Holy book desecration: Worst crisis for Akali government?
Akali Dal president and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal has kept an uncharacteristically low profile through the crisis.Share on google_plusone_shar
The protesters out on the streets come bearing resentment over the lack of jobs, high inflation, and absence of law and order. (Source: Express photo by Gurmeet Singh)
The outrage over Guru Granth Sahib’s ‘desecrations’ taps into public anger against the Badals, and their influence over the Takht, making it perhaps the worst crisis the Akali government has faced.Navjeevan Gopalreports
Amid stalled industrialisation, a mounting drug problem and electoral setbacks, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal prided himself on the fact that his government had ensured peace and harmony in the state despite the unrest in neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir, and the shared border with Pakistan. That claim lay shattered last week.
Yet to recover from the widespread protest of farmers for compensation for crop loss due to the whitefly attack on cotton, and other issues, the ‘Panthic government’ of Badals finds itself facing perhaps its worst crisis ever, as the countdown to the 2017 polls begins, over incidents of alleged sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib.
While the protests are being led by activists of political organisations that are viewed as pro-Khalistani, including the Shiromani Akal Dal (Amritsar), United Akali Dal and Akali Dal Panch Pardhani, what must worry the Shiromani Akali Dal is how they have become a vehicle for people’s anger against the party and the Badals. The protesters out on the streets come bearing resentment over the lack of jobs, high inflation, and absence of law and order.
Akali Dal president and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal has kept an uncharacteristically low profile through the crisis. He made a brief appearance before the media to announce that the cases of “sacrilege” had been solved. However, that claim died quickly when all that Bureau of Investigation Additional Director General of Police Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota had to say was that there was a “foreign hand” in the incidents, based on phone calls received by two arrested brothers in the case.
Callers from Australia and Dubai promptly trashed the theory, saying they were in touch and had sent money from abroad only for treatment of the protesters injured in police action.
In effect, police have not found any substantial leads, despite Sukhbir’s announcement of a Rs 1 crore award for information on the alleged desecrators. A police official attending a helpline laughs that most of their callers ring up simply to vent their anger.
Akali Dal patriarch and CM Parkash Singh Badal has dubbed the incidents a “deep-rooted conspiracy”. On October 17, he met Akal Takht chief Giani Gurbachan Singh in person and handed over a letter saying he was “emotionally shattered”.
However, the anger against the Badals is also pulling down with it the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex representative body of Sikhs, as well as the Akal Takht, their highest temporal seat, and the other four Takhts.
Last month, before the ‘desecrations’ of the Guru Granth Sahib began, the Takhts in a joint decision had given a pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Baba Ram Rahim Singh, accused of blasphemy for allegedly dressing up like Guru Gobind Singh. As Sikhs reacted angrily to the pardon, the decision was seen as dictated entirely by the Akalis, eyeing votes of Ram Rahim’s followers.
Among those at the forefront of protests are fringe radical groups such as the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Satkar Committee, Ek Noor Khalsa Fauj and Akhand Kirtani Jatha.
The Dera Sacha Sauda has a huge following across the state, particularly in the Malwa belt, under which nearly half the state constituencies fall. The sect’s support for the Congress in the 2007 Assembly elections had helped it trounce the Akalis in their stronghold of Malwa.
To many, the Takht pardon exposed what has long been known: that the strings of the SGPC, and consequently of the Takhts whose chiefs it appoints, are pulled by the Badals. The Takht chiefs continued to defend the pardon, and it was only when Sikh anger showed no signs of abating that the Sikh high priests, in an unprecedented move, revoked the pardon. But the damage, to both the culpable Badals and the complicit SGPC, had been done.
Since October 15, a day after two protesters died in police firing, several SGPC members have quit. The clamour for the resignations of Sikh high priests is getting louder.
“I have listened to my conscience. It did not allow me to hold a position in the SGPC as the body has completely failed in protecting the dignity of Sikhs,” says an SGPC member from Tarn Taran segment, Avtar Singh Valtoha. Prominent Akali leaders too have resigned from party posts, including Sukhdev Singh Bhaur, and Rajinder Singh Sidhu, the complainant in the “blasphemy” case against Ram Rahim.
Many, facing questions about still sticking with the party, have had to flee when confronted by angry protesters. “This is because there is anger in the community. The chiefs of the Takhts are confined to their places and are not venturing out anywhere. The SGPC is also not doing much. The Akali government remains confined to Chandigarh,” says Bhaur.
Ally BJP, whose relations with the Akalis have been under strain, is privately watching with satisfaction the ham-handed manner in which the pardon to Ram Rahim was handled. “Sukhbir tried to hit a sixer but was instead caught in the outfield,” says a senior state party leader giving a cricketing analogy.
The BJP itself had been a beneficiary of Dera Sacha Sauda support during the Haryana Assembly elections of 2014, and the import of the pardon isn’t lost on the party. The BJP has also been trying to expand its base in the state, with the Akalis feeling the heat in their rural base.
During the recent protests, several BJP leaders have stepped in to prevent a clash between Sikh groups and Hindus, who comprise their support base. In Jalandhar, where Sikh protesters were trying to close some shops, there was a stand-off between the predominantly Hindu shopkeepers and the protesters. BJP MLAs K D Bhandari and Manoranjan Kalia had to rush in to settle matters.
Publicly, the BJP has come out in full support of the state government and Akalis in condemning the ‘desecrations’ and demanding swift punishment against the guilty. BJP national secretary from Punjab Tarun Chugh claims a “political cause and effect”. “With the 2017 elections in mind, some people want to vitiate the atmosphere in the state,” he says.
State unit chief Kamal Sharma, however, concedes the violence has damaged the image of the state. “The initial handling of the controversy could have been better,” he says.
He also cautions against the matter becoming communal. “The Jalandhar incident was unfortunate. This is why we continue to appeal that our brotherhood should remain strong in these trying times,” says Sharma. The chiefs of Takhts have gone incommunicado, staying away from public meetings or functions. Akal Takht chief Giani Gurbachan Singh was slammed as a “paapi (sinner)” and faced anger and humiliation when he ventured out briefly.
To add to the embarrassment of the SGPC, the Panj Pyaras (“the five beloveds of Guru”) last week summoned the Sikh high priests to “clarify the pardon” to Ram Rahim. While they were suspended in return, the Panj Pyaras have refused to sit back, directing the SGPC to “terminate the services of chiefs of all the five Takhts”.
With elections approaching, the protests could mean the turning away of the Panthic vote, which the Akalis have tried hard to nurture. The state government has been pursuing the demand of radical groups, for example, that Khalistani militants jailed in other states be brought back to Punjab or released.
As the protesters now refuse to let Akali leaders near their dharnas, the Opposition has sensed its chance. Senior Congress leaders such as Amarinder Singh, Partap Singh Bajwa and Shakeel Ahmad as well as Aam Aadmi Party Punjab covenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur have all extended support. The Congress MLA from Khadoor Sahib in Tarn Taran district, Ramanjit Singh Sikki, stole a march over others by resigning from the Assembly.
The Opposition also points out that most of those who have resigned from the SGPC owe their allegiance to the Badals. And that the resignations may just be a ploy to cool the heat on the ruling party. The AAP claims the Akalis’ desperation over the dera votes shows “the growing base of AAP in Punjab”.
Should the Akalis still survive this, at least the Congress will only have itself to blame. Rather than playing the role of a strong and united opposition, the crisis again saw party leaders organise own shows of strength. Bajwa insists the party is united on the matter. “It is rather good we are conveying the same message far and wide,” he justifies.
Whether the Congress finds its feet or not, the Akalis realise the ground is slipping beneath theirs. Protests continue, as police find it tough to get a hold on the situation. District officials have started organising peace meetings.
Vigilante squads are being set up for round-the-clock security of religious places. Proposals are now being mooted to install CCTV cameras there.