The volatile situation in Punjab involving the Sirsa-based sect, Dera Sacha Sauda, bears an uncanny resemblance with the events of April 1978. The situation could go out of control unless all-round efforts are made to defuse it.
In 1978, it was the Nirankari sect that had raised the hackles of the Sikhs. Demands to proscribe two Nirankari religious texts were ignored, resulting in protests. On Baisakhi day that year, Sikhs owing allegiance to Akhand Kirtani Jatha and Dam Dami Taksal had marched to the Nirankari Bhawan in Amritsar. They were fired upon, killing more than a dozen. Two months later, the Akal Takht ex-communicated the Nirankaris. While negotiations were on for reconciliation, the then Nirankari chief was killed, setting off a cycle of violence which went on unabated for a decade-and-a-half.
Badal was chief minister then
The parallels don’t end here. Even in 1978, Parkash Singh Badal was the Chief Minister of Punjab and the Congress was engaged in competitive politics. Just as the Dera’s affiliation with the Congress is no secret now, the anti-Akali Dal elements then had found a convenient behind-the-scenes ally in sections of the Congress to take on Badal — whether it was the Nirankari versus Sikh issue or the Akali Dal versus Sikh hardliners, who were led by the late Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Dera Sacha Sauda a bigger force now
Ironically, the genesis of the current stand-off lies in the strength that the Dera Sacha Sauda had been gathering in recent years with ranks of its followers from the nearby districts of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan swelling phenomenally. The Dera chief tried to use his large following to stall the ongoing CBI investigations against him, which were ordered in November 2003 for two murders.
Emboldened by his swelling ranks but with the CBI investigations having reached a crucial stage, the Dera chief tried to gain political mileage. Meanwhile, his family had entered into a matrimonial alliance with a prominent Congress leader of Bathinda. In what appeared to be a quid pro quo, with the Congress helping him with his cases, the political wing of the Dera announced support for the party in the last Vidhan Sabha polls in Punjab.
Playing political card for religious gain
After successfully using religion for political gains during the Vidhan Sabha polls, he tried to use politics for religious gains. Thus entering the dangerous territory. He issued a controversial advertisement in newspapers where he was seen dressed up like the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, preparing an elixir for his followers, which he referred to as ‘Jaam-e-Insan’ (Ruhani Jaam) at a public function.
Though majority of the Dera followers are Dalit Hindus, a significant number of them are also Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, which has been a constant irritant for heads of these religions (especially Sikhs). No wonder, the advertisement invited sharp reaction, with even educated people irrespective of their religious backgrounds scoffing at the commandments.
Such was the reaction among Sikhs that even well known Badal-opponents like Paramjit Singh Sarna (president, Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee) and Manjit Singh Calcutta, senior Akali leader, decided to rally behind him.
Sikh clergy severs links with Dera
Dera followers gathered in large numbers in Bathinda on May 14 and 15 and demanded registration of cases against those who had insulted their head. At the Sarbat Khalsa on May 17, the Sikh clergy decided to sever links with the Dera and asked the government to seal all Dera properties in the state.
However, the hard-liners demanded more stringent action against the Dera chief and even slogans were raised in favour of Bhindranwale. Many groups while returning from the gathering attacked Dera properties.
While the Punjab government is now appearing to finally swing into action, the Dera also appears to be mellowing down a little. But political analysts still fear for the worse.
“The situation is so volatile that unless the Dera chief apologises, the Sikhs will not cool down,” says Dr K.S. Dhillon, who was the Punjab DGP in the mid-1980s. A.A. Siddiqui, who retired as Punjab DGP two years ago, feels that while politics of the issue plays itself out, the rule of law must be implemented to keep the radicals at bay, otherwise the Centre will have to intervene.
Peace in sight, but trouble ahead.
Intelligence officers feel that the last week’s events have caused such distrust in the minds of both the sides that just one spark could ignite the flames again, especially since the Congress and the Akali Dal continue their one-upmanship.
Although the Congress has tried to maintain a low profile, its tacit support has been evident. For example, when the Dera mob went on a rampage at least half a dozen legislators openly sympathised with them. On the other hand, the ruling Akali Dal can’t absolve itself of its responsibility in its failure to check the violence.“Whatever happened afterwards could be inefficiency or a deliberate decision to allow the Sikh masses to react and teach the Dera supporters a lesson. Either way, it reflects poorly of the government,” said a senior police officer.