Chandigarh: For a party that swears by its “secular” credentials, the Congress has focused its entire Lok Sabha campaign in Punjab, where it is in power, on three purely religious issues — the Guru Granth Sahib, the golak (a box in which gurudwara offerings are collected) and gurudwaras.
Congress leaders, in meeting after meeting, have targeted the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) over the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 and the party’s hold on the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), through which, the Congress alleged, the Akalis controlled Sikh shrines (the gurudwaras) and allegedly misused gurudwara offerings (collected in the golak).
Led by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, the aggressive Congress campaign promised to make Akalis “pay for their sins” and free gurudwaras and golaks of their control.
The Akalis, though, are not amused by the Congress posturing.
“The Congress, which came to power in early 2017 after 10 years of SAD rule, is not listing its achievements of the past two years, even as it claims to have given jobs to thousands of youth, curbed the drug problem in the state apart from having waived loans of scores of farmers,” said Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema, SAD general secretary.
“It is ironical. A so-called secular party is talking only about panthic issues and the panthic party the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is asking about unrepaired roads, missing old-age pension, unemployment and lack of health and education facilities.”
Badals in the firing line
The Congress holds the Badals, who control the Akali Dal, accountable for failing to take action against those responsible for the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs which is considered to be a living guru. The Akalis had been in power when the desecration incidents occurred.
The two parties have also traded charges after Union Minister Harisimrat Badal, who is fighting to retain her Bathinda seat, staged a protest in the constituency Saturday after her election meetings in a village were disrupted by a group demanding action against the Badals for the desecrations.
While the Akalis have blamed the Congress for the disruption at Harsimrat’s poll meeting, Amarinder rubbished the allegations, stating that “it was the wrath of the people that they were venting against the sufferings meted out by SAD over 10 years”. He said he was “surprised that the Akali leader was facing protests only in some villages and not all over the state”.
SAD president and Harsimrat’s husband, Sukhbir Singh Badal, said the Congress campaign was not just viciously poised against his family but also threatened to play havoc with Punjab’s hard-earned peace.
“Every issue has an expiry date but Amarinder continues to play with fire keeping the sacrilege issue alive,” he said.
The SGPC question
Another religious aspect that the Congress has clung on to is the promise to rid the SGPC of political control.
The SGPC controls historical gurudwaras across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Elections to the body are held every five years and majority of the members are Akali leaders or those supported by the Akali Dal.
At a political rally in Sangrur last month, Amarinder said that like any other Sikh, he felt strongly about freeing the SGPC of political control. He also alleged that Sukhbir summons jathedars of the Akal Takht (the highest temporal body of the Sikhs) to his house for meetings and that the SAD uses gurudwara offerings in politics.
It forced the Akalis to issue an explanation. “SGPC is no one’s personal property. Elections on the lines of parliamentary polls are held and the Sikh voters elect their representatives,” Sukhbir said.
That, however, hasn’t stopped the Congress from posturing on the issue.
“Sukhbir must be joking. The whole Sikh world knows who has the last word in appointing the SGPC president and the Akal Takht jathedar. It is Parkash Singh Badal,” said Punjab cabinet minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa. “They have looted the gurudwaras through SGPC. They use golak offerings to feed people gathered in their rallies,” he added.
“The Akali Dal has always used religion for political gains and when the time came to stand up for the religion and punish those responsible for the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib, they failed,” added Congress MLA Kuljeet Nagra. “As Sikhs who have utter respect for Guru Granth Sahib we have the right to point this out and every forum.”
The Congress borrowed the idea of freeing the SGPC of political control from AAP MLA and former leader of opposition H.S. Phoolka. A long-standing lawyer for victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Phoolka resigned from the AAP to launch a non-political outfit that has been working towards freeing SGPC of political control.
But this Congress strategy, however, may not get the desired results.
“For the common man, the one real issue is how to better his life. But when we go to election rallies, we are made to feel upset over sacrilege, gurudwaras etc,” said Gurpreet Singh a furniture mall owner in Amritsar. “It’s not even in our minds. Such politics divides people,” he added.
“Remember what the Congress used to chide the Akalis for?” asked Amarjeet Singh, a resident of Ghanaur. “That they take refuge in panthic issues when they are bereft of anything to show to the electorate. The same is happening with the Congress in Punjab.”