Tuesday, September 25

Chemical generation

Punjabis are poisoning themselves, according to a report in The Economist
If Indian newspaper reports are to be believed, the children of Punjab are in the throes of a grey
revolution. Even those as young as ten are sprouting tufts of white and grey hair. Some are going blind. In Punjabi villages, children and adults are afflicted by uncommon cancers.
The reason is massive and unregulated use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals in India’s most intensively farmed state. According to an environmental report by Punjab’s government, the modest-sized state accounts for 17% of India’s total pesticide use. The state’s water, people, animals, milk and agricultural produce are all poisoned with the stuff.
Ignorance is part of the problem. The report includes details of a survey suggesting that nearly one-third of Punjabi farmers were unaware that pesticides come with instructions for use. Half of the farmers ignored these instructions. Three-quarters put empty pesticide containers to domestic uses.
Yet, over 250 dense pages, the report also reveals structural problems in the state’s agricultural sector that no mere education programme could address.
Punjab was the totemic success of India’s green revolution, a leap forward in agricultural productivity during the 1960s and 1970s that ended the subcontinent’s periodic famines. It was based on the introduction of a few simple technologies—including artificial fertilisers, pesticides and better seeds. In Punjab, especially, the benefits were massive.
Between 1960 and 2005 the state’s annual food-grain production increased from 3m tonnes to 25m tonnes. Punjab, one of India’s richest states on a per capita basis, supplies more than half the country’s central grain reserves.
But the successes of the green revolution are in retreat. Punjab’s agricultural growth rate has slowed from 5% in the 1980s to less than 2% since 2000. In the past five years production of food grains has increased by 2%, and the state's population has grown by 8.6%.
“Punjab, the most stunning example of the green revolution in India, is now at the crossroads,” the report states. “The present agricultural system in Punjab has become unsustainable and non-profitable... the state’s agriculture has reached the highest production levels possible under the available technologies.”
Indeed, the technologies available to farmers are part of the problem: “Over-intensification of agriculture over the years has led to overall degradation of the fragile agro-ecosystem of the state”
In particular, massive use of nitrogenous fertilisers—which draw multiple crops from Punjab’s rather poor soil—has reduced the soil’s overall fertility and led to widespread soil erosion.
Massive application of pesticides has meanwhile extinguished some pests and insects while letting others thrive, including the American bollworm, an unpleasant cotton blight, and rice-leaf folder. Many of these survivors have developed resistance to common pesticides.
Intensive irrigation—especially from tube-wells, of which there are over a million in Punjab—has depleted the water-table. It dropped by 55cm each year between 1993 and 2003. Partly as a result, the land irrigated by canals has decreased by 35% since 1990.
Use of sewage and industrially contaminated water for irrigation has drenched Punjab’s soils in heavy metals and other poisons.
The state’s government is not entirely passive before this catastrophe. It has banned the use of several agricultural chemicals. And it has taken steps to encourage organic farming. But there is much more it could do.
In particular, it needs to scrap its populist policy—reintroduced in 2005—of providing farmers with free electricity. Though a great vote-grabber, the policy encourages farmers to pump water up from their tube-wells both day and night.
Equally disastrous is a subsidy on agricultural fertilisers, for which India’s central government is responsible. There is little hope of turning Indian farmers greener until both subsidies are ended.
Meanwhile, the report by Punjab’s government encourages farmers to alleviate the twin crises of environmental degradation and falling productivity by returning to traditional practices.
It recommends they use rice and wheat straw for mulch instead of burning it, rotate their crops, use a range of different seeds, manure their fields, and so on. In short, it recommends many of the agricultural practices that the green revolution swept away.

Friday, September 7


"Moslem refugees crowding a train that will take them from Delhi into Pakistan" read the caption of the photograph published in The Manchester Guardian on August 27, 1947

Punjab holocaust of 1947

Ishtiaq Ahmed revisits partition to note that the gangs from Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities excelled each other in inflicting cruelty on hapless men, women and children
Intelligence about private armies and sale and movement of arms and ammunition had been collected by the Punjab administration since a long time, and the fact that a very large population in Punjab had served in the army should have left no doubt that a bloodbath would occur if proper arrangements were not made to prevent it. The Sikhs could always use their kirpans as daggers. They were also better organised for the final showdown. Governor Jenkins requested at least four divisions of troops under British command to supervise the partition, but the British government replied curtly that no such divisions existed. Mountbatten remained supremely confident that Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh and others would exercise their influence in seeing to it that the partition of Punjab could be carried out peacefully without causing any displacement of people!My extensive interviews with Muslim survivors from East Punjab show that almost nobody in the rural areas had any idea that Punjab will be partitioned; much less that they will have to abandon hearth and home. Hindus and Sikhs in the villages and small towns of western Punjab were equally unaware of what lay in store for them, although half a million had moved eastwards beginning from March 1947. Conspiracy theories have surrounded the Radcliffe Award of August 17, but a serious analysis would reveal that it largely followed the "contiguous population" principle and "other factors" were only recognised partially. Thus despite Sikh and Hindu arguments about owning 75 per cent or more property in Lahore and other districts of Lahore division they were given to Pakistan including Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak; so were the canal colonies of Lyallpur and Montgomery where the Sikhs owned nearly 75 per cent of rich agricultural land. In any event, the Sikh holy city of Amritsar remained in India because Amritsar district had a non-Muslim majority. But three tehsils of the Gurdaspur district on the eastern bank of the Ravi -- Gurdaspur, Batala and Pathankot (non-Muslim majority) -- were given to India, although the district as a whole had a very narrow Muslim majority of 51.1 per cent. Thus the non-Muslim majority Ferozepur district in the southwest and Gurdaspur district (minus Shakargarh which was on the western bank of the Ravi and given to Pakistan) in the northeast and the Wagah-Attari region in the middle were connected to form an international border more or less equidistant between Lahore and Amritsar. From Lahore the border followed the Ravi upwards into Kashmir. For serious scholars of the Radcliffe Award it would be interesting to note that it corresponded exactly to the Breakdown Plan which Viceroy Wavell had sent as a top secret document to London on February 7, 1946. Wavell believed that the British should pull out quickly in case of an uprising. He had proposed a border in a partitioned Punjab, which was identical to the Radcliffe Award.From August 18 onwards hell literally broke loose, especially in East Punjab where troops from the Sikh states such as Patiala, Nabha and Faridkot were involved in the attacks. The successor governments of East and West Punjab proved thoroughly incompetent in protecting the lives of the minorities. There is abundant evidence that the administrations turned partisan on both sides. Suddenly the greatest involuntary migration in history began to take place. The Punjab Boundary Force was disbanded on September 1 as it proved to be completely ineffective and in some cases partisan. The Indian and Pakistani military then agreed to form mixed units to supervise transfer of populations. This formula worked much better and hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved, but even their best efforts proved to be grossly inadequate.From East Punjab some six million Muslims tried to cross the border into Pakistan while some four million Hindus and Sikhs moved in the opposite direction from West Punjab. According to Sir Penderel Moon 60,000 Hindus and Sikhs were killed in West Punjab and twice as many: 120,000 Muslims in East Punjab. This estimate is too low. Justice G D Kholsa claimed that at least 500,000 died, of which 200,000 to 250,000 were Hindus and Sikhs. He admitted that more Muslims were killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab. Lt-General (r) Aftab Ahmad Khan who served in the Punjab Boundary Force and then in the Pakistani force that along with Indian units escorted refugee conveys across the border, claimed in a letter to me that at least 500,000 Muslims lost their lives. I have done interviews on both sides of Punjab. There is no doubt that many more Muslims lost their lives. Between 700,000 and 800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs perished altogether. That year the monsoons were also in a bloody mood. A large number of deaths was the result of cholera, dysentery, malaria and typhoid which plagued the refugee camps and the caravans on the move. Good people from all communities helped their neighbours and friends and even complete strangers. The Khaksars did a great job in protecting Hindus and Sikhs in Rawalpindi while in Amritsar the communists will never be forgotten for saving thousands of lives. The Sikh hordes did not touch Muslims who crossed into Malerkotla State, but those just a few feet away from its borders were cut down without any mercy. Thanks to Guru Gobind Singh's instructions, the Muslims of Malerkotla were not to be harmed come what may in the future because the Nawab had not complied with the demands of the Mughals to arrest the Guru's minor sons who were passing through his State. Malerkotla is the only Muslim-majority town in East Punjab and elects one member of the East Punjab Assembly. The killing units on both sides were formed by nexuses of local political bosses, police, corrupt magistrates, badmashes (criminals), fanatical religious figures and drug addicts from all the communities. The gangs excelled each other in inflicting cruelty on hapless men, women and children. Revenge, "communal honour", loot and lust were the main factors that impelled them to commit crimes against humanity. There was nothing remotely noble about their conduct. In this regard the shameful role of communal newspaper needs to be particularly condemned. They played a most vicious role in creating the mindset that demonised and dehumanised rival communities. As far as the main leadership is concerned, we should note that a Gandhi-Jinnah peace appeal was issued as early as mid April 1947, but it did little to change the situation on the ground. Jawaharlal Nehru intervened personally to save the lives of thousands of Muslims in Batala and Jalandhar while the goondas of Sardar Patel funded bomb factories in Amritsar and elsewhere. Prime Minister Nehru and Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan together toured the two Punjabs in the last days of August trying to calm down the situation, but things had gone out of control. Although Delhi was not administratively a part of Punjab its Muslims had to bear the fallout of the Punjab bloodbath. The late Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi has written what happened to thousands of desperate Muslims who pleaded to Gandhiji to save them. He promised to do his best. Dr Qureshi notes that most of them survived and concludes that Gandhiji kept his word.
The writer is professor of political science at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Email: Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se

Friday, August 31

Punjab needs new plough to regain leadership

Punjab needs to make changes to regain its leadership role in agriculture, but is it ready to do so, ask Ashok Gulati, Ralph W Cummings Jr & Kavery Ganguly in The Economic Times, as they offer some suggestions to policymakers
Punjab’s agricultural success, dominated by wheat and rice, seems to have slowed down since the early 1990s. The sources of growth — land and yields — are reaching capacity. Wheat and rice cover over three-quarters of cropped area. Cities are expanding. Further land for agriculture is exhausted. Rice yield has almost stagnated, increasing only 0.02% annually during the 1990s, but has had some recovery since then, and wheat yield has slowed down significantly, declining from 3% annual gain in the 1980s to 2% in the 1990s, and has been negative in the early 2000s. Future income gains are likely to be confined to increases in prices. But consumption patterns are shifting away from wheat and rice. And the future is even less promising because Punjab is experiencing increasing stress on natural resources, which will further impact yields and constrain acreage. The potential answer for income augmentation is diversification — dairy, poultry, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and traditional commodities such as cotton, sugarcane, maize for feed, fodder, durum wheat, organic and basmati rice, selected pulses and their processing. Demand is robust, and economics favourable. However, farmers with relatively small quantities and limited markets face major problems, including high price and production risks, high transactions costs and high perishability in some of these. New institutional arrangements, including contract farming, co-operatives, producers’ companies and retailing are responding to those challenges. If these prosper, three things will follow: The India food chain will be radically changed, operating on a nationwide distribution infrastructure and transforming the way India shops and consumes. The huge amount of retail investment by major businesses will practically guarantee success if supplies can be obtained. There will be a rush to tie up producers to provide the supplies. However, as of now, trust between farmers and corporate companies is weak. The key challenge is who — agribusiness or farmers or both — will take the first step? But two major impediments stand in the way. First, the government has an open-ended public foodgrain management system, which is saddled with large subsidies. This, however, provides an assured market for wheat and rice and thus takes away most of the incentives for investing in infrastructure that would be more suitable to support high-value agriculture. This needs to change.
The government needs to decouple support price from procurement price, allow private sector to procure, trade and stock without any restrictions, including operations in futures markets. Second, subsidies on fertiliser, irrigation and power which arguably initially motivated farmers, especially small farmers, to adopt new technologies of wheat and rice and improve their yields have now turned perverse. These subsidies are now leading to highly unbalanced use of fertilisers, lowering water table and creating a crisis in the sustainable use of natural resources. This must change by undertaking a major exercise towards their rationalisation. A high degree of political commitment and long-term vision of Punjab is needed. Rationalisation of power and irrigation subsidies must accompany improvement in their quality of services, else it would be a non-starter. Similarly, fertiliser subsidy can be given directly to farmers through fertiliser coupons rather than through fertiliser industry. With money saved from reforming public foodgrain management and input subsidies, the government can do certain key things: Facilitate strengthening of private participation and marketing through freeing up of land lease markets, reforming the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) Act and abolishing the Essential Commodities Act. Improve environment in which high-value commodities can operate by investing in (roads and dedicated market yards) and providing incentives to the private sector to modernise infrastructure and institutions (risk mitigation strategies, insurance markets, storage infrastructure) to handle the special marketing and processing needs of high-value commodities (like cold storage, SPS, etc). Strengthen agricultural research on high-value commodities Looking twenty years to the future, we envision a very different Punjab agriculture than we see today — Punjab agriculture devoted 60% to high-value commodities and a broader mix of traditional commodities and 40% to wheat and rice; strong agricultural research at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) on HVCs; modern processing plants located throughout the state; bakery hubs around major mandis; processing and retailing institutions such as business-oriented co-operatives, contract farming and supermarkets linked to farmers; and fast-moving infrastructure, including cold storage chains, improved highways/rail lines and an international airport. Punjab is clearly at the crossroads. All incentives are stacked in favour of wheat and rice. The situation is not yet at a crisis. Incomes are stagnating in the near-term. However, in the longer term, changing demand and deteriorating environment will lead to progressively decreasing incomes. Can Punjab make the needed changes to regain its leadership role in agriculture?
(Gulati is director in Asia; Cummings is a freelance consultant; and Ganguly is a research analyst at International Food Policy Research Institute)

Wednesday, August 29

Punjab’s ‘empty coffers’

Instead of seriously applying corrective measures, the political leadership is taking an easy route of indulging in blame games whereas both the regimes failed to apply fiscal discipline leaving no money for development and embroiling state in virtual debt trap, asserts Dr. S.S. Johl in The Tribune
It has become a compulsive reactive norm for all political parties in India that while in opposition they would oppose every good or bad action of the government and when in power, would shift the blame of their non-performance on the previous government.
This is particularly so at the level of provincial governments. Taking Punjab as an illustration, the state is in virtual debt trap today. Government machinery, comprising politicians and employees has become self serving. The revenue expenditure has been constantly exceeding the revenue receipts for the last two decades and has now reached disquietening levels.
The government borrows heavily to fill the gap between revenue receipts and revenue expenditure in order to pay salaries, pensions, interest on debt and meet other committed expenses. There is virtually no money left for development.
Day by day the state finances are taking deeper and deeper plunge. Instead of going serious to apply corrective measures, the political leadership is taking an easy route of indulging in blame games.
“The previous government emptied the coffers” was the charge repeatedly made by the previous Parkash Singh Badal government. The subsequent Congress government raised the pitch of this statement and now the Akali-BJP government has picked up the threads again and is repeatedly blaming the previous government for the financial mess created during its regime leading to “empty coffers”.
Let us look a bit analytically at the mess created by these two regimes. The state started witnessing an annual revenue deficit from the financial year 1987-88 with revenue expenditure exceeding the revenue receipts by Rs. 229.02 crore. The revenue deficit never looked back thereafter.
When the previous Akali-BJP government took over in 1997, the revenue deficit was Rs 1,357.06 crore (in 1996-97). In their first budget of 1997-98 they raised it to Rs. 1,483.90 crore. By 2001-02, the revenue deficit increased to Rs. 3,781.19 crore.
In the five-year regime, the total revenue deficit amounted to Rs. 12,958 crore. This works out to an average annual excess expenditure of Rs. 2,591.60 crore on revenue account over the revenue receipts.
The Congress government started with the budgeting of revenue deficit at Rs. 3,753 crore, marginally lower by Rs. 27.25 crore from the previous year deficit of the Akali-BJP regime. This government brought the revenue deficit down to 2,190.60 crore in the budget of 2006-07. Yet, the Congress government incurred a revenue deficit of Rs. 15,138.30 crore in five years, clocking an average revenue deficit of Rs. 3,027 crore per annum.
With this mounting annual revenue deficit, the total debt stock of the state increased from Rs. 15,250 crore in 1996-97 to Rs. 32,496 crore in 2001-02 during the previous Akali-BJP regime.
This piling up of the debt stock occurred despite the fact that the Central government and the Finance Commission waived the special term loan amounting to Rs. 2,433.74 crore in three years from 1997-98 to 1999-2000.
Thus the Akali-BJP government increased the debt stock of the state by Rs. 17,246 crore in spite of this waiver. By the time the Congress government demitted the office this year, the debt stock of the state had risen to Rs. 47,801 crore.
This government added Rs. 15,305 crore to the debt stock of the state in the five years of their governance. Now the Akali-BJP government, while whipping the previous regime for “emptying the coffers”, itself has budgeted an addition of Rs. 4,963 crore to the debt stock of the state raising it to a level of Rs. 52,764 crore.
These borrowings by the successive governments have landed the state into a situation of virtual debt trap. The annual burden of interest on debt stock of the state which was Rs 161.19 crore in 1987-88, when the state started showing revenue deficit, rose to Rs 1,634.44 crore in 1996-97.
Both the regimes failed to apply fiscal discipline and are equally responsible for the financial stress on the public exchequer. This is a typical case of the pot calling the kettle black and it is being done with impunity.
There is nothing like trunks and coffers that get filled up by one regime and emptied by the other. It is not that political leaders do not understand it, but they are unable to restrain themselves from this blame-game and thereby befooling the masses endlessly.
If the parties in power have the interest of the state in their priorities, they must resort to fiscal discipline. For instance, on expenditure side, administrative structure must be rationalised, downsized and made more efficient. Corporations and public enterprises running into constant losses that are not capable of making any profit, must be wound up, the committed expenditure must be rationalised and reduced. Subsidies must be targeted to the really deserving beneficiaries and every expenditure must undergo an impact analysis.
Above all, the political burden on the exchequer must be reduced, which is a heavy cost on account of accommodating party politicians in positions like parliamentary secretaries, chairmen of corporations and boards etc and police security be reduced from a status-symbol to the bare necessity.
On the revenue side, the tax structure must be rationalised, the revenue leakage and tax evasion must be checked. Accountability of the tax collectors be ensured and tax payers be treated with respect. The introduction of a credible social security system for the taxpayers can go a long way in boosting the state revenue receipts.
These are quite feasible options, but require a change in the mindset from myopic politics to statesmanship that will entail long-range vision and political will to take hard decisions, that are utterly lacking in our political class of today.

Tuesday, August 28

All in a Day's Work

Besides other household chores women folk have to arrange for fuel too. Whole family chips in, including children. pic: jaypee

Saturday, August 18

Heroes & Villains

The Weekly Outlook in its special issue India at 60 assembled a list of 60 people to represent sixty years of the Republic as its heroes. It duly mentions hockey great Balbir Singh, writer Khushwant Singh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Raj Kapoor among these. But for anyone looking for Punjab connection its not the inclusion of these four that makes the list interesting, it’s the list of villains. It includes Bhinderawala along with the assassins of Indira Gandhi as well as HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler.
Manmohan Singh
The Post-Gandhian
He is more than just the architect of India’s economic reforms. In an era of corruption, his personal life is above reproach. In a time of intellectual bankruptcy, he tries hard to make ideas fashionable. In a period of bitterly polarised positions, he stands for consensus.

Balbir Singh
Magic Stick
He symbolises the Golden Age of Indian hockey. As centre-forward, he was part of the team that won Olympic Golds in 1948, 1952 and 1956, and Asian Games Silvers in 1958 and 1962. He was also an inspired coach, who took India to World Cup victory in ’75.

Raj Kapoor
Independent India’s first film icon, this consummate showman’s appeal captured audiences from China and Moscow to Cairo and Timbuktu—his cultural diplomacy for India was unparalleled. In the ’50s and ’60s, his roles projected a sense of idealism, hope and confidence, and the dream of bridging social, economic and political inequalities, something that struck a special chord in the newly independent nation.

Khushwant Singh
A pioneering historian of the Sikhs, the author of a fine novel about Partition, editor, memoirist, columnist and political naif, he is a man of many parts, but he’s here as the writer who invented himself: the hard-drinking, wise-cracking, godless sardar taking on hypocrisy.


Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale
He's a reminder of how quests for religious purity can turn rabid. He emerged in the 1970s as a preacher seeking to reform the Sikhs who, swayed by prosperity and modernity, had taken to drugs and clipping their beards. This 'holy quest' inspired him to target the Nirankari sect, whom he considered untrue Sikhs, earning himself a huge following overnight. Emboldened, Bhindranwale hijacked Punjab's autonomy movement, subsequently piloting it on a flight to Khalistan. He ordered killings of Hindus as well as of Sikhs who opposed him. The nightmare lingered even after he died in Operation Bluestar in June 1984.

Beant Singh and Satwant Singh
When Indira Gandhi stepped out of her 1, Safdarjung Road residence on October 31, 1984, her scheduled appointment with British actor-director Peter Ustinov turned into a tryst with death. As she approached the wicket gate connecting her home to her 1, Akbar Road office, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh opened fire.Ustinov, years later, said, "What struck me as almost incredible was the activity of squirrels and vultures in the garden. They went on through the whole unpleasant business without interruption." But India was never the same. Indira's assassination prompted vast changes in the security architecture: its structure became mammoth, the vetting of security guards on VIP duty an elaborate, complex—even communal—exercise.

HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler
They are the Congress party triad accused of fomenting the grisly 1984 Delhi riots, during which helpless Sikhs were set upon by bloodthirsty mobs aiming to avenge the assassination of Indira Gandhi. One inquiry commission after another—the last being the Nanavati Commission—has found evidence of their complicity in what was, like the Gujarat riots, a veritable pogrom. But all the 'credible evidence' couldn't nail the trinity in any court, revealing the Indian state's propensity to align with communalism. Writer Khushwant Singh said about those days, "I felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany."

Tuesday, August 7

Politics Over Economics

Punjab, headings towards bankruptcy, deserves better governance, according to an editorial in The Tribune
That Punjab has been in a financial mess is known. But few, perhaps, expected the deterioration so fast and so soon. Media reports indicate the government has stopped making payments of TA/DA bills and discontinued provident fund withdrawals. Only salaries of employees are paid. Next year the government requires an additional sum of Rs 1,500 crore to implement the pay commission’s interim report. The crisis has deepened due to a 30-per cent decline in stamp duty collections and a 20-per cent fall in small savings. So common is tax evasion that one MNC pays more tax to the government than the entire industry in Ludhiana.
The successive governments in Punjab have survived on borrowed money. The last Badal government had left behind Rs 32,000 crore as debt. The Amarinder Singh government too borrowed heavily and pushed the state debt to Rs 53,000 crore. Having done that, it is not proper for Captain Amarinder Singh to point the accusing finger at the Badal government. Taxes are opposed, but few understand and object to loans. Besides, competitive populism has driven successive governments in Punjab to avoid imposing fresh taxes or user-charges on utilities. Instead, power and water are supplied free to a large section of society. Now the ‘dal-wheat’ scheme will cost the exchequer Rs 527 crore. Politics prevails over economics.
Some hard decisions are required which the Badal government, given its reputation for freebies, is unlikely to take. It should scrap the post of parliamentary secretary, cut down the strength of IAS/IPS officers to the sanctioned number, wind up or sell off all loss-making state enterprises, limit official trips abroad and slash VIP security. Effective governance is the main requisite. A smaller state like Haryana has a higher revenue collection than Punjab. If ongoing projects are held up on flimsy grounds and the Dera issue is allowed to vitiate the peaceful environment, why would anyone invest in Punjab?

Friday, July 27

Mismanaged State of Punjab

The Punjab story is one of mismanagement and an ostrich-like attitude towards problems, writes Ravinder Kaur, Associate Professor at IIT, New Delhi in The Times of India.
The recent Punjab election verdict clearly shows that to most ordinary citizens, there isn't much difference between various political parties. In Punjab, the politicians appear to be singularly insensitive to the problems plaguing the state. They remain busy in one-upmanship, in mudslinging and trading the same old charges and abuses. What is it that plagues the highest per capita income state of India, the green revolution's miracle state and its hard working, forever optimistic, if native people? The slowest growing economy, plateauing agricultural yields, ruined ecology, farmer suicides, unemployment, low sex ratios, dowry deaths, smack addiction. the list could go on. Whatever happened to the golden state? No doubt, two decades of disturbances and militancy took its toll. But can we lay the blame for the lack of sustainable growth on those decades? The Punjab story is one of mismanagement and an ostrich-like attitude towards problems. If we do not acknowledge our problems, they will go away, seems to be the attitude. The disaster in Punjab has been a long time in the making. For one, this is a state where economic development has not travelled hand in hand with social development. While per capita incomes rose and poverty declined and many Punjabis became obscenely rich, literacy, education and health care did not spread at the same rate. Literacy remains far below that of Kerala and even neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, which was once a part of it; there is a gap of about 15 percentage points between male and female literacy. Punjab is one of the few rich states to continue to have relatively high maternal mortality rates (178 per 1,000)- worse than Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat. Infant mortality rates are also higher than those of many other less prosperous states. The sex ratio, abysmal for a century, declined further from 882 in 1991 to 874 in 2001. The child sex ratio fell even more. Given these dismal statistics, does anyone care whether the Akalis or the Congress rule? If politicians were genuinely interested, they should have had a very sound idea of what ails Punjab, Farmers find themselves indebted. The inputs into agriculture grow more expensive leading to shallow profits when yields don't go sky-high anymore. Diversification never took off so farmers remain trapped in a wheat-rice cycle and hence at the mercy of government minimum support prices (MSPs) and subsidies. The land on which the majority of Punjabis are still dependent for a living can no longer support even two sons - hence many prosperous families are choosing to have only one child, a son.The years of the green revolution had made people smell prosperity and, for some, real luxury. People got used to living standards and ostentatious lifestyles that eventually became unsustainable. The younger generations got themselves some education but this education was not the sort that led to lucrative jobs or entrepreneurial skills. What it did achieve was to make them unfit for agriculture. The young educated man wishes to pontificate and not get out there early in the morning to supervise the farm. His old father still does that while the bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar do the actual work. The young man lounges in the courtyard, developing dangerous habits such as addiction to smack or other drugs.The drug addiction problem has reached alarming proportion in the state. The warning bells have been ringing for a while but not many have paid attention. Local newspapers are full of such reports but the national media turns a blind eye to it. Why? Perhaps because this is seen as a rich state's problem. Starvation deaths and farmer suicides evoke much more empathy and central government assistance when they take place in Andhra Pradesh or in Orissa. Shouldn't a rich state be able to handle such problems its own?There is little realisation that whole generations are going to waste, caught in the poor education, unemployment, land needing even fewer people to work on it syndrome. In villages, a majority of young boys and men are affected. Parents talk about the sons of others being addicted while refusing to accept that their own sons are in the same trap. It is always some one else's son. Boys who do not get money from parents to feed their habit threaten to commit suicide.Punjab needs to take bold and revolutionary steps. It needs to shed its 'agriculture' , 'wheat bowl' image and take a few steps for its own well-being. First, it needs to drastically revamp it education system, both public and private, and go all out for top quality education. This will make its sons and daughters see that there are other ways of making a living than begging for paltry army or public sector jobs or sending people off to foreign lands. Second, it needs to reduce gender bias so that it can make better use of its intelligent, talented and hardworking women. It needs to lower maternal and infant mortality rates and to allow its girl children to be born. It needs to create (not provide) employment through diversification, even id diversification takes place within agriculture.Let the young men and women decide whether they went to set up factories or sell tulips from their laptops. The politician needs to sell education and jobs to the Punjab peasant's sons and daughters.

Thursday, July 26

'Dalit' Gurdwara

Dalits have separate Gurdwaras in most of the Punjab villages. Here is one, in the name of Guru Ravidas, at village Narangwal in Ludhiana district.(pic: jaypee)

The threat from within

The caste-ridden Sikhs face greatest threat from within, writes Dipankar Gupta in Hindustan Times, tracing their journey from a community confident of its faith to one feeling threatened by the likes of Sacha Sauda head
Sikhs may be just 2 per cent of the population but in their self-image and deportment, it is as if they constitute 200 per cent of India's one billion. As the saying goes: "Ek Sikh barabar sava lakh." Even during the worst days of the Partition, Sikhs never felt insecure about their religion as their Hindu counterparts did, and continue to do.Why then does a small, insignificant sect like the Dera Sacha Sauda, that does not even claim to be Sikh, get mainstream Akalis and a large number of everyday Sikhs so hot and bothered? This Baba is no medieval tyrant and martyrdom of any kind would be thoroughly wasted on him. He is a minor figure whose demonising by the Akalis raised his stature and downgraded their gurus who gave up their lives in far more glorious battlefields.The question then is: How did the Sikhs suddenly turn so insecure? When did it happen and where were we all looking? Or did the lights suddenly go off in the changing room?The original Panthic Party, which later morphed into the Akali Dal after 1947, never evinced such worries either, and those were very difficult times. They regularly participated with the Congress before Independence. The party even supplied the congress with a stable of leaders from Pratap Singh Kairon to Swaran Singh. On election campaigns in undivided Punjab, the Panthic Party frequently displayed the Congress symbol along with its own. On no occasion did any of this to-and-fro movement from Panthic Party and back threaten Sikhism. Nor did the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee declare Kairon or Swaran Singh, or any of the others who took their political blood lines to the Congress, apostates or `tankhaiyas'. Sikhism had that much confidence.In 1899, when Sardar Kahn Singh Nabha wrote "Hum Hindu Nahin (We are not Hindus)," he did not castigate any other religion but just said the plain truth. The Sikhs were not Hindus and let the record state the facts. It was not as if he was prompted to write this tract because of the perceived fear that Hinduism was eating up Sikhism. In this sense he was not the mirror opposite of Swami Dayanand who took every other religion, including Sikhism, as a threat to the Hindu faith.Nabha's interjection was to remind his readers of the symbolic energies at the heart of his faith without deriding non-Sikhs, nor, even for a moment, hoping to proselytise other religions to his own. Even the Singh Sabhas and Chief Khalsa Diwan of that period were intent on crafting a separate Sikh identity and not in impressing their own thought prints on their immediate religious neighbours. Interestingly, in the 60 years after Independence, the Akali Dal has never used the Partition to evoke partisanship the way Hindu parties, and sadly, the Congress even, have done from time to time. This is indeed quite remarkable. Sikhs too had suffered along with Hindus in their migration to east Punjab and beyond. And yet, unlike Hindus, the Partition is history for Sikhs, and not a source of political energies.When I was working with re-settled rural Sikh refugees in Punjab and Haryana, what struck me the most was that they found my questions, which recalled the Partition, quite stupid. So many of these Sikhs told me to move on and not keep looking over my shoulder for monsters and chimeras of the past.That was such a relief. Hindu refugees, in general, were still agonising over the Partition and related stirring tales of their experiences during those times. Most of this recall was highly adorned as my Hindu respondents in the early 1990s were either babies or playing in the mud in knickers when 1947 happened. Some post-Partition Hindu families even held prayer meetings to solemnly remember the day they were ousted from their homes. I found none of this among Sikh refugees. It is no surprise then that even a sectarian party like the Akali Dal has no use for the Partition as a leavening political agent.Later, during the bad days of Khalistan, a large number of Sikhs felt that they were humiliated by the Indian state, but on no account did they believe that their religion was under threat. Khalistanis were, of course, baying to the contrary from the margins, but an overwhelming majority of Sikhs did not politically side with these secessionists though they were widely admired for giving the hated agents of the government a tough time. This is not an `a-ha' moment for, in spite of the trauma post-Bluestar, Sikhs were willing to look ahead the moment Prime Minister V.P. Singh visited Punjab with a healing balm.The Khalistani years, if one may call them that, however demonstrated that in times of crisis, it was not as if there were Sikhs and Sikhs. Regardless of caste and origin, all Sikhs came together. This is where the difference lies when we come to the Sikh over-reaction to Dera Sacha Sauda. There are now Sikhs and Sikhs and the lines are drawn along the grooves of caste.Most of the animus against Baba Ram Rahim came from the Malwa region of Punjab where Jat Sikhs are politically dominant. It does not matter really if Jats vote Congress today and Akali tomorrow, it would always be a fight between `lions'. Dera Sacha Sauda trampled on this territory by bringing in non-Jats to kick up dust and spoil the Jat versus Jat slugfest. This is why Baba Ram Rahim was so profoundly despised in Jat-dominated Akali circles. It was not because he was undermining Sikhism so much as using his "low caste" followers to defeat Jats in their own lair that made Baba Ram Rahim such a hated poster-boy for the Akalis. If the Congress had won without his support, that would still have been acceptable. It is not true, as the Akalis allege, that in the advertisement put out by Baba Ram Rahim he dressed like Guru Gobind. His turban did not have a `kalgi (or plume)', he was stirring Rooh Afza (or something pink) with a ladle and not with a sword (which is Khalsa tradition), and further, he was wearing pink and not blue, not even white. No icon of Guru Gobind can ever be depicted in that colour. Chhatrapati Shivaji's popular imagery looks closer to Guru Gobind than this pink spectacle. And yet many Sikhs blindly believed the Akalis when they said that Baba Ram Rahim was imitating Guru Gobind and thus mocking Sikhism. The majority of such Sikhs did not bother to verify the facts as they were primed to believe anything against him. It was their Jatness, not their Sikhness, that Baba Ram Rahim deeply hurt. In the 1980s, Hindus too eagerly believed the tale that the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was secessionist. The drive to hate always numbs the better senses.At the end of the day what is most depressing is that Sikhs are becoming caste-ridden, and more and more like Hindus. If this trend continues then Sikhism will probably find its greatest threat from within and not from figures clad in baby pink.

Monday, July 23

The dera way for Punjabis

It’s an eclectic mix of Babas offering anything from solace to miracle cures, reports Vijaya Pushkarna in The Week after visiting few deras in Punjab
With her eyes on a door 30 feet away, she rests her head against the wall of the darbar sahib of Dera Sant Baba Ram Singh Ganduanwale. Along with half a dozen sisters-in-faith, who are asleep, she awaits Puran Brahm Maharaj to open that door and give darshan to the sangat (congregation) on a hot Sunday afternoon. A couple of granthis are reading softly from the Granth Sahib in the centre of the hall. "You can sit or lie down. Nobody knows when the door will open. Are you visiting this place for the first time?" the woman from Mohali asks enthusiastically. High walls enclose the dera on the Chandigarh-Sirhind road, and after a number of questions from sevadars, one is able to enter the courtyard.Some people are lying on the grass, with their children playing nearby. There are all kinds of vehicles parked inside. A number of people are working in the langar (community kitchen), and we are asked to partake of it as we wait. The woman from Mohali says that the Baba's family has been with the Sikh gurus from the days of Guru Nanak. "Maharajji's brother, Sant Baba Ajit Singhji Hansaliwale, also has a dera, a few kilometres away. You can go there and visit the highly enlightened soul," she says. She shows posters and calendars of the two brothers who provide spiritual sustenance to thousands like her. "Even before I tell him my problem or pain, he knows it. And if he suggests a way out, you can be rest assured it will work," she says. "Though I visit a gurdwara in Mohali, everyone needs a maharaj for solving small and big problems," she adds, as she offers me a glass of lassi in the langar, where half a dozen men are waiting. When I tell them that I want to write about their devotion to the Maharaj, they clam up. One of them raises his voice and says: "Maharajji is a learned man. He has the world at his feet, and does not believe in publicity. And he has told us not to publicise our faith either. Journalists write whatever they want to. So please excuse us." The woman's tone, too, changes, but she has a suggestion. "You start coming here, and in a few weeks you will experience the miracles of Maharajji. Then you write."Tens of thousands of devotees like her flock to deras looking for a maharaj or sant baba for spiritual guidance and a magical panacea for their woes. Apart from devotees, the babas get sewa-voluntary service. Sewa can be anything from sweeping and cooking, to offerings like an air-conditioner or a few sacks of wheat. Each dera, which means a place, sports a darbar sahib, with the continuous reading of the Granth Sahib, and a langar. Most gurus interpret the Granth Sahib and preach respect for all religions. There is nothing like conversion. Alongside the Granth Sahib, people place the portrait of their Maharajji.Sant Ram Singh's dera at Neelon Bridge in Ludhiana is simply called Guru ka Langar. He quotes Guru Nanak to the faithful, who touch his feet, make an offering, and pour their hearts out. Credited with travelling across the country to propagate the teachings of Guru Nanak, the 90-year-old seer has only one message: "Only your God is real. Everything else like money, friends and family will be left behind. Do all the good you can."Joginder Singh, in his 40s, could never think of doing anything other than serving at the dera. "If people want to reach God, they need a teacher. For me that teacher is Sant Ram Singhji," he says. Ram Singh visits the dera only occasionally. Those who want to meet him go to his house a couple of kilometres away.Surjit Kaur, a little over 60, lays her infant grandson at Ram Singhji's white socks-covered feet, and tells him that he has not stopped crying for the past two days. He strokes the baby's head and tells Surjit that all will be well. "This grandson is Babaji's gift to us, to my daughter who has two daughters. We don't go to any doctor for the children as he is our doctor," she says.Why do people flock to deras, I ask Ram Singh. "People have to be guided to the Guru. It is kaliyug, and more and more people will go with the frauds, who will exploit them. I am a man of Guru Nanak and I tell people to consume neither liquor nor meat and to work hard. I tell them that apart from God, everything else will be left behind," he replies.I ask him to comment on the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda's Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh. Ram Singh replies: "I want to know what his religion is. Who is he, an udasi, a jogi, a sanyasi, a nath, a sant or a Sikh? And whose preaching is he teaching? A real mahatma never fights."As I leave, some say Ram Singhji did a 25-year-long penance before setting up the dera. I drive along the meandering roads to reach Dera Dhakki Sahib at Maksudra village of Payal tehsil in Ludhiana. Baba Darshan Singh, 43, a resident of Gharuan village in Ropar district, founded the dera in 1987, and has remained controversial all along. Three years ago the CBI indicted him and 18 followers for opening fire and attacking the villagers, who resisted the dera's encroachment on public land.Darshan Singh's supporters used to carry arms and flaunt their political connections. He himself flew in a helicopter to preach all over Punjab. And in the political battle between Akali stalwarts Parkash Singh Badal and the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra a few years ago, he is said to have sided with Tohra. An angry Badal jailed him when he became chief minister last time. Once mobs torched his dera.The starting point of Dhakki Wale Baba [Darshan Singh] may have had a lot to do with the forest land on which the dera has come up. The dera is lush with trees and scores of devotees visit the eco-friendly huts, which house the darbar sahib, the langar, and a guest house. Darshan Singh's aide Gurdeep Singh explains that Dhakki comes from the dhak tree that grows abundantly in this forest. The dera's private areas are sealed off with a grille fence. Built in the centre of an enormous earthen mound, the two-storeyed house has a cave-like entrance, which gives it the look of a sadhu's abode. Notices on trees exhort people to respect all religions. Darshan Singh does social work by helping poor girls get married, conducting de-addiction programmes and teaching Gurbani. Says Gurdeep: "Baba tells his devotees to be honest and to serve the poor. His is the role of a teacher. People are not allowed to touch his feet, or bow before him. They can do so at the darbar sahib." The controversies surrounding Darshan Singh have apparently not affected his followers. Many have travelled from distant places, unmindful of the scorching heat. Apparently many deras are unsure whether the Akal Takht wants their closure or just the winding up of Dera Sacha Sauda of Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh. At Dhakki Sahib, there is an undercurrent of fear as they are not on good terms with Chief Minister Badal.My next destination is the Dera Baba Mastanaji Maharaj near Mandi Ahmedgarh. Its Sant Baba Karnail Singh, 31, assumed the gaddi of the 18-year-old dera one and a half years ago. For 14 years, Karnail Singh was the general secretary of the Youth Shiromani Akali Dal and a trusted lieutenant of the Badals, particularly Shiromani Akali Dal working president Sukhbir Singh Badal. "My family in Canada was very devoted to Baba Mastanaji Maharaj and I used to visit this place from childhood. Eighteen months ago, he took me to the bank and made me the nominee of his assets. That night he told the sangat that I would be the spiritual inheritor of his teachings, his dera, and he passed away," says Karnail Singh as he supervises the kar seva (voluntary work) of his devotees. Karnail Singh, clad in a white pyjama-kurta, tells the sangat to stop kar seva for a while because of the heat. The doors are opened, and the people rush in. They are told not to touch his feet. After listening to their burden of woes, he comforts them and hands out prasad-a small plastic pouch of puffed rice and a tablet. "These tablets help these people a lot," says Karnail Singh showing a plastic basket full of strips of Avil and Duragesic. One is an anti-allergy pill and the other is a combo of diclofenac sodium and paracetamol. The prasad and his comforting words seem to work wonders on the devotees.Says Vimala Rani, who is in her 50s: "I had a severe eye ailment and had to undergo two surgeries in Ludhiana. But the pain continued. Three months ago, my daughter's mother-in-law told me to come here. I have been coming ever since and now I have much relief."Jasmeet Kaur, another devotee, says: "The old Maharajji knew our problems on his own. Even when doctors gave up, his cures worked. That jyot is with this young Baba, he's a true inheritor," she says

Thursday, July 19

Caste and Religion in Punjab

Case of the Bhaniarawala Phenomenon

The recent violence between Akali groups and the Dera Sacha Sauda in Punjab underscores the existence of a number of ‘deras’ in various parts of the state, which are but a manifestation of prevailing caste divisions and tensions. Dalits and other marginalised groups adhere to such deras for it promises them an alternative to mainstream, and in many respects, exclusionary Sikhism. Yet deras, especially in recent decades, have acquired strategic political overtones. This article by Meeta and Rajiv Lochan in Economic & Political Weekly looks at one such episode in Punjab’s recent religious history.

The recent clash between the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda and various Sikh organisations brought Punjab to a grinding halt for five days. Matters continue to simmer and tempers have been little alleviated even after the dera chief, bearing the multireligious name of “Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh”, was forced to offer an apology of sorts for hurting Sikh sentiments. Various Sikh organisations led by the Akal Takht, the chief temporal seat of the Sikhs, have asked the state government to take appropriate punitive action against the dera chief for having shown gross irreverence to the Sikh gurus, as the Akalis claimed. A call for the social boycott of all the followers of the dera too was issued. The dera chief was called to present himself before the Akal Takht and apologise for his sacrilegious behaviour. The dera chief, for his part, initially refused to apologise, or to present himself before the Sikhs, as he claimed that he had done no wrong. His followers went on to use the visual media to argue publicly with representatives of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), even quoting from the Sikh scriptures on live TV, in support of their sect leader. After much violence across the state of Punjab, punctuated by some extremist Sikh organisations laying a price on the head of the dera chief, the latter issued a clarification of sorts wherein he said that a misunderstanding appeared to be at the root of the hurt evinced by the Sikhs for neither had he dishonoured any Sikh guru nor had he the intentions to do so. Throughout this public face-off between the Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs one thing became clear: that the dera, its leaders and followers, would not hesitate in publicly proclaiming and practising their version of a religion. The sect’s followers have been doing so for several years now, occasionally even obtaining the support of the state government, especially when the Congress was in power. The Dera Sacha Sauda had been instrumental in the vidhan sabha elections earlier this year, as most newspapers have reported, in helping garner 20 seats for the Congress from the Malwa region. This area had hitherto been an Akali stronghold. How far the dera was responsible for Congress “victories” remains, however, a matter of speculation; what is clear, though, is that the Akalis held the dera answerable for the defeat of some of its candidates.
Once the Akalis came to form a government of their own in Punjab in 2007, they lost little time in taking umbrage at the public posturing of the dera and asserted, in the name of all Sikhs, that the dera chief had hurt their religious sentiments and should apologise for the hurt that he had caused the Sikh psyche. Beginning from May 14, thousands of Sikhs were mobilised all over Punjab and neighbouring states demanding appropriate punishment for the dera and its chief. All the while the state authorities provided tacit support to the agitated and armed mobs by not making any serious effort at crowd control. Later, after the dera chief had tendered his explanation, the chief of the state police claimed, in a press interview on May 19, that the police was perfectly capable of taking strong steps against those carrying weapons in public, violating prohibitory orders and destroying property. However, he added that inaction was the bestaction possible for crowd control in that surcharged atmosphere. On the fourth day of the face-off, a dera follower even approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court with a Public Interest Litigation requesting that the court intervene and direct the state government to provide protection to the life and properties of the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda. Many commentators noted with concern that an analogous conflict between another dera and the Sikhs in the late 1970s, with the tacit support of political parties to both sides in the conflict, had sown the seeds of terrorism in Punjab during the 1980s. Such conflicts between sects and dominant Sikhism seem to be rather very commonplace in the recent history of Punjab and their significance goes far beyond the short-term politics of revenge. Some receive more public attention than others, some are more complicated, but the basic story behind the conflict remains the same. This article concerns one such conflict that did not draw as much public attention but which, for that very reason, is so much the easier to understand.

One of the more lasting ironies of most successful religions is that they address themselves to universal values and goodness. Yet, there is a strong element of exclusionism within them that separates one religion from the other. This is especially in the practice of the adherents of the religion who, ironically, may be actually going against its tenets in the name of upholding the core ideas of the religion. But what happens when those excluded too claim to be adherents of the religion? Something of this problem has been facing Sikhism in the recent past. At least from among the dalits and other marginalised people of Punjab, a strand of thought has begun to emerge that rebels against the exclusionist and reactionary tendencies within mainstream Sikhism in Punjab, tendencies that have continued to linger contrary to the mission and ideas of the gurus. One such strand engendered a major drama recently. This concerned the emergence of a new sect led by one who was born a dalit Sikh but who even went on to, it is alleged, craft a new ‘granth’ for his followers. This was the socalled sect of Bhaniarawala. His actions touched a raw nerve in Sikh polity and society but did not seem to spark off much thought or debate. In this paper we document this “episode” in Punjab’s recent religious history and suggest that it is imperative for the Sikhs, rather than Sikhism, to address the social turmoil reflected by, what we call, the Bhaniarawala phenomenon. Until a constructive solution is found, a commitment to the idea of ‘sarbat da bhala’ (well-being of all humanity), as the main teaching of the Sikhs believes, remains problematic in public domain and would be confined to the practices of individuals alone. We concern ourselves in this paper with this episode that generated much noise and resulted in the suppression, at least for the moment, of what was seen as an alternate guru movement in Punjab. This one was mostly made up of dalits, most of them were of the mazhabi caste and claimed adherence to Sikhism. What made this one different was its vigorous conflict with the Sikh establishment in Punjab. The mazhabis are the most numerous among scheduled caste groups in Punjab according to the census of 2001. Their population in 2001 was recorded at just a little over 22 lakhs. They constituted some 31 per cent of the total SC population of the state. They are the ones with the lowest literacy rate (42.3 per cent) among the SCs in Punjab, more than one-third among them have an educational level below the primary level and only 15 per cent have more than a middle school education. More than half (55.2 per cent) of the mazhabis work as agricultural labourers. Most of them (60 per cent) were recorded by the census of 2001 as belonging to the Sikh religion and the remaining as Hindus. Only a negligible numbernumber (0.5 per cent) was reported as Buddhists. Obviously, Sikhism plays an important role in their lives. Yet, they seemed to have problems with it, especially with the domination of Sikhism by the upper castes.

A number of other guru panths already exist in Punjab. Some of the more well known ones include the Radha Soamis, the Namdharis, the Nirankaris, the Handalis, the Minas and the Udasis. Of these which ones which are classified as “Sikh sects” remains a matter of debate and personal feeling. Some of these evoke far stronger feelings of rejection as Sikhs. These include the Dera Sacha Sauda and the Divya Jyoti Sansthan. In the early 1980s there was much controversy caused by the burning of the texts called Avtar Bani and Yug Purush that were attributed to the Nirankari baba. Some historians have even attributed the clash between the Nirankaris and the Sikhs, as important in the creation of terrorism in Punjab. Apart from these well known sects there are also hundreds of deras that dot the present day Punjab and Haryana countryside. Perhaps, as Dipankar Gupta puts it, since the 1980s all this has been a part of creating a “Sikh” identity.2 In this story of the deras and babas the one of Bhaniara was actually too small and moreover too narrow in its geographical spread. Yet it had an impressive following and was quick in throwing up a challenge to the dominant Sikh groups. The number of followers of Baba Bhaniara was put at anything from 20,000 to 6,00,000. It was alleged that the guru had penned a granth of his own for the benefit of his followers and had adopted the accoutrements of the gurus of Sikhism. Moreover, this was the only guru movement that excited statewide protests and was suppressed by the government machinery. It concerned a number of issues: the protest by at least one group of dalits against the domination of the present day SGPC and upper castes over the gurdwaras and by implication the Akal Takht, the ability of the dominant groups to mobilise state support for their control over the gurdwaras and expressions of religion and the strong response from the people of Punjab to the perceived threat to religion, especially from those adopting the iconic emblems of the Sikh gurus. For secular threats by dalits mounted within the mainstream Sikh tradition such as happened in the Talhan case, it is interesting to note that the mainstream Sikhs felt far more helpless in responding. Evidently the accoutrements of religion lend much needed legitimacy to the parties in a secular conflict.

By now it is well recognised that there is a thick line dividing Sikh studies. Perhaps there is a similar one dividing Sikhs as well. On one side are the western trained and located scholars and on the other are those trained and located in India. Or perhaps the line that divides is not of the east and the west but of those who reside in Punjab and remain proximate to it and those outside of it. There is a little bit of grey area between the two caused by a certain overlap, but on the whole the geographical divide remains. The discussions in at least one of the seminars, mainly attended by the western trained and situated scholars which had identified one such divide also noticed that much of the difference emanates from the location of the SGPC and Akal Takht at Amritsar and the negative influence that the politicking within them has on any thinking on Sikh history and understanding the practice of Sikhism and the various streams that go into its making.4 We might also recall that for some time now the SGPC and the Akal Takht routinely issue edicts prohibiting any discussion of the Adi Granth and other texts of the Sikh religion that does not resonate with the dominant interpretation of Sikhism. Religious texts need to be believed in and not interpreted, is the broad instruction issued on such occasions. Similar was the contention of one of the leading Sikh scholars from India. Speaking at the Centre for South Asia Studies at the University of California, on the meaning of inter-religious dialogue, he laid down what he thought were the ground rules for understanding a religious tradition. “The point is that a religious tradition must be approached in terms of its own self-definition, in terms of its self-defined identity”, he said. And went on to add that “This requires an unmediated, experiential insight (through socio-religious osmosis) which is not possible in the case of the ‘outsiders’, whatever be their cerebral brilliance”. The fact that this scholar was also the vice chancellor of one of the major universities devoted to the Punjabi language and Sikh studies is enough for us to take such remarks seriously. An implication of such a situation is that a number of issues that need discussion simply get swept under the carpet in the name of being unimportant or too controversial. The dalits of Punjab, the largest body of dalits in the country and collectively, the most prosperous ones, are simply sidelined. Their concerns too are brushed aside. In the recent past, though, the dalits have refused to take things lying down. One such episode concerned the adoption of guru-like diacritical marks by a local religious leader, one Piara Singh Bhaniara.
Piara Singh, one of the seven children of a mason Tulsi Ram from the village Dhamiana in Ropar district had been working as a class IV employee with the state horticulture department at a sericulture farm in Asmanpur village. His father had been the caretaker of two mazaars on the outskirts of the village Dhamiana. At the death of his father, Piara Singh became the caretaker of the mazaars. Soon he also came to be known as a healer, providing medicines for various ailments. His reputation grew since people believed that he did have healing powers. He soon came to be addressed as a ‘baba’, a local holy man. In course of time even the then union home minister, Buta Singh, who subsequently went on to become the governor of Bihar, solicited his advice in treating his wife’s illness. As Baba Bhaniara’s reputation grew, so did his number of followers. It was said by the newspapers at one time that he had 20,000 followers across the state. Most of them were mazhabis. But the large number of politicians who flocked to him for help during the elections and offered the Baba help in constructing his dera over 100 acres at Dhamiana suggests that the police estimate of 6,00,000 followers was also held as true, at least by some of the significant political parties in Punjab. In 1998, the jathedar of the Akal Takht even excommunicated Baba Bhaniara for being anti-Sikh for Bhaniara was prone to say “nasty” things about the Sikh religion and its contemporary leaders. This would have ironic consequences later in 2001 when Baba Bhaniara would refuse to obey summons from the Akal Takht when that august body wanted to chastise Bhaniara for having too large a following. On that occasion Baba Bhaniara excused himself from the paying court to the Akal Takht saying that he was still excommunicated and therefore not liable to obey to commands of the Sikh leaders.
During the summer of 2000, it is said, one of the followers of the Baba Bhaniara was denied permission to carry the Guru Granth Sahib from the local gurdwara for some religious ceremony at home. The practice of carrying home the holy book from a nearby gurdwara with due ceremony is a common one. Equally common are refusals to allow the holy book into the hands of those who are disapproved of by the upper caste custodians and management of the gurdwaras. This in turn sparked off a movement among the followers of the Baba to have a granth of their own over which the dominant sections of society did not have any control. In the next few months the baba along with some of his close followers began to create this new granth. The resultant granth was given the name of Bhavsagar Samundar Amrit Vani. It is said that it was mostly written by one Pritam Singh of Dudhike village in Moga district with the help of some 20 other followers including six women. The frontispiece of the completed granth had a picture of Baba Bhaniara sitting beside his wife Surjit Kaur and writing the granth. The date given for the commencement of writing was June 20, 2000. After his arrest, though, the baba denied having penned the granth and that he had merely dictated it to his followers. On Baisakhi day in 2001, Baba Bhaniara “released” the granth, all of 2,704 pages, at a function in his dera. It was an impressive text, written on large sheets of paper with an expensive binding. Physically, it was big in size and heavy to hold. It contained a number of photographs of various politicians visiting the Baba. The typewritten text was photocopied and distributed among followers. A printer in Chandigarh was assigned the task of printing it.
The followers of the baba even began to hold religious ceremonies with the Bhavsagar granth at the centre. At one such ceremony in Ludhiana, in September 2001, the recently formed Khalsa Action Force, one of the numerous fly-by-night organisations that emerge in Punjab for a brief while, attacked the function, snatched the granth and set it on fire. It was said that the granth had copied a number of portions from the Guru Granth Sahib. In one of the photographs it showed Baba Bhaniara, wearing a shining coat and headdress in a style similar to that made familiar through the popular posters of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs. In another Baba Bhaniara is shown riding a horse in the manner of Guru Gobind Singh. Not only this, Baba Bhaniara insisted that his sons be addressed as ‘sahibzadas’ in the manner of title used to address the sonsof the gurus. The Bhavsagar granth itself narrated a number of stories about the greatness of the baba, the good luck that he brought to those who believed in him and the punishments that befell those who criticised or taunted him.
The attack on an assembly of Baba Bhaniara’s followers and the burning of the Bhavsagar granth was immediately followed by a number of instances of the burning of the Guru Granth Sahib in various rural gurdwaras. The police was quick to arrest a few young men from different villages and even presented them before the media. In front of the media they accepted that they had burnt the Guru Granth Sahib at the instance of Baba Bhaniara. That in turn sparked off a cycle of violence against the baba and his followers who were accused of dishonouring the Sikh holy book. Soon enough the baba was arrested under the National Security Act and a number of criminal cases slapped against him. Many of his followers were put in jail. In the prison they were attacked with acid and knives by other inmates claiming adherence to Sikhism. The Bhavsagar granth was banned by the government. The copies under circulation were confiscated. Any one found in possession of a copy was arrested. The print ready copy was taken away by the police and perhaps destroyed. Baba Bhaniara’s various deras across the state were destroyed. At least in a few places the deras were forcibly converted into Sikh gurdwaras and brought under the administration of the SGPC. No action was taken against those who had perpetrated these attacks.
Politicians who had been “close” to Baba Bhaniara were castigated by the Akal Takht and made to undergo punishment for their misdeeds. Many of them refuted any closeness to the baba, pleaded their innocence, underwent the punishment and gave public statements asking for even greater punishment by the government to Baba Bhaniara and his followers. The Akali government in power then, with Prakash Singh Badal as chief minister, was accused of being soft on such renegade babas who threatened Sikhism. Various factions of the Akali Dal, and there are almost innumerable of them, began to vie for the mantle of being the true protectors of Sikhism while accusing all others of having encouraged Baba Bhaniara and his renegade religion.
The SGPC set up a three member factfinding committee on the phenomenon of Bhaniarawale. Their report, a 48 page document, listed the various acts of sacrilege that had been committed by the followers of the baba. All this information in the SGPC report had been culled from the newspapers. It indicted several politicians, including the union minister Buta Singh, his nephew Joginder Singh Mann, former Akali MP Amrik Singh Aliwal, former Punjab minister, Gurdev Singh Badal and his son Kewal Badal and others of being responsible directly or indirectly for encouraging, patronising and popularising Bhaniarawala. Besides, it also blamed a number of Nihang leaders and police officers for helping Bhaniarawala in propagating his cult.
After two years in jail, the hearings in the various cases against Baba Bhaniara were still not over. His presence in court was always marked by heavy police arrangement since there were many who still professed the desire of eliminating him for his sacrilegious behaviour towards Sikhism. After his release in 2003 the district magistrate of Ropar under whose jurisdiction Baba Bhaniara’s dera at Dhamiana lay, banned his entry into the district of Ropar. The baba and his followers approached the state high court pleading for the restitution of their fundamental rights. Subsequently that ban was rescinded by the court. Then the baba was asked by the local administration to desist from celebrating his birthday which falls on August 23. He promised to make it a low key affair, but went on to have a large gathering of his followers at the dera. By now the ban on his birthday celebrations have almost become a ritual. The government bans it, yet people assemble in great numbers. The next day newspapers report that the birthday celebrations passed off peacefully. Not much notice is taken by the dominant Sikhs of the activities of Baba Bhaniara. There was one exception, though. This happened when a local gurdwara in Ropar allowed the followers of Baba Bhaniara to take the Guru Granth Sahib for a private ceremony in 2004. That sparked off yet another round of protests from the SGPC and many Sikh organisations.
However, by now a different party, the Congress had formed a government in the state. The controversy over the baba and the relationship that he and his followers have with Sikhism remains unresolved but at least he has desisted from taking public postures, for the time being at least.
It is easy to see the above episode as another instance of political wheelingdealing in the name of religion. But such an interpretation denies us two important issues. One, that the symbiosis that has evolved in Punjab between political power and religious authority has become the creator of a variegated drama in which political machinations dominate in the name of religion. Two, that the dalits of Punjab (and also many other marginal groups) have begun to assert themselves in ways that demonstrate the limits of control by the dominant groups and challenge their domineering claims to represent true Sikhism. Thus far and no further, seems to be the message that they are sending. This could easily, as in the Baba Bhaniara case, lead to the assertion of a different religious identity altogether. But the closeness that any new religious identity has with the emblems and iconic practices of Sikhism creates a drama of its own whereby routinely edicts are passed as to who has the right to interpret religion and preach it and who has not. The list of those who cannot goes on lengthening day by day.
In a rather ironic sort of way then, what this means in effect is that contemporary Sikhism, insofar as it has been defined by the politically dominant factions, is able to reiterate its distinctive identity mostly through exclusionism. In the past two decades or so this has amounted to creating a new phenomenon: that of declaring people renegade from the panth and demanding that a return to the fold will be possible only through the acceptance of some punishment. Declaring people ‘tankhaiya’ (renegades from religion) and asking them to present themselves before the Akal Takht has become routine and driven by political exigencies. All the space for debate, discussion, consultation with the people, qualities that had marked the growth of Sikhism, seems to have vanished. So much so that recently, as seen in the case of the launching of the journal The Spokesman by its owner Joginder Singh, a well known dissident, it was possible for those declared tankhaiya to publicly ignore the orders from the Sikh priests and assert that they were not scared of such ungodly orders from a suspect clergy.
The phenomenon of the deras has two implications: one for the larger Sikh tradition and the other for the social fabric in the state of Punjab. Firstly in any religious tradition, no individual or body of individuals can or should lay claim to a superior truth for there is really nothing to say why any one’s claim is better than that of another. To do so damages the body of belief from which individual opinions emerge by the simple act of seeking to restrict its boundaries. If a religious tradition is to be approached only in terms of its own self-definition, as some insiders assert, then the definition needs to be as broad as possible if it wishes to avoid being determined by an oligopoly. Perhaps the Sikhs need to remind themselves that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Secondly, as a social phenomenon, the various religious sects of Punjab are part of the time-tested tradition of the dispossessed in India seeking a sense of personal worth through dissent. One of the greatest religions of the world, Buddhism, began in precisely such a fashion. To suppress social dissent through the use of the state machinery or other forms of violence does not mean that the dissent would disappear. Rather as long as it is allowed to find religious expression, dissent remains harmless. Its suppression through secular means could well transform it into a force of a different kind and the recent history of Punjab does not offer much scope for optimism in this respect.

Friday, July 6

A conflict of new assertions

The violence triggered by Dera Sacha Sauda has its roots in the simmering anger among Punjab’s Dalits and the Sikh-Khalsa anxiety at lower class mobilization, asserts Dr. Ronki Ram in Tehelka
The recent violent clashes between followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda (established in 1948 with its headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana) and different groups of Akalis, and another spate of conflicts between Jats and Dalits in the state, mark a crucial turn in the political history of Punjab. The importance of these conflicts surpasses the much talked about “short-term politics of revenge” and shows up the deep socio-religious hierarchies in the so-called casteless Sikh society in Punjab. On the one hand, they lay bare the dormant structures of social discrimination that permeate the fabric of Sikh society, and on the other, point towards the neo-conservative Sikhs’ anxiety about the Sikh-Khalsa identity.
The Akalis-Dera Sacha Sauda row over the Dera’s Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s mimicking of the iconography of Guru Gobind Singh, seems much to do with the prevalence of the doctrinally-rejected system of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs. The majority of the followers of various Sacha Sauda-type Deras come from dispossessed sections of society, who at one point of time had embraced Sikhism in the hope of elevating their social and material status. This near-exodus from Sikhism towards the alternative socio-spiritual space provided by the Deras invites the hostility of clerics of the established mainstream religious order, who see it as a serious challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity. Moreover, the frequent politicisation of the Deras and the accompanying pontifications further complicate the issue. Persistent attempts by various Sikh organisations to win over disgruntled Dalit Sikh followers of various Deras during the recent Akalis-Dera crisis is a clear example of this.
Punjab has the distinction of being home to the largest proportion of the country’s Scheduled Caste (SCs) population (29 percent). The scs in Punjab belong to different religions and castes, and have the lowest share in the ownership of land (2.4 percent of the cultivated area). The Dalit Sikhs (Mazhabi and Ramdasis or Ramdasia Sikhs) are the most deprived of the lot. They embraced Sikhism in the hope of gaining social equality, but even in the new religion untouchability continued to be practised against them. Social opprobrium continues to afflict them and other Dalits. Some of them feel that Jat Sikhs treat them as badly in the gurdwaras as they do in their farmlands. This has forced them to establish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds. It is against this backdrop of blatant social exclusion that a large number of Dalits have been veering away from the mainstream Sikh religion and enrolling themselves into various forms of Deras in Punjab. Another probable cause behind the large-scale Dalit following of the Deras could be the absence of a strong Dalit movement in the state.
However, the phenomenon of Deras/sects is not new to Punjab. Rather, it is as old as the Sikh faith. During the period of the historic Gurus, different Deras of Udasis, Meene, Dhirmaliye, Ramraiyas and Handali sects cropped up. All these earlier sects and Deras were primarily the outcome of disgruntled and unsuccessful attempts of fake claimants to the title of Guru. Apart from these, there were many more sects and Deras that came up at different intervals on the long and tortuous consolidation of the Sikh religion. Some of the most prominent among them were the Nanakpanthis, Sewapanthis, Bhaktpanthi, Suthrashahi, Gulabdasi, Nirmalas, and the Nihangs who are also known as Akalis or Shahids. But what distinguished these earlier Deras from the contemporary ones is that they could not become centres of Dalit mobilisation. That could be because of the fact that during its early phase of consolidation the Sikh religion was completely egalitarian in precept as well as practice. Dalits were given equal respect and status. They were not discriminated against at all. It was only later on that the monster of casteism raised its head within Sikh institutions and enraged the dispossessed sections. But one factor that draws comparisons between the earlier and the contemporary Deras is the presence of Gurus in all of them, a practice that goes against the basic spirit and tenets of mainstream Sikhism.
According to a latest study conducted by the Desh Sevak, a daily published from Chandigarh, there are around nine thousand Deras in the 12 thousand villages of Punjab. Among them, the most popular are of the Radha Soamis, Sacha Sauda, Nirankaris, Namdharis, Divya Jyoti Sansthan, Bhaniarawala and Ravidasis. Almost all of them have branches in all the districts of the state as well as in other parts of the country. Some of them are very popular among the Punjabi Diaspora and have overseas branches in almost all the continents of the world. Despite their non-sectarian claims, some of these Deras are adhered along caste lines. Though Gurubani from the Guru Granth Sahib is recited in these Deras, other sacred texts are also referred to. For them, idol worship and devotion towards a human Guru is not the anathema it is in Sikh theology. It is due to the presence of such non-Sikh traditions as Human Guruship in these Deras that the phenomenon of non-Sikh Deras has been described by the scholars Meeta and Rajivlochan as the “alternate Guru movement in Punjab”.
This alternate movement in Punjab with its “loose syncretistic practices” throws a formidable challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity. Though Bhindranwale tried to assert the Sikh-Khalsa identity by taking up the cudgels for a dissident sect of the Nirankaris and preaching hatred against the Hindus, he could not prevent the movement of Dalits towards non-Sikh Deras. These Deras, in fact, pose an even more serious challenge to mainstream Sikhism. The number of followers of these Deras seems to far exceed that of the Golden Temple-based clerical establishment. It is in this context that the confrontation between the Deras and mainstream Sikhism assumes a critical importance with serious implications for the relationship between Dalits and Jat Sikhs. The confrontation between the Akalis and the premis of the Dera Sacha Sauda is only the most recent case in point. Some of the most prominent conflicts in the past include the Nirankari crisis of 1978, the Bhaniarawala phenomenon of 2001, and the Talhan crisis of 2003. These clashes were, in fact, more about identity politics between Jat Sikhs and Dalits than a row over religion. However, given the religious milieu of the social sphere in Punjab, such conflicts often assumed a communal posture. The Jats of Punjab are primarily an agriculture community. Since the Dalits in the state were deprived of land, in the absence of other job avenues they were forced to depend for their livelihood on the land of the Jat Sikhs. That brought the Dalits in direct confrontation with the Jat Sikhs. Dalits’ relationship with the Jats is that of landless agricultural labour versus the landlords. The two communities are engaged in a power struggle.
However, there are many Dalits in Punjab who have improved their economic conditions by dissociating themselves from their caste occupations as well as distancing themselves from agriculture. They have strengthened their economic position through sheer hard work, enterprise and ventures outside the state. Some of them have established their own small-scale servicing units, and work as carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths and so on. In addition, they have also been politicised to a large extent by the famous Ad-Dharm movement. Thus, they have not only improved their economic status but have also liberated themselves from the subordination of the Jat landowners. With an improved economic position and a sharpened social consciousness, Dalits in Punjab started demanding a concomitant rise in their social status. In the process, they also challenged the dominant caste and its claims to represent true Sikhism. The Jat Sikhs, however, interpreted it as a challenge to the Sikh-Khalsa identity, which further deepened the existing contradictions between them and the Dalits. That is what has led to a series of violent caste clashes between Dalits and Jats in Punjab in the past few years, as also the repeated confrontations between the Akalis and followers of one or the other non-Sikh Deras. Such conflicts are in no way a manifestation of communalism in the state. They, in fact, are signs of an emerging Dalit assertion against social exclusion that have all the possibility of snowballing into violent conflicts if left unresolved.

Thursday, June 28

Undivided Punjab's last hockey team

The last national hockey championship of undivided India was held in Bombay in 1947. Punjab won the title for the second year in a row, beating Bombay by a solitary goal in the final, which was played at the packed Bombay Hockey Association ground near Dhobi Talao. It was the first week of April 1947 when the Punjab team returned to Lahore to receive the ovation of the home supporters at the railway station (see photograph below). Balbir Singh Sr. is seated in front (extreme left). Some of the other players are: Back row standing (from left): 2. Aziz 3. Gurcharan Singh Bodhi 5. Amir Kumar Front row standing (from left): 2. Keshav Dutt 3. Ram Swarup 4. Dharam Singh (source: http://www.bharatiyahockey.org/)

Saturday, June 23

Making a Deathwish

Exhortation to bloody deeds is not only devoid of religious sanction and illegal but primitive and barbaric that could lead many Sikh youth on the path of self-destruction - like the two arrested for conspiring to kill Bhaniarawala, writes Kanwar Sandhu, Editor, Hindustan Times in his column Point of View
Given the volatile nature of civil society in predominantly rural Punjab, incidents of crime are common in the state. And so are efforts by the police to pre-empt such incidents. However, the arrest last week of two Sikh youth on charges of plotting to kill the controversial religious leader, PiaraSingh Bhaniarewala, has a sinister ring that calls for serious introspectionon the part of Sikh religious and political leadership. One of the two youth arrested was an office-bearer in the youth wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the other the son of a former militant. According to the police, the two youth were lodged in a Punjab jail on charges of rape and murder, where they came under the influence of some Sikh hardliners who prevailed upon them to eliminate Bhaniarewala, whose activities were perceived to be anti-Sikh by many for which he was excommunicated by the Akal Takht way back in 1998. One holds no brief for the likes of Bhaniarewala, who wrote the controversial "Bhavsagar Samundar Granth", claimed to be a Guru, challenged some of the Sikh beliefs and drew the wrath of many But the arrest of the two on charges of killing him becomes especially relevant in the wake ofthe ongoing controversy relating to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The Dera chief has been accused of showing disrespect to the10th Sikh Guru by aping him at a public function a few months ago. As in case of Bhaniarewala and others, the law ought to take its course in case of the Dera chief too. In fact, non-bailable arrest warrants have been issued by a Bathinda court following a complaint under Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code (hurting religious sentiments). There is no doubt that the religious leadership ought to protect its religious abode as vociferously as possible. But if the statements of religious leaders, especially the clergy exhort or even, obliquely suggest to the people to take law into their own hands and eliminate those who have defied them and the established order, there is reason to worry. Whenever, the Sikh clergy have hauled up any one for hurting Sikh sentiments, declared him tankhaiya (due for religious punishment) or excommunicated him, a threat to that person's life has been imminent. Infact, in case of Dera chief, the Jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib, BalwantSingh Nandgarh, has openly declared that whoever kills the Dera chief will be weighed in gold. Exhorting youth to such bloody deeds is not only devoid of religious sanction and illegal but primitive and barbaric in a modern democracy Besides, it could lead many Sikh youth on the path of self-destruction - like the two arrested last week. Religious mischief, perceived or real, should be tackled not by bigotry but by wisdom. Instead of going the Muslim way where "fatwas" against, "infidels" and miscellaneous offenders have become a way of life, although at a heavy price, the Sikh clergy should engage the Dera chief in a dialogue and make him see reason. They could persuade him, outwit him or even expose him or his deeds but to suggest physical harm to him would be belittling the teachings of the very Gurus who are sought to be extolled. The Sikh religious leaders ought to understand that in a secular democratic society their role is limited to religious matters. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier days when ruling communities were completely independent and had only their rivals to fear. For example, historicalaccounts mention an incident when on a complaint received from an aggrieved person that his wife had been taken away by the Nawab of Kasur, the heads ofthe Sikh Misls gathered at the Akal Takht and espousing his cause set out an expedition to restore the bride and punish the offender. Sikhs also recall the daring sacrifice of the two who beheaded the notorious Persian chieftain, Massa Ranghar, who desecrated the Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar by using it for drinking and debauchery But that was 18th centuryNow, with an elected government, a Constitution to govern, and different organs of the state to enforce the rule of law, such a role will be played out by the police and courts. Besides, the citizens have constitutional protection to their life with Article 21 stating that "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedureestablished by law". What the Sikh clergy ought to understand is that afterthey have announced the religious punishment - be it tankhah orexcommunication from the fold whoever takes the law into his own hands andtries to harm the "offender" is in fact defying them.Yet, given the frequency of tension all around us on issues relating to religion, there is perhaps need to bring about far-reaching changes in thelaws to ensure more stringent punishment for those who indulge in acts seenas blasphemous to any community or set of people. Although Article 25 of the Constitution provides freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, it does not give any one a licence to hurt the religious sentiments of others. The maximum punishment for outraging thereligious feelings of any class of citizens - by words, either spoken orwritten, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise - is threeyears. Perhaps since such acts have the potential of triggering large-scalecommunal violence, punishment for such heinous acts, especially if proved tobe deliberate, should be much more. Various political parties which abetsome of these actions should be debarred from contesting elections throughamendments in the election laws. But with society evolving day by day all re, ligions would face newer challenges. There is need for the formation of amulti-religious overarching body to deal with multiple issues of faith which arise and which can be resolved only through dialogue between variousreligions and sects. The challenge for such a body now would be to try anddefuse the tension between the Dera followers and Sikhs in large parts ofMalwa in Punjab and Haryana, where complete polarisation has come about.