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.

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