Out of power, Akali Dal flirts with politics of religion again

In Punjab, the Badals seek to retrieve lost political ground by replacing “progress” with “Panth”. 

CHITLEEN K SETHI

“Parkash Singh Badal is a different man when he is out of power from when he is in power,” said Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh during a press conference last week. The chief minister was answering questions on the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) entrusting the Damdami Taksal to set up a gallery of portraits of militants killed by the Army during Operation Blue Star.

The CM saw an Akali hand behind the move. “The SGPC, at the behest of SAD (Shiromani Akali Dal headed by Badal), is indulging in activities aimed at vitiating the state’s peaceful atmosphere,” he said.

On June 15, SGPC’s executive committee had given the Taksal the nod to build the gallery inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Kar sewa (voluntary service) for its construction began on Thursday.

Damdami Taksal is a Sikh seminary located at Chowk Mehta near Amritsar and had, under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, spearheaded militancy in Punjab for almost two decades. The gallery, when complete, will have on its walls, 300 photographs of Bhindranwale and his associates, among others. In the second phase, it will have screens showing the storming of the Golden Temple by the Army in 1984.

This is the second such permission given by the SGPC to the Taksal. In 2013, when the SAD was ruling the state, the Taksal set up the “Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale Memorial” gurudwara in the Golden Temple premises. It was supposed to be the “Operation Blue Star Memorial”. But when the construction was completed and the plaque at the entrance unveiled, it had Bhindranwale’s name on it.

Feigning ignorance, SGPC had expressed unease at the turn of events, but the Taksal said it was always supposed to be in the name of their “slain martyr”. Allied with the BJP, SAD washed its hands off the controversy, saying it had no clue what was going on and would not interfere in religious matters.

With the SAD-BJP alliance in power, Sukhbir Singh Badal, as the party chief, and deputy chief minister consciously shifted SAD’s agenda to development. It was a tectonic shift for the Akalis with “progress” replacing “Panth”.

No less importantly, the younger Badal promoted non-Sikhs as much as Sikhs within the party. He took a clear and at times even strident stand against Sikh militancy. In the run up to the assembly elections early this year, he went to town against the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for virtually teaming up with hardliners and extremists, warning that AAP’s coming to power would lead to revival of militancy.

The situation now, is very different.

Exemplifying the change, Sukhbir and his wife union minister Harsimrat Kaur made it a point only last week to attend the launch of the Dharam Parchar Lehar (religious propagation drive) by SGPC at Talwandi Sabo. Speaking in Sukhbir’s presence, and without any demur from him, SGPC chief Kirpal Singh Badungar openly extolled Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and other “Sikh warriors” who had fought against the “tyranny of the state”.

Panthic agenda is made to sound as if we are on a path which will compromise peace in the state. We remained in power for 10 years and ensured peace in Punjab. Panth is a much larger concept than the party. SAD can never be separated from the Panth, none of us can go beyond it,” said Cheema.

No more than a fortnight before the launch, the Akalis charged out of the Punjab assembly protesting against the obituary reference to former DGP KPS Gill, accusing him of killing scores of innocent Sikh youth during the days of militancy. Not surprisingly, the SGPC supported the decision.

Earlier in June, the SGPC crossed the official boundary between religion and politics, and joined the SAD-BJP state-wide protests against the ruling Congress over various issues. Dr Daljit Singh Cheema, the party’s general secretary justified the act. “SGPC has always been a part of Punjab politics,” he said. “SGPC leaders have been a part of SAD and vice versa.”

The SAD saw an unprecedented drubbing in the assembly elections and its long-held theory of having an unstinted Sikh vote bank has come unstuck. On hindsight, many Akalis feel they paid a heavy price for ignoring Sikh issues. The Akali government was unable to catch those responsible for the incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib. Protests against the sacrilege were put down using brute force, resulting in police killings.

The public turmoil triggered by the sacrileges gave Sikh hardliners an opportunity to resurface and organise a highly successful Sarbat Khalsa, attending by almost a lakh Sikhs. SAD’s shifting stance over granting pardon to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim went against them. As if this was not enough, the Hisar based Dera suddenly announced its support for SAD on the eve of elections, proving to be the proverbial final nail in SAD’s coffin.

 

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