The two main opposition parties in Punjab have latched on to the issue in a bid to improve their 2019 electoral prospects.
Chandigarh: In the run-up to the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the two main opposition parties in Punjab — the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Aam Aadmi Party — have reignited the politicking over the emotive 1984 anti-Sikh riots issue.
Tuesday saw two Youth Akali Dal leaders arrested for allegedly vandalising a bust of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Ludhiana. The two sprayed black paint on the bust and painted its hands red, blaming Gandhi for the riots.
Virtually owning up to the act, an unapologetic SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal tweeted that while the Congress “refused to rescue” Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, it swiftly acted against those who had blackened the bust.
Cong govt & Gandhi family refused to let police/army come to rescue of 8000 Sikhs butchered in Delhi in 1984. Today when ‘84 victim families blackened Rajiv Gandhi’s bust in Ldh Pb govt realised need to move swiftly agnst Sikhs & make imm arrest in the case. Such is Cong justice.
— Sukhbir Singh Badal (@officeofssbadal) December 25, 2018
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh responded, saying Sukhbir should apologise to the people of the state for “the obnoxious act”. He added that the Akalis were now desperate to win public support after their troubles with their core Panthic voter base.
An eroding vote-bank
Amarinder is not entirely wrong in his assessment. There is a growing perception that beginning June, the Akali Dal’s appeal among its core vote-bank — the Sikhs — has severely depleted.
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It has largely to do with the report of the Justice Ranjit Singh (retd) Commission that held the Akali leadership responsible for not acting against those who had allegedly desecrated the Guru Granth Sahib during the party’s tenure in the state in 2015.
The commission, which was set up by the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government when it came to power in early 2017, also held the then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and deputy, Sukhbir, for allowing the police to fire at protesting Sikhs demanding justice for the desecrations. Two Sikh youth were killed in one such firing.
Accentuating the Akalis’ troubles is the virtual implosion of the party with some of its old guard breaking away to form their own outfit. Aware that the party is losing its Panthic sheen, the Badals recently apologised to the Sikh community and served traditional punishment at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, washing utensils and polishing shoes.
Sikh-centric cause to espouse
With the Lok Sabha elections due next year, to say that the Akalis in Punjab are on the back foot is an understatement. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots issue provides the Akalis with much need political fillip as it invariably puts the Congress in the dock.
The party appears aware of it. In early November, it observed ardas divas at the five Sikh Takhts (temporal seats) to seek justice for the families of the riot victims, while Sukhbir along with his wife, Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, led a protest march from the Gurudwara Pratapganj in New Delhi towards Sonia Gandhi’s residence. They were, however, detained at the Parliament Street police station.
Barely a fortnight later, Akali MLA from Rajouri Garden in New Delhi, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, slapped one of the convicts of the riots when the latter was being taken to the lock-up inside the Patiala House Courts premises.
During the winter session of the Punjab assembly in the second week of December, the Akalis protested against the Congress decision to appoint Kamal Nath as the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister. Akalis raised slogans and walked out over the issue even as Amarinder alleged that they were politicising the riots.
Akalis credit BJP for justice
On 17 December, when the Delhi High Court awarded a life sentence to former Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for his alleged role in the riots, the Akalis were quick to credit their allies — the BJP —for reopening the cases against the accused.
Sukhbir had then tweeted that the verdict laid bare the “Congress conspiracy” to target Sikhs.
Congress conspiracy to target & massacre Sikhs is being unearthed finally with Delhi HC convicting Gandhi family right hand man Sajjan Kumar in #1984SikhGenocide case. This is direct result of PM Modi’s initiative to form SIT which reopened ‘84 cases to ensure justice to victims.
— Sukhbir Singh Badal (@officeofssbadal) December 17, 2018
In August, Sukhbir had launched a frontal attack on Rahul Gandhi saying that he was “mentally incompetent” for the comments that he made about the riots. Rahul Gandhi was speaking at an event in London and reportedly backed away from accepting that his party was responsible for the events in 1984.
AAP not far behind
The Akalis are not the only ones trying to draw political mileage out of the issue.
On 21 December, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-dominated Delhi assembly passed a resolution seeking to term the riots as a “genocide” and for the setting up of special fast track courts for the riot cases.
The resolution triggered a political row as it was initially reported that the House had also resolved to demand the withdrawal of the Bharat Ratna awarded to Rajiv Gandhi but AAP leaders later denied having passed any resolution with reference to the former prime minister.
The AAP also demanded a probe against Kamal Nath over allegations of his role in the riots. AAP’s Punjab MLA H.S. Phoolka, who has been fighting the cases of the riot victims for several years, said Nath had himself admitted in his affidavit that he was present at Gurdwara Rakab Ganj in the heart of the city when a mob attacked it and killed two Sikhs.
The AAP had won its only four MP seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in Punjab. However, following its humiliating debacle in the 2017 assembly polls, the party has lost immense ground in the state. Weakening its presence in Punjab are two rebel MPs and a set of six rebel MLAs led by former leader of opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira.
Both tried the tactic earlier too
The Akalis had espoused the cause of the riot victims just prior to the 2017 assembly elections in Punjab as well. A memorial for the Sikhs killed during the riots was constructed by the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee in January 2017.
The AAP, which was a strong contender in the 2017 elections, also tried to highlight the issue then. Several AAP leaders sat on a day-long hunger strike in Mohali a few months before the elections. In July 2016, the AAP government in New Delhi announced that it was carrying out repair work in colonies where families of the riot victims lived.
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