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OP-ED: Religious Upheaval Dented Akalis’ Credibility in Punjab

October 22, 2015 | By

The ruling Akalis are now facing some sort of social boycott by the Sikhs in Punjab. The piled up anger of Sikhs against the power-drunk Akali leaders, particularly the Badal family, has poured out on the streets and roads of Punjab resulting in a several day long road blockades causing a total disruption of normal life. And the rulers found it hard to check the eruption of mass hysteria which forced the Akali leaders to shut themselves indoors under official security umbrella. A hundred odd villages in Faridkot district have displayed hoardings warning the political against their entry there.

A view of Dharna by Sikhs

A view of Dharna by Sikhs

Never before, as of now the Akali Dal has suffered such a loss of credibility and social acceptance among the Sikhs for whose political protection the Dal was floated in 1920s. Thought the ruling Badal family allowed the nominal entry of the Punjabi Hindus in the party to broaden the party’s electoral base in late 1990s but it has , predominantly, remained it rural-based political outfit of the Sikhs .

The Akalis always sought to retain their control of the Sikh religious institutions including the Akal Takht ( a temporal authority ) by winning election to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) that runs Sikh religious affairs. Hold on the SGPC has , invariably, empowered the Akalis ( now read, the Badal family) to manipulate sensitive religious issues to achieve their vested political ends like retaining a grip on the Sikh masses.

But after acquiring every conceivable source of power the Badals, now keen to strengthen its vote bank for the coming 2017 Punjab assembly elections, maneuvered the Akal Takht Jathedar to pardon the Dera Sucha Sauda head of his religious misconduct. Earlier, the Badals made the then Jathedar to issue ‘hukamnama’ (edict) ordaining the Sikhs to socially boycotted the Dera head in May, 2007. The Akal Takht’s recent exoneration of the Dera head effected in hush-hush manner in last September generated a strong resentment among the Sikhs. Against the Badals’ calculations, an overwhelming majority of the Sikhs openly criticized the Akal takht Jathedar as well as the Akali bosses for being instrumental in giving religious reprieve to the Dera head.

Parkash Badal and Sukhbir Badal [File Photo]

Parkash Badal and Sukhbir Badal [File Photo]

The resentment over the exoneration move added to the already piled up Sikh anger against the Badals as a consequent to various previous happenings during their 7-8 year long rule. Most of the occurrences have been perceived as the ruler’s ‘excesses’ because of the haughty behavior of the Badal’s , particularly that of Sukhbir Singh Badal, their indulgence in rampant corruption and showing of total unaccountability towards the Punjabis who voted them to power.

The Badals have monopolized all conceivable religious and economic powers. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh, junior Badal projects himself as CEO and nonchalantly flaunt his ‘management expertise’ in winning elections, of course, with the use of money and muscle power like other ruling families of the country. Rather, his large fleet of private luxury buses operating in Punjab has earned notoriety for rapes and road rage occurrences.

Besides that, the Punjab’s largely agriculture-based economy stagnating for past many years suffered further damage this year following ‘ white-fly attack’ on the current cotton crop. This crop loss has further aggravated with downward spiral in prices of basmati, a variety of rice forming a sizeable portion of current paddy crop in Punjab. The last wheat crop yield was also low which has shattered the economic viability of the farmers.

While the Punjab farmers have been agitating and resorting to ‘rail roko’ and road blockades for past six-seven weeks demanding compensation from the government for the crop loss , the Akal Takht went for exonerating the Dera head in last September. This move amounted to ‘adding insult to injury’ of the farmers, a majority of them happened to be Sikhs. At the same time, the Sikhs were already upset over the antics of the Dera head whose stunt movie, MSG-2, was being screened in Punjab as the state administration cowed down to the aggressive protests by the Dera followers.

On the top of it when the Sikhs were suffering from some sort of suppressed rage because of recurring religious and mundane issues, torn pages of the Sikhs holy scripture found spread in a village in Faridkot district on October 12 to be followed by such type of sacrilege at five-six other places acted like an incendiary bomb exploding wrath of the Sikhs. Overwhelming number of Sikhs perceived that the sacrilege was a handiwork of the Badals. And thereafter, the killing of two protesting Sikhs and injuring many others in police firing virtually put entire state on the boil.

Then, the spontaneous and aggressive reaction of the Sikhs became unmanageable for the administration as well as for the ruling Akalis. Even local Akali leaders came under attack and many SGPC members were chased away. Under the moral and mass pressure of the Sikhs, around 20 SGPC members resigned and several local Akali leaders publically severed their association of with the ruling Akalis. The Akalis lost their social ties and courage to talk to and soothe down the agitating Sikhs .Visibly troubled Sikhs refused to accept the leadership of any Sikh leader and even that of religious preachers. The spectre (spirit) of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwala seemed to prevail as the agitating Sikhs shouted slogans in the name of slain religious leader.

With the failure of other strategic official moves, the Punjab government, ultimately, withdrew the police to a safe distance from the protesting Sikhs to pre-empt further conflagration and deployed para-military forces in cities to checkmate the situation from taking a communal turn. The Sikhs in turmoil calmed down with the passage of time and also because the state government consciously avoided the use of force against the demonstrators thereafter.

Leaving aside the usual politicking Congress and other opposition leaders resorted to for winning the sympathy of the troubled Sikhs , the Akalis has suffered a palpable loss to their base and credibility. The lingering deeper shadow of this trouble will continue to exhibit itself in various shapes of protests for the long time to come. And the Akali Dal has been shaken up to the core and will find it difficult to resume its earlier position till the coming assembly polls, now a year away. Image of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, a heavy weight ally of the ruling BJP at New Delhi has also been dented to a greater extent.

Besides the anti-Akali stance of the present Sikh protest, a noticeable ire has been manifested against RSS at every gatherings repeatedly echoing such assertions that “ the RSS, through Badals, has managed the exoneration of the Dera head from the Akal Takht”. The current protests against the sacrilege have strengthened a perception among the Sikhs that “aligning of the ruling Akali Dal with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindutva forces has threatened the ‘distinct identity of the Sikhs”. For many Sikhs — nowhere associated with demand of Khalistan — the Badals have become synonymous with RSS and Hindutva forces for the former has been observing a conspicuous silence on minorities’ issues which , of late, have got sharpened up in the country with the open activities of RSS directed towards the establishment of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Many Sikhs intellectuals now feel that RSS has been ordaining minorities not to consume beef while it has all along been obstructing the Sikh demand for effecting a ban on smoking in Amritsar and granting the city a status of ‘holy city’ at par with Varanasi. Besides that, during the protest against sacrilege, several clips have gone viral on social media hurling accusations against RSS for latter’s alleged attempts to ‘demolish identity and culture of the Sikhs and to assimilate them in the Hindus fold’. The RSS has been trying to strengthen its front organization among the Sikhs, known as ‘Sikh Sangat’, which now headed by a former Akali MP from Sangrur.

The current Sikh protest has not thrown any leadership or any identifiable Sikh alternative to the Badal Dal but it has manifested a palpable consolidation of the Sikhs on religious and social issues. Such consolidation could be some sort of planting of a seedling which could grow to upset the political ‘apple cart’ of the Badals and their ally BJP and to give a different shape to future course politics in Punjab.

As usual, the ruling Akalis are resorting to old tactics and arrested some Sikh youths whom the police has described as key persons behind the sacrilege. Police has stretched the arrested persons link to the extremist Sikh elements living abroad. But, a majority of Sikhs are not buying this ‘foreign hand’ theory and are not in the mood to ‘absolve’ the Badals.

The Sikh upsurge also raked up some dormant but pestering issues like re-adoption of ‘Nanakshahi Sikh calendar’ that severs link between the Hindus and Sikhs on the observance of some festivals .It has questioned the legitimacy of the SGPC, becoming a quasi political body and, also its sole authority in appointing the Akal Takht Jathedar. The Sikhs living world over are pressing for holding ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ ( a broader Sikh congregation) to resolve contentious Sikh religious issues and to make SGPC truly a Sikh religious body.

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