Beleaguered and bruised by Sikh protests over a spate of desecrations of Guru Granth Sahib, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has been in a fire-fighting mode for the past five weeks.
There is anxiety in his words and actions after the disastrous handling of the worst crisis to hit his party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Punjab government. Having stemmed the slide on the law and order front with a raft of decisive initiatives, chiefly the removal of Sumedh Singh Saini as the DGP and entrusting the sacrilege probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Akali patriarch is now pulling out all stops to reconnect with the Panthic constituency that is seething with anger and appears to be in an unforgiving mood.
In his first interview since the debilitating crisis, Badal spoke to Senior Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak in Chandigarh on Wednesday.
Harping on the urgency to uphold ‘shanti aur bhaichara’ (peace and social harmony), the phrase he used 15 times in the course of an hour-long conversation - Badal skilfully ducked and deflected inconvenient questions on the disastrous pardon to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief and misuse of Sikh religious institutions for political interests. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. How do you read the spate of protests across Punjab?
A. The main crisis has been caused by the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib. The government has solved five or six cases where the culprits have been arrested. They have admitted their acts before panchayats and the media. It will take time to unravel the truth and catch the culprits in some incidents. The sacrileges have hurt public sentiment. We don’t know who is behind this conspiracy yet. There are certain forces, including Khalistani elements, out to wreck peace in Punjab. Things will be clear as the CBI has been asked to investigate all this.
Q. Isn’t it a fact that the crisis was triggered by the Sikh anger against a politically managed pardon to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief by the Sikh clergy?
A. This is a cumulative effect of many things. Whatever may be the cause, the biggest issue today is the peace and social harmony that our government will uphold at any cost. That’s my motto and personal commitment.
Q. Your party committed a blunder by pushing the clergy to pardon the dera chief in a hush-hush manner?
A.This issue pertains to the Akal Takht. I am neither for it (the pardon) nor against it. And, I don’t interfere in the affairs of the Sikh clergy.
Q .Why are Sikhs angry with you?
A.What can I say...only people can tell you that. We haven’t done anything to offend them. People’s sentiments are being exploited.
Q.Sikh radicals are demanding the resignation of the head priests?
A.The appointment and removal of the head priests in the domain of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). It’s not my job. Don’t forget that there are many games being played. Seeking the resignation of the jathedars is also a game of certain people who want to weaken Sikh institutions such as the Akal Takht and the SGPC.
Q. Should the head priests resign on their own?
A.That’s their sweet will. It’s not my job.
Q. There is a widespread impression that you manipulate the SGPC and head priests for your political interests?
A. It’s absolutely wrong. In my entire political life, I have taken the least interest in SGPC affairs - whether it was headed by Gurcharan Singh Tohra or Avtar Singh Makkar. I don’t even go to the SGPC head office in the Golden Temple premises. I only pay obeisance at Harmandar Sahib.
Q. Isn’t the public outrage a manifestation of disenchantment with your rule for nine years?
A. We got re-elected for the second term in 2012 and won the Sangrur byelections four months ago with 40,000 votes. What is happening in Punjab is nothing more than a sudden emotional outburst.
Q. There seems to be a huge disconnect between Akalis and the Sikhs?
A. Now that a crisis has erupted, all our actions are seen as blunders (’galtian hi galtian lagdian ne’). Today, it is not the time to look at our blunders. People should pardon and forget. We can’t slip on the hard-earned peace. That’s absolutely critical.
Q. Pardon whom? You, your party or the government?
A.Everyone. Whatever has happened has happened. Let’s forget the past and think of the future. It is time to move on. People shouldn’t support those who set Punjab on fire in the past. They are trying to do that again. It’s a big conspiracy.
Q.The crisis has dealt a big setback to your party and the government?
A.That’s nothing unusual. Setbacks come and go. This goes on. We will set things right. We will hold rallies and reach out to the people. Things will be fine soon.
Q. How serious is the challenge from the radicals and Sikh organisations who have now called a Sarbat Khalsa on November 10?
A.Not much. People of Punjab have seen the worst and won’t rally behind those trying to exploit religious sentiments.
Q.Would you allow the Amritsar congregation?
A.We have not applied our mind on this yet.