It is not for the first time that a convicted killer has been ‘appointed’ as jathedar of the highest temporal body of Sikhs -- the Akal Takht. Ironically, it was the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which is now facing a similar situation, that had set the dangerous precedent in 1990.
Serving life sentence for the murder of Nirankari sect leader Gurbachan Singh in 1980, Ranjit Singh was appointed as the Akal Takht jathedar in 1990 by the Shiromani Akali Dal-backed SGPC, then led by Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Though Parkash Singh Badal and Tohra were then on the same side, it was Tohra who had masterminded the move to get Akalis to group around him by proving his far-right credentials.
In a curious replay of the earlier situation, former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh’s assassin Jagtar Singh Hawara has been declared as the Akal Takht “jathedar” by the radicals during their recent Sarbat Khalsa. Hawara, like Ranjit Singh then, is lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail and is serving a life sentence after his death penalty was commuted to life sentence by the Punjab and Haryana high court in October 2010.
After appointing him as jathedar, Tohra, backed by the SAD and BJP, had lobbied hard for the release of Ranjit Singh and a petition seeking remission of his sentence was sent to then President KR Narayanan, who later signed the order commuting the remainder of Ranjit Singh’s sentence in November 1997 during the IK Gujral government at the Centre.
Now, it’s the release of “jathedar Hawara” that is being sought by over 20,000 people through an online petition on the White House website seeking help of US President Barack Obama. The petition has been launched by US-based separatist group, Sikhs For Justice. However, unlike the 1990 precedent, now it is the SGPC which is at the receiving end of radicals’ religio-political move.
Ranjit Singh was released after serving 13 years for murdering the Nirankari sect leader over a violent clash on Baisakhi day in 1978, when individuals at a Nirankari gathering in Amritsar had opened fire on protesters belonging to the fundamentalist Damdami Taksal led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha led by Fauja Singh.