The sabre-rattling by Sikh youth that has been part of the Punjab landscape during the past one week is clearly having a strong bearing on the developments, including the decisions being taken by the Sikh clergy.
The five Sikh high priests representing the historical “Takhts” (religious thrones), who are supposed to be the “five wise men of the community,” have called for a Punjab bandh on Tuesday and have also asked the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda to shut all its sub-deras in Punjab by May 27.
This followed the Dera head Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim hurting the sentiments of Sikhs by trying to imitate the 10th Sikh Guru in his attire and deeds — a core issue for Sikhs — at a public function recently.
While the Sikh high priests were within their right to reject the “regret” expressed by the Dera head and insist on an apology instead, they have clearly over-stepped their role and powers in announcing their next course of action. Most Sikhs generally accept that by virtue of being the symbol of Sikh sovereignty, Akal Takht as well as the other Takhts can dictate Sikhs on matters of religion and Sikh “maryada” (way of life). However, by calling for a bandh, the high priests have clearly entered the political domain.
A senior minister told the Hindustan Times that the clergymen clearly came under pressure from the highly charged Sikh crowd present at Akal Takht on Sunday. On Monday, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal too toed the Akal Takht line by demanding an apology from the Dera chief.
Similarly, the Sikh clergy could have asked Dera Sacha Sauda to desist from carrying out any activity which could be considered anti-Sikh. “But how can anyone ask the Dera to shut shop,” asked a Punjab watcher. The clergy also decided to form a committee to meet the President, the Prime Minister and the Home Minister before May 30 to urge them to hasten the proceedings against the Dera head in the CBI investigations against him.
The Dera chief is facing investigations in two murder cases. It is felt that this too is something that the families of the victims should be looking into. Or even the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) could make this demand, since the Dera had appealed to its followers to vote for the Congress against the SAD, apparently in the hope (if not an understanding) that the cases against their “guru” would be dropped by the UPA government.
While Dera followers have been conspicuous with lathis and rods in their demonstrations, unsheathed swords have been ubiquitous in almost all rallies, meetings and demonstrations held by Sikh groups and organisations. The government has not been able to put an end to this despite promulgation of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC.
Even on May 17, when the Sikh clergy held a congregation at Takht Damdama Sahib in Talwandi Sabo, near Bathinda, they were forced to alter some of their initial announcements following pressure from radical organisations. The stage from where the high priests were to speak was hijacked by hardliners. Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti initially directed all Sikhs to sever social, religious and political ties with the Dera and its followers. However, the militants forced him to use the expression “excommunicated” against the followers instead. While the high priests wanted to give 10 days for the deras to be closed down, the hardliners insisted on a 24-hour deadline.
That day, when hordes of Sikh youth threatened to attack the Salabatpur Dera near Bathinda (where about 5,000 Dera followers had collected) while leaving the congregation, the Punjab government even toyed with the idea of calling in the Army to avoid a clash. Wiser after the 1984 developments, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself is reported to have advised against calling in the Army.