How missing holy book, abusive posters sparked political firestorm in Punjab
A 11-year-old conflict between the Dera Sacha Sauda and Sikhs swept the Shiromani Akali Dal out of power in 2017 and threatens peace in the state again.
It was a scorching afternoon on June 1, 2015, when children of Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in Faridkot district told the gurdwara granthi that the saroop of Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book the Sikhs worship as the living guru, was missing.
“Aunty ji, baba ji (Guru Granth Sahib) nahi hai ethe (Guru Granth Sahib is missing),” a panic-stricken 10-year-old boy shouted as he ran to the house of granthi Gora Singh and his wife, Swaranjeet Kaur.
The granthi, who taught the gurbani to village children daily, was away to perform a path (a prayer) at a house in the village. At first, Swaranjeet thought something unfortunate had happened to her husband but the boy and his friends took her to the gurdwara to show her the palki where the saroop of Guru Granth Sahib was missing.
She called up her husband and an announcement was made asking villagers to gather at the gurdwara. “Kise ne Maharaj saab de saroop nu chori kar leya hai. Sareyaan nu benti hai ke jaldi to jaldi gurdwara saab pujjo (Someone has stolen Guru Granth Sahib, everyone is requested to reach the gurdwara at the earliest),” was the announcement made through the gurdwara loudspeaker.
An uneasy calm had prevailed at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, a village with a population of 2,000, for the past few months before the incident. The village had seen an increase in Sikh religious activities and it had become a contentious issue between the Sikhs and followers of the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda.
As villagers took up the matter with the police, a team headed by then deputy inspector general (DIG), Ferozepur, AS Chahal and then Faridkot senior superintendent of police Charanjit Sharma reached the spot and a case was registered the next day.
The police could not get any lead for a week. The delay and sensitivity of the matter led to anger building up against the police. Villagers and local Sikh organisations kept raising the alarm about the discontent brewing.
On June 10, a special investigation team, led by Sharma, was formed but it could not make any headway for three months.
Posters trigger tension
On September 25 morning, tension gripped the village when a resident noticed posters with abusive language against Sikhs and their Gurus at the samadh of Pir Dhodha adjoining the gurdwara from where the holy book had gone missing on June 1. The derogatory language was written in bold with a black ink marker.
The previous evening, a similar poster with derogatory language against Sikhs was stuck on the wall of a gurdwara in Bargari village, barely 3km away. It was removed by local residents.
Both posters told Sikhs that their “living God” had been stolen from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala and was in Bargari village. Its angs (parts, Sikhs worship pages of the holy book as body parts) will be cut and scattered in the near future and if Sikhs had the guts they could recover it and get prize money, the posters dared.
The posters put forth a demand too. They said that Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s latest film, Messenger of God-2 (MSG-2), be released in Punjab.
The movie had been released in neighbouring Haryana and other states on September 18 but it was not screened in Punjab due to protests by Sikh organisations.
Sikhs have been in confrontation with the dera, which enjoys a significant following in Punjab, ever since the dera head in 2007 was accused of blasphemy by dressing as Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru.
Pardon to Dera head adds insult to injury
The police did not take the threat seriously and dismissed the dera angle as a diversionary tactic, said the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission, constituted by the Captain Amarinder Singh government to probe the cases of sacrilege of holy books during the SAD-BJP rule.
With the police clueless, the anger of Sikhs only grew in September 2015. Religious leaders such as Panthpreet Singh, Ranjit Singh Dhadarianwale and radical Sikh leader Balbir Singh Daduwal started leading people’s protest against the government.
The sacrilege was not the only issue that angered Sikhs. On September 24 when the anti-Sikh posters surfaced at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala and Bargari, the Akal Takht, which is the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, pardoned Gurmeet Ram Rahim in the blasphemy case.
The manner in which the pardon was granted added insult to injury. Most Sikhs felt it was done at the behest of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Sukhbir Singh Badal to garner dera support in the 2017 assembly elections by allowing the release of MSG-2.
Anger boils over
On October 12, pages (angs or parts) of Guru Granth Sahib were scattered in front of the gurdwara at Bargari and on an outer road of the village.
As news spread, people and members of Sikh organisations reached Bargari and began a dharna (protest). The police registered another FIR but by then public anger had boiled over.
At 3pm, the protesters headed for the nearby town of Kotkapura and kept the torn pages of the holy book at the dharna site. It was at this stage that the SAD-BJP government sensed the public anger and rushed police from various districts to Kotkapura, a Hindu-dominated town.
The police feared the large gathering of Sikhs, led by radicals, could trigger a law and order problem. On October 14 morning, they resorted to the forceful eviction of the Sikh protesters after declaring the assembly unlawful.
The Sikh protesters retaliated and burnt police vehicles, injuring policemen. The police resorted to lathicharge to disperse the protesters and their leaders were arrested. Protesters, however, have a different take on the day’s developments.
“The sangat (gathering) was doing path (prayer) in the morning at the dharna site when the police came and started the lathicharge and then opened fire,” says Daduwal.
In videos that surfaced after the tension, police officials are seen requesting the protesters with folded hands to lift the dharna. There is also footage of protesters beating up policemen and torching their vehicles.
The police finally got the site evicted by 7am. They say they got a message from Bargari that protesters had surrounded the police post and were about to set it on fire.
A team led by then Moga SSP Charanjit Sharma rushed to Bargari with police personnel. On the way, the protesters blocked the road at Behbal Kalan. Desperate to reach Bargari, the police opened fire on the protesters, killing two people.
In line of fire, Akalis pay a heavy price
The killings evoked resentment against then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the then deputy chief minister who held the home portfolio.
The anger against the sacrilege, the apology to the dera head followed by the firing had multiplied their anger manifold and people started boycotting SAD leaders.
An FIR of attempt to murder was registered against SSP Sharma and other cops but it failed to assuage the hurt of the Sikh community.
Tension gripped Punjab for several days. All major roads of the state were blocked by Sikh protesters. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee members were thrashed and the entire SAD leadership remained confined to their houses.
On October 24, the government tried to control the damage by replacing the DGP Sumedh Saini with Suresh Arora.
The Justice Zora Singh Commission was set up to probe the incidents of firing and sacrilege but its suggestions were not implemented. The assembly elections in 2017 left the SAD decimated as it won only 15 of the 70 seats. It was the party’s worst-ever tally.
Dera’s role in sacrilege: How and why
The special investigating team (SIT), headed by DIG Ranbir Singh Khatra, says the trigger of the sacrilege by dera followers was the tussle they had with Sikhs in the region.
In March 2015, tension gripped Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village over a gathering of a Sikh preacher, Harjinder Singh Manjhi, who used to criticise the Sirsa dera head. Dera followers opposed his gathering and the matter reached the police.
The issue was resolved with the understanding that Manjhi would not speak against the dera head. But on the third day of his discourse, Manjhi convinced some dera followers in his gathering to shun the sect. They followed suit, throwing lockets containing the dera head’s photo on the ground.
This rattled local leaders of the dera and they decided to avenge the disrespect to Ram Rahim.
“Ena ne sada guru pairan vich roleya, asin ena da guru pairan vich rolange (They insulted our religious head, we will insult theirs),” was the reaction of the kingpins of the sacrilege incidents, Mohinder Pal Singh Bittu, Pardeep Kaler and Harsh Dhuri.
Bittu was asked to plan the retaliation. He chose Burj Jawahar Singh Wala to steal the Guru Granth Sahib as Manjhi’s discourse was held there.
Retracing the crime
The SIT found two dera followers, namely Sukhjinder Singh, alias Sunny, of Kotkapura and Randeep Singh, alias Neela, of Faridkot executed the conspiracy.
On June 1 2015, Sunny and Neela rode a motorcycle to dera follower Gurdev Singh’s shop facing the gurdwara. Gurdev signalled them to go ahead. Neela stole the holy book and en route to Kotkapura met Nishan Singh, Baljit Singh, Shakti and Ranjit Singh Bholla who were waiting in an Alto car.
Shakti and Baljit took the holy book in the car to the naam charcha ghar at Kotkapura. Later, the saroop was hidden at Baljit’s second house at Sikhanwala village, where he stored junk items.
On September 24, using the film, MSG-2, as a ploy to hurt sentiments of the dera, the accused pasted posters challenging the Sikh community. On October 12, Sunny, Nishan, Baljit, Ranjit and Shakti met at Kotkapura. Baljit brought Guru Granth Sahib from his house in a car.
At Dhilwan village, they cut the pages with a paper cutter and scattered them at Bargari and Burj Jawahar Singh Wala. The rest of the pages were handed over to Bittu and were thrown in a local drain.
“The coincidental correlation between the sacrilege and the affixing of posters, spreading of angs is too apparent to show the dera link in the crime. MSG-2 was released on September 16 all over India. Around this time, the move was initiated to organise pardon for the dera head. This could not have taken place suddenly. On September 24, the posters came up and the same day the pardon was granted,” says the Ranjit panel. “All this could not be ignored easily,” the panel adds.