Akalis invoke Panth, fringe raises Khalistan: Is communal politics back in Punjab?
Over the last few days, Punjab's religio-political matrix has come alive again. On one hand the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) that had received a crushing defeat in the recent Assembly polls is trying to revive itself through the Panthic agenda and on the other, some small scale desperate attempts are being made to keep alive the demand for Khalistan which has almost no support on the ground.
Ever since they were relegated to third place in the recent Assembly elections with the people choosing Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as the main Opposition party, the Akalis have started resorting to their age old technique of politics of religion while making use of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) where they remain the dominant force.
It is through the SGPC that a two pronged strategy is being executed on the ground these days. The first is the building of a picture gallery of the 'martyrs' of Operation Bluestar, including militant preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who were killed in the Army attack on the Harmandir Sahib complex in June 1984.
This gallery is coming up in the basement of Bhindranwale Memorial near Akal Takht that was built in 2012. The memorial was erected in the memory of militants and other innocent Sikhs killed in the military action. The proposal to set up this gallery was moved recently by the chief of Damdami Taksal Baba Harnam Singh Dhumma. Bhindranwale was also a product of the same seminary. The 'Kar Sewa' (voluntary services) for this gallery began on July 6.
The ruling Congress party under Captain Amarinder Singh has been raising concerns about its potential to disrupt communal harmony in the state. It has been accusing the Akalis and their patriarch Parkash Singh Badal of trying to whip up religious emotions through such steps whenever he has been out of power.
Observers point out that the decision to build the gallery and the memorial go back to October 1984 when the Akalis had passed a resolution in this regard. After Operation Bluestar, the Akal Takht was rebuilt in the successive years and along with it had come up the structure of the memorial which the SGPC was compelled to lock up and shelve as some elements had written pro-Khalistan slogans all over it.
Thereafter the Badal government came to power in 2002 but nothing was done about it. Sources say that just before its tenure ended it once again passed a resolution in this regard. The Akalis were shunted out of power only to return in 2007. Once again towards the fag end of its tenure a resolution in this regard was passed by the SGPC and the memorial became a reality in 2012.
Now, when the Akalis are once again out of power, the SGPC under Kirpal Singh Badungar and the Damdami Taksal under Harnam Singh Dhumma have got down to building the gallery. Badungar has reportedly gone to the extent of terming Dhumma as Bhindranwale's successor. Of late, Badungar has emerged as a pointsman of Akali politics, even participating in Akali dharnas against the government and attacking the Congress repeatedly.
The second part of the Akali strategy of revival is being carried out through the 'Dharam Prachar Lehar' launched by the SGPC some days ago with the aim of propagating Sikh values among the masses. Both the former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal and his wife and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal were present at the launch of the campaign in Talwandi Sabo.
Badungar has reportedly been appealing to the masses get baptised to 'to save the religion'. He has been pointing that politics and religion go together for the Sikh community. His attacks on the Congress have been growing sharper by the day.
This had led to the Congress leadership lashing out at him a couple of days ago while accusing him of making repeated attempts to vitiate the state’s peaceful atmosphere and also warning him against fomenting communal strife in Punjab.
Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) leaders Kuljit Singh Nagra, Gurpreet Singh Kangar, Kushaldeep Singh Dhillon and Kuldeep Singh Vaid came out with a scathing statement saying that Badungar has proved, time and again, that he is willing to compromise on the state’s peace and security to further his personal agenda. They attacked him for hailing Bhindranwale as a “warrior” at a function attended by the members of Badal family and said that this clearly exposed the SGPC’s unhealthy nexus with the SAD.
The Congress leaders said that it is more than evident that there is a larger game-plan, spearheaded by the SGPC at the behest of SAD, which is at work. They pointed that the SGPC’s open support to SAD’s anti-Congress dharnas in the state last month was another glaring example of their nasty collaboration.
The Congress has also been saying that Badungar wants to usurp the SAD leadership and has no qualms about triggering communal unrest in the state.
Meanwhile, Punjab has also been witnessing attempts by some 'desperate' elements to keep alive the idea of Khalistan. A number of hoardings had come up at various locations across Punjab last week that talked of 'Freedom' and a referendum for Punjab's independence in 2020. These hoardings also prominently carried the photograph of Bhindranwale. They had dotted some prominent locations in Rajpura in Amarinder home district of Patiala along with Barnala, Fatehgarh Sahib and Ropar.
This had led to various parties including the BJP demanding the removal of these hoardings. The Congress leadership had pointed that there are no takers for such propaganda.
The Punjab Police have booked three USA based persons, including the legal advisor of the organisation Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), along with two others based in India on charges of sedition, promoting enmity and criminal conspiracy, after Amarinder ordered a crackdown on the outfit amid complaints by the local people of deliberate attempts to vitiate the state’s atmosphere.
Amarinder, who also holds the home portfolio, has directed the police to ensure that neither the SFJ, nor any other outfit succeeds in whipping up passions in the state, which Pakistan’s ISI could also exploit to its advantage.
There were 40 hoardings that had come up as a part of the campaign, titled “Punjab Independence Referendum 2020”. According to the government this campaign had been managed by Baba Hanuman Singh Enterprise agency, which was hired for the purpose by New York-based SFJ through its legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
Besides Pannun, others booked by the police have been identified as Jagdeep Singh alias Baba Jag Singh, originally a resident of Fatehgarh Sahib and now based in New York and Jagjeet Singh who is a resident of Jammu and Kashmir and is now based in New York. The two accused based in India have been identified by the police as Gurpreet Singh of Mohali and Harpunit Singh of Jammu.
A police spokesperson said that the SFJ, backed by Khalistani forces, had been actively trying to destabilise Punjab for the past several months. He said the police have in recent weeks, busted several modules of terrorists linked to Khalistani forces, which had started raising their ugly heads again in an apparent bid to whip up tension in Punjab. He claimed that interrogation of these alleged terrorists arrested from various parts of Punjab has shown that they were being mentored and armed by Khalistani supporters in Canada, USA and other places, with some also being trained by ISI in neighbouring Pakistan.
Dr Pramod Kumar of the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC) in Chandigarh told Catch, “These are attempts by some desperate elements who do not understand that the political and electoral reality has changed in Punjab. It is the Punjabi Hindus, Dalits and liberal Sikhs who decide the outcome. Such elements are now further isolated. Invoking Bhindranwale can lead to nostalgia, glorification or catharsis but it has no future goal.”
Several Sikh groups had protested and also raised slogans in favour of Khalistan during the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to US. They had also raised slogans against Modi accusing him subverting religious freedom in India asking him to go back.