In Punjab, the road to protests runs via Bathinda

Bathinda (IANS): A joke in Punjab about taking a circuitous route has been for protesters to go from Chandigarh to Delhi via Bathinda, the Lok Sabha constituency of Chief Minister Parkash Singh’s Badal’s daughter-in-law and the wife of the junior Badal, the state’s powerful deputy chief minister and ruling Akali Dal president.

Bathinda, in southwest Punjab, 235 km from Chandigarh, is emerging as Punjab’s protest capital with a number of organizations, be they of teachers, political leaders or other employees, taking their protests to the town.

These protests have also had their share of controversies. The latest one is the death of a 14-month old infant who had been brought here by her parents, both protesting against losing their jobs as teachers under the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS). The parents claim the infant died due to the cold as the Punjab Police took away the blankets and quilts of the protesters on Thursday and did not allow them to pitch tents despite the prevailing cold conditions.

Opposition Congress leaders and others have openly come out in support of the protesters after the infant’s death.

This is not an isolated incident. In recent months, protesters converging on Bathinda have been at the receiving end from the local police with cane charges, water cannons and other means being employed to disperse them. Many protesters, especially women, have climbed on tall structures of community water tanks and perched themselves there. When the police or authorities try to get them down, they threaten to jump from their perches.

“Teachers have been protesting in Bathinda to bring their plight to the notice of the Punjab government. Instead of a sympathetic hearing, we have faced police lathis and water cannons,” said Kuldeep Singh Badhuwal, general secretary of the education providers union. The teachers have been protesting here for nearly two months.

But deputy superintendent of police Gurmeet Kingra denied that the police were harsh on the protesters.

The main reason being attributed for protests coming to Bathinda instead of being taken to Chandigarh or any other place is that Harsimrat Badal, who is a vociferous MP in the Lok Sabha, is considered a powerful person in the state’s political hierarchy. With the Badal government paying a lot of attention to the Bathinda constituency ever since Harsimrat was first elected from here in 2009, the town has emerged as a favourite destination for protesters too.

“The EGS teachers have specially chosen Bathinda for the protests due to the clout that Harsimrat Badal has in the Punjab government. It is the best way to make us heard,” EGS teachers’ union leader Beerpal Kaur told IANS.

With the Lok Sabha elections likely in April-May and the Akali Dal having high stakes, the protests in Bathinda are increasing. In February and March, various unions of teachers and other employees have planned protests in Bathinda.

“We are facing more protests. Additional forces have to be called from neighbouring districts at times. We are geared up for any situation,” a senior district police officer told IANS.

The protests are taking a toll on local residents, who have to suffer whenever a protest turns violent or the protesters block roads.

“We are being punished in this stand-off between protesters and the government. While we support the protesters, sometimes the protests affect our lives too. The government should work out a solution to this so that Bathinda residents do not suffer,” local trader Ashwini Garg told IANS.

By Jaideep Sarin