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Punjab will be a true test for SC order on religion and caste politics

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:47 IST

Punjab is likely to turn out to be the ideal test case for the implementation of the Supreme Court's order on removing caste and religion from politics.

The apex court, on 2 January, barred all political parties from seeking votes in the name of religion, caste, race, community or language. But one has to just look at the past two years of political developments in Punjab to understand why the beginning needs to be made from this state, which will go to the polls in a few weeks.

To begin with, Punjab has, at the helm, India's oldest regional force in the form of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), whose leadership has never never made a distinction between religion and politics. The general perception about the party is that it goes according to the principle of Miri and Piri, which in itself is a compound of two words of Perso-Arabic origin, and was adapted into the Sikh tradition to connote the close relationship between the temporal and the spiritual aspect of human life.

For Sikhs, the term represents a basic principle which has influenced their religious and political thought. It not only governs society but also social behaviour.

The last 96 years

The history of the Akali Dal began on 14 December 1920, as a task force of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the highest Sikh religious body.

There have been various factions of the Akali Dal from time to time, but they have been bound to the basic tenets and the Panthic agenda.

Politically, the most dominant faction at present is the SAD (Badal), led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

The Congress is the other major force in the state. But for the last more than three decades, there have been efforts to paint it as an anti-Sikh force, particularly with reference to the Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots that had followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The last 18 months

With these two players once again fighting it out, along with new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), one needs to look at the issues that have dominated the political discourse in the run up to the polls.

It was around one-and-a-half years ago that Punjab started witnessing a series of instances of desecration of holy books. The incidents continue, and desecration is not confined to one religion or group. There have been instances of the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita at various places, which have kept the state on tenterhooks, even as political charges and counter-charges have flown thick and fast.

In addition to this, instances of religious violence have spiralled. The most prominent instance was the killing of Mata Chand Kaur, the 88-year-old wife of the late Satguru Jagjit Singh, the former head of the Namdhari sect, who was gunned down at Bhaini Sahib, the headquarters of the sect, near Ludhiana earlier this year.

This was followed by an assault on preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale. While he had a narrow escape, an aide of his, Bhupinder Singh, was killed when around a dozen assailants fired upon them near a 'chabeel' offering cold drinks to passersby near Ludhiana.

More recently, one of the seniormost RSS functionaries, Brigadier (Retd.) Jagdish Gagneja, was gunned down.

None of these cases have been solved. The government has been unable to explain its failure to solve these cases, and has instead come out and blamed Pakistani agency ISI for trying to disturb peace in the state.

The case of Delhi AAP MLA Naresh Yadav being allegedly framed in a case of desecration of the Quran in Malerkotla gave a new dimension to communal politics in the state.

No party can be absolved

The Akalis have been at the receiving end in these matters, with state Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh blaming them for trying to have a controlled insurgency in the state, in order to polarise the electorate. The AAP leadership has also attacked them for playing communal politics.

The Congress was the first to welcome the Supreme Court order, with Amarinder saying the order had far reaching implications for Punjab, where the Akalis had always 'misused' religion to seek votes. He said that even today, Akali leaders were taking people to Gurudwaras and making them swear their support to SAD.

Accusing Badal of time and again raising the bogey of the Sikh Panth being in danger in order to polarise religious votes ahead of elections, Amarinder said it was high time that all this was put to an end. He also accused the Akalis of misusing the SGPC for electoral purposes.

But this does not absolve the Congress and the AAP leaderships, particularly when it comes to resorting to Dera politics. Both Amarinder and AAP's national convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal have been making rounds of various Deras.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was reportedly accompanied by Amarinder to a visit to the Beas Dera of the Radha Soami sect, to seek the 'blessings' of its head Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon in the middle of last month. Earlier this year, it was Kejriwal visiting Dera Sachkhand Ballan in the Doaba region.

It is obvious that political leaders seek the support of Dera followers ahead of polls. The influence of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim of Dera Sacha Sauda has been visible in political developments in Punjab over the last few years.

Punjab has witnessed the growth of a large number of religious sects and their Deras, with people mainly from the non-Jatt or non upper-classes thronging them. This is because the Gurudwaras and other Sikh institutions have been dominated by the upper-classes, which have given no space to the Dalits and backward classes in their management or functioning.

Then there is also the ongoing Mukh Mantri Tirath Yatra Scheme of the Punjab government, which involves sending people to religious shrines free of cost.

Election Commission needs to be empowered

Veteran Punjab politician Bir Devinder Singh, who has a thorough knowledge of Sikh religious affairs, believes that the SC order will not have an immediate effect. He told Catch: "The Supreme Court order will have huge ramifications in the long run. Political parties have been exploiting the religious sentiments of the people. It will take acclimatisation and time for them to understand the nuances of the order."

He pointed out that during the campaign, if any party violates the order, a case will be registered, investigated, legally fought and the order will come only after an MLA has long been elected. Instead, he feels the apex court should empower the Election Commission of India (ECI) to take immediate action, like cancellation of candidature.

He suggested that the ECI should be in a position to codify the rules within a stipulated time and implement them, if the order is to make any impact in the upcoming polls.

Dr Surjit Singh of Punjabi University in Patiala also put the onus on the ECI.to ensure that the purpose for which this order had been passed was achieved.

"Modern day political parties have failed to eradicate the contradictions of caste and religion. While they should have done away with these, what they actually did was to maintain a status quo. The question now is whether the court will be able to change Indian politics," he said.

While referring to the huge gap between constitutional exercises and the response of the people, he gave the example of how the courts have tried to intervene to save the rights and interests of citizens in Haryana in the face of Khap panchayats, but the influence of the latter remains as strong as ever.

"A lot depends how the ECI acts on it. Ultimately, it is the ECI that has given recognition to parties like the Akali Dal, Muslim League and Shiv Sena. Why not study their manifestos and their promises and take the right action? It needs to act suo motu," Singh added.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 3 January 2017, 7:48 IST