Factors That Contributed To The Punjab Crisis History Essay

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1st Jan 1970 History Reference this


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One can summarize the Punjab crisis at three levels. Each level is mutually exclusive and that has inadvertently prevented in successfully resolving this issue. The levels are:


State level

National Level

At each stage, the focus shifts to a different issue: at the local level it is social and economical, while at the state level it is political and administration and at the national level it is religious and cultural.

By concentrating on resolving individual issues, while ignoring the complexity, which binds them, has led to only a part of the factors being addressed. Unless all these factors are considered and accommodated at each stage with suitable solutions, an effective resolution to the crisis is not possible. Punjab crisis has risen from contributing factors: from political mismanagement, to failure of legislature and judiciary, to stagnation of social, economical and land reforms, which have all contributed to the alienation of Sikhs who feel they are being persecuted because of their religion.

Any solution, to be effective has to address economic differences, language divide, religion and politics as a singular factor instead of providing short-term solutions, which hold these factors as being mutually exclusive. In Punjab, language, religion and politics are interlinked. Hence, a resolution to the crisis will have to consider these factors, not as independent but as interdependent factors.


Punjab crisis traces its origin from several factors. These include historical, political, social and cultural, economic, religious, administrative; all of which culminated in triggering what is termed as Punjab crisis. The paper explores these factors along with analysis of the solutions offered and their effectiveness. It also explores the current state of the crisis.

Historical Factors

Punjab had been a princely state under the rule of Ranjit Singh, following the rise of Sikhs after the rule of Afghans, Persians and Moguls. The state of Punjab prospered under the tutelage of the Sikhs and grew into a powerful empire through the unification of several princely states along with the Sikh confederacy and vassal chieftains. However towards the advent of the British East India Company, the Sikh empire had grown weak through internal rife. In 1849, Punjab became a part of the British Empire following its annexation after its defeat in the Anglo-Sikh wars. It remained united and prospered until the partition of India.

One of the factors that led to the crisis is the partition of India. Punjab was partitioned into two halves – Eastern Punjab, which was merged with India; and Western Punjab, which merged with Pakistan. The turmoil induced by the partition left deep scars within the Sikh community. During Partition, millions of people were displaced and in excess of a million lost their lives in the ensuing communal violence, with the Sikhs being caught between the Hindu-Muslim divide, which formed the basis for Partition of India. The Sikhs had wanted to remain as a princely state just as it was, prior to its annexation by the British, without merging with India, which was Hindu dominated and Pakistan, which was Muslim dominated.

Despite merging with India, the Sikhs demanded a separate state. However, political leaders and administration did not consider this demand, until after the first Indo-Pak war in1965. Although the demand for a separate state was eventually accepted, the reorganization of states on linguistic basis further partitioned Punjab. The Punjabi speaking regions formed Punjab, while the Hindi speaking regions were organized to form the state of Haryana. This division further aggravated the state, which wanted secession since they were religiously and culturally different from the rest of India.

Socio-Economic Factors

Partition of Punjab displaced several million Sikhs, along with the loss of life and property. Punjab being a predominantly agrarian society suffered the most in terms of loss of resources – agricultural land, water resources with the five rivers partitioned as well.

The advent of Green Revolution helped in making Punjab the rice bowl of India. The predominant agricultural society thrived under the banner. The use of mechanization in farming, combined with use of fertilizers and high yielding crops resulted in increased incomes and per capita contribution increased. The average literacy rate also increased within the community that was already well educated.

The increased agricultural output resulted in several small-scale industries being set up for manufacturing goods from the agricultural output, as investments were made in transport sector and road infrastructure. The emphasis remained on rural development, with little or no investment in urban development in terms to industrialization.

The advent of Green Revolution saw the rise of Punjab also contributed significantly to the crisis. The concept worked well for large holdings of farmland, but resulted in dwindling of riches for the poor farmer who eventually ended up in penury. The poor farmer was unable to take advantage of the Green revolution due to the small land holdings. This led to his borrowing money from moneylenders, which ended with sale of his land holding to clear the debt. In this way, a large number of landless labourers and a new social class were created, which worsened with green revolution tapering off towards the 1970’s.

With the Green revolution reaching a plateau, stagnation in agricultural output with the cost of inputs increasing caused an upheaval in the agricultural and industrial sectors that was dependent on agriculture for its raw material. No significant diversification of industries also contributed towards the unemployment of the well-educated youth. A period of unrest prevailed which the Akali Dal exploited and the Congress for political gains.

Along with reorganization of states on linguistic basis, which partitioned Punjab, a major factor was the organization of the society. The society was divided on caste alongside the landlord-labourers divide. The lower caste or the scheduled caste were significant in their numbers and were exploited for short-term political gains, which further deepened the divide.

With the unification of Punjab with India, the contribution of the state towards the army decreased. The Sikhs had maximum contribution in civil services, defence fields and agriculture as per the concessions made by the British Empire at the end of the Anglo-Sikh wars. This also contributed towards unemployment of Sikh youth as central Indian administrative looked towards contribution from other parts of the country in the organization of its civil services and armed forces. This was also with a foresight in order to overrule the possibility of mutiny within services and armed forces.

The reorganization of Punjab on a linguistic platform also led to further division of water resources and central funding. With the creation of Haryana, the Hindi speaking region within the erstwhile Punjab’s Sikh empire, the central administration bought in investments to set up industries. The division of water resources severely affected agriculture in Punjab, which added to the loss of electrification since most of the hydroelectric power projects were located in the new state of Haryana. The twin factors of irrigation loss and loss in electricity affected the agricultural society of Punjab as well as the establishment of industries, but at the same time led to rapid industrialization of Haryana.

Political and Religious

Religion and Politics goes hand in hand, in the administration of Punjab. Akali Dal was formed on 13 December, 1920 after the formation of Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), a religious body formed to secure Sikh Gurdwaras from corrupt priests. Akali Dal considers itself a religio-political party and the principal representative of Sikhs.

Akali Dal, post-independence, had sought the formation of the Sikh state of Punjab. The Akali Dal was more concerned to hold onto power than to tend to the progress of the state. The central government also tried to undermine the power of the Akali Dal. The reluctance of the central government in creation of Punjab, followed by diversion of water and electricity to non-agrarian regions of Haryana and Rajasthan through the Punjab Reorganization Act 1966, disinterest in industrialization of Punjab; indicate a blatant attempt to isolate Sikhs.

The Punjab Reorganization Act itself is unconstitutional, since it hands over to the central government the rights over distribution of river waters as well as the hydel power generated.

The Akali Dal sought to be the sole representative of Sikhs and actively campaigned for the Sikh representation within the armed forces, civil and administrative services, state and central legislature and pursuit of justice for Sikhs. It was responsible for upholding the Sikh culture and religion. In accordance with this, the Akali Dal laid down the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The resolution, viewed as demand for autonomy and establishment of a separate state for Sikhs fuelled anti-national sentiments, which in turn worsened with the rise of Sikh extremism and communal violence between Hindus and Sikhs. The key points of the resolution are:

Transfer of Chandigarh, Pinjore, Ambala and other Punjabi speaking areas, to Punjab, with Chandigarh being the state capitol.

On water sharing between the states to be arbitrated by a tribunal

Limit the role of the central government, in the administration of the state, to Defence, Foreign Affairs, Currency and Communication.

Safeguard the interest and resist any discrimination against Sikhs.

Demanded the equal representations of all minorities

Uplift weaker sections, through socio-economic reforms along with rapid industrialization and land reforms.

Demanded the water and electricity disputes be resolved through arbitration under an appointed committee.

Protect Punjabi literature, language, culture and traditions.

Sought an amendment to the Gurudwara Act.

The Central government overlooked the resolution key points on the account that an autonomous state cannot exist within its own boundaries. The continued apathy shown by the government, alongside its efforts to undermine the Akali Dal while failing to address the grievances of Sikhs was one of the critical reasons behind Sikh extremism.

The central government bought in large investments to set up large-scale industries in Haryana but ignored to do the same in Punjab, and instead withdrew the investments from rural industrialization, which coincided with the Green Revolution tapering off in Punjab. The myopic view of retaining the Hindi speaking belt support through industrialization projected Sikhs as a separate entity. This kind of discrimination from central administration coupled with failure of the judiciary accelerated the rise of extremism, which was fuelled by increasing unemployment among educated youth, who viewed Punjab as an oppressed community, solely based upon religion in a Hindu dominant country.

Under the patronage of the government, the founding of Nirankari sect was with the sole intent of wresting power from the Akalis. This resulted in several clashes between the sects. However, the Sikhs suffered the most as most the Nirankaris were never prosecuted or were acquitted while Sikhs were prosecuted and imprisoned mostly under dubious accusations. This forced the Sikhs to take to arms in order to protect their religion. Indira Gandhi’s constant interference with the state administration coupled with covert support to Nirankaris to weaken the power of Akali Dal led directly to the crisis. Her administration’s support for divide and rule policy left an indelible scar on Sikh psyche.

India’s projection as a secular country came under fire in several cases as the identity of minority groups was obscured by clubbing them as belonging to a particular class. The obscurity had serious ramifications since identity of minority groups were usually subject to religion or language. Any obscurity either in terms of religion or language, not only questioned secularity and linguistic liberalism, but also viewed as an attempt to erase the identity of the groups. For instance, grouping of Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists under Hindus and need for registering under the Hindu Marriage Act to be legally married, symbolically denounces their traditions and religious compulsions with respect to matrimony. This would explain Akali Dal’s demand for protection of tradition and culture along with the demand for equal representation of minorities, which would ensure that any law made could have suitable amendments to ensure it does not hurt any group’s sentiments.

Failure of Judiciary

The failure of judiciary has a significant influence on the rise of extremism in Punjab. It also led to the feeling of alienation of Sikhs when judiciary and police, not only failed to address the problems faced by them but also discriminated in delivering justice.

The failure of judiciary was most prominent in the creation of Punjab and Haryana, when the Government of India introduced clauses into the Punjab Reorganization Act to retain control over the use of water resources along with electricity generation and distribution through hydel power plants, which were unconstitutional since these were issues, which were settled through arbitration as was prevalent with other states facing similar problems.

Among the more important cases where judiciary and government apathy can be seen as discriminatory towards Sikhs and persecution of Sikhs, are:

Amritsar Massacre 1978

Kanpur Massacre 1978

In both the cases, several non-violent protestors were killed in clashes with armed Nirankari followers. This happened in the presence of police officials, who failed in protecting the protestors, who were protesting against insulting the Sikh Satgurus and denouncement of their holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, by the Nirankaris in their provocative speeches and processions. Adding insult to injury, the administration also failed in shifting the injured to hospitals, while filing vague cases against the Nirankaris who were involved. Furthermore, several Sikhs were booked on criminal charges for acting in self-defense. The cases against the Nirankaris were transferred to Haryana, under the excuse that they couldn’t be tried in Punjab, and almost all the Nirankaris were acquitted of all charges. These incidents added to the prevailing distrust the Sikhs had towards central and state administration, which failed in protecting the Sikhs.

Sikh Extremism

The treatment meted out by the government and its administration provoked two responses within the Sikh community. One was the peaceful political approach adopted by the Akali Dal, which resulted in the presentation of the Anandpur Resolution and protestation. The other resulted in armed conflict, which was a direct result of failure of administration which sided with the Nirankaris. The frequent clashes between the increasingly organised and violent Nirankaris and peaceful Sikhs left several Sikhs dead or injured. The inability of the state administration in prevention of violence or in protection of Sikhs and complete failure of judiciary in bringing justice to aggrieved Sikhs, ended in armed conflict. The Sikhs justified it as the last recourse in protecting themselves.

The other factors that also aided in secular Sikhs supporting extremism, either directly or indirectly, was the hostility shown by the state machinery in persecution of Sikhs, as highlighted in the prolonged detention of Sikhs who had acted in self-defense during the clashes, while no Nirankari was arrested. Such dubious stands increasingly alienated Sikhs, who felt that they were being targeted because of their religion. As the boundaries of extremism and religion blurred, the demand for Khalistan, a separate state for Sikhs gained popularity.

The other factor was the decline of Green Revolution, which had resulted in increasing input costs but decreasing returns. The reluctance of the government to fix a support price during the bumper harvests didn’t go down well with the farming community. The last straw that broke the camel’s back is highlighted during the floods of 1982-83, when the government fixed a support prices after unseasonal rains had damaged the rabi crops.

Industrialization in Punjab was restricted to establishment of small-scale industries while large-scale industries were setup in neighbouring Haryana, which was a misconstrued plan to secure political and regional support throughout the Hindi speaking belt. This impacted in rising unemployment rate within Punjab, as educated youth sought to shift from rural sector to urban sectors, especially with the decline of Green Revolution. The lack of industries couple with the withdrawal of Government investment in rural development, paved way for rise in extremism among the youth who harboured a feeling of alienation.

Sikh extremism reached a peak with Operation Bluestar, in which the Indian armed forces stormed the Golden Temple, and operated under the Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Power Act 1983, to flush out the extremists who had fortified the temple. The military operation was successful but ended in several pilgrims’ dead and extensive damage to the Akal Takht. Several pilgrims who escaped were imprisoned for extended period of time without trial, which has also been a point of contention. In retrospect this could have been avoided if the state administration had been allowed to remove Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale when he began using the Akal Takht as his base, even as Sikh extremists fortified the temple. However, this wasn’t allowed since the central government led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi was using Bhindranwale to undermine the authority of Akali Dal who ruled the state. The short-term political one-upmanship resulted in disaster with the storming of the temple and also sealed Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s fate who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination also highlights the hollowness of India’s liberalism, since it resulted in Sikh massacre during the riots in which several Congress supporters and leaders stand accused. The complete failure of the state machinery in protecting Sikhs within the state capital, highlighted the festering hostility towards Sikhs.

Sikh extremism died out on its own accord when it started targeting Sikhs based on class divide or caste divide or economic divide. By the time, Operation Black Thunder was executed, again to flush out extremists who had fortified the Golden Temple; there was a wide shift in the support from the locals as seen by the fact that they supported the security forces while denouncing the use of Golden Temple as a battleground.


The partition of Punjab within the act of reorganization of states linguistic basis was more of an administrative outlook. The language divide between the Hindi speaking Hindus and the Punjabi speaking Sikhs contributed to the state being split into two. The areas where Punjabi was dominant were merged to form Punjab, while the Hindi speaking belts were merged to form the new state of Haryana. However, the delay in the reorganization was intentional, despite the demand for a Punjabi speaking state. The demand for a state existed much before the independence of India or the partition of India. The inability of the government to take concrete measures to accent to the demand lead to communal divide between the factions giving way to Sikh extremism.

The language divide further isolated the Sikhs, as they were increasingly treated with mistrust when they did not accept Hindi as the spoken language and instead began projecting Punjabi as the spoken language. Radical groups furthered the isolation, with accusation that the Sikhs were trying to create a separate state and were traitors. The communal tensions that prevailed over the period also hurt the religious sentiments of Sikhs who had been striving to establish a secular state from the beginning of the Sikh empire.

During the reorganization of states, Punjab and Haryana shared the capital city of Chandigarh. Punjab wanted Chandigarh to be its capital and hence sought the same. The central government then lead by Congress did not accede to this request fearing of political repercussions in the Hindi-speaking belts of North India.

The reorganization of states act also specified that any demand on religious grounds would not be considered during the reorganization of a state. This affected the creation of Punjab and Haryana since there already existed a demand for a separate Sikh state, thus making them the last state to be reorganised. The Indo-Pak war facilitated the reorganization since these regions bore the brunt of the war.

The language divide and the reorganization of Punjab, led to communal violence between Hindu and Sikh groups. The escalation of this crisis between orthodox elements within the two sections of the society led to creation of Sikh extremism, when the administration failed to take measures to quell the communal rifts.

Current state of the Crisis

The current state of Punjab Crisis can be analyzed from the resolutions implemented to mitigate the crisis. Of the several measures taken to resolve the crisis the important ones are:

Regional Formula: This was implemented prior to the Linguistic Reorganisation of States, under which the state was divided into two zones, each having a separate regional council of legislators. It was seen as a clumsy compromise after the failure of the Sacchar Formula that had recommend the division of the state on regional language for the purpose of having a stable language for medium of instruction in educational institutes.

Rajiv-Laungoval Accord : This was never implemented for the fear of political reprisals in the Hindi- belt by the Congress led by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, who had agreed to conditions from the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Simultaneously rise of factionalism within Akali Dal aided Rajiv Gandhi in scuppering the implementation of the accord upon the assassination of Sant Harchand Singh Laungoval by extremists.

The lack of political will in resolving the crisis through peaceful measures has been highlighted by the lackadaisical approaches made by the successive governments, both at the central and state level.

The isolation of Sikhs has progressively worsened with the points of contention having increased in their complexity, with the addition of the following demands to those stated in the Anandpur Sahib resolution:

Release of Sikhs imprisoned in the wake of Operation Bluestar, many of them booked under the Armed Forces Special Power Act 1983 and held indefinitely without trial.

Reparations for the Sikhs imprisoned unconstitutionally and treated as prisoners of war.

Investigation into the allegations of intentional use of excessive force in the conduction of Operation Bluestar along with the release of the identities of all the extremists killed in the conduction of the operation, since there was no accurate figure stated by the state agencies. The ambiguity was created since the number swelled to a few hundred, reportedly as many as 492 being killed in the course of the operation.

Investigation of destruction of Akal Takht and the Golden Temple, along with several other gurudwaras across the state in the wake of Operation Bluestar; and intentional destruction of Sikh religious symbols as well as literature by the soldiers.

Speedy investigation of anti-Sikh riots across India in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, with the aim of bringing justice and relief to the riot affected Sikhs.

Investigation into the extra-judicial killings in the state of Punjab reported as ‘encounters’, under the reign of K.P.S. Gill who was backed by the elected Congress government.

Independent investigation into the Amritsar and Kanpur Massacre of Sikhs by Nirankaris, where the transfer of cases to Haryana had led to acquittal of the perpetrators, along with indictment of police officials for negligence in discharging their duties, along with wilful collusion to deny justice to the affected by means of faulty filing of first information reports(FIR’s) and inconsistency in the investigation of the cases.

Indictment of Congress leaders who were involved in Sikh massacre in the Delhi riots 1984, following the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

A Solution to the crisis is possible by enforcing strong will towards resolving the issues while bringing justice to the aggrieved. It requires political resolve and co-operation between state and central government to ensure implementation of constitutional rights, which ensure upholding civil rights, concepts of liberalism and freedom as defined by the Constitution of India, while ensuring speedy judicial process to ensure justice is finally done.


Anandpur Sahib Resolution

(Excerpted from The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Vol. 1, 1995, ed., Harbans Singh, page 133-


Anandpur Sahib Resolution, a frequently invoked document of modern Sikhism pronouncing its religious rule as well as its political goal. After having enjoyed power under chief ministers, Gurnam Singh and Parkash Singh Badal in the Punjab, newly demarcated in 1966, Sikhs are represented by their premier political party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, were able to capture only one seat at the elections to Indian parliament (1971) from among the 13 which were Punjab’s portion. In the Punjab Assembly elections which took place in March 1972 their tally was a mere 24 seats of a total of 117, and the Punjab Government passed in to the hands of the Congress Party, with Giani Zail Singh (later, President of India) as chief minister. This electoral debacle led to self introspection on the part of the Shiromani Akali Dal which appointed on 11 December, 1972, a sub-committee to reflect upon the situation and to proclaim afresh the programme and polices of the Dal. The 12 member committee consisted of Surjit Singh Barnala, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Jiwan Singh Umranangal, Gurmeet Singh, Dr. Bhagat Singh, Balwant Singh, Gian Singh Rarewala, Amar Singh Ambalavi, Prem Singh Lalpura, Jaswinder Singh Brar, Bhag Singh, and Major General Gurbakhsh Singh of Badhani. The first meeting of the sub-committee took place at Amritsar. The venue then shifted to Chandigarh where the committee completed its task in ten successive meetings. Counsel was available to the subcommittee of the celebrated Sikh intellectual and thinker, Sirdar Kapur Singh, whose impress the draft emerging finally from its deliberations carried. The document was adopted unanimously by the working committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal at a meeting held at Anandpur Sahib, town sacred to Guru Gobind Singh, also reverenced by Sikhs as the birth place of the Khalsa. Since it was adopted at Anandpur Sahib (October 16-17, 1973) the resolution came to be known as the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. It was endorsed in the form of a succession of resolutions at the 18th All India Akali Conference of the Shiromani Akali Dal at Ludhiana on 28-29 October, 1978. An English version of the resolution is quoted below:

Whereas, the Sikhs of India are a historically recognized political nation ever since the inauguration of the Khalsa, in AD 1699, and

Whereas, this status of the Sikh nation had been internationally recognized and accepted by the major powers of Europe and Asia, viz. France, England, Italy, Russia, China, Persia (now Iran), Afghanistan, Nepal, and the Company Bahadur, Fort William, Calcutta, till the middle of the 19th century, and again by the outgoing British as well as by the Hindu-dominated Congress and the Muslim League of India in the middle of the 20th century, and

Whereas, the brute majority in India, in 1950, imposed a constitutional arrangement in India which denied the Sikhs of their political identity and cultural popularity, thus liquidating the Sikhs politically and exposing them to spiritual death and cultural decay leading inevitable to their submergence and dissolution into the saltish sea waters of incoherent Hinduism, and

Whereas, the Sikhs have been thus shackled and enslaved in unethical and cynical repudiation of solemn and binding commitment and public promises earlier made to the Sikhs, while the Sikh representation in the Indian Constituent Assembly, in 1950, refused to affix their signatures to the official copy of the Indian Constitutional Act thus promulgated, the Shiromani Akali Dal in the name and on behalf of the Sikhs proclaims that the Sikhs are determined, by all legitimate means, to extricate and free themselves from this degrading and death dealing situation so as to ensure firmly their honourable survival and salvage their inherent dignity within India and their birthright to influence meaningfully the mainstream of world history. The Sikhs therefore demand, firstly, that an autonomous region in the north of India should be set up forthwith wherein the Sikh interests are constitutionally recognized as the fundamental State policy. Secondly, that this autonomous region includes the present Punjab, Karnal and Ambala districts of Haryana, inclusive of Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Pinjore, Kalka, Dalhousie, Nalagarh Desh, Siraa, Guhla and Ratia areas and Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, thus bringing main contiguous Sikh population and Sikh habitats with this autonomous Sikh region as an integral part of the Union of India, and, thirdly, this Sikh autonomous region may be declared as entitled to frame its own internal constitutions on the basis of having all powers to and for itself except Foreign Relations, Defense, Currency and General Communications which will remain subjects within the jurisdiction of the Federal Indian Government.



1. The Shiromani Akali Dal is the very embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of the Sikhs and as such is fully entitled to its representation. The basic postulates of this organization are human co-existence, human welfare and the ultimate unity of all human beings with the Lord. 2. These postulates are based upon the three great principles of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, namely Nam Japo, Kirat Karo, and Vand Chhako, i.e. meditation on God’s Name, honest labor, and sharing the fruits of this labor with the needy.


The Shiromani Akali Dal shall ever strive to achieve the following aims:

1. Propagation of Sikhism, its ethical values and code of conduct to combat atheism.

2. Preservation and keeping alive the concept of distinct and sovereign identity of the Panth and building up of appropriate condition in which the national sentiments and aspirations of the Sikh Panth will find full expression, satisfaction and facilities for growth.

3. Eradication of poverty and starvation through increased production and more equitable distribution of wealth as also the establishment of a just social order sans exploitation of any kind.

4. Vacation of discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or any other ground in keeping with basic principles of Sikhism.

5. Removal of disease and ill health, checking the use of intoxicants and provision of full facilities for the growth of physical well-being so as to prepare and enthuse the Sikh Nation for the national defense. For the achievement of the aforesaid purposes, the Shiromani Akali Dal owned it as its primary duty to inculcate among the Sikh religious fervo

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