Captain AMARINDER SINGH, Chief Minister of Punjab, has gone all-out to ensure that the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev are a resounding success. In an exclusive interview to Group Editorial Director RAJ CHENGAPPA, he welcomed the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor by Pakistan but expressed deep concern about the ulterior motives Pakistan may have in doing so to stoke Sikh militancy. He also weighed in on the air pollution concerns in North India, pointing out that Punjab was not solely responsible as the Delhi government is making it out to be. Excerpts:
Q. What is the Punjab government doing to ensure that the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Devji are memorable?
Well, two things. We have gone the whole hog in setting up the celebrations because there is nothing bigger than Guru Nanak Devji for us. We have made vast improvements in Sultanpur Lodhi, where he had lived a long time. We have got camps to accommodate around 35,000 pilgrims who are expected. There are 66 sites for langar being set up. Five new bridges have come up over the Kali Bein River and the roads have been widened to national highway specifications. So we have done a great deal. And then in Dera Baba Nanak, we have made preparations to meet the large number of pilgrims who will also come there for the celebrations. The Kartarpur corridor is now, from our side, complete. And I’m told that Pakistan has also completed its portion. So let us see. I intend to go on the first day.
Q. For the celebrations, there seems to be some divide between the Akali Dal and the Congress government in Punjab. Are you unhappy with the way the Akali Dal and the apex gurdwara body, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), have approached it?
Yes, I think so. You know the fact is that whenever there is a celebration for a person as great as Guru Nanakji, it is done by the government. It was done in the past, for instance, during the Guru Gobind Singh celebrations. The state government had made all the arrangements and there had been no problem. I don’t know why they are creating a problem this time. Guru Sahab’s message was of oneness and unity. I have been telling them from day one that on this occasion at least, let’s shows unity in the larger interest of the community and the country.
Q. What is the significance of the Kartarpur corridor and will it turn out to be a corridor of peace?
I look at it in two ways. One, as a Sikh, I’m very happy that it has been done. In the 1920s, when the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara was ravaged by floods, my grandfather [Bhupindar Singh, the maharaja of Patiala] rebuilt it. So for me, it’s a pilgrimage back in history. So, every Sikh is happy. But my apprehensions are about Pakistan’s intentions. It has been 70 years. Why didn’t they think of linking up the Kartarpur corridor earlier? Why didn’t they think of building the Baba Guru Nanak University earlier? Now I feel that this is an ISI operation, because Mr Navjot Singh Sidhu had been called for the swearing-in ceremony of Mr Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister and even before the swearing in, the [Pakistani army chief] General Bajwa had informed Mr Sidhu that he would be happy to know that they are opening the corridor. So the army had already prepared the ground for this and when they do something like this, it puts my antennas up.
Q. Indian intelligence agencies report that a militant camp is being set up or has been set up near Kartarpur and it is supported by the ISI.
Well, I don’t know about the camps there. The intelligence agencies would know more about them. But certainly, in the last one or two years that I’ve been here, we have had many people infiltrating. My government got nearly 26 modules busted when they tried to enter Punjab. We have locked up over 120 people. Nearly 400 weapons and various explosives have come in. These people are not coming here to celebrate Diwali; they are coming here for some ulterior motive and that is what I, as chief minister, have to look at.
Q. Are you concerned about the revival of Sikh militancy in Punjab?
No. See, the ISI has launched the Sikhs for Justice programme [advocating a separate Khalistan state] headed by [Avtar Singh] Pannun and others. They want to get sympathy in Punjab by doing these things so that their mission [of a Sikh referendum by 2020] is a success. Secondly, they want to be able to create more cells in Punjab for operations. These are things we have to look at. As I said, as a Sikh I’m happy I’m going to Kartarpur, but as a chief minister I have to be careful of what is happening.
Q. What precautions do you think the Indian government needs to take in terms of the Kartarpur corridor and in ensuring that there is no free flow of militants into Punjab?
I don’t think they’re going to come marching down the corridor. But they are certainly going to try and create an atmosphere in Punjab to support their nefarious activities.
Q. Guru Nanak Devji’s concern for the environment is well known. But one of the big issues currently is the pollution being caused by stubble burning in Punjab, and your government is being accused of not doing much to control the problem.
Well, in the past two years, we have charged a number of farmers and penalised them. The high court let them off. See, we have about 39 farmer trade unions who go around telling farmers that we got you off the hook the last time and now you just do what you like. Of course, we have again penalised the farmers and registered a greater number of cases, but the sad part is that this is happening on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Devji, who had said “pavan guru, pani pita, mata dharti mahat (air is your guru, water your father and earth your mother)”. Now those things are being ignored by the very community that he gave birth to and I don’t think that’s right.
Q. Why isn’t the Punjab government employing the technology that is available to uproot the stubble without burning it in large areas?
One mustn’t forget that 70 per cent of the farmers here have less than five acres of land and half of them have less than two acres. These are people who cannot afford to employ these tractors. That is why I have made a request to the prime minister that if he’ll give us Rs 100 per quintal more (for the MSP of grain purchased), we can ensure that the farmers use tractors for this operation. Otherwise, they can’t feed their families.
Q. So what’s the way forward, captain? You know, the rest of the country is concerned.
Let me say one thing, they keep blaming Punjab, but if you look at the pollution statistics, Punjab’s figures have been 18 per cent lower than last year and the fact is that the pollution figures are higher for Delhi. So where from and how is that pollution coming? It’s coming from the millions and millions of new cars that have come in. It’s industrial development, it’s the ongoing construction. That is for Mr [Arvind] Kejriwal to check.
Q. Are you hopeful of a solution?
One has to be, because the situation is bad. You know, in my letter to the prime minister, I wrote that it’s not only my responsibility as chief minister to check pollution, but my children and grandchildren all live in Delhi, so I’m also worried about them.
Q. Finally, since we are speaking on his 550th birth anniversary, what does Guru Nanak Devji mean to you personally and what does he symbolise for you?
Well, to me, he is the creator of the universe and the creator of my faith. For me, he isI can’t even describe him. He is a very, very superior being. And let’s not forget his message: Na koi Hindu, na koi Musalman, sab rab de bande-that is what India requires today.