The political gamble of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal by orchestrating an Akal Takht-stamped pardon for the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in the 2007 blasphemy case has boomeranged in the worst possible ways.
Worryingly, it has dramatically pushed Punjab into unrelenting and belligerent mass protests over a highly emotive issue of the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib. The state is now teetering on the precipice of lawlessness with the SAD-BJP government reduced to a hapless bystander.
A string of shocking incidents of sacrilege, coupled with a disastrous mishandling of the first protest in Faridkot, have triggered a volcanic outrage that has virtually overwhelmed the Badal government. The sheer spontaneity and scale of Sikh protests in the form of road blockades across the state for a week has left the ruling dispensation scrambling for a response, buffeted as it has been by an unexpected torrent of religio-political crosswinds.
Truth be told, Punjab is now caught in a scary drift – a chilling throwback to the dark ’80s. The law-enforcement apparatus appears to be dysfunctional and out of depth on tackling the situation that’s turning grimmer by the day. Worse, as religious tempers are running high, the current blow-up runs the real risk of degenerating into a communal flashpoint as evident from Monday’s disconcerting clashes in Jalandhar and Patiala.
Most daunting challenge
And, no one knows such perils better than five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who himself warned in his letter to the Akal Takht jathedar that things could take a more dangerous turn. His desperate entreaties for peace have so far failed to defuse the crisis that has dealt a stunning blow to every institution that he lords over — the government, Shiromani Akali Dal, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and even the Akal Takht.
In every way you look at it, the current crisis is the most daunting challenge that Badal, a spirited survivor of so many tumultuous Panthic upheavals, has ever weathered in his six-decade-long political career. It could well turn out to be a defining – and decimating – moment for his political life, and also cast a long shadow on his legacy. For once, the aging Akali patriarch, famed for his uncanny sense of popular mood, failed to gauge the intense Sikh ire that his dera gambit would unleash.
Equally stupefying has been the manner in which his government abjectly failed to grasp the explosive implications of a missing ‘bir’ in the backdrop of a simmering groundswell of Sikh anger over the dera fiasco. Clearly, it was a grave intelligence failure. The government woke up only when things came to a head.
Losing face and following
While the Badal dispensation’s graph has touched the nadir, never before in its 95-year-old history have both the SGPC and the SAD faced such a ferocious fury of the Panth that they have been repository of. They seem to have lost face as well as following among their core constituency – the Sikhs.
Just how debilitating has the crisis been to their credibility can be gauged from a rush of resignations by SGPC members and Akali leaders. Paradoxically, the frontline Akali and SGPC leadership is cowering in the face of the Panthic backlash, while the Sikh clergy has been forced to stay indoors under heavy security cover.
Critically, all damage-control attempts so far, including Badal’s dramatic appearance at Akal Takht, have failed to cool the ruffled Sikh passions. Even the Akal Takht’s unprecedented U-turn on the pardon edict has only added fuel to the fire with the radical fringe, quick to seize and steer the protests, calling for the Sikh clergy’s resignation.
As Punjab hurtles into lawlessness, the Badal government faces a Catch 22 – it’s wary of cracking down on protesters; while a worsening crisis is chipping away its credibility – or whatever is left of it now. Ironically, the SAD is staring at its nemesis on the Panthic pedestal that has been central to its existence and power politics. The moot point today is not the Akalis’ political future, but the high stakes in Punjab’s hard-earned peace.
(The author is a senior resident editor with Hindustan Times)