JULIO RIBEIRO was the DGP of Punjab in the eighties when Khalistani terrorism was at its peak. He has first-hand knowledge of Punjab and is an avowed admirer of the people of the state. Ribeiro has keenly followed developments related to the nearly three-month-old farmer agitation on the borders of the Capital. He feels a “confused” and “nervous” government has committed multiple mistakes throughout this movement, such as erecting barricades around the agitators. He told NewsClick in an interview on Monday that the government should remember, the wounds of terrorism have not fully healed in Punjab. Therefore, it should avoid such name-calling.
The government and large sections of media have labeled the agitating farmers as Khalistani or backed by Khalistan supporters. Do you think this could create an alarming situation?
This is the most ridiculous thing that the government is doing. “Anti-national”, “Khalistani”—I mean, this is ridiculous. I do not know why they have used these terms for the farmers. I think they have not been doing so in recent days, however, three weeks ago, they did make such allegations and it demonstrates some kind of nervousness on their part.
Questions are being raised about the way this regime has been tackling the agitation. They say it could even feed into pro-Khalistan sentiments in Punjab since the youngsters are very disturbed that so many have died during their protest and hundreds of cases have been filed invoking the UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967] and sedition charges against their elders. What are your thoughts on this?
The government should be very careful because the wounds of Punjab have not healed completely. You cannot take [fears of Khalistan] very lightly in the context of Punjab because most of the farmers are Sikhs, Jatts. The government must move very carefully.
It [revival of pro-Khalistan sentiments] may not be likely because the people of Punjab have already gone through this once, and they would not like to see it come back. But there are people, for example, Gurpatwant Singh Pannu who has got some—not much, but some—support among the youth in Punjab.
There are some others also who supported Khalistan, [but they are] mainly abroad. But even then the government should careful not to allow support for it to increase. The main challenge here is how to deal with these people, for it is not so easy to deal with your own people.
Also, farmers are not alone facing such cases?
Yes. They [the police] are filing cases against all, be it journalists or Members of Parliament. This is not the kind of advice I would give to the government. The government is taking on so many adversaries. And everybody they take on, they will be in great trouble. I think they are not thinking it over. It is very unfortunate.
What is your overall assessment of how the government has handled this movement so far?
I think they are a little confused. Personally, I do not follow what their strategy for the farmer agitation is; perhaps they know for certain [what strategy they are following]. I feel they do not want to use force and the farmers also do not want to get into any violent confrontation. If they remain peaceful, as they were before 26 January, then the farmers will get a lot of support from the common man. And if the police use any force against farmers, it is the force that would become unpopular. Therefore, both sides do not want any violence.
Were you shocked at the way the farmers hoisted flags at Red Fort on Republic day?
It was not even scheduled for the farmers to go to the Lal Qila. The government kept it unguarded. I mean, it was not as guarded as it should be. I think that was one of the mistakes [of the government].
Have you found any similarities in the way the government is handling the farmer protests and the way it crushed the CAA agitation? The police have arrested many aged farmers while they were on their way to buy things in the market, or while they were travelling in the e-rickshaws...
This has become a sort of routine now. This is the only strategy I can discern. Because when we asked [the government] why they have not arrested the people who made all these hate speeches, they were not able to answer the question. Here also, the police have filed serious cases against people such as [farmer leader] Yogendra Yadav.
I mean, the government is making a lot of mistakes. They should be careful because this is a very, very delicate point... They have never had to face a problem such as this before. The government has had an easy time, but this problem is not going to be easy for them to solve. The anti-CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019] protest was led by women and Muslims. However, it is not going to be as simple with farmers. That is why this is the most testing time for this government.
You must have seen the pictures and videos or read about the ten-to-thirteen layer LoC-style “security” barricading that has been done at protest sites. What do you think of it?
They [the government] have gone to the extreme. They do not want farmers to come inside Delhi. The barricading revealed signs of nervousness and it is very unfortunate. They are doing things that nobody expects them to do. But I do not think the government is treating agitating farmers as an enemy as many people are saying. The government knows it cannot afford to make farmers into its enemies. However, the government is making so many [other] mistakes. See how in western Uttar Pradesh [Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh] Tikait has come up as a leader. The Bharatiya Janata Party had won that part of Uttar Pradesh electorally and they may lose that ground now. For the government, this is a losing game.
Not only the farmers, but even security personnel are on the hook. They have never faced such long and charged agitations in the Capital or around. Do you think this is a challenging situation for the government, psychologically-speaking?
What happens when we deal with such a situation is that everything depends on the ground realities. During my time [as a serving IPS officer], the ground realities and my bosses were different. Earlier you had a [former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh, and now there is [Home Minister] Amit Shah. It is not easy. It is quite different. Now they [the police] have to work under the Amit Shah dispensation. And all depends on how the bosses look at the situation.
In what way do you mean?
I can tell you what happens with members of the [armed] forces. They follow their leader. If the leader is very clear, that always helps them do better. Because the forces do not have any direct contact with the public as such, so they will just follow orders. If their bosses are keen to correct things, the forces will do so too. This I can guarantee you will happen even though the security personnel’s heart may be on the opposite side.
I do not know how many people [in the forces] feel settled or unsettled by the Hindutva philosophy, but most officers do their duty according to the Constitution and law. However, now I find that very often they are moving away from this commitment.
The government has gone to an extreme. They do not want farmers to come inside Delhi. The barricading revealed signs of nervousness, and it is very unfortunate. They are doing things that nobody expects them to do.
Members of the armed forces follow their leader. If the leader is clear, that helps them do better. The forces do not have direct contact with the public, so they just follow orders. If their bosses are keen to correct things, the forces will do so too.
The government should be very careful because the wounds of Punjab have not healed completely. You cannot take [the fears of Khalistan] very lightly in the context of Punjab because most of the farmers are Sikhs, Jatts. The government must move very carefully.
See how in western Uttar Pradesh [Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh] Tikait has come up as a leader. The Bharatiya Janata Party had won that part of Uttar Pradesh electorally and they may lose that ground now. For the government, this is a losing game.