CCTV footage shows Hindu Sangharsh Sena leader Vipan Sharma, 45, being shot dead in Amritsar on October 30, 2017. Photo: via YouTube

Following a spate of killings of Hindu nationalist leaders in the Indian state of Punjab, many right-wingers there are applying for gun licenses in a bid to defend against possible attacks.

Hindutva leaders – including functionaries from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organization regarded as the parent organization of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have been killed in the Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar districts of Punjab. Police claim to have busted the gang that was behind most of the killings, but Hindu leaders say being a minority in the state – where a BJP coalition lost power to the Congress party in elections last year – means they are being targeted by radicals.

At least 20 applications for pistols by Hindutva leaders have been received by Ludhiana police alone in the last three months. They have also provided security cover to three Hindutva leaders in the district.

The killings of Hindutva leaders has come as a shock. Political violence in India is sporadic and on many occasions the BJP and its affiliates have been the perpetrators of attacks. In Punjab, they are now the targets.

Rajeev Tandon, the chairman of Shiv Sena Hindustan, a Hindu nationalist political party, has his own security cover of eight armed security personnel. He says that religious fanatics are trying to scare him and his brethren. “There are anti-national elements who are trying to bring back the situation that existed in Punjab in the 1980s,” he said. In the 80s, Punjab witnessed killings of Hindus by Sikh separatists who wanted to create a Sikh state, Khalistan, in the region.

“My family members call me at least three to four times  a day when I am out. This did not happen a year ago,” Tandon said. He also applied for a gun license, in November.

Ravinder Gosain was shot dead in Ludhiana by two armed men in October. Gosain, 60, had been a senior RSS member for 30 years.  Two weeks later, on October 30, 45-year-old Vipan Sharma, of the Hindu Sangharsh Sena party, was shot dead in Amritsar. CCTV footage of the incident shows two men approaching Sharma on a motorbike, shooting him multiple times, then fleeing. These killings sparked criticism of ineffective prevention by Punjab’s police.

Renewed threats

Interestingly, Ludhiana police had previously booked three Hindu leaders for faking attacks on themselves. On February 3, 2016, Shiv Sena leader Amit Arora was shot at by unidentified persons. He managed to escape the attack but in June of the same year police arrested him, alleging that he had stage-managed the attack.

However, after the gang targeting Hindu leaders was busted by police in November 2017, it became clear Arora had been telling the truth. Arora has recently been provided with security cover. Other Shiv Sena leaders, RD Puri and Rohit Sahni, were also previously booked for faking attacks but have now been provided with security.

Ludhiana’s deputy commissioner of police, Dhruman Nimbale, said that his department had received more than 20 applications for pistol licenses. “While the police have already arrested the gang behind the killing of several Hindu leaders, they are worried,” Nimbale told Asia Times. “In wake of the fear among these leaders, their cases have been put on a priority list.” Threat assessments are carried out before gun licenses are issued, he added.

“The youth now think that in case they will raise a voice against radicals in Punjab, they will get killed. As a result, we have asked them not to be vocal against the radicals”

The killings have also had a political fall-out in the state. Varun Mehta, state president of Sri Hindu Takht, believes new recruits to the right-wing organization are insecure. “The youth now think that in case they will raise a voice against radicals in Punjab, they will get killed. As a result, we have asked them not to be vocal against the radicals,” he said. Mehta himself has applied for a gun license, set up CCTV cameras around his home and changed his daily habits to confuse possible attackers.

The state’s chief minister, Amarinder Singh, recently held a press conference with the Director General of Police, Suresh Arora, proclaiming the case has been cracked. The killings, they said, were part of a plot, backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, to spark a conflict between Hindus and Sikhs.

Parveen Bansal, a senior BJP leader from Ludhiana, said Punjab was again becoming unsafe for Hindu political and religious leaders. “Hindu leaders who have not been provided security by the police have to take care of themselves, due to which they are taking measures. Their families are concerned and so are their friends,” he said.

While the killings may not have sparked significant communal strife between Sikhs and Hindus in the state, they have sparked a response across the globe. Sherjang Singh Rana, the CEO of Punjab Insurance Canada, based in Brampton, Ontario, issued a statement saying the killings should not be allowed to disturb the peace between Hindus and Sikhs. “Punjab had witnessed a turmoil in the 1980s and any attempt to push it back to that time should be resisted,” Rana said.

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