While the progressive forces were gearing up to celebrate the birth anniversary of Paash – a revolutionary Punjabi poet on September 9, the news of the assassination of Gauri Lankesh shook everyone to the core.
Paash was a byproduct of the radical communist movement also known as naxalite movement of late 1960s that united the oppressed communities and the working class in India. He has been in the forefront of many people’s struggles and captured the literary landscape of Punjab due to his fiery poetry which had a strong mass appeal because of its rebellious content.
Born on September 9, 1950 as Avtar Sandhu, Paash chose his pen name after Paasha the hero of The Mother, a famous novel by Maxim Gorky.
He had challenged not only the Indian state through his poems, but also wrote against both the Hindu and Sikh fundamentalism. The emergence of Hindu Right and Sikh fanaticism during 1980s had vitiated the social environment of Punjab. While the Sikh extremists were seeking a separate homeland of Khalistan, an imaginary country to be carved out of India, Hindu fundamentalists terrorized Sikhs and Muslims across India in order to establish a Hindu nation.
Sensing that this would lead to another religious partition of India like in 1947 that resulted in separation of Muslim Pakistan and large scale sectarian violence, Paash had formed Anti 47 Front. He pulled no punches while condemning the reactionary forces of any stripe as a result of which the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) that was involved in armed insurgency in Punjab assassinated him in 1988.
The KCF took responsibility of murdering him and other communist activists like him in the state for their opposition to the movement of Khalistan. The organization had justified the action by branding Paash as anti Sikh. Yet, many supporters of Khalitan continue to malign him on social media and deny their hand in his murder. They claim that Paash might have been killed for personal and not political reasons.
Now let’s fast forward to 2017. On September 5, Gauri Lankesh was murdered in Karnataka by unknown assailants.
Much like Paash, Lankesh was also a vocal critic of religious extremism. She has been consistently writing against growing threat of Hindu extremism under a right wing Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She has been receiving death threats and as soon as the news of her murder came, the supporters of Modi began celebrating her death on social media. Not only some tried to rationalize her killing but also tried to prove that she might have been killed for non political reasons.
Apart from these two individuals there were many more free thinkers and writers who have been killed in India over all these years. But while there are many similarities between the killings of Paash and Lankesh and the reaction that followed, the Indian state that claims to be the world’s largest secular democracy handled the two situations very differently.
The Khalistani extremists who claim to be the defenders of the minority Sikh community were frequently killed in staged police shootouts. The Indian authorities duly rewarded the police for eliminating them in the name of national interest. The killers of Paash and other writers like him in Punjab were punished by using extra judicial means in the name of peace. But that has never been the case with the Hindu Right extremists. Rather those indulging in the killings and bombings in the name of Hindu nation continue to enjoy the state patronage. Unsurprisingly, under Modi government they have become emboldened. So much so, some trolls on social media who have been using filthy language against Lankesh after her murder were being followed by Modi. There seems to be a complete lack of political will to arrest such elements let alone a will to get them punished. A case in point is that of Lt. Col. Srikant Purohit – a serving army officer who was arrested for being a part of Hindu supremacist group that has been targeting Muslim through bomb blasts. Only recently he got bail and was reinstated on the job even before the court could give its final verdict in the case.
This reflects badly on a state whose constitution guarantees equal treatment to all religious communities. If India is truly a pluralist and diverse nation that it must under all circumstances treat the extremists of both the minority and the majority communities alike. Those who keep boasting over the restoration of peace in Punjab and ending Sikh militancy with an iron fist owe an explanation that why the Hindu extremists are not being dealt with firmly when they too are posing threat to the unity and diversity of the country. Such tendencies only show that India is increasingly becoming a Hindu theocracy in spite of its official mandate to remain secular.
Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.