Wednesday, May 30

Community of differences

Historically, there has been conflict between mainstream Sikhism and its breakaway groups. Politics of the day heightens the tensions, writes eminent historian Dr. J.S.Grewal
Historically, a number of groups emerged from time to time in opposition to the mainstream Sikhs. The first was headed by Sri Chand, the elder son of Guru Nanak. He did not acknowledge Guru Angad as the only successor of Guru Nanak, and his followers, known as Udasis, were renunciants. They remained on the periphery of the Sikh community which consisted of householders.The sons of Guru Angad, who did not recognise Guru Amar Das, and the sons of Guru Amar Das, who did not recognise Guru Ram Das, did not succeed in forming any important group. The eldest son of Guru Ram Das, Prithi Chand, offered a protracted opposition to his younger brother Guru Arjan; he refused to acknowledge Guru Hargobind, claimed to be the sixth Guru, starting a new line. His successors remained in occupation of Ramdaspur (Amritsar) in the 17th century. They were denounced by Bhai Gurdas as minas, or dissemblers, who stood in opposition to the true Guru.Similarly Dhir Mal refused to acknowledge his younger brother Guru Har Rai and started a new line at Kartarpur in the Jalandhar Doab. Ram Rai refused to acknowledge his younger brother Guru Har Krishan and established his own gaddi at Dehra Dun. These dissenting groups acquired added importance because of the politicisation of the Sikh community after the martyrdom of Guru Arjan in 1606.Birth of the KhalsaGuru Gobind Singh instituted the Khalsa in 1699 as a political community and excommunicated all the dissenting groups. The Khalsa were not to have any association with the followers of Prithi Chand, Dhir Mal and Ram Rai. The Khalsa alone were the true Sikhs for Guru Gobind Singh. They believed in the ten Gurus. A day before his demise in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh declared that Guruship henceforth was vested in the Khalsa and Gurbani. The Guruship of the Panth and the Granth became the established doctrines of the Khalsa.The keshdhari Singhs, who represented the central stream of the Khalsa, were also the most numerous among the Sikhs by the early 19th century. However, there were also the sahajdharis who believed in the ten Gurus and the Guruship of the Granth. They were not keshdhari, but they were seen as an integral part of the Khalsa in the 18th century. Then there were several categories of Udasis, and the descendants or successors of Prithi Chand, Dhir Mal and Ram Rai, and their followers. They were all patronised by the Sikh rulers.Some new groups had appeared on the scene, the Nirankaris, Namdharis and Nirmalas. The first two were sahajdhari and they subscribed to the doctrine of Guru Granth. The Adi Granth served as the basis of their beliefs and practices. The Nirmalas were Singhs who subscribed to doctrines of Guru Panth and Guru Granth, but gave Vedantic interpretation of Gurbani, like the Udasis. Like them, again, they set up deras and remained celibate.Sharpening of identitiesUnder colonial rule there was an overall sharpening of identities. The Singh Sabha Movement stood for Singh identity, the doctrines of Guru Granth and Guru Panth, the Khalsa rahit, and the gurdwara as the Sikh sacred space. Sikh scholars tried to give a systematic exposition of Sikh faith and the Sikh tradition, and Singh reformers accepted western science and technology and western education. The Singh leaders demanded that the management of the historic Sikh gurdwaras should be vested with the representatives of the Singhs. The Akali Movement resulted in the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee as a statutory body. The SGPC defined Sikh beliefs and practices and appointed the Jathedar of the Akal Takht as symbolic of Panthic authority.Not merely the existence but also the demonstration of 'unorthodoxy' or 'heterodoxy' among other groups owing allegiance to, or using elements of the Sikh tradition for their own purposes, informed the attitude of the SGPC towards them.SGPC and othersThe Udasis were no longer within the pale of Sikh society. The original Nirankaris were tolerated or even appreciated even though they are sahajdharis and did not subscribe to the doctrine of Guru Panth. The Namdharis, on the other hand, were seldom appreciated because of their belief in a personal Guru which infringed the doctrines of Guru Granth and Guru Panth. The Sant Nirankaris came into conflict with the Damdami Taksal and were eventually excommunicated by the SGPC because of the public disrespect they showed to Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh Gurus. The Radha Soamis make use of some elements of the Sikh tradition but without any disrespect for Sikh belief or practice. They are seldom criticised by the Sikhs or the SGPC. Thus, it is not the differences in religious beliefs and practices alone which lead to conflict but the demonstration of disrespect for cherished Singh beliefs, practices or institutions. The perceived political necessities play a part in heightening tensions.The importance the Singh orthodoxy attach to external forms tends to circumscribe its appeal. Sikhs and non-Sikhs, especially the disprivileged, tend to seek solace in what appears to be a meaningful religious life offered by a personal guide.

Tuesday, May 29

When radicals quote the law

In the so-called panthic crisis are signs that there’s no returning to ’80s style extremism, writes Vandita Mishra in The Indian Express after a visit to Punjab
In the days leading up to the Akal Takht deadline to close down all Sacha Sauda Deras in Punjab, Amritsar went about its business as usual. When news of the Dera chief’s apology was flashed across TV screens on Sunday, there were no visible signs that the city had either noted the event or reacted to it. Inside the graceful precincts of the Golden Temple that evening, the lines of devotees were long and unhurried as always.
The day after, the exact wording of the apology and its tone is being dissected by the talking heads. The Akal Takht is scheduled to pronounce its verdict on the apology on Tuesday. But Amritsar does not appear to be holding its breath.
To understand the city’s calm in the midst of the so-called panthic crisis that is said to have recently revisited Punjab, go to Punjab’s ‘radical’ outfits, headquartered in Amritsar: the Damdami Taksal, Dal Khalsa, Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), AISSF (Mehta), Akaal Purkh ki Fauj. It is to these organisations that ‘mainstream’ politicians and doomsayers darkly gesture when they warn of “things getting out of hand” and the “old days” coming back in the state. Listen to them today to know how they — and Punjab — have changed.
Mohkam Singh is chief spokesperson of the Damdami Taksal, made (in)famous by its association with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Till as recently as 2006, the Taksal tried to revive and rally its dwindled flock by claiming that Bhindranwale is alive, he will come back.
Mohkam Singh is scornful of the Dera chief’s apology, “he must clarify how he will behave in the future and he has not even addressed it to the Khalsa”. But as he holds forth, one eye on the clock — he has to be at a TV studio discussion — his outrage is tempered by invocations of the “Constitution” and the “law”.
“Our fight is a constitutional fight,” he underlines. “Our identity is under attack and it is the Constitution’s responsibility to protect it. The Constitution must answer to us.”
At the Dal Khalsa office, general secretary Kanwar Pal Singh Bittoo sits behind a computer on a spare desk adjoining a conference hall dominated by a large poster of Bhindranwale. For him too, apology is no solution, but the onus is on the law enforcement agencies. If the government cannot close the deras by law, then arrest the baba and everything else will follow, he says. “After all, Jayalalithaa arrested Swami Jayendra Saraswati.”
Bittoo is articulate and vociferous as he weaves the Sacha Sauda controversy into a larger plot: the historical build-up of ‘Sikh grievance’ against the Centre, unimplemented Anandpur Sahib Resolution, the waning of the Sikh’s ‘innate fighting spirit’, lack of a single panthic ‘hardline’ leader to unite a ‘divided community’, ‘dilution’ of the Sikh majority in Punjab because of migration from UP and Bihar and the weaning away of Sikhs by the mushrooming deras. But, he says, nobody wants a return to the old days to Punjab.
To tackle the current situation, the various Sikh groups must ‘collectively’ and ‘democratically’ arrive at a ‘common minimum programme’ under the leadership of the Akal Takht. “I have spent 12-13 years underground in the ’80s and ’90s — I have a family and a home. Believe me, that life was not easy.”
Rajinder Singh Mehta is the grey-bearded, white-clad leader of one of the two surviving factions of the All India Sikh Students Federation, once the backbone of the Khalistani movement. Mehta recently carried the AISSF (Mehta) into the SAD; he issued no press release on the Sacha Sauda controversy. He is surprised at being sought out at his home in Amritsar’s well-to-do Rani ka Baagh area for comment.
The need of the hour, he says, is to pursue the cases against the Dera chief and his colleagues to their logical conclusion. It’s not difficult for governments to catch these people, he points out, also citing Jayalalithaa’s action against Saraswati. Use the revenue and income tax departments to nab the Dera chief, our purpose will be served, and the “Sikh” issue will settle down, he says.
At the office of the Akal Purkh Ki Fauj, Jaswinder Singh Advocate, member SGPC, sits at the head of a blue conference table, surrounded by cloth banners emblazoned with his organisation’s mission: “Raising Sikhs of the Future.” The Fauj was set up in 1999. In the late eighties, Advocate was part of the Sahebzada Fateh Singh Study Circle, which was said to propagate the idea of Khalistan. Since 2004, the Fauj hosts ‘Mr Singh International’, a modelling competition with its final held in Amritsar’s Khalsa College as part of its ‘Turban Pride Movement’.
Advocate is worried that the Sacha Sauda controversy may have stoked aggression in Sikh youth born after 1984, who have no memories of the torment Punjab went through. “Right now the responsibility rests with the leadership, especially the Sikh leadership. They must fine-tune a programme that no one can hijack and which also doesn’t fall flat.” But ultimately, he says, this is a battle fought under the aegis of section 295A of the IPC (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings). That is a weak section. The Dera chief must also be slapped with Sections 298 and 153 A,” he says.
The Sacha Sauda controversy will go away only if all the deras are sealed, Bhai Ram Singh is certain. And when the government comes out with a special law for a ‘minority state’ like Punjab, he adds. Or else the old times will come back, he warns.
Ram Singh is general secretary SAD(Amritsar) led by Simranjit Singh Mann that fielded 35 candidates in the last assembly polls. Only three could save their deposits. “Those who talk of the rights of the community must suffer. Ours is a long fight,” counters a defensive Singh. He admits that the mainstream agenda has travelled from the Anandpur Sahib Resolution to “atta-dal”. But “in the absence of any real gains for the common man, how long will this last” he asks, rhetorically.
So what does it mean when ‘radicals’ quote from the Constitution and the IPC and ask for special laws? It means that Punjab has changed, says Jagroop Singh Sekhon, head of department of political science in Guru Nanak Dev University: “On the day of the state-wide bandh, immediate calculations were made of the loss it had caused. One estimate put it down to 800 crore.” The radicals know that they can’t mobilise people on the old issues and in the old language any more.
And there is a corollary: Punjab’s ‘mainstream’ cannot evade its own responsibility to protect the state’s hard won peace by pointing to the ‘radicals’ at the gates any more.

Clash of Symbols

The Baba has challenged the grip of the Akali leadership over Sikh affairs in Punjab invoking one of the most powerful and revered symbols in Sikh history but what next. It would be a good idea to look at the mirror held by the past, Jagmohan Bhasin writes in The Times of India
Make no mistake. When Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh distributed amrit, dressed as Guru Gobind Singh, he knew that he was invoking one of the most powerful and revered symbols in Sikh history. The Sacha Sauda leader understands the role of symbols in the collective psyche. If Guru Nanak symbolises pacifist teachings, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh symbolise valour and martyrdom. For any new sect or religious order simplicity and a passionate idea or symbol are what attract a following. By all accounts the Baba already has made huge inroads amongst lower and backward caste Sikhs. But, this was not the only reason why Punjab burned for over 72 hours. When the Baba appropriated the potent symbolism of Guru Gobind Singh, the embattled Akali Jat Sikh leadership realised a crisis looming within the Sikh faith. The Baba had challenged the grip of the Akali leadership over Sikh affairs in Punjab. This couldn't have come at a worse time for the Akalis. Not a day passes without some Sikh youth refusing to wear their hair long. The slow erosion in the basic tenets of the faith is made worse by economic misery. The Green Revolution plateaued off a long time ago and the conversion from traditional crops to new farming technologies and crops is still not complete. Industrial development is slow and migration to the West is a double-edged weapon. Sikh fears of being a small minority within the country and prospects of being reduced to a minority within Punjab itself are not exaggerated. Various reform movements and quasi religious orders have been denuding the Sikh base in Punjab. To a great extent the earlier Arya Samaj movement, the Nirankari and now the Sacha Sauda movements, instead of concealing ostensibly hidden agendas are voicing aspirations of the dispossessed, marginal farmers and lower castes. The stage is set for a clash between the relatively prosperous Jat peasantry and a clutch of politically aware lower castes. The tension might have spilled over, but the pot is on the boil. If there is a fight to claim the legacy of Guru Gobind Singh, we can ignore the symbolism of the past only to our peril. When Punjab was convulsed with terrorist violence two highly symbolic incidents pushed Sikh youth on a separatist path. The first was the clash with the Nirankaris that left 13 Sikh youth dead. The second was the humiliation and harassment suffered by Sikhs coming to the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi at the hands of Haryana cops. It wasn't so much the river waters dispute or lack of employment opportunities that pushed the youth towards insurgency. It was the loss of self-respect that became the trigger. Even today in the Sikh diaspora here and abroad, there exists a small and fanatical fringe group wedded to the cause of separation. Like the family secret no one wants to talk about, this fringe element has always regarded Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the likeness of Guru Gobind Singh. There are very few takers today for that kind of symbolism, but recent events have fuelled rage amongst large sections of the Sikhs and Akali supporters. Live televised scenes from the Akal Takht clearly showed raw anger quickly give way to separatist slogans. Herein lies the danger. Like any other minority, the Sikhs are also exposed to bouts of a siege mentality. For the ordinary Sikh, Guru Gobind Singh symbolises purity of thought and action to which he can only aspire in a lifetime. A slur on this symbolism would always be perceived as a threat to the reason for existence to the Sikh identity and mobilise them towards confrontation. Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has now tendered an apology to Guru Gobind Singh. It must be accepted by those he offended and the issue must be buried. Remember, in insurgency-hit Punjab political leadership on all sides had collapsed. And in a savage twist, Bhindranwale was the only one around then, providing his own brand of leadership. The past always holds up a mirror. It would be a good idea to look at it once in a while.

Monday, May 28

Sword and Fire

The confrontation provoked by the Dera Sacha Sauda was carefully timed. Sikh hardliners have seized their opportunity, reports Vikram Jit Singh in Teheleka
There is a method to the mayhem that has engulfed Punjab. It is increasingly becoming clear that vested interests are behind the Dera Sacha Sauda’s May 13 advertisement that showed its leader Sant Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh attired like Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru. Since then, an outraged Sikh community has been agitating on the streets demanding an apology. Members of the Dera have been regularly clashing with Sikhs who in turn are being egged on by the clergy to avenge the dishonour to the faith.
By bringing out the advertisement on the day he did, the Baba was playing to a specific gameplan. His aim was to show his clout and send out the message that if he was arrested in the CBI cases pending against him, it would trigger massive public unrest. Consider the sequence of events that led to the advertisement.
On April 16, 2007, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered the CBI to complete its probe into the three cases against the Dera by May 25 and listed the matter for May 28. Within a week, the Dera’s followers were alleging harassment by the ruling Akalis, who were accused of taking revenge for the Dera’s vote against their party that tilted the scales in favour of the Congress in many Malwa seats. Congress leaders fanned the fires. Then started the Baba’s campaign to inculcate the spirit of humanity in followers of all religions by making them partake of the ‘Ruhani Jaam’ sherbet in Sirsa. Donning the robes and symbols that Guru Gobind Singh is believed to have worn, the Baba issued an advertisement only when he repeated the ritual at the Salabatpura Dera in Punjab’s Malwa heartland of Bhatinda. The next day, May 14, when disgruntled Akali elements led by former minister SS Maluka and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) member SS Bahiya gathered in Bhatinda to burn the Baba’s effigy, the Dera’s premis (devotees) set upon them in a planned attack that had even the cops running for cover.
“The Baba says he has worn these clothes many times before. But why did he issue an advertisement and that too with a Bhatinda angle? In the clashes that occurred on May 14, it is to be seen that the sticks wielded by the premis were all of the same size and nature. Truckloads had been brought to Bhatinda in anticipation of a reaction to the advertisement. The Baba was sending a message that his followers could create mayhem,” says Anshul Chhatarpati, a Sirsa journalist who has been following the Dera’s activities ever since his father was allegedly murdered by the Dera’s men.
It was evident that the overly aggressive premis, otherwise a minority sect in Punjab, could never have taken on the ruling Akali establishment and the Sikh bodies without powerful backing. “Seven Congress MLAs from the Malwa heartland owing allegiance to former CM Amarinder Singh gathered with the premis at Bhatinda. The government even has photographs to show their presence among the premis who went on a rampage later. It was the Congress egging on the premis to take on the Akalis,” HS Bains, media advisor to Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, told Tehelka.
That the advertisement was meant as a primer for the premis to prepare for a significant confrontation is evident from the directives that accompanied it. Of the 47 directives to the premis, numbers 27 and 35 are quite suggestive. While the first directs the premis not to listen to any criticism of their Satguru or enter into any argument, the other asks them to be ready to lay down their lives fighting for their country and their true Satguru.
That the Baba remains adamant on not issuing an apology, despite growing calls from among the premis to buy peace, again shows the powerful interests at work behind the Baba’s actions. Highly placed sources in the Punjab government told Tehelka: “Three things happened almost simultaneously. Radical Akali leader Simranjit Singh Mann (Amarinder’s brother-in-law) desecrated the statue of late CM Beant Singh in Jalandhar, and former CM Amarinder Singh slipped away to Nepal on the flimsiest of excuses. It was then that the Baba placed his advertisement. The Baba is being bailed out by the Government of India in the CBI cases against him. He will do their bidding. Congress MLAs close to Amarinder backed the premis in Bhatinda. As Punjab was quickly destabilised, the Union Home Minister went to Parliament and evoked fears of Punjab sliding down again.”
A senior functionary at the Punjab Chief Minister’s office told Tehelka that this apprehension had been conveyed by Badal himself to the highest echelons of the Government of India, including to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “We have said that Punjab being destabilised means the Sikhs will turn anti-Congress again. The greatest fallout of this will be on the Gandhi family,” the senior functionary said.
Even senior Punjab Congressmen are not discounting the conspiracy theory that the drama was staged at the behest of the party high command at the Centre. In 1978, after the clashes between the Akalis and Nirankaris in Amritsar, Sikh radicals backed by the Congress took centrestage and were able to successfully destabilise the Badal government. That led to nearly two decades of strife in the border state. “In Punjab this time around, the municipal polls are nearing. At a larger level, a destabilised Punjab can help the Congress garner votes in the next Lok Sabha polls as the party has hardly any agenda to take to the people. The nation can again be told that the Congress is the only party that can keep India together and tackle the problems created by divisive parties like the Akali-BJP alliance in Punjab,” said a Congress MLA. CPI stalwart and member of the National Council, Joginder Dayal, went so far as to allege that “Central intelligence agencies” were out to destabilise Punjab again.
Speaking to Tehelka, Badal squarely blamed the Congress and said that “certain elements are out to destroy India’s peace. The same agencies are at work behind the Baba’s actions.”
As violence broke out, Badal did little until May 17 to rein in angry Sikh elements who went after the premis in retaliation. The Badal administration displayed neither the will nor the nerve to take on the sword-wielding Sikhs. The Bhatinda incident was the trigger as the adminstration miserably failed to control the clashes. Badal himself admitted the failure of the adminstration at Bhatinda three days later. Punjab’s Hindu community was rattled by images of youths wielding swords and the tremors reached the drawing rooms of even the well-heeled in Chandigarh.
The attempt was to scare the premis but it was the Punjabi Hindus who got frightened instead,” says Pramod Kumar, director of the Chandigarh-based Institute of Communication and Development. “Badal was deliberately slack. He should have acted on the first day itself. What was the point in allowing the sarbat khalsa in Talwandi Sabo on May 17 in the Malwa heartland where passions were already inflamed? It is to be noted that Badal called an all-party meeting only on May 18 after the sarbat khalsa, which called for the boycott of the premis. No measures were taken to prevent the Sikh crowds from marching from Talwandi Sabo to the Dera Salabatpura where violence erupted.
This should have been anticipated. The police only got into the act at 7pm when the matter had gone out of hand,” Kumar complained.
The diffidence of the normally aggressive Punjab Police was difficult to explain. No preventive arrests were made, and Sikhs attacking the Deras were left unapprehended. Till May 19, only 10 cases had been registered, mostly against the premis. When asked about the number of arrests, Punjab dgp NPS Aulakh blandly refused to provide any figures.
When Badal was asked why he was not opening a channel for talks with the Dera despite offers from the sect’s members, he indicated that he was not in favour of any conciliation till the Baba rendered an apology.
Badal is caught in the competition for the Sikh vote with an aggressive Amarinder stoking the community’s sense of outrage. The Malwa region, once Badal’s bastion, was successfully invaded by Amarinder in the last Assembly election and Badal is desperate to regain its control. Badal could hardly crack down on the Sikh protests without being seen as anti-Sikh.
“Whenever the Akalis are in power, there is an attempt by the Congress to pit Badal against radical elements within the Sikh community so as to destablise him. While polarisation of the Sikhs against the premis and against the Congress, which is backing them, will help Badal, it may turn counter-productive if the law and order situation goes out of hand. On the other hand, the Baba has given Badal a golden opportunity to take revenge on the premis for voting against him in the last polls. Had Badal acted differently against the premis, most democratic parties would have criticised him. Now, most parties are backing Badal against the Baba,” says Sukhdarshan Singh Nat, state secretary of the CPI (ML).
As the situation worsened and the Baba called for imposing President’s Rule in Punjab, much to the delight of the Punjab Congress, Badal saw his gains evaporating. The Punjab BJP on May 16 held a meeting and expressed distress at the situation. The BJP, which had weaned the urban Hindu vote away from the Congress in the Assembly polls, was left facing the prospect of the minority drifting back to the Congress. “The images of shops being forcibly shut and damaged by Sikh youth brought back memories of the days of militancy to our supporters. The Baba has undoubtedly done wrong but the inaction by the Badal government for four days is not justified. We want Badal to ensure that the radical elements of the Sikh community do not take centrestage,” the BJP’s Punjab general secretary Kamal Sharma told Tehelka.
Matters reached a head for Badal over the weekend with Punjab Governor SFS Rodrigues summoning him on May 21. The Governor being the functionary on whose report the President can impose Central rule, Badal changed tack and, for the first time since the clashes erupted, spoke of dealing with the miscreants strictly.
In 1997, the premis had backed the Akalis who rode to power in the Assembly with a large majority. “At that time we issued a statement that the premis and the Badal-backed SGPC were bound to collide because the Dera culture goes against organised religion. There were huge protests in Mansa against us and the Akalis backed the premis. The Congress backed the Left parties. That clash which we predicted 10 years back has happened,” says Nat.
Some see the Baba as having challenged the SGPC’s hegemony over Sikh symbols. “This is a case of religious competition. The SGPC is in competition with the militant groups and the Deras. The reaction against the premis was a way of teaching them a lesson. Even though the Namdharis and the Radhaswamis have different practices, they never run into trouble with the SGPC because these sects never challenge it politically. The Baba did just that and earned the wrath of the SGPC and the clergy,” says Kumar.
As tempers soared, the first casualty was the SGPC as it lost ground to the militant elements. These elements, who had been wiped out in the Assembly polls, gained currency as the clashes intensified. The five Sikh jathedars barely held their ground in Talwandi Sabo on May 17, with one of them having a narrow escape as a sword was thrown at him. The high priests were perceived to be going soft on the premis. With the anniversary of Operation Bluestar barely days away, Sikh militant elements browbeat the jathedars at Amritsar on May 20 with hordes of sword-wielding youths surrounding the meeting of the SGPC at the Golden Temple that announced a Punjab bandh. Badal’s pointsmen with the jathedars, advisor to the Chief Minister DS Cheema and SGPC Chief Avtar Singh Makkar, were reduced to being bystanders as the priests took a hard stand that reflected poorly on the Badal administration.
Punjab’s well-wishers are dismayed by the turn of events. More than the violence in Punjab, which the Punjab government described as just a “handful of incidents”, it is the damage to the social fabric which has observers worried. Simmering agrarian, social and economic tensions in Punjab can get an additional caste edge given the backward status of a majority of the premis.
“Punjab has been reduced to a basket case. The aftermath of the violence may see the premis migrating to safer areas in towns and cities, away from the villages where they are in a minority. Beyond this, no investor would like to come to Punjab. Even the capital flow in pursuit of profits will cease in Punjab because of the disturbance. Even if there are profits, capital will not flow towards Punjab. It is to be noted that FDI in Punjab in the last five years has been a mere 0.5 percent. Further, the share of taxes of Punjab in the Central pool is not in the state’s favour. After a long time, people had reconciled to peace in Punjab but all that seems to have been lost,” says Kumar.
The political, social and economic boycott of the premis announced by the Sikh high priests on May 17 has a political agenda. “Supposing there is need to visit the house of one of my premi supporters in case of a function or death of a relative, I will find it difficult because of the boycott call. Since the premis are backing the Congress, this boycott will hit us,” Talwandi Sabo’s Congress MLA Jeet Mohinder Singh Sidhu told Tehelka. Adds Nat, “Wherever the premis are involved in some conflict, in panchayat polls for example, they can be made easy targets under the guise of religious sentiment.”
Top sources in the Punjab government say that the damage to the social fabric, which will show up more clearly when the violence ebbs, is the most crucial issue before the government. “This is the most important question before us. Believe me, we are giving it the utmost thought,” Bains said.
Badal dismissed fears of investors turning away from Punjab. “Such incidents happen in so many states. Has it made any difference to Gujarat?”

Sunday, May 27

Decentralise Economic Development Model

Punjab can rejuvenate its sluggish economy if Panchayti Raj Institutions are revitalised in a scientific way, writes Janak Raj Gupta, UGC Emeritus Fellow, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala in The Tribune
During a meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Secretary to Government of India, Panchayati Raj, Meenakshi Dutta Ghosh told him that the Centre will not give grants worth Rs 270 crore to the state for the rural sector as the state government has failed to observe several guidelines. It is not for the first time that the Punjab government has been warned about the stoppage of Central funds. On many occasions in the past also the state has lost crores of rupees because of its apathy and failure to take track of Central funds. Even a recent report (The Tribune, April 24, 2007) shows that under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewable Mission (JNNRUM), Punjab was to get Rs 520 crore out of the total Rs 50,000 crore earmarked for the purpose. However, because of the indifferent attitude of state machinery, Punjab could get a paltry sum of Rs 20 crore. Further, the Union Ministry for Panchayati Raj has also decided to set up an annual Incentive Fund amounting to Rs 5,000 crore for the period of Eleventh Five-Year Plan. What to talk of availing such facilities, one wonders if the state machinery is even aware of it. Presently, the crucial issue appears to be the propagation of the decentralisation model for economic development. According to the recommendations of the Twelfth Finance Commission (TFC), Punjab will get Rs 495 crore for local self governments out of which Rs 325 crore will flow to PRIs. But one thing which is not known to the higher ups is that Punjab’s share would have been substantially reduced had not the TFC abandoned the earlier decentralisation index as one of the important determinants to work out the inter-state share whereby it was mandatory for the state to implement the recommendations of the State Finance Commission. Already Punjab has appointed three State Finance Commissions, though the Third SFC has just submitted the interim report. However, the fate of the earlier two SFCs’ reports is not very encouraging. Unfortunately, local bodies in Punjab, particularly PRIs, have not received the attention they deserved. Punjab’s 66.08 per cent population still lives in rural areas, while the percentage contribution of agriculture as a whole, i.e., primary sector, has been declining. It is nearly 35 per cent today. This declining level of income has made Punjab farmers debt-ridden. Lack of employment opportunities in non-farm sector and poor health and educational facilities in the rural areas has added to their woes. Conventional mindset and inertia of the official machinery have further accentuated the problem. It is only the involvement of people at the grassroot level which can stem the rot. A decentralised model of economic development is the need of the hour. People living on agricultural income alone have to be provided with some supplementary sources of income at their doorsteps. Rural focal points need to be revived. However, in view of the non-availability of land for full fledged focal points, mini focal points or shopping centres can be created on centrally located panchayat land which could serve as a base for generating direct and indirect employment opportunities for semi-educated, semi-skilled and even unskilled workers by forming self-help groups (SHGs). Agencies like NABARD and commercial banks can be associated for financing such projects of the panchayats. The Union Ministry for Rural Development and Panchayats has been emphasising the need for creating rural business hubs to help panchayats collaborate with industry and strengthening the rural economy. Another concrete measure through which the Punjab government can help the farm community is to adopt crop insurance scheme in a big way. To begin with, the entire premium should be borne by such agencies as the Punjab Mandi Board. Since 50 per cent of the premium charged from the small and marginal farmers is subsidised, this will not impose much financial burden. Of late, increasing emphasis is being laid on inviting the mega projects which may accelerate the growth process in the state’s economy. However, it must be understood that they are reluctant to invest until and unless substantial tax benefits and freebies are offered to them. Secondly, these are mostly labour saving projects, and whatever labour is employed would be mostly the cheap migratory labour. Thus, salvation of the Punjab economy lies in strengthening its rural economy through decentralised planning model, where PRIs can play a dominant role. One cannot belittle the important role which PRIs can play in augmenting and improving infrastructural services in rural areas. Panchayats are in a better position to induce the NRIs and other donors for financing such services which can lead to substantial reduction in public expenditure. However, strengthening PRIs is not an easy task due to the prevailing mindset of the bureaucracy. It is often alleged by vested interests that it is not possible to transfer powers to the PRIs because these are belligerent with political rivalries. But is the state legislature and even Parliament free from such distractions? This has not belittled the importance of these institutions. Punjab can rejuvenate its sluggish economy and regain its lost glory on the social and economic fronts if PRIs are revitalised in a scientific way as has been done in Kerala. This southern state has consistently maintained its top notch position in the country insofar as human development index is concerned.

Friday, May 18

It’s 1978 once more

The massive tragedy and turmoil of the 1980s threatens to repeat itself in Punjab, writes Bhupinder Brar, professor of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh, in The Indian Express.
History repeats itself, quite often in horrifying ways. I hope fervently this does not happen in Punjab yet again. The signs are ominous, however, and it already feels like walking on quickly thinning ice.
Commentators have been quick in pointing out the parallels that exist between the events of the last few days and what had happened in 1978. On the Baisakhi day that year, followers of the Damdami Taksal had clashed with those of the Nirankari sect, leaving many dead on the spot, and triggering a process that took thousands of lives over the next 15 years.
Nirankaris were then accused of polluting the doctrinal purity and cultural traditions of Sikhism. It is the turn of Dera Sacha Sauda now to face the same allegations. Interestingly, neither the Nirankaris nor the Dera have ever claimed to represent Sikhism. Of course, for decades both have drawn into their fold followers of diverse backgrounds. Many of these came from Sikh background.
Any social historian of Punjab will tell you this was nothing new. In this land of Sufism, various spiritual traditions have not only coexisted peacefully but also blended effortlessly. For centuries, the people of Punjab sought spiritual solace and guidance by visiting, often simultaneously, gurdwaras, temples, dargahs, marhis and deras.
These very historians will tell you that this overlap has always irked those who gain and maintain political power by manipulating social-cultural identities. This was so in colonial Punjab, and this has been so since Independence.
Much worse, Punjabi intellectuals and the urban middle classes, always in search of professional and commercial spoils, often combined with such sectarian leaderships. Long years of political indoctrination and rewriting of histories followed, changing the self-perceptions of communities. Once the communities began to define themselves in such a narrow and divisive fashion, they were also ready to be easily manipulated and exploited.
What comes easily to mind in this context is the famous argument made by the eminent political scientist, Rajni Kothari. It is true, he said, that caste identities dominate Indian politics, but something else that is not so readily recognised is equally true: these caste identities are neither pristine nor perennial; they are what politics has made of them by constantly moulding and manipulating them.
I believe what Kothari said about ‘politicisation’ of castes equally applies to religious identities. Left to themselves, religious communities would perhaps find ways of living in peaceable coexistence. But they have been drained of that capacity by the political forces which work on them.
What are we to make, then, of the relationship between religion and politics? This is a question that occupies every thinking Indian but it is a question all the more pertinent in a state like Punjab. The Akali leadership has always maintained that the two are inseparable. How secular can the BJP possibly be in Punjab when their national leadership either leads Hindutva forces or, at least, is unable to maintain a credible distance from them? The Akali-BJP alliance is therefore purely tactical and could prove tenuous in changed circumstances. The credentials of the Congress as a secular party have also become suspect. Its chief ministers have, in the past, tried to prove they are greater Sikhs than the Akalis, and they have patronised as well as sought patronage from religious sects and deras.
But there is something that troubles me even more than the opportunistic policies of political parties: the growing impossibility of practising sarv-dharma-samabhava as the Indian version of secularism. Not only does samabhava mean that the state give all religions equal regard; it also requires that different dharmas have a certain minimum regard for one another.
Such regard did exist once among religious communities. No longer. If at one point of time the Muslim League wanted a Pakistan, in more recent times the Hindutva forces have tried to turn India into an equivalent of Pakistan for the Hindus. We know only too well about the political sentiment in Punjab that would very much like an equivalent of Pakistan for the Sikhs.
I am not trying to run down our neighbouring country. My intention is to draw attention to a particular form of religio-political ideology regardless of the particular community or party that practices it. The ideology has two components: one, since other communities must, of necessity, act in ways that are inimical to us, we must be alert as a community and guard against their malefic designs; two, an essential part of remaining alert is to watch out amongst ourselves for those whose behaviour is suspect, for they might break ranks and betray our cause.
The events that led to the massive tragedy and turmoil of the 1980s had both these components. It did not take this powerful ideology long to sweep aside voices of moderation and sanity. Twenty years later, do I hear the cracking of the ground beneath my feet?

Tuesday, May 8

Fake kills, real issues

Punjab has yet to come to terms with what it suffered for more than a decade, but there are still answers to be had before the state can move, writes Hindustan Times in its series Killers in Uniform.

“Extra-judicial killings are de facto state policy in india... they continue to occur with alarming frequency... and the central govt has failed to prevent such occurrences” — South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre in a written statement to the UN panel in 2003

The gujarat fake encounter case has brought back memories of “escapes” and “encounters” involving terrorists — which, in fact, were nothing but extra-judicial killings — in Punjab. Former police chief of Punjab Julio Riberio was said to have instituted the “bullet for bullet” strategy in 1986-87, another name for encounter killings. His successors, especially K.P.S. Gill, fine-tuned the policy The . macabre result was that a number of top terrorists arrested were subsequently reported to have “escaped”. They have not been heard of since; the presumption is they were shot.
An additional factor was the provision of bounty anywhere between Rs 10 and 30 lakh for particular terrorists. This provided great incentive for false encounters where low-grade militants and others were killed and passed off as top terrorists. To erase telltale signs, the wide network of irrigation canals was used to dump the bodies. Besides, the cremation grounds in Amritsar and Tarn Taran were used to cremate the unidentified ones among them.
During the past few months, a number of well-known terrorists, who were supposed to have been killed in encounters, with money on their head claimed, have surfaced. What now comes out is that those who were actually bumped off in their place as “terrorists” were either peripheral criminals or, worse, innocent citizens.
While in Gujarat different dimensions of the fake encounter case un fold, in Punjab the real face of the “encounter killings” is popping out from police files, in many cases after great labour on the part of victims’ families, courts, human rights activists and, of course, the media.
The stories revisited by HT in Punjab include those of people who faced charges varying from none to terrorism. The one that stands out is that of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra from Amritsar, as it was a killing that was not only extra-judicial in itself, but also an attempt to cover up “thousands of other such eliminations”. And the one string that runs through all of them is the utmost effort of the state police to keep the truth from emerging, little surprise, though.