“Come back to India quickly, your son has been shot,” a relative on the other side of the phone wailed. The sun had barely risen in Nairobi but Sadhu Singh bolted out of his home and rushed back to India but it was too late –his younger son had been shot dead by police.
In Tanzania’s Arusha, Sukhraj Singh got an identical phonecall. He took the next flight home but reached only in time for his father’s funeral.
A year later, they are sitting in the bright sunshine at Sahej Dhaba outside Kotkapura in the heart of Punjab’s Malwa region.
“No one fulfilled their promise. They don’t even take my phone calls,” Sadhu says. He has made little headway with the courts, officials and even a government-appointed inquiry commission.
The area was rocked by unrest following a string of sacrilege incidents involving the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Massive protests ensued and the police opened fire at an unarmed crowd near Bargadi, killing two.
“The jobs given to us were just lollypops and the commission a fraud,” says Sukhraj, whose family was given a position as a lab assistant that paid just Rs 5,900 a month.
Anger runs deep in this politically crucial region that holds more than half of Punjab’s 117 assembly seats as the dominant Sikh community views the desecration as an insult.
“Guru Granth Sahib is our life. We are angry because no one was caught. Why didn’t you do fingerprinting or DNA tests?” asks Surjeet Singh, the panchayat chief of the village where the torn pages of the holy book were first found.
“On top of that, you kill two of our naujawans and don’t punish any police officers.”
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- June 1: Guru Granth Sahib disappears from Jawahar Singh Wala village
- October 12: First incident of sacrilege, torn pages of the holy book found in Bargadi
- October 14: Police firing kill two villagers near Behbal Kalan village
- October 15: Justice Zora Singh Commission constituted
- July 1, 2016: Commission submits its report to Punjab government, not made public
When violence first broke out in October last year, it brought back fear of a return to the militancy hit days of the 80s. As torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib appeared in one village after another, tens of thousands of protesters regularly gathered at an hour’s notice in defiance of prohibitory orders, police officers were helpless and many ministers were cloistered in their offices, unsure of facing their angry electorate.
Much of this ire is directed at the Akalis. “They call themselves a Panthic government and don’t do anything. My wounds from 1984 have been opened and they won’t be healed until our sentiments are assuaged,” says Gurpreet Singh, a local doctor. Others nod gravely and sip their tea as the sunshine gives way to chilly winds.
“Local MLAs didn’t dare enter villages for a month. SGPC members were slapped and driven away,” says Congress leader Gurbeer Singh Sandhu. Surjeet alleges that local Akali leaders threatened him to not reveal names of police officers in front of the state government-appointed probe commission.
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“But I will name them again and again,” he says, his voice choked with emotion as he reels off names of every police officer he saw shoot at the apparently unarmed crowd.
The anger has singed chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who is seen to be in undisputed control of his party and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee. The Congress has attempted to take over the space by reaching out to the Sikhs but large crowds at Aam Aadmi Party rallies in the region indicate the novice party is very much in the running.
Off the record, most villagers say the government orchestrated the desecration to take focus away from farm agitations sweeping the state last year and point out the first desecration happened just hours before protesting farmers sat on a massive “rail roko”.
On record, the word they use is “agencies”.
“The word agencies originates in the 80s and reveals deep-rooted mistrust in shadowy government officials and outsiders. It signifies death, disappearances and unclaimed bodies,” says writer Amandeep Sandhu.
“This is the reason why the AAP is branded as an outsider.”
In Jawahar Singh Wala village – from where the Guru Granth Sahib was stolen in June last year – local residents report frenzied activity in the past few weeks. The police have detained the local granthi for questioning– indicating the Akali administration is trying to appear proactive ahead of polls.
“Our protests are always nonviolent, unlike, say, the Jats. Such polarization is used to benefit parties that have communal vote bank,” says Pant Preet Singh, a preacher. He says the Sikh youth arrested in the violence were falsely implicated.
But why did Punjab erupt the way it did after desecration last year, especially given there have been similar incidents before? The answer, experts say, lies in a larger crisis of faith and Punjabi consciousness.
For years, Punjabis felt pride in their state that led the country in farm output and industrialization. But in the past two decades, economic growth has cratered, the agrarian crisis has widened, the suicide rate has zoomed with no prospect of improvement in sight.
- Bargadi, Faridkot district
- Mishriwala village, Ferozepur district
- Bath village, Tarn Taran district
- Kohrian village, Faridkot
- Sarai Naga village, Mukhtsar district
- Gadani, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district
- Kohrian village, Sangrur district
- Kotli Ablu village, Mukhtsar
“The idea of the great Punjab has shrunk to about a seventh of its size from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time, there is a riparian conflict and the feeling is that Punjab gave so much to the country but got nothing back,” says Sandhu.
This sense of desolation has crept into faith. The complete domination of the Badals over the political and religious arms of Sikhism may have boomeranged on the family.
Sandhu says the Malwa region, which saw the brunt of the violence, has always been the most neglected of Punjab’s three regions and local leaders were properly integrated into the SGPC just a few decades ago.
“The average Sikh feels feels trapped because one family controls everything. When the sacrilege happened and no one was caught, the community felt the SGPC betrayed them,” he adds.
Mudding the waters is a massive organization just across the state’s border in Haryana’s Sirsa that was formed in 1948 but came into its own the nineties thanks to a charismatic and controversial leader.
The Dera Sacha Sauda influences at least 35 seats on the back of its massive support base among the low-caste population, the migrant workers and parts of the rural poor – all sections that have been systematically pushed to the fringes of the main religion. Locals say their strength lies in the one thing the dominant community doesn’t have: A living guru in Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh.
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Singh allegedly impersonated Guru Gobind Singh in 2007, the Akal Takht hauled him up, only to pardon him eight years later – an event that is said to have triggered the first wave of Sikh anger. Many leaders say Badal wanted to tap the Dera’s support base and hence pushed the clergy to let him off.
But the tit-for-tat sackings and upheavals in the clergy and massive unrest on the ground changed everything – Sikhism’s holiest men, the Punj Pyaras, were dismissed, the jathedars were not allowed to speak at congregations and the faith plunged into crisis.
“I thought it was 1984 again. Two Sarbat Khalsa (general congregation) were called for the first time since Operation Bluestar. There were more then 2.5 lakh angry people demanding changes in the clergy and hierarchy,” Sandhu says. How parties navigate this anger and turn it to their advantage will hold the key to Punjab.