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Seeing Through the Chandigarh Issue and Centre’s Intentions

Inderjit Singh |
Let it be understood that the inherent game plan of the Centre in raking up the Chandigarh issue aims at disrupting the unprecedented unity of farmers from Punjab and Haryana.

Image credit: In AWE

The voice of farmers from Punjab and Haryana at a huge joint Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) protest in Mohali stood united against encroachment of the two states' rights on Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) on March 25. A memorandum addressed to the President of India was submitted through the governors demanding restoration of the status quo on Chandigarh. Astonishingly, the Centre not only ignored the SKM’s plea, but brought out another pernicious notification issued by the Home Ministry to bring all the employees of Chandigarh under the Central Services Rules. This further undermines the share of states in Chandigarh and makes the Centre dominant over it. This move would alter the status of Chandigarh and needs to be opposed by all concerned stakeholders . The issue has the potential to divide the people of Punjab and Haryana who have forged a magnificent victory during the historical farmers’ movement. It is precisely this unity that the Modi government wants to disrupt, finding it an impediment in the smooth pursuit of the pro-corporate neo-liberal agenda.

A relook at the concerned history in this context may not be irrelevant here. The past few decades have witnessed very big political mobilisations on issues like sharing of river waters, claim over territories including Chandigarh, etc.. Since then, Chandigarh had been the joint capital of both Haryana and Punjab with a peculiar status of Union Territory, but having its assets divided between Punjab and Haryana in 60:40 proportion respectively. Even Himachal Pradesh is also stated to have some share in this.

Agitations in the name of Dharma-yudh and Nyaya-yudh were launched on either side – in Punjab and Haryana – by unleashing emotive regional passions of the people – especially the peasantry – by political parties. Akalis led by Prakash Singh Badal and Lok Dal led by Chaudhary Devi Lal led these agitations in the mid-1980s. Before this, there had been violent incidents preceding as well as just after the reorganisation of states.

Although both sides succeeded in gaining huge electoral dividends, it left an inter-state dispute wide open that continued for decades. After then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 30, 1984 by the Sikh security guards deputed at her residence, senseless violence and hatred was unleashed against innocent Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere, in which thousands were killed and injured.  Then, Chief Minister of Punjab S Beant Singh was shot dead by extremists in 1995 when he was leaving the secretariat in Chandigarh. Over 200 leaders and cadres of communist parties sacrificed their lives while fighting against terrorism in Punjab .

Half a dozen commissions were constituted and political accords were signed from time to time to resolve the pending disputes. Recommendations of those commissions and accords were never implemented and this further complicated the matters rather than solving them. The only comprehensive attempt that had broad acceptable contours touching upon river waters distribution, completion of Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal, fate of Chandigarh and other territorial claims, and counterclaims was the Rajiv-Longowal accord signed between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Akali Dal leader Harchand Singh Longowal on July 24, 1985. It could have paved the way for a breakthrough in restoring peace and countering both internal and external challenges posed to national unity then. It was mainly for this consideration that the Left parties had supported the accord and wanted its implementation. Ironically, it was rejected not only by leaders spearheading the so-called Nyaya Yudh in Haryana, terming it ‘against the interests of the state’, but even extremists in Punjab described the accord as a sellout. Signatory to the accord Sant Harchand Singh Longowal – a broadly liberal face – paid for this with his life as he was assassinated by Khalistani terrorists.

The dark days of terrorism and extremism that afflicted one of the most vibrant and dynamic states of Punjab in all respects – economic, social, and cultural. With the supreme sacrifices of martyrs and the common people opposing it, extremists were alienated and terrorism was contained, but it took a heavy toll in terms lives lost and incalculable social consequences.

People on either side finally came to realise that those who were posing as champions of the interests of their respective states were hardly concerned with the real interests of the people. Instead, they were using the inter-state issues like sharing of river waters and disputed regions for capturing political power by whipping up communal and regional chauvinism on either side. For example, the BJP units of Punjab and Haryana had been taking contradictory stands while the same was true of the Congress party.

It was the recently concluded year-long historical farmers’ struggle that displayed magnificent unity between the farmers of the two states being forged and strengthened. Again, it was in accordance with the same spirit that the March 25 protest was held in Mohali – the sister town of Chandigarh, falling in Punjab. Strong opposition was lodged against Centre's encroachment of rights of the states by amending the rules of BBMB – eventually changing the status of Punjab and Haryana on the board as permanent members. Similarly, the Dam Safety Act 2021 enacted by Parliament was another retrograde legislation that impinges negatively on the exclusive rights of the states . Yet another act of the Centre was decreasing the share of Haryana and Punjab in the total number of employees posted at Chandigarh.

Instead of listening to the farmers' case for restoration of rights of the states, the Centre audaciously moved forward. It unilaterally altered the status of Union Territory by taking control of all the employees of Chandigarh.

It was actually this draconian move of the Modi government that needed to be opposed and get the status quo restored rather than reopening the old dispute as to which state Chandigarh should be transferred to, which is what the AAP government in Punjab did – through a resolution in the Punjab Assembly, convened specially for a day on April 1. Although the Assembly resolution per se has no legal sanctity; yet, it bears a definite political intent.

Haryana chief minister, on the contrary, has taken an ignominious stand on UT employees by welcoming the move of the Central government.

It is not unlikely for the Punjab CM to call an all-party meeting, while a similar demand has been raised by the Congress in Haryana – just opposed to its counterpart in Punjab. Such an escalation is fraught with divisive overtones, which is quite often used by reactionary forces of various hues.

At the same time, simmering of the SYL canal issue is being felt in Haryana. BJP seems to have desperately used it to try to counter the Kisan Andolan, but it failed. Completion of the SYL canal is required for carrying surplus quota of river water allocated to Haryana, which again, is stuck in a dispute as successive governments of Punjab have all along been averse to its completion despite a Supreme Court order.

These are some of the contentious issues lingering for more than 50 years, mainly due to the petty opportunistic politics. It is true that they do need to be settled, but being complex, interlinked, and extremely sensitive in nature, one should not take up these issues in a casual and piecemeal manner. They need to be looked at in a comprehensive way and within an appropriate time frame.

The newly formed AAP government of Bhagwant Mann in Punjab should have been extra cautious in dealing with the Chandigarh issue. This is essentially the fallout of the Modi government’s policies of over-centralisation of power by drastically weakening the federal character of our constitutional scheme of governance.  It is this authoritarian onslaught that the Kejriwal government of Delhi has already felt enough with a hostile LG in place for vetting most of its decisions. So, the regressive steps taken by the Centre regarding the status of Chandigarh need to be reversed. People have very high hopes from the AAP government in Punjab.

Let it be understood that the inherent game plan of the Centre in raking up the Chandigarh issue aims at disrupting the unprecedented unity of farmers of Punjab and Haryana which formed the bedrock of the movement that forced the Modi government to repeal the three contentious farm laws. This unity will have to be carried forward.

Let all farmers’ organisations and democratic forces see through the game plan and foil it by maintaining their unity and for the time being, keep all contentious issues from taking a centre stage.

All toiling sections should strive hard to see that real livelihood issues should not be allowed to be relegated to the back burner as it would only facilitate the success of the corporate agenda, which the BJP government is desperately pursuing by pitting people against each other. It is an essential component of its strategic pursuit.

The author is AIKS Haryana vice president and works with the Samyukta Kisan Morcha.

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