Call it a leap of faith or a politically-managed religious edict. The dramatic decision by the five Sikh high priests on pardoning Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and revoking an eight-year-long “social boycott” edict of the Akal Takht against the Sirsa-based sect has the potential to be a game-changer, both politically and socially, in Punjab.
Undeniably, Thursday’s conciliatory gesture from the Akal Takht has political overtones. Implicit in behind-the-curtain prodding and brokering by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal is its calculated attempt to mend fences with the estranged dera with an electoral harvest in mind.
Small wonder, Sikh radicals lost no time in slamming the clergy for letting the controversial godman off the hook without adhering to the time-old Panthic practice of a derelict appearing personally before the Akal Takht to seek pardon. Hardliners are livid at the clergy for accepting his written apology at “the ruling Badals’ bidding”.
A day later, chief minister Parkash Singh, an ardent pacifist, minced no words in lending his support to the high priests’ move on calling truce with the dera. Notwithstanding the radicals’ outrage, the unexpected reprieve to the dera chief is a profound and pragmatic step towards a closure on a long-festering Sikh-dera conflict marked by a paroxysm of violence and protests over the past several years.
The latest flare-up came early this week when enraged dera followers caused large-scale disruption in rail traffic in Malwa, protesting against Punjab theatres’ refusal to screen a movie starring their spiritual chief due to the fear of reprisal from radicals.
The seeds of a Sikh-dera discord were sown in 2007 when its colourful and controversial chief committed an allegedly blasphemous act of imitating Guru Gobind Singh. It earned him the wrath of both the Akal Takht and hot-headed fundamentalists.
Significantly, the anti-dera tirade had erupted in the backdrop of the dera’s open support to the Congress in the 2007 Punjab Assembly elections, resulting in the Akalis’ defeat in their traditional citadel of Malwa where the dera holds a major sway. Not surprisingly, Malwa has been the epicentre of the dera-Sikh strife.
But, it will be too simplistic to view the jathedars’ pardon merely through a vote-centric prism. It’s larger significance lies in symbolism to mitigate the bad blood as well as a worrying faultline that the dera-Sikh animus has created in Punjab’s tenuous social matrix. The long-running conflict also had an eerie echo of the Sikh- Nirankari clash of the ’80s that had, in the absence of timely resolution, spiralled into a firestorm of extremism and violence.
From that perspective, the Akal Takht’s overture augurs well for peace and social harmony in the border state. It’s suffused with a spirit of forgiveness in consonance with the lofty ideals of Sikh Gurus. The message from the pulpit of Akal Takht couldn’t have been louder: even a complicated religious conflict can be resolved with sagacity and magnanimity. The Sikh clergy’s bold gambit deserves a ringing endorsement for the sake of Punjab.