For long locked in intractable legal disputes over sharing of river waters and territorial claims, Punjab and Haryana are now sparring on politico-religious turf. And, the slugfest is only getting vicious and complicated by the day, raising the fears of religious frenzy that consumed Punjab in the dark 1980s.
Vehemently opposed to Haryana’s move to set up a separate gurdwara panel, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal believes that the Amritsar-based SGPC’s supremacy must be maintained at all costs. He is even ready to step down as CM, if required, to scuttle the Congress’ ‘poll-oriented’ step. On the other hand, Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda vociferously defends the passing of a law by the state assembly to form a separate gurdwara management committee. He sees no impropriety at all.
Senior resident editor Ramesh Vinayak interviewed Badal and Hooda separately on Wednesday to figure out their stands and to assess what lies ahead. Excerpts from his interview with Hooda:
Why did Haryana decide to create a separate Sikh gurdwara management committee now?
Hooda: Haryana’s Sikhs were demanding a separate body for the last 15 years, maybe more. It was a Sikh leader, Harbans Singh Dachar, who started the movement. He used to meet me and other leaders. The whole community wants nothing more than to manage their guru-ghars. They were asking for their rights. That’s how it was put in our manifesto, in 2004 and in 2009. That was the only agenda that we did not fulfil. Again, leaders of Sikh community met me and a committee was formed under HS Chattha, and it submitted a report. We sought legal opinion. In 2000, there was a judgment of the high court in the Kashmir Singh case which paved the way for a separate gurdwara panel. It clearly indicated it was a prerogative of the state, and the Supreme Court upheld that. The Gurdwaras Act 1925 was also passed by the provincial Punjab government. Even after that, there were amendments to the act, and the reorganisation of states in 1966 gave a successor state such a right.
The perception is that you enacted the law with an eye on Sikh votes in the upcoming polls.
There is no question of ‘why before the assembly polls’. After the judgment of the HC bench, there was no legal hitch. First, I formed a committee, and then sent the report for legal opinion. Time is something not in one’s hands. Whatever has to happen, happens when it has to. Sikhs of Haryana have got their right. I told thousands of Sikhs of Haryana that it has been delayed; but I won’t blame somebody else. I am happy that it has been done.
Is Haryana on sound legal footing?
I am a lawyer! It is the Sikhs’ right, which the assembly has passed.
But, the law ministry says Centre has the right to direct Haryana on the law?
I have received nothing.
Can they force you to undo it?
I don’t think they can. It’s about the federal structure, and it is the prerogative of the assembly. We have done it within the legal framework. I don’t think the Centre will try to undo it.
One scenario is that the Centre will wait for July 26, when Jagannath Pahadia demits office and there’s a new governor.
I don’t know who will be the new governor; but power of the assembly remains the same. Federal structure remains the same. How does it matter who is the governor or the CM is?
If the new governor withdraws assent, won’t it lead to a kind of constitutional crisis?
I don’t think there is any example of any governor taking back assent… It’s been more than 60 years since we have been working under the Constitution… If you have a precedent, let me know.
A showdown seems to be building up between Haryana and the Centre.
There is no point of confrontation. The assembly has passed a bill under its purview.
But the Centre says that the 1925 Gurdwaras Act is under the purview of Parliament.
That is wrong interpretation. The court has gone into it at length; and if you read the judgment, it is clear.
So, Haryana has not overstepped its legal boundary?
No. There was no need for that.
Do you think the BJP-led NDA’s move smacks of politics to keep ally Shiromani Akali Dal in good humour?
That, they would know. They have written a letter to the chief secretary and the governor. The AG (attorney general of India) has opined something. But the interpretation by the constitutional bench is very clear.
Do you not see any politics in this?
I am not doing any politics, and I feel there is no occasion to interfere in the state’s affairs.
Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal has threatened an agitation.
As far as Badal saab is concerned, I respect him and I requested both Mr Badal and (SGPC chief) Mr Avtar Singh Makkar on the floor of the House to respect the sentiments of Haryana Sikhs. If Mr Badal feels it is not a constitutionally valid decision, the doors of courts are open!
Is CM Badal right that there are just a few Sikhs demanding the panel?
There are thousands and thousands of Sikhs demanding it. There were over two lakh affidavits by Sikhs for a separate panel. Of them, 1.4 lakh have been verified. Had just a few been demanding it, why would the SGPC send its sewadars to Haryana gurdwaras?
Won’t that vitiate the atmosphere?
Mr Badal is a responsible man. They should not hurt the sentiments of Haryana by sending their armed men to our gurdwaras.
But Badal says you played mischief.
He is trying to get political mileage… He is shaking over there in Punjab. What can I say? I am sorry to say this but I fail to understand their (Akalis’) motive. They should be happy. It was in the manifesto in 2005; they could have gone to court then. Maybe Mr Badal has lost ground in parliamentary elections, thus searching for new ground.
What about him saying it’s the Gandhi family hatching the ‘conspiracy’?
The Gandhi family has nothing to do with it. Assembly has passed the bill!
So will Haryana not reconsider the law?
There is no question of reconsideration or backing down.
Centre may make out a case of ‘breakdown of constitutional machinery’.
My father, grandfather fought for Independence and drafted the Constitution... We will try our utmost to uphold it. It is not a question of me or Mr Badal. It is about India’s federal structure. If something is done against the people of Haryana, it is about their prestige. Constitution is above everything.
Is there not apprehension of violence when the new committee attempts physical takeover of gurdwaras?
It’s the committee’s job to take over in a legal manner. The state will not interfere.