The violence that has spilled over from Punjab to neighbouring areas brings back memories of the Nirankari agitation of the 1970s. Sectarian violence has been the bane of many parts of modern India and Punjab is no exception. At the root of the hostilities this time round is the clash between Sikhs and adherents of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect. The Centre and the state need to work together to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand. Neither the Akalis nor the Congress should forget how their no-holds-barred political competition in the 1980s enabled the rise of extremists like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and with this Punjab’s long night of violence.
The Dera claims to oppose all established faiths and promote the spiritual ideal of one God or Truth. But its colourful chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh a.k.a. Maharaj is charged with trying to imitate Guru Gobind Singh. The tenth Guru’s injunction that after him the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, alone will be the Guru is a cardinal belief of the Sikhs and his offering of amrit (nectar) to five faithful followers is another major item of faith. The Sikh anguish at the actions of the Dera Sacha Sauda chief in imitating the 10th Guru is understandable. But it is in the interest of the Sikh community and the country that these emotions do not become self-destructive.
Punjab has been fertile in the matter of religions and sects. Sectarian tensions are not new in Punjab, but they flare up most when a sect seeks to encroach into the space of another one. Though some faiths have their tenets strictly laid down, sometimes in a holy book, there has always been room for interpretation and evolution. But the dividing line between interpreting a faith and apostasy is very thin. The Ahmadiyya, now declared an apostate non-Muslim group by Pakistan, are seen as challenging the central belief of Islam that Hazrat Muhammad was the last prophet. Orthodox Sikhs have been unhappy with the Arya Samaj for allegedly trying to assimilate the Sikh faith into Hinduism. They have charged the Nirankaris with blasphemy for trying to imitate the Sikh Gurus.
It is not easy to forget that the clash between the Nirankaris and the Sikhs played a major role in touching off militancy in Punjab. Terrorism may be dead now, but religious extremists are still around, always ready to exploit a situation. All political parties have in the past courted the Dera during elections because it has a potent vote-bank. These parties would be doing signal service to the people if they got together to work out a compromise after which the issue could be debated in calm and rational manner. Bhindranwale’s legacy that claimed the life of a Prime Minister still haunts India. We cannot afford another round of violence.