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Stop the slide in Punjab

The face-off between followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect and Sikh hardliners is threatening the peace in Punjab, writes Pankaj Vohra in Between Us.

india Updated: May 22, 2007 05:04 IST

The face-off between followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect and Sikh hardliners is threatening the peace in one of India’s most prosperous states. Punjab is on the boil and not without reason. Sikh devotees are seething with anger over an advertisement where the Dera chief, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has been shown wearing an ensemble resembling the one worn by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Even the Akal Takht has issued a diktat asking Sikhs to boycott the sect. The Takht has also asked the government to arrest the Dera chief for hurting the sentiments of the Sikh community.

The issue has given a handle to pro-Khalistan elements who have been lying low for many years now. The gathering at Talwandi Saboh last week showed that the matter now threatens to get out of the ambit of responsible functionaries into the hands of the separatists. It is significant that Atinder Pal Singh, elected from Patiala to the Lok Sabha in 1989, has re-surfaced and urged Sikhs to get even with the Dera chief. Other groups like the Babbar Khalsa, the All India Sikh Students’ Federation and passive activists of the Khalistan Commando Force have suddenly become active.

Intelligence reports suggest that taking advantage of the situation, Pakistan’s ISI, which had played a major role in fuelling terrorist activity in Punjab in the 1980s and early 1990s may once again become involved in escalating the situation. The ISI has a valid reason for acting so, since any violent activity on the Indian side of Punjab may help in diverting attention from the current turmoil in Pakistan.

But what is happening in Punjab now has a close resemblance to what happened there nearly 30 years ago when the Akalis-Nirankari clash sowed the seeds for the beginning of militancy. The Nirankaris were emerging as a political force and threatening to balance the Akalis’ influence in a number of places in the state. The differences became so acute that in April 1980, the then Nirankari chief, Baba Gurbachan Singh, was gunned down at his Delhi residence. The man accused of killing him, Bhai Ranjit Singh, subsequently became the chief of the Akal Takht. Needless to say, the Nirankaris, who held huge samagams in the state, scaled down their activities and bought peace.

The Akalis also nurse a huge grouse against the Dera chief and the sect. In the recent Punjab assembly elections, the Dera played a significant role in helping the Congress wrest control of the Malwa region from the Akalis for the first time. In fact, in the run-up to the polls, several Akali and BJP leaders had visited the Sirsa headquarters of the Dera to seek Baba Ram Rahim Singh’s blessings and urged him to reverse the diktat in favour of the Congress.

There have been photographs published in the media which show the present CM, Parkash Singh Badal, with folded hands before the Dera chief while the CM’s son, Sukhbir, sat on the floor. The Baba did not relent and his support helped Amarinder Singh get 35 out of 65 seats in southern Punjab. The end result was that for the first time in Punjab’s history, the Akalis came to power with the help of the BJP, since the Congress had succeeded in eroding their vote share in their stronghold. The difference in terms of vote percentage and seats between the Akalis and the Congress in the last polls was virtually negligible.

Many Punjab watchers believe that it would have been only a matter of time before the Dera was taught a lesson for supporting the Congress. The opportunity came in the shape of the indiscretion by the Dera chief who finds himself in the eye of a religious storm and has little option but to backtrack and express public regret for his actions. His apology, as demanded by the Akal Takht, has little significance since he is not a Sikh and is not answerable for his actions to the supreme seat. But his apology will now perhaps help in bringing down tempers within the community.

It is significant that in religious issues, especially on matters pertaining to the 10 Gurus, there is no point in trying to argue rationally. Emotions and rationality do not go hand in hand. Otherwise, it could have been argued that if the Dera chief’s alleged impersonation is a violation of the law, then seeking his head is a far greater crime. But the emphasis now should be to restore normalcy and not start another debate which can assume dangerous and ugly dimensions. In the present case, Badal, who normally has a sobering influence on Sikh bodies, is not in control. As Paramjit Singh Sarna, president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Committee put it, Badal has lost the right to lead the Sikhs who will only be satisfied if the Dera chief is arrested and the sect banned.

But there are some interesting coincidences which have taken place in Punjab whenever Badal has been the CM. In the early 1970s, the Naxalite movement which was on the rise was crushed with a heavy hand. In 1978, the Akali-Nirankari clash sparked off a series of incidents leading to militancy and resulting in the assassination of a Prime Minister six years later. In 2001, controversies about two sect leaders, Piara Singh Bhaniarewala and Ashutosh Maharaj, almost escalated but intervention by the Centre controlled matters. Now there is the Dera stand-off. One only hopes that these are only coincidences and nothing more.

Now saner voices need to take over and save the state from returning to chaos. The BJP, which always prides itself in talking about internal security concerns, is unusually quiet despite being a shareholder in the Punjab government. The Centre must ensure that the issue is handled with maturity and deftness. The Akalis must also realise that peace in Punjab is for everyone’s good. No living person can ever emulate Guru Gobind Singh whose family’s collective sacrifices are unparalleled in Indian history. He is not only a Sikh hero but a national hero.

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First Published: May 21, 2007 11:54 IST