Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > June 09, 2007 > Punjab: Let the Clergy Stay its Hand

Mainstream, Vol XLV No 25

Punjab: Let the Clergy Stay its Hand

Saturday 9 June 2007, by Prem Singh

The recent turmoil in Punjab, which has now apparently calmed down, was caused by a photograph of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of Sacha Sauda Dera. It is significant that this photograph which appeared in some newspapers on May 13 was published as a paid advertisement. It showed the Baba attired in a dress similar to that worn by the 10th Master of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. The Baba was shown preparing what he called ‘Jam-e-Insan’ in replication of the ritual that the Guru had performed on April 13, 1699, when he prepared and imparted ‘Amrit’ to the five chosen ones and laid the foundation of the ‘Khalsa Panth’. In order to do one better the Baba imparted the ‘Jam’ to seven chosen ones.
Baba Gurmeet is the third incumbent of the Dera which owns properties in Punjab, Haryana, UP, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. These are all called Deras. Baba’s headquarter is at Sirsa in the Hissar district of Haryana. The particular incident, whose photograph provoked the Sikhs, took place at a Dera in an obscure village Salabatpur in Bathinda district of Punjab. It serves as the regional coordinating centre for the Baba’s various Deras in Punjab.

When some Sikhs on May 14 took out a protest demonstration and burnt an effigy of the Baba in Bathinda, they clashed with the supporters of the Baba who retaliated with lathis smashing vehicles and staging rowdy protests in the streets. Thereupon the Akal Takht chief, Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti, called a meeting of the five head priests at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda district to consider the whole question. At this small town is situated one of the five venerated Takhts of the Sikhs. It was not simply a meeting of the head priests. Jathedaar Vedanti had given a call for a massive public gathering and Sikhs responded in large numbers.

Newspaper reports have confirmed that it was at this Talwandi Sabo gathering that Sikh extremists, who have been lying low all these years, made their appearance. They brandished unsheathed swords and raised slogans of “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Bhindranwale Zindabad”. Returning from the place, groups of Sikh youth attacked Baba’s Dera at Maur Mandi, burning vehicles and thrashing the Dera workers. The police did not intervene and, instead of protecting the Dera inmates, asked them to leave the place through a back door. Meanwhile additional police force came from other districts seeing which the Sikh youth escaped the scene of clash and the Baba’s supporters were saved. The youth groups then attacked another Dera of the Baba near Sunam town in the Sangrur district. One person was killed and dozens were injured in the clash which ensued.

On May 20, the Jathedaar of the Akal Takht gave a call for Punjab Bandh on the 22nd and called upon the Baba to close down all his Deras before May 27. The Bandh on the 22nd was not entirely peaceful and there were clashes at a few places. But no major disturbance was caused nor were any big demonstrations held. At the moment of this writing the overall situation seems to have returned to normalcy and a draft statement embodying a compromise between the Sikh clergy and the Baba has been nearly finalised. The move for reconciliation was initiated by religious leaders headed by Swami Agnivesh of the Arya Samaj. The last minute hitch centered on an apology by the Baba.

But the damage to Punjab has already been done. Prominent investors have reportedly indicated that they will have to think twice before going ahead with their projects in the troubled State. Losses due to one day’s closure are also not negligible. The PEPSU Road Transport Corporation alone suffered a loss of Rs 60 lakhs on that day. It constitutes only a small fraction of the transport services of the State.

WHILE normalcy appears to have been restored, there are notable imponderables in the situation. The Jathedar of the Akal Takht has not withdrawn or even moderated his demand for vacation of all the Deras of the Baba. He even said that if these Deras are not vacated by May 27 “Sikhs themselves would get them vacated”. This was clearly a threat and only encouraged the extremists to settle the matter by the use of muscle power which would inevitably lead to violence.

Fears about a repetition of the events of the eighties and early nineties have been widely expressed. The present situation is of course vastly changed from the one when Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale called the shots leading to extremely tragic consequences. Yet certain indications cannot be ignored. Those concerned with the question of peace and harmony in this border State have to wake up to the dangers that are inherent in the situation and have already manifested themselves even if only partially.

The main danger flows from the postures of the Sikh clergy and the absence of a clear political response from the dominant partner of the ruling coalition—the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) headed by the Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal. Is it a normal development that the Akal Takht has given a call for Punjab Bandh? It has been correctly pointed out that this was unprecedented. The Takht can claim to represent the religious interests of the Sikhs but it can issue a ‘hukumnama’ only for the Sikhs and not for the Hindus who constitute a very large segment of Punjab’s population. Nevertheless the latter also observed the Bandh on May 22, partly because their own resentment about Baba’s imitation of the Guru was as strong as that of the Sikhs, but also because they did not want to invite the ire of the extremist Sikhs. Herein, the Takht Jathedar exceeded his authority and created a first-rate crisis for the Akali-BJP coalition government.

The Jathedars of the five Takhts are all paid employees of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) which in the present case is under the complete control of Parkash Singh Badal. The Akal Takht acquired its unique status by tradition and not by an edict of a Guru or on the basis of the Sikh scripture, the Granth Sahib. The Akal Takht deserves all the respect of a devout Sikh because it was founded by the Sixth Guru, Hargobind. For the rest it is just another historical Sikh shrine like dozens of others, most of which are associated with either of the ten Gurus. These shrines work under the SGPC which itself was the creation of the Akali movement of the early twenties of the last century.

The Akali leadership has always insisted that religion and politics are inseparable for Sikhs and have referred to the example of the Sixth Guru who wore two swords—one of ‘miri’, that is, representing temporal power and the other of ‘piri’, that is, representing spiritual power. In modern times the Akali leaders have heavily relied on the ‘miri’-‘piri’ concept but they have offered no explanation of the fact that the Tenth Guru, a grandson of the sixth Guru, while initiating the ‘Khalsa Panth’ did not refer to this concept nor did he ordain that ‘Singhs’ would wear two swords. In recorded history there is nothing to suggest that he asked the ‘Panth’ to seek guidance from the Akal Takht. The circumstances were such that he did not make even a visit to this shrine.

The tradition of the Akal Takht has not been uniformly maintained by the Sikh community itself. When Sant Bhindranwale occupied it in December 1983, there was no sanction for the same from the SGPC, the legal custodian of the shrine. It only acquiesced in the act, because it leaders were afraid of the armed followers of Bhindranwale who was already ordering selective killings. He despoiled the shrine by making it his personal abode and by storing weapons and ammunition there. It was in violation of another tradition dating from the eighteenth century when Sikh chiefs of the ‘Misals’ were required to deposit their weapons before entering the shrine.

PUNJAB once again needs to the saved from unprincipled politicians who are moreover corrupt to the core and are facing criminal and other charges and are also under investigation. To their eternal shame they begged for support from the Baba for the last Assembly election. Baba’s support to the Congress helped the party in saving its base in the Malwa districts. It has been openly alleged that the real reason for the present crisis is that the Baba did not oblige the Akali Dal (Badal). Of course, the Baba’s indiscretion provided the excuse.

Again, is it normal that the leadership of the Akali Dal (Badal) held its first meeting only after the crisis appeared to have practically blown over? Its Acting President, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the son of the Chief Minister, was absent from the country. The Chief Minister, while agreeing to take legal action against the Baba for hurting the religious sentiments of the Sikhs, also added his voice to the demand of the Akal Takht that the Baba should apologise. This was entirely uncalled for.

Why has the Baba been able to acquire such a large mass following? This is a question for the social scientists to ponder. The Baba is not known for a deep knowledge of religions or for any learned discourses to his followers. For good or for bad there are no legends associated with his name or that of his Dera suggesting any spiritual powers. And yet those who flock to his Deras are in lakhs. At least one reason for this that observers of the situation have suggested is the phenomenon of social ostracisation in the Punjab countryside. It is not surprising therefore, that by far the largest number comprise of the Scheduled Castes who have been repelled by the Sikh Jats’ domination of the village life. There have been instances where villagers belonging to the Scheduled Castes have been discouraged by the Jats from worshipping at their gurdwaras. Such a situation has led to Scheduled Caste members setting up their own separate gurdwaras. But those who could not do so have turned to various godmen, the Baba being the more prominent among them.

Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and members of his Dera are facing criminal charges like murder and rape. Rumours abound suggesting that the Baba resorted to the trick of replicating the example of the 10th Guru with the deliberate intention of provoking a clash with the Sikh clergy to divert public attention and delay prosecution. If the Sikh clergy and the Akali Dal (Badal), which is commanding them, allow the law to take its course the situation in Punjab can stabilise. This is in the best interest of the Punjab Government also because an atmosphere of tension can damage the prospects of development in the short run and can even destabilise the Akali Dal-BJP coalition government in the long term.

By avoiding mediation and himself offering an apology to the Tenth Guru, the Baba has once again scored over the Sikh clergy. They cannot take the position that they reject the apology, because they cannot have an authority superior to that of the Guru. Thus they have been forced to climb down. The ultimatum of May 27 has already passed. So unless the Akali Dal (Badal) once again yields political space to the extremists, the crisis is virtually over. One does not expect Parkash Singh Badal to take the road to political suicide.

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