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?

1 comment:

trangam said...

Very well written.