After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 5 January rally in Punjab’s border district of Ferozepur got cancelled due to “security lapses”, politics over the issue has intensified. Central government ministers and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are accusing the Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi-led state government. They say it is the fault of the Congress government of Punjab, which deliberately put the life of the Prime Minister in danger to sabotage the BJP rally. Channi has refuted the allegations, saying, “There was no lapse in the security of the Prime Minister. He has set up an investigation team. People did not gather for the BJP’s rally and a conspiracy is being hatched to defame Punjab and Punjabiyat on the pretext of security.”
On the other hand, farmers, leaders, intellectuals and ordinary people of Punjab are calling the episode a signal of the hypocrisy of the BJP. There are fresh revelations every day in this matter, which raise questions on the claims of the BJP and the central government. For example, it is worth mentioning that Prime Minister Modi was supposed to address a BJP election rally in Ferozepur on 5 January. Still, on 2 January, twelve of Punjab’s farmers’ organisations protested against it and demanded the dismissal and arrest of Union Home Minister Ajay Mishra’ Teni’ in the Lakhimpur Kheri case.
The farmers announced a symbolic dharna, saying that the central government’s promises (when they ended their movement) were still unfulfilled. The farmers planned to burn effigies of Modi in villages and organise demonstrations before district secretariats. On 2 January, people started burning Modi effigies in villages, but no organisation planned to halt Modi’s convoy or demonstrate at the rally site. Only one farmer organisation, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSS), had mentioned protesting at Modi’s rally on 5 January, but Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat met the leaders and resolved the issue.
Due to rainy weather on 5 January, Modi left Bathinda Airport by road for Hussainiwala, where the samadhis of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev are located. It is still a matter of controversy whether covering the about 130 km distance to Hussainiwala was already in Modi’s schedule or not. Nevertheless, when Modi’s convoy had gone just about 30 km from Hussainiwala, it encountered some protesters blocking the road. The vehicle ferrying Modi was about a kilometre away from these protesters. His convoy stood on the same flyover for about 15 or 20 minutes. After this, the convoy left for Bathinda airport without visiting Hussainiwala or attending the rally.
According to the news agency ANI, which is considered close to the central government, “Modi, after reaching the Bathinda airport, told the government official ‘thank your Chief Minister that I am going back alive from Bathinda airport’.” Neither has the Prime Minister given any statement about whether his life was really in danger, nor has the PMO issued any statement, nor has the SPG or Special Protection Group, responsible for the Prime Minister’s security, said anything. There is no response from anywhere, but BJP leaders started loudly tossing around claims of a security breach.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has sought a report on this matter from the Punjab government. Union Home Minister Amit Shah attacked the Punjab government and demanded an apology from the Congress leadership. BJP chief JP Nadda alleged that Punjab Chief Minister Channi did not answer his phone call. Former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who recently became a friend of the BJP in Punjab, has demanded President’s Rule in Punjab over this issue. Union Minister Smriti Irani has even alleged that the Congress party wanted to harm the prime minister. There are similar strong reactions from the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Minister Meenakshi Lekhi.
Punjab’s other opposition parties, the Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party, have also started questioning the Channi-led government over the Prime Minister’s security. The BJP raised the pitch so high that “security lapse” got left behind, and “threat to the life of the Prime Minister” has become the talking point. The BJP organised a “Maha Mrityunjay” chant for the long life of the Prime Minister in many states, in which, apart from BJP chief ministers, many BJP leaders participated.
On the other hand, Punjab Chief Minister Channi says there was no security lapse during the Prime Minister’s visit, and the BJP is unnecessarily giving it political overtones. He has pointed out that there was no threat nor any attack on the Prime Minister. He has also said that the DGP of Punjab warned the BJP that it would be better to cancel the Prime Minister’s programs due to the rain and agitations. Channi said that the Punjab government had a limited role in managing the Ferozepur rally, which the central agencies mainly handled. He also said that when the Prime Minister was travelling by road, Punjab Police officers had stopped the convoy before the road blockade, provided it with this information and suggested an alternate route. It is the central government officials who decided to turn back instead of taking that route. The farmers also suddenly clambered on the road. According to Channi, the BJP was drumming up politics as their rally in Ferozepur had proved a super flop. He said the party wished to avoid humiliation by making ‘deficiency in the security of the Prime Minister’ an excuse.
It is important to say that only a few people reached the BJP rally the Prime Minister was scheduled to visit. The BJP claimed that it had planned to gather 1.5 lakh people on a 25-acre ground, but far fewer people turned up. According to the English language daily The Tribune, only around five thousand people arrived. Some Punjabi media organisations put this count even lower, close to 2,000 or 2,500 people.
Photos and videos of the rally have surfaced, which show leaders such as Captain Amarinder Singh addressing empty chairs. Farmers had also stopped the buses going to BJP rallies at some places, but many of them were half empty or more. A report published in the Punjabi Tribune on 6 January read that women on one bus the farmers stopped said they were being taken to a rally meant for daily wage workers. In interviews with some media organisations, Channi showed reporters (while riding in his car) people protesting against him, too. He is seen comfortably emerge from his car and hear them out.
So far, inquiry committees have been constituted by the Punjab and central government in this affair. Retired Justice Mahtab Singh Gill and Principal Secretary Anurag Verma are included in the committee formed by the Punjab government. The Supreme Court has directed the Registrar General of Punjab and Haryana to take possession of all the records related to the security arrangements made during the Prime Minister’s visit from the Punjab Government, Punjab Police and central agencies. On the other hand, the central government has demanded the involvement of the NIA in the investigation.
Jagtar Singh, a senior journalist who has been covering the politics of Punjab for a long time, is of the view that the PMO has not yet clarified the statement of the Prime Minister cited by ANI as it should have. It was the Prime Minister’s first visit to Punjab after the repeal of the three farm laws. Preparations for such a visit begin a week in advance and involve every agency possible. The responsibility to manage these visits does not lie with the chief minister of any state nor its home minister, but it is a ‘state-to-state’ affair. Put another way, when the Centre plans the visit of the Prime Minister, it is not with the Chief Minister but with the Chief Secretary and DGP of the state that the plans are drawn up.
It is a claim that the Prime Minister had to go by road due to bad weather. However, even ordinary citizens get the weather reports a week or longer in advance. Therefore, the Centre should clarify whether the Prime Minister had checked the weather report when he took off from Delhi or not. Secondly, VIPs use all-weather helicopters, not ordinary ones. All-weather helicopters are also present in the Chandigarh airport. I understand that there was no crowd thronging the rally, the chairs were empty, and when Modi got to know this, he must have thought that going by road would give people enough time to gather at the venue. Still, the maidan was not meant to fill up. So, the BJP is whipping up a storm to camouflage its own failure. This was the most poorly-attended BJP rally I have seen.
Being a border area, all kinds of security agencies function here. If the protesting farmers had blocked the road, this report should have been with the Prime Minister. Now, we can see the BJP trying to take advantage of this issue in Uttar Pradesh by turning it into a national security issue. Many eminent defence experts of the country also believe that all central and state agencies are active during the visit of the Prime Minister. There is coordination between the SPG and DGP of the state, with all agencies working under the former.
Now the question arises, if the state police had given information that the road is clear, did the SPG verify it too? The farmers’ declared their protest program in Punjab four days earlier, and started their protest on 2 January. So, why was the SPG not aware of this? Why did it decide to take the Prime Minister on such a long journey by road in the circumstances? Are the SPG responsible at all for what happens? Why has the head of the SPG not commented officially on this episode?
The name of the farmer’s organisation protesting one kilometre ahead of the spot where the Prime Minister’s convoy had to stop is BKU (Krantikari). Baldev Singh Zeera, the leader of this organisation, says, “Around 150 farmers were going to Ferozepur under my leadership. We had to protest the policies of the Prime Minister in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office as per the program set by our organisation. But...as soon as our convoy reached near the village Piyareana, the police stopped us on the national highway… We had no idea that the Prime Minister would pass through this road.”
Baldev Singh further explains, “We were only told by the police and administration that BJP workers should be allowed to pass through on their buses, and we had agreed. But when the BJP workers came down to violence, then farmers told the police and administration that they will not clear the road at any cost. We do not know anything about when the Prime Minister turned back.”
Two videos also came to the fore in which Baldev Singh is addressing farmers: “The policemen are telling us that the Prime Minister is coming from this path, we should leave the way. Our police brothers are saying their jobs are at stake, but the media persons are telling us that the Prime Minister will go by helicopter, and has reached Nainiwala, and they say that the police want to stop us from reaching the Deputy Commissioner’s office.” In the second video, the farmers ask everyone to eat at the langar and that Baba Nanak’s langar is for everyone; even BJP people should eat there. In a third video (and some photos), we can see BJP workers near the Prime Minister’s convoy raising slogans supporting the party. One of the workers also has pictures with BJP leader Pragya Singh Thakur. These people were cheering Modi and the BJP and held BJP flags in their hands.
According to BKU (Dakonda) leader Narayan Dutt, “Was Modi under threat from the farmers of his own country? What weapons did these farmers have...? These are the same farmers who have done a peaceful movement on the borders of Delhi for a whole year, whom the whole world recognises. In fact, Modi and his BJP are terrified of the failure of their rally. They should read the writing on the wall: this is the soil of Punjab, and here there is no place for communal haters. Now the entire Sanghi clan wants to defame Punjab, Punjabis and farmers by hypocrisy in the name of security, but they will not succeed.”
Jagjit Singh, a young farmer from district Ludhiana, says, “First of all, the farmers were about a kilometer away from Modi’s convoy. Secondly, they had no weapons. They could have at least shown black flags to Modi, which is their democratic right. What kind of chief servant is this, who is afraid of his own people? I think Modi was scared away by his own and his party’s actions. The people of Punjab revere their guests, no matter who it is is.” Pyara Lal Garg, a well-known political expert from Punjab, observes, “The Prime Minister is not behaving like the Prime Minister of the country but like the Prime Minister of the BJP. I see all this as drama; such an act in which by defaming Punjab, by playing the card of security or sentimentality, by getting sympathy for themselves, they want to take advantage of it in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Modi even thinks about the martyred farmers, did they die for him! Whenever BJP leaders defamed farmers, did Modi ever stop them? His attitude towards Punjabis may further alienate him from Punjabis.”
Rajeev Khanna, a senior journalist who has extensively covered Punjab and Gujarat politics, says, “I have observed that whenever Modi is cornered, he tries to garner sympathy; he cries or talks about the danger to his life. In the present case also, there is nothing [real]. The SPG is primarily responsible for the lapse in the security of the Prime Minister.” Secondly, says Khanna, the matter was confined to the proceedings against some officers, which was made into a drama of “threat to life”. Has Modi never been stuck in a traffic jam before? BJP supporters shout “Modi zindabad” in many places and come right next to his convoy. Modi himself waves his hands at them. Once, his devotees came near his car and made him wear a turban. “Wasn’t that a security lapse? What was the action taken at that time? Were the rules different at that time? What is the rule that only those who do zindabad should go to the Prime Minister?”
In this case, the farmers were not even with Modi. His convoy had BJP supporters. “If a ‘powerful Prime Minister’ feels afraid despite so much security, how will he protect the country?” asks Khanna, adding, “Prime Minister Modi should remember that this is a democracy. Here, slogans of ‘zindabad’ have to be heard, and slogans of ‘murdabad’ too. Many Prime Ministers have heard such slogans before him.”
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.