QED

The Year’s Most Important Election is in Punjab

As the 2022 election season begins, many Australians will be focused as much on Washington as on Canberra. Australia’s elections will generate much reasoned debate, but the American midterms will probably generate more passion. Will Republicans sweep into the House of Representatives, dethroning Nancy Pelosi and invigorating the Fauci e-mail investigation? Will the Senate turn Republican before Joe Biden has the opportunity to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court? Tune in and watch the drama unfold.

Whoever wins power in Washington, the close relationship between Australia and the United States is unlikely to change. But one overseas election this year is likely to be much more consequential for Australia, and it’s not even a national election. It’s the 2022 Legislative Assembly election in Punjab.

Punjabis go to the polls this Sunday to fill all 117 seats in their unicameral Legislative Assembly. These elections are particularly relevant for Australia’s large and rapidly growing Sikh community, most of it composed of recent immigrants with close ties to their homeland. Confrontations between Sikh protesters and Hindu supporters of the Indian government even spilled over into intercommunal violence in Western Sydney last year. The December lynching of an unidentified man who apparently attempted to desecrate the Sikh holy book at the Golden Temple in Amritsar has further raised tensions.

The Punjab Assembly is currently dominated by the Indian National Congress (INC), which holds 77 seats. Its nearest rival holds just 13 seats, with India’s nationally dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holding only 5. But the INC’s supermajority is based on garnering only a thin plurality of just 38.5 per cent of the vote in 2017, making the situation inherently unstable. With much voting occurring along caste and religious lines, the potential for violence is real.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi remains popular nationally, but holds little personal appeal among Punjab’s Sikh community. Nonetheless, shifting political alliances have returned the BJP and its local coalition partners to a competitive position for 2022. But a third national party, the rapidly expanding Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is actually tipped to win the largest vote proportion, according to the most recent poll.

All three major electoral coalitions are fronted by Sikh candidates. This reflects the historical status of Punjab as the Sikh homeland: most of India’s 21 million Sikhs live in Punjab. But Sikhs make up only 58 per cent of Punjab’s total population, leaving many non-Sikhs potentially feeling disenfranchised in Punjabi politics. Caste divisions also complicate the situation, cutting across religious lines.

Punjab, the ‘sword arm of India’, looms large in the Anglo-Australian imperial imagination. The historical territory of Punjab was enormous, taking in today’s Punjab, Haryana, and much of Himachal Pradesh states in India as well as the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier) provinces in Pakistan. It is the land of the Sikh Empire, the Golden Temple, and the ‘Lion of Punjab’ Ranjit Singh.

It was also the land of Partition. Roughly 1 million people were killed in partition of India in 1947 (no one knows the exact number), must of them in Punjab. Punjab later experienced a wave of Sikh separatist terrorism in the 1980s that was aggressively suppressed by the Indian government. In 1983, when Sikh extremists occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Indian Army stormed the complex in a bloodbath that killed thousands on both sides. Later that year, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

The Punjabi separatist ‘Khalistan’ movement is now largely dormant in India, but it remains active in exile, with important hubs in Canada and the United Kingdom. Australia’s Indian diaspora community has historically avoided the exported conflicts that have plagued other countries, but that relative peace may be coming to an end. For example, a Hindu Indian student who had been jailed for assaulting Sikhs in western Sydney was hailed as a hero on his return to his native Haryana. He claimed his violence had been motivated by protecting the Indian flag against Sikh separatist desecration.

As it happens, India’s Republic Day coincides with Australia Day. Although most locals respond to the burning of Australian flags by ‘Invasion Day’ activists with little more than a sad shaking of heads, Hindu nationalists are more likely to meet the burning of Indian flags with vandalism and beatings. All this happens in the suburbs, far from city centres and the attention of the Australian media, with coverage relegated to the SBS. But as Australia becomes an ever more multicultural country, it has to pay closer attention to international politics in countries like India. They’re likely to hit much closer to home than anything that happens in Washington.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney

13 comments
  • pgang

    Oh good, Hindu wars in Australia. Thanks multiculturalism. No, not all cultures are equal.

  • Adam J

    Yet if you say this to a media type, they will surely respond: are you saying Australians don’t commit crimes?

  • Elizabeth Beare

    Imported ethnic tensions are so culturally enhancing.
    They certainly need careful handling given the way they play back in India, one of our major allies.
    Thanks for putting focus on something vital but so often ignored by the woke media crew.

  • Peter Marriott

    Thanks for this article Salvatore as I was not aware of the ongoing problem. The Sikh religion is closely related to Hinduism I believe, and as we all know from history it’s from those closest to you that much animosity can flow.
    A rough thumb nail look at it, in my mind anyway, tells me that in this case I think the Sikhs are picking on the wrong man, as it’s to their west where their real troubles lie, after all that’s where much of their ancient kingdom was. But in true politically correct form…. on this…they remain silent, and seem to have created a sort of straw man to compensate ?

  • Tricone

    Sikhs generally integrate well.
    .
    They’re far more likely to go into farming , small business, or move into country towns than other subcontinental immigrants.
    .
    It would be a shame for all parties if this conflict kicks off in Australia

  • richard.white

    The Australia I’m living in now is a VERY different Australia from the one in which I grew up.
    The easy-going, tolerant attitude no longer exists and Political-Correctness reigns supreme.
    With 33% of “Australians” being foreign-born is it any wonder the place has changed.
    And I contributed to this by marrying an Asian, having two daughters and 4 grandkids, so I’m part of the problem – but, many years ago, my Heart overrode my Brain.
    And, most amazingly of all, my wife deplores the changes she’s seen in the last 50 years !!!!!!!!!

  • Salvatore Babones

    Thanks Peter — and everyone — for your comments. The Hindu-Sikh tension was terrible in India in the 1990s, but has now (mostly) calmed down. That said, there have been a spate of Sikh lynchings of intruders to the shrines inside their Gurdwaras. But the real problems are in Canada, which is now the center of the Sikh separatist movement. Australia is only starting to feel the tension — which, I must emphasize, has been accompanied by violence on BOTH sides. Salvatore

  • stratlaw

    I agree that multi culturalism is an abject failure. Tolerance has become conflated with active support in so many aspects of our 21st century society. We are a civilisation in decline if we do not heed the warnings from history and from overseas. The tribalism that now infects our body politic; so called “identity politics” and WOKISM is not a positive to be celebrated. It us a disease

  • pndnew

    Could India’s election system be improved to reduce sectarian problems? Do they use first-past-the-post or preferential voting? Whatever the case, both those very common methods obsess over first preferences and ignore last preferences. As a result, a candidate/party can “win” despite more strongly winning the wooden-spoon as the least popular.

    That’s unfair: a recipe for continuing strife. So we a voting method that guarantees fair results – but “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem” says that’s impossible.

    Arrow got it wrong.

    Consider three strongly conflicting sects, A, B & C, and a more neutral sect, D, contest an election. If A gets 30%, B 29%, C 28% and D 13%. Either A, B or C can win after run-off, or after preferences. Suppose B wins with 51% “after preferences”, but preferences also showed B with 49% of 4th, or last preferences, while 87% of voters preferenced D 2nd. That is, 100% of voters are more or less satisfied if neutral sect D wins and no one is unhappy. In contrast, only 51% are more or less content, and 49% are unhappy with sect B winning.

    So the vote-counting methods we used gave an UNFAIR result. While that’s an exaggerated case, it shows that the way we count elections can’t guarantee a fair result.

    The ONLY way to guarantee a fair count of preferential voting is via the Borda count or by my DCAP count. DCAP uses the same principle as Borda but is more flexible and more user-friendly. DropBox via tinyurl.com/ElectoralReformOz has full details.

    As far as India, and anywhere else where sectarian strife is concerned, both Borda or DCAP counts have more potential for reducing strife than any other vote-counting method.

  • Michael Waugh

    May I also thank you Salvatore. It is efforts like this that make Quadrant so important.
    I’ve met many Indians in Melbourne and it’s nearly invariably been an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Admittedly, they’ve been highly educated people, but it can only be to our benefit that they have decided to settle here. I feel confident that their values and mine, in all important or necessary aspects, are identical. I wouldn’t want an entirely reasonable concern about identity politics to be a cause for making people from other lands feel unwelcome, people I might say who very likely have exactly the same unease about identity politics.

  • Salvatore Babones

    Thanks Michael! I’m actually writing a book on Indian democracy. India’s founding fathers left an incredibly literary legacy. I’m still working my way through it, but look for a book in 2024. Salvatore

  • pndnew

    [Please approve this corrected version after delete this bracketed line].

    Could India’s election system be improved to reduce sectarian problems? Do they use first-past-the-post or preferential voting? Whatever the case, both those very common methods obsess over first preferences and ignore last preferences. As a result, a candidate/party can “win” despite more strongly winning the wooden-spoon as the least popular.
    That’s unfair: a recipe for continuing strife. So we need a voting method that guarantees fair results – but “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem” says that’s impossible.
    Arrow got it wrong.
    Consider three strongly conflicting sects, A, B & C, and a more neutral sect, D, contesting an election. If A gets 30%, B 29%, C 28% and D 13%. Either A, B or C can win after run-off, or after preferences. Suppose B wins with 51% “after preferences”, but preferences also showed B with 49% of 4th, or last preferences, while 87% of voters preferenced D second. That is, 100% of voters are more or less satisfied, no one is unhappy, if D wins. In contrast, only 51% are more or less content, and 49% are unhappy with sect B winning.
    So the vote-counting methods we normally use can give an UNFAIR result. While the example is an exaggerated case, it shows that the way we count elections can’t guarantee a fair result.
    The ONLY way to guarantee a fair count of preferential voting is via the Borda count or by my DCAP count. DCAP uses the same principle as Borda but is more flexible and more user-friendly. DropBox via tinyurl.com/ElectoralReformOz has full details.
    As far as India, and anywhere else where sectarian strife is concerned, both Borda or DCAP counts have more potential for reducing strife than any other vote-counting method.

  • simonbenson65

    Great stuff. I had the very great privilege of teaching Australian law to many Sikh students at a Christian university college in Sydney a few years ago. They were, without exception, the most gracious, polite and respectful group of students I’ve ever been involved with, who loved to engage on what Christianity and their own religion have in common, which is one, true, monotheistic God, rather than the take-your-pick-gods of Hinduism. We have our theological, linguistic, cultural and other differences, of course, but I found their respect for Australian law and people, and our democratic system, and the Christian faith that was once the bedrock of our society, and which continues to inform our political system and almost all of our better laws, laws that have stood the test of time, a great source of inspiration. The idea that someone can be applauded for gutless, hate-fuelled attacks on Sikh students in Australia is beyond the pale. Sikhs are the very people whom we should be welcoming here with open arms as their values are aligned with (and I say this with some hesitation) “Australian values” – whatever they are when they’re at home these days – but for reasons that might escape some, they like us. Any right-thinking Australian who values good, hard-working, honest people, will admire and welcome and employ our Sikh Indian friends.

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