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Palpable tension as Punjab goes for shutdown

Punjab is observing a one-day 'bandh' on an unprecedented call by the Akal Takht.
IANS | By HT Correspondent, Chandigarh
UPDATED ON MAY 22, 2007 10:47 AM IST

There was palpable tension in Punjab on Tuesday morning as the state observed a one-day 'bandh' (shutdown) on an unprecedented call by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority of Sikhism.

The call was given to protest the actions of sect leader Gurmit Ram Rahim of the Dera Sacha Sauda that have offended the sensibilities of the Sikhs.

Business, trade and other offices are expected to remain shut all over the state as the Sikh community protests against the actions of the dera chief who sought to impersonate the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, whose ruling Akali Dal is supporting the shutdown call, said his government had made adequate arrangements to provide security during the shutdown.

"I appeal to everyone to keep the bandh peaceful. Certain emergency services have been exempted by the Akal Takht from the bandh call," Badal said.

But there was trouble for the two-month old Badal government when coalition partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Monday evening openly cautioned that he (chief minister) would be held responsible if Tuesday's state-wide shutdown turns violent.

The BJP warned the government that "it would not hesitate to initiate stern steps to save the state from disaster" if the situation got out of hand during and after the shutdown. The BJP holds the key to power in the state with its 19 legislators in the 117-member assembly. The BJP has five cabinet ministers in the Badal government. Akali Dal has 49 and the Congress has 44 legislators in the assembly.

In a statement issued here, state BJP president Rajinder Bhandari made no bones about his party being upset with the manner in which the widespread protests against the sect head had been handled last week. The state saw widespread violence by Sikh activists and dera followers.

An upset Bhandari reminded the government that it was the responsibility of the chief minister to maintain law and order and protect the lives of the people.

The BJP has reasons to worry. It not only won majority of its assembly seats in the February elections from Punjab's urban areas but also has a substantial support base among traders. Trade and industry in the state has suffered losses due to last week's religious violence.

The central government on Monday issued a fresh advisory to Punjab authorities asking them to take all necessary steps to maintain law and order during Tuesday's shutdown.

Earlier on Monday, Badal clearly indicated that his Akali Dal supported the call for the shutdown while his senior party colleagues prepared to make the strike a complete success. He also asked the dera chief to apologise to the Sikh community for his actions to defuse the tension.

"No one is big or small. He should realise his mistake and apologise to the Sikh community. This will help defuse the tense situation," Badal said.

The dera, on the other hand, maintained that its chief had committed no mistake and there was, therefore, no question of tendering an apology.

"We have already regretted the entire episode that might have hurt feelings of the Sikh community," dera spokesman Aditya Insaan said in Sirsa, 300 km from Chandigarh.

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