an unprecedented spell of bloodshed but also boycotts from certain political parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal. The only Akali Dal faction, that went to “polls” was favored to sweep the elections. The verdict, however, turned the other way. Amarinder Singh, who declared elected unopposed from Samana, lost from Kharar constituency where polling was held.

In the militant-related violence between 1985 (when last assembly elections were held) and 1992 (up to December 31, 1991), 14,469 people were killed. In January 1992, alone 236 persons were killed in Punjab, including 135 civilians, 86 militants and 15 security men. In 1991, 4,768 people died in militant-related violence in the State.

Though Punjab continues to be distributed State even today, militant violence has dissipated. Except for the “assassination of Punjab Chief Minster, Beant Singh and 18 others on August 31 last year,” no major incident of militant violence has been reported from Punjab.

The difference is obvious. The electioneering in Punjab, which is under a different shadow this time, has been normal though without enthusiasm.

The main change is in the security environment. The machine gun fitted Gypsies and the security personnel perched atop school and government buildings carrying loaded machine guns, are not to be seen anywhere.

Though a majority of candidates have a couple of personal security guards’, some of them in uniform, the scary sight of a candidate moving under the shadow of guns for canvassing has disappeared altogether.

This time, for example, there is no Army in the State. There will be between 90,000 and 1,00,000 policemen, paramilitary personnel, home guards and SPOs on election duty. The practice of providing two vehicles to candidates of recognized parties, too, has been discontinued.

Back in the fray are all political parties, including the mainstream Akalis. In 1991, when elections were cancelled, certain other political parties, including the Left Front had decided to stay away. The changing scenario, however, has brought all political parties back in the fray though only MPs are to be elected. The elections to the State Assembly will be due in February next year.

Punjab has come a long way since February 1992. By-election to Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat, and by-elections to three seats in Adampur, Gidderbaha and Ajnala, started giving indications of the impending change, the return of democracy as well as normalcy.  

*This piece appeared as the lead article in The Sunday Tribune in April 1996.