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Controversy over dress gives way to politics

Though the Dera chief expressed regret, the Akali Dal and other groups want to keep the pot boiling, reports Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: May 27, 2007 01:39 IST

An apparently indiscreet act in Punjab has metamorphosed into full-blown political theatre that threatens to disturb peace in the sensitive border state.

It began with an advertisement showing Dera chief Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh allegedly wearing attire similar to that of Guru Gobind Singh. The Dera chief has since then expressed regret. But the Akali Dal wants to keep the pot boiling. And extremist groups, inspired by the ISI, are also trying to step in. Each of them senses real political gains to be made from the situation.

Punjab watchers see a game plan in the actions of several top Akali functionaries. They point out that Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's assertion, that he would not allow peace to be disturbed, is in stark variance to the manner in which the situation has been allowed to drift to benefit the Akali Dal.

The Badals control the Shiromani Akali Dal, which in turn controls the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The SGPC appoints jathedars to the various gurdwaras to indirectly control them.

In the assembly polls, the Dera had supported the Congress, causing huge losses to the Akali Dal. So instead of efforts to control the situation, the focus seems to be on using the situation to consolidate the weakened position of the Akalis among Sikhs.

This is indicated by the Akal Takht calling for a state bandh. The Takht also went ahead with an edict asking all Deras in Punjab to close down. At one stage, SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar held that the edict was more sacrosanct than the law of the Constitution. He also blamed the Congress for the situation.

Efforts to condemn him were apparently made to create the impression that the SGPC was independent of the Akali Dal and his statements did not have the CM’s approval. But a senior Akali leader said Makkar could not have said anything without Badal’s approval. “If the Akalis now lower their pitch, they will lose out to the militants.”

Politically, the Akalis who depend on the BJP vote, for the first time seem to have an objective. The way things are unfolding could well ensure both the Congress and BJP are weakened. For the BJP, reality may dawn if it loses in the municipal polls in five urban areas in June.

So serious is the situation that intelligence agencies are drawing parallels with the Akali-Nirankari clash of 1978 that led to the beginning of militancy in the state in the late seventies and early eighties.

The Dera followers, who number over a crore, are facing the heat. They know confrontation will harm them a great deal.

But covering up the underlying insecurity, a Dera functionary said, "We have supported all parties at different times and will not be cowed down by anyone. Constitutionally, we have the right to practice our beliefs. The Centre and the State have to protect us at all cost. They want us to apologise? Should not the Akal Takht also withdraw its edict? The statements which the Akalis are making are not conducive to peace."