A series of attacks on Hindutva leaders in Punjab has evoked memories of 2009, when most Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh office bearers in the state were forced to go underground following the assassination of one of its leaders in Patiala. The latest RSS official to be attacked was state vice president Brigadier Jagdish Gagneja, who was targetted in Jalandhar on August 6.

While the Punjab government has vowed to track down the people who shot at Gagneja and has formed a Special Investigation Team to inquire into the attack, the development is being watched with deep anxiety by the RSS.

Fearing fresh attacks from Sikh hardliners, security has been beefed up not just in the RSS offices in Punjab, but also at the organisation’s headquarters at Jhandewalan in Delhi.

There is a strong feeling among a section of security officials in Punjab that the revived activities of the RSS in the state have prompted an aggressive response from radical Sikh elements. “For quite some time the RSS has been trying to spread its wings in Punjab,” a senior police officer based in Chandigarh told Scroll.in. “The fear that the RSS will dilute the Sikh religious identity is rapidly gaining ground. The aggressive response this fear is generating among some radical Sikh elements has now become a serious threat for the state.”

Open hostility

That Sikh hardliners are hostile to the RSS is hardly a secret. In fact, the RSS idea of a Hindu Rashtra, in which Sikhism is treated merely as a sect of Hinduism, goes against the Sikh assertion of separate religious identity.

The confrontational atmosphere born out of this mistrust has often seen violent eruptions, the most prominent of them being the murder of Rulda Singh, the head of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat (the Sikh wing of the RSS) in 2009. The Babbar Khalsa International, a dreaded Khalistani outfit, claimed the responsibility for the murder a few days after the incident.

For quite some time after that, RSS members and office-bearers lived in fear of random acts of violence being conducted against them and their activities came to a grinding halt in most parts of the state.

For several years thereafter, the RSS worked discreetly and only in specific areas in Punjab. But after the Bharatiya Janata Party was elected to power at the Centre in May 2014, the RSS – which is the BJP's parent body – began a renewed campaign in the state. In November 2014, the Akal Takht, the chief centre of religious authority of Sikhism, cautioned against increased activities of the RSS in rural parts of Punjab.

Renewed action

The Akal Takht’s observation had followed the reports of a series of marches organised by the RSS in some of the towns and villages of Punjab’s Malwa region, at which swayamsevaks openly sported guns, pistols and other weapons. There were also reports of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visiting the heads of various deras (sects) in Punjab.

The situation has only worsened since then. Since the beginning of the year, Hindutva leaders in Punjab have been targetted. In April, for example, two motorcycle-borne assailants gunned down Punjab Shiv Sena leader Durga Prasad Gupta in Khanna. Similarly, in two separate incidents, unidentified persons fired shots at RSS activists in Ludhiana.

The murderous attack on RSS leader Gagneja has given the state a big jolt, since the previous incidents had been treated as unrelated acts.