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Punjab unrest: the problem is Badal & Son, not Khalistan 2.0

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:11 IST

The unrest

  • Punjab is facing a crisis. The conditions are similar to what they were in 1982-84
  • But this might not lead to a revival in militancy
  • The main problem is anti-incumbency against the Badals

The flashpoint

  • Militants held a Sarbat Khalsa in Diwali this year
  • Congress and the Akalis are blaming each other for backing the Sarbat Khalsa

More in the story

  • Why is a revival in Khalistan militancy unlikely?
  • What are the various dimensions of the crisis in Punjab?
  • Why is there resentment among Sikhs?

A series of unfortunate developments in Punjab seems to suggest at the outset that the state is in turmoil again - and that Sikh militancy may rise again.

The holding of a Sikh congregation or 'Sarbat Khalsa' by militants on Diwali this year; the resolution to 'dismiss' the five Jathedars to the Akal Takht and the 'appointment' of Jagtar Singh Hawara, currently a convict serving his sentence in jail for the murder of former chief minister Beant Singh, as a Jathedar; and the passing of resolutions for 'Azad Sikh Raj'; and instances of desecration of the Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, have led to the speculation that Sikh militancy may resurface.

At the Sarbat Khalsa, people raised their hands on anything anti-Badal rather than on panthic issues

The conditions on the ground - an acute crisis in agriculture, high rates of unemployment among educated youngsters, drug addiction, the resurfacing of dormant militant elements and the attempt to churn the cauldron of religious politics - are similar to those in the tragic period of 1982-84.

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At that time, they had led to the growth of Sikh militancy.

The Sarbat Khalsa row

However, any suggestion of revival of Sikh militancy is nothing more than fear mongering.

Three major changes have taken place since the 1980s: Punjab today is far more prosperous than in the 1980s; the people are wiser after the experience of the 1980s; and there is no Hindu-Sikh communal tension.

To say that Sikh militancy has revived is just fear mongering. Punjab has changed since the 1980s

"The same set of conditions which produced terrorism earlier - rural indebtedness, drug menace and unemployment - have also produced secularism in Punjab since then. What matters is how the political classes deal with these issues," argues Pramod Kumar, Director of Chandigarh-based Institute of Development and Communication.

Baljit Balli, a veteran editor, explains, "In 1995, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) adopted the Moga Declaration on 'Punjab, Panjabi and Punjabiyat' - in effect rejecting Sikh fundamentalism. Today's Punjab has moved far away from militancy and there is no desire to go back."

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Why then did the SAD-BJP government allow the holding of a Sarbat Khalsa or Sikh religious congregation at Amritsar on Diwali on 10 November?

The government and the Opposition Congress party blame each other. This was evident in the rival press conferences held on the same day by Captain (Retd) Amarinder Singh on behalf of the Congress and by Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal in Delhi to trade charges. They are also being repeated at the local level.

Like Sukhbir Badal, Punjab education minister Daljit Singh Cheema blames the Congress party for "supporting" the Sarbat Khalsa. "Why would we support those who 'revoked' the title of "Fakr-e-Qaum Panth Ratan" (Pride of the Community and Gem of the Faith) conferred on Parkash Singh Badal?"

Congress president for Phagwara district, Harjeet Singh Parmar, however, believes that the Sarbat Khalsa was organised by "fanatics" and not by political parties.

"The Akalis are weak today and did not take any preventive action for fear of angering Sikhs. But Sikh fundamentalism has no takers today," claims Parmar.

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Those who watched the Sarbat Khalsa live on TV claim that people were much more enthusiastic in raising their hands whenever anything was said against the Badals and were less so on panthic issues.

Sikh dissatisfaction

The entire crisis in Punjab seems to be about the Badal family.

How has this come about?

The SAD is essentially a party organised through the Gurudwaras. Its relationship with the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which controls Gurudwaras, is akin to that of the BJP with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

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Up to the death of Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who remained the president of the SGPC for a record 27 years, in 2004, the SGPC acted as an effective check on the SAD, and at times, as its rival pole. Since 2004, however, the SGPC has effectively been under the control of SAD president Parkash Singh Badal.

However, from 1997 onwards -- through the 2012 elections -- and till 2014 the SAD chose a non-religious or non-panthic route for electoral mobilisation. This was necessitated by several factors.

"The delimitation and demographic composition of constituencies prompted the Jat Sikhs, the primary constituency of the SAD, to take urban Hindus and Dalits along with them. To win, the party had to move away from a purely 'panthic agenda'. It talked of development and that continued till about a year ago," Pramod Kumar explains.

However, after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, there has been a persistent and a residual feeling in Punjab that the Sikhs have been wronged.

"This sentiment initially manifested itself in political parties demanding compensation and rehabilitation for the families of victims. Under competitive political pressure, however, it was soon extended to demands for clemency for former militants," explains veteran journalist Jagtar Singh.

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"Thus both the Congress and the SAD-BJP government supported the mercy petition of Babbar Khalsa militant Balwant Singh Rajoana, sentenced to death in the Beant Singh murder case. A resolution was passed to that effect in the state assembly. The Akal Takht designated him "Zinda Shaheed" or "living martyr". Clemency was also sought by the Akalis for Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, convicted and sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment)," Singh points out.

Such is the clamour to seek clemency for militants that even Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose party is trying to make mark in 2017 state elections, wrote to the President seeking clemency for Bhullar.

After the 1984 riots, there has been a persistent feeling in Punjab that Sikhs have been wronged

It was perhaps a result of this sentiment, that after having rejected the demand for building a memorial for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale twice earlier, the SGPC acquiesced to allowing it to be constructed inside the Golden Temple in 2014. The Badal government did not oppose the move.

In trying to out-compete each other as benefactors of the Sikhs, the political parties in Punjab have, therefore, expanded the public space for what has been residual but dormant sympathy for Sikh militancy.

Public unrest

Simultaneously, there was a farmers' agitation building up starting from August to November this year -- farmers were upset over non-payment of arrears by rice and sugar mills; the price of 'Basmati Pusa-1509' had tumbled from Rs 2,500 per quintal last year (it was Rs 3,500 per quintal in 2013) to between Rs 900 to Rs 1,200 per quintal which was less than the minimum support price for ordinary paddy (Rs. 1,450 per quintal); the cotton crop was ruined by a Whitefly attack; and there was a fake pesticides scam which compounded the woes of cotton farmers.

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In September, there was also an agitation by contract workers in the government for regularisation of employment.

In the midst of this simmering unrest in both rural and urban Punjab, in September, the Akal Takht suddenly pardoned the chief of Dera Sacha Sauda Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh for an alleged act of blasphemy. This act dated back to 2007 when he had dressed up 'impersonating' the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh.

The 'pardon' was issued through a letter based on an explanation by the Dera chief denying the charge against him. Normally, he would have had to appear before the Akal Takht - as had the late Giani Zail Singh and Buta Singh for their alleged religious misdemeanours.

This added fuel to the fire. An already agitated public saw this as vote-bank politics of the Badals keeping the 2017 election in mind. The Dera chief has substantial following in the Malwa belt among both Hindus and Sikhs.

The economic and the religious anger which had started melding into a single agitation in October coalesced further when there were a series of instances of desecration of the Sikh Holy Book.

In the agitation against these sacrilegious acts, two protestors were killed in police firing and two others arrested for allegedly desecrating the Holy Book.

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The police claimed that their activities were funded from Australia and Dubai. That the police had killed and arrested people who were believed by to be innocent by the locals, infuriated the public further. The "foreign hand" business turned out to be a cock and bull story and the police had to release those arrested.

Badals' credibility at rock bottom

"The trust level between the government and the people is so low that today anything that goes wrong is blamed on the Badals. The makers of Cremica bread raised the price of their bread loaf and people blamed Sukhbir Badal saying he takes Re.1 per loaf! That is the perception that this government has to battle," points out Kumar.

Clearly the stage is being set for the 2017 assembly elections.

There is a perceptible change in Punjab politics with the hegemony of the Badal family being questioned by the people. The largely Sikh peasantry is upset and so are others who are not in agriculture.

Whichever way this anti-incumbency sentiment goes, will decide the outcome of the 2017 state assembly elections. It will also matter how the mainstream political parties manouevre their campaign around the religious and economic issues plaguing the state. That will determine their future as well as that of Punjab.

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First published: 7 December 2015, 7:20 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.