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.

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