In Punjab, religion and politics are difficult to separate, but with one year to go for the assembly polls in the state, a religious competitiveness is already at play between archrivals Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress.
The first round has definitely gone to Captain Amarinder Singh, the newly crowned Punjab Congress chief, who did something that was never seen on a rally stage in Punjab. His taking an oath touching a “gutka” (Sikh holy book) to his forehead promising the world to the people gathered at the rally was enough to give a political shock to the SAD which has for decades used Sikhism to flavour its politics. A rattled SAD called Amarinder “desperate” and “non-secular” but Amarinder deftly beat the Akalis at their own game.
Amarinder’s move (some would like to call it masterstroke) comes in wake of a rather charged Panthic atmosphere in the state. For more than a month since October 12 — when the first case of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib took place till the radicals’ Sarbat Khalsa of November 11 — Sikh hardliners had unleashed a wave of Panthic fervour, not seen since the 1980s.
But instead of culminating into something substantial in the form of a reformation of Sikh institutions, it ended in a brazen celebration of militancy and reiteration of the Khalistan demand.
The SAD countered the radicals’ move with an uncharacteristic secular reaction, positioning itself squarely and firmly as anti-terrorist and anti-Khalistan, holding massive Sadbhawna rallies and propounding peace across the state while lashing out at the political rivals.
But every true blue politician who saw a 1-lakh-plus crowd at the radicals’ Sarbat Khalsa was once again faced with the age-old truth: Nothing moves the masses more than the religion. The SAD announced special free trains for pilgrims to various religious places in the country with the first such train slated to start for Nanded on January 1.
The party has also kept its religious calendar for 2016 rather busy. The year-long celebrations to commemorate the 350 years of birth of Guru Gobind Singh would kick off in January for which the chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his deputy Sukhbir Badal met Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar on Friday. Several events have been planned in Punjab as part of celebrations before these culminate at Patna in January 2017. Since the management of gurdwaras at Patna is controlled by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the SAD is aiming to gain the lost ground through these celebrations.
In June 2016, the 300 years of martyrdom of Banda Singh Bahadur come to an end for which the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) has lined up a host of events in Punjab and Delhi, including the setting up of a memorial in Mehrauli.
What, however, went unnoticed in the past week amid the blazing headlines of the SAD and Congress rallies is the SAD (Amritsar) rally at Bargari where Simranjit Singh Mann and his men —who had organised the radicals’ Sarbat Khalsa — barely managed to gather 3,000 people. From November 11 to December 15, it was quiet a comedown. For the hardliners, the message is loud and clear. It’s religion which interests Punjab Sikhs, not Khalistan.