Chandigarh: Punjab Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu — recently at the centre of an intra-party churning that ultimately dethroned his bete noire and former chief minister Amarinder Singh — is unhappy with present Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi.
At the heart of this discontent is Sidhu’s objection to the appointment of Punjab DGP and a senior law officer who, he believes, played controversial roles in the “sacrilege cases” that took place in 2015.
These cases — incidents of desecrating the Sikh holy book — have had long-winding and politically impactful probes, even implicating former power holders, the Badals.
Sidhu is angry with the appointment of Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota as Punjab’s Director General of Police (DGP), an officer he believes “acted at the bidding of the Badals and compromised the investigation”.
He has also questioned Channi for appointing A.P.S. Deol as Advocate General (AG). Deol represented former DGP Sumedh Singh Saini, whom a judge’s report held culpable for firing on crowds protesting the sacrilege incidents.
What were these events and why are they relevant in Punjab’s polity nearly seven years after they took place? Why does Sidhu think Channi is not taking these cases seriously, and even resigned as the Punjab Congress chief protesting the “inaction”. ThePrint explains.
‘Sacrilege’ incident at Burj Jawahar Singhwala
On 1 June 2015, the Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from a gurdwara in village Burj Jawahar Singhwala in Faridkot.
The holy book, as ordained by the last and tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, is considered a “living guru”. Stealing or damaging it amounts to sacrilege of the highest order in the Sikh religion.
An FIR was lodged but the Bir (physical copy of the Guru Granth Sahib) was not found. This led to protests in the area. On 11 June, protesters marched to the village police station. The then Faridkot senior superintendent of police Charanjit Sharma placated the crowd saying a probe was on. But it did not yield any result.
Pardon to Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim
Presuming it was a one-off incident, the then Akali-BJP government led by Parkash Singh Badal and son Sukhbir focussed on improving their poll prospects. They were busy wooing Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who had legions of followers in the state. His sect has always been considered an important vote bank.
Ram Rahim, now in jail for two rapes and a murder, then fancied himself as a movie star and had launched his second film Messenger of God 2 (MSG-2). The film did not get an opening in Punjab after protests by Sikh bodies.
Ram Rahim has been in the crosshairs of Sikhs ever since 2007 when he dressed as Guru Gobind Singh and “baptised” followers. The incident saw violent clashes between Sikhs and Dera followers.
In May 2007, the Akal Takth, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs, issued a hukumnama (religious edit) against the Dera chief declaring him guilty of blasphemy. The Takht ordered that he be socially boycotted.
Some half-hearted attempts were made by Ram Rahim to apologise but these were rejected.
But the Badals were keen to have Ram Rahim on their side as they headed into the 2017 assembly polls.
That is why their influence was suspected when on 24 September 2015, the Akal Takht pardoned the Dera chief for the 2007 blasphemy incident.
Sacrilege incidents in Bargari
The next day, in Burj Jawahar Singhwala and another village just four kilomteres away, Bangari, residents noticed handwritten posters slapped on their walls. These had derogatory references to the Guru Granth Sahib as well as objections to the ban on the release of MSG-2. The posters were removed and handed over to the police and another FIR was registered.
Within days of the pardon, the Dera chief’s film too was all set to be released in Punjab.
Unrest grew among Sikhs as Ram Rahim found himself back in favour. The Badals came in for widespread criticism.
Sikhs believed that the Badals used their considerable clout over the Akal Takht to wrangle a pardon for Ram Rahim. As anger simmered, the third incident occurred.
On 12 October 2015, over 100 pages torn out of a Guru Granth Sahib were found scattered in front of the Bargari gurdwara. Another FIR was lodged and the Sikh community became more impatient for the law to catch the culprits.
Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan firing
Carrying the torn pages, Sikh religious leaders marched to Kotkapura town, 20 kilometers away from Bargari, on a pucca dharna (permanent sit-in protest) in the middle of the town.
Protests broke out in other parts of Punjab over the missing Bir and these torn pages (angs).
The next day, on 13 October, clashes took place between protesters and the police in Moga, leaving 19 injured.
On 14 October — despite talks between cops and protesters to peacefully end the Kotkapura sit-in — the police suddenly fired on the crowd, leading to a massive clash. Sixty people were injured.
A few hours after the Kotkapura firing, a team led by Charanjit Sharma was trying to quell a protest in nearby village Behbal Kalan. Here too the police fired at the crowd and two Sikh youth were killed on the spot.
In both firings, the police registered cases against protesters, arresting several.
On the day of the firing, the government set up a judicial commission — headed by retired high court judge Zora Singh — to inquire into the incidents, hoping the move would calm the community.
Following these incidents, multiple instances of “sacrilege” were reported from different parts of the state. Widespread protests broke out against the Badal government for not being able to find those behind the desecration. Protesters demanded action against the police for the firing.
Sahotas’a questionable actions in probe
On 21 October, a police team probing the Bargari incident claimed a breakthrough by arresting two Sikh youth — Rupinder and Jaswinder of Punjgrain village, Faridkot.
The team was led by Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota, now DGP. Sahota claimed the two men had links abroad and were paid to desecrate the holy book. After a severe backlash, the police had to release the two men due to lack of evidence.
Navjot Singh Sidhu has now alleged that Sahota was taking orders from the Badals to find a scapegoat for the “sacrilege crimes”, instead of finding the guilty.
Damage control fails
As the situation spiralled out of control, the Badals fought a losing battle with hasty measures.
First, Ram Rahim’s pardon was revoked by the Akal Takht on 16 October.
Arrested protesters were let off, and cases were registered against unknown cops for the firings. On 25 October, then DGP Sumedh Singh Saini was replaced by Suresh Arora.
Sahota’s investigating team was disbanded within 20 days and in November the Badal government handed over the probe in the “sacrilege cases” to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Another team, headed by then Deputy Inspector General, Bathinda, Ranbir Singh Khatra was formed to probe other incidents of sacrilege.
The Justice Zora Singh commission submitted a report in June 2016, recommending compensation to family members of those killed in police firing. No attempt was made by Zora Singh to fix responsibility for the desecrations or police firing.
The CBI couldn’t find the culprits and the “sacrilege cases” became a major issue in the 2017 assembly polls.
The Akalis won only 15 seats in the 117-seat assembly, while the Congress, led by Captain Amarinder Singh, registered a stunning win.
The Congress promised to put behind bars those behind the desecration, including the Badals.
Amarinder Singh’s tenure begins well
Within a month of becoming the chief minister in April 2017, Amarinder commissioned another inquiry into the desecrations and firing to retired high court judge Ranjit Singh.
The then DIG Ranbir Singh Khatra, who was probing the peripheral cases of sacrilege, also announced a breakthrough. In June 2018, Khatra’s team arrested a prominent Dera follower Mohinder Pal Bittu.
Khatra’s team claimed Bittu, along with other followers, had stolen the Bir, put up the posters and torn and strewn the 100 pages.
Bittu was arrested, and less than a year later, two Sikh inmates killed Bittu in jail. The Dera chief was made a co-accused in the case last year.
Justice Ranjit Singh submitted his report in August 2018. He found the Badals and then DGP Saini responsible for the police firing. Justice Singh added that followers of the Dera had not been arrested during the Akali regime because their vote was important.
Fresh investigation: Sacrilege cases
Based on the findings of the report, two key decisions were taken — the Punjab Police would take over the three cases from the CBI, and fresh FIRs would be lodged against those responsible for the police firing. The Congress rejoiced at the decisions, happy that the Badals would be further embarrassed.
But the CBI refused when asked to return the sacrilege cases, rushing instead to submit a closure report.
To the Congress, it looked like a move by the NDA to help their then ally, the Badals.
Following a long-protracted battle during which the CBI withdrew the closure reports, the Punjab government managed to secure the investigation into the three sacrilege cases last year. These were handed over to Khatra.
In January this year, an accused petitioned that Khatra was biased. The high court ordered that he be replaced by another officer to head the investigating team.
Inspector General S.P.S. Parmar took over from Khatra and started afresh. He reached the same conclusion and re-arrested the same men as Khatra’s team.
The team concluded followers of the Dera had desecrated the Guru Granth Sahib to take revenge for an insult heaped on the Dera chief by a Sikh religious preacher.
While the investigation into the sacrilege cases is largely complete, the Dera chief and his associates are yet to be prosecuted.
Fresh investigation: Firing cases
To probe the police firing, another special team was set up under IG Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh in August 2018. While an old FIR of October 2015 was retained for the Behbal Kalan firing, a fresh FIR was registered in the Kotkapura incident.
Singh, who has since left the police and is now the Aam Aadmi Party’s likely candidate from Amritsar, claimed he had completed the probes into the incidents.
Apart from the officers on duty on the day of the firings, Singh’s team also held responsible the Badals and then DGP Saini.
Navjot Singh Sidhu’s grouse
The Advocate General appointed by Chief Minister Channi, A.P.S. Deol, was Saini’s advocate who tried to bail him out in these FIRs.
Sidhu’s objection is on this ground. As AG, Deol has to defend the state in the firing cases. At the same time, he being Saini’s advocate, fighting against the government is a clear case of conflict of interest, Sidhu has said.
After Sidhu resigned over this issue last week, the Channi government appointed senior advocate R.S. Bains as the special public prosecutor to defend the police firing. It is now out of Deol’s jurisdiction.
The firing cases are crucial as the court in April had trashed the findings of Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, and also remonstrated him.
Congressmen were angry at Amarinder Singh after the court’s observations, holding him responsible for not taking interest in the cases. This disquiet, fuelled by Sidhu, triggered the move to replace Amarinder.
The Channi government, now, faces the huge challenge of bringing these cases to their logical conclusion before assembly elections early next year.