The furniture shop of Raghbir Singh Insan, a follower of Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim, at Bhanglan village in Samrala had many Sikh customers. Now only a Sikh policeman sits outside his shop to provide him security. On the day Panthic bodies had called for Punjab bandh to protest incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib, Raghbir, say villagers, refused to shut down his shop.
Though he has not removed the board outside his shop of Shah Satnam Ji Green Welfare Force, the disaster management wing of the dera, Raghbir says he still lives in fear. “I was targeted by the mob for being a dera follower. They damaged goods worth `80,000 and threw stones at our house. We too respect Guru Granth Sahib. The dera believes in saving lives. We donate blood every three months. I have donated blood more than 30 times,” he says.
Raghbir is angry that first his “guru” was made to seek pardon which was later taken back. “It is for the first time that a pardon given by the Sikh clergy has been revoked. It has only created bad blood. We shared good ties with Singhs (Sikhs) of our village,” he says. While it is dera followers who are angry at Bhanglan, in neighbouring Otalan village, farmers Harchand Singh and Randhir Singh, who claim to be staunch supporters of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, accuse the party of betrayal.
“The Akalis claim to be the saviour of farmers and the Panth (faith), which is why we have always voted for them. But both their claims stand exposed. The SGPC and Akal Takht were created to protect the interests of the Sikh community and not to be the personal jagir (property) of a family,” says Harchand Singh. He and other villagers were not among protesters showing black flags on November 3 on the roads on the call given by Panthic leaders as part of their nine-point resolution passed at Bargari village. “Black flags won’t help. They did all this for votes. The only way to show anger is to vote them out,” adds his friend, Randhir Singh.
‘Running Punjab like family business’
Driving through towns and villages of Punjab, a common phrase people use for the Punjab government is Badal raj (monarchy). The reference is to the family holding a majority of ministries, party presidency and chief Parkash Singh Badal’s daughter-in-law Harsimrat being the only union minister from the SAD in Delhi.
This is something that has irked Akali stalwarts too and they privately admit both “power and its spoils” have been concentrated in one family. “They are running the government like a family business. There were no consultations with senior leaders before grant of pardon to the dera head. It is they who should face the music,” said a minister, requesting anonymity.
Even senior party MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura claims they got to know about the pardon and its withdrawal from newspapers. “The SGPC and Akal Takht are independent of the Akali Dal. We had no inkling of the dera pardon. It did not take place at the CM’s behest,” Brahmpura claims. Unlike him, SAD MP Naresh Gujral questioned the timing of the dera pardon when Punjab was in “throes of a full-blown agrarian crisis”.
Resentment in police
Standing rather submissively near the long lines of Sikh protesters holding black flags on November 3 in Ludhiana, anger is simmering among even among Punjab cops who complain they have been made the “sacrificial lamb” by the government. Worse, there are videos being circulated on Whatsapp groups by the names of ‘Tashan yaara de’ and ‘Yaara da tikhana’ to show cops being “brutally attacked” by protesters on the day of the firing. One of the videos shows an old turbaned Sikh policeman being beaten up and another of police uniforms hung on electric poles after being torn. “They made cops face public ire. Our men and women were beaten up and their uniforms were torn. Why is the government silent on how the police was targeted that day? The Sikhs among us are angry at the incidents of sacrilege and the force as a whole is demoralised,” a Sikh policeman said.
Cops too, like some radical groups, want the CBI to probe the firing incident. “They made Akali halqa in-charges our bosses and broke our chain of command. We are now being told that the poor public-police relations led to the backlash,” another cop added.
‘Won’t allow siyasat di kabaddi’
Sikh protesters sitting on the road holding black flags too have Whatsapp videos to share. One shows protesters being picked up by the police at Behbal Kalan and another shows a young baptised Sikh girl asking CM Badal and his son to stop playing “siyasat di kabbadi (political slugfest)”.
“Badal said at the Kabaddi World Cup that he does not know how to play the game but he knows how to play siyasat di kabaddi. The Sikh community has woken up. We will not let him play this kabaddi,” she tells a local TV channel. The video has been widely circulated among Sikhs in Punjab and abroad. The placards held by protesters on the day of the black flag protest explain why the Badals in particular and the Akalis in general are the target of public anger. Those held by youths sitting on the dividing road near Rampur village of Ludhiana read “False panthic government murdabad”.
Leading them was 32-year-old Jatinder Singh, who spoke broken but accented English, like many Punjab youth who had nursed dollar dreams. “We are not holding the protests on the persuasion of any religious leader but Guru Granth Sahib is showing us the way. The Akali Dal is a false Panthic party that garnered votes int he name of the Panth and is now lowering the dignity of Sikhs and their institutions,” Jatinder said.
At Bukanwala village in Moga, Kaka Singh, a landlord, is angry about the manner in which the protests of dera followers and Sikhs were dealt with. “We are not upset at the pardon to the dera head but if his followers block roads, the movie of the Baba (Ram Rahim) is released and when Sikhs protest, police open fire and kill us!”
moderates too angry
At Panjgrain Khurd in Moga, hundreds poured out to express solidarity with brothers Jaswinder and Rupinder Singh, who were recently released after being arrested on sacrilege charges. Among them those who call themselves “moderate Sikhs”. “The SAD is following the RSS agenda of polarisation. When the farmers’ agitation was spiralling out of control, they played the dera card,” said Daya Singh from Faridkot.
Charanjit Channi from Dugri in Ludhiana claims people in Punjab have now understood the “Badal brand of politics” and can see through their game of diverting public attention by using religion.
The protest does not seem to have given the main opposition party, the Congress, an edge as many Sikhs still blame it for having targeted their community in the past. There are rumblings in support of the rookie Aam Aadmi Party. But holding sway in the village that day were Sikh preachers, youths sporting “Sikh relief volunteers” T-shirts and Punjabi news channels such as Qaumi Soch and Khalsa News.
The worries of the ruling elite of Punjab may not end with the Sarbat Khalsa (Sikh congregation) on Tuesday. The argument gaining ground in Punjab is that the ground under the Badals’ feet is slipping.