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?”

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