Punjab Sacrilege Row: These 3 Dates Tell Us Why Beadbi Remains a Wound for Sikhs
In at least three past incidents, Sikhs demanding action against sacrilege were fired upon and killed.
Within a space of hours, two incidents of attempted sacrilege have shaken Punjab. The first of these incidents took place on the evening of Saturday, 18 December at Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, where a man in his twenties climbed over the railing and jumped near the area where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed.
He also grabbed the sword that had been donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 19th century. The man, who is alleged to be from Uttar Pradesh, was apprehended by the Sevadars and allegedly beaten to death.
Barely a few hours later, in the early hours of 19 December, a person was caught after allegedly desecrating the Nishan Sahib at a Gurdwara in Nizampura, Kapurthala. He was allegedly beaten to death by a mob before the police could take him away.
While the first sacrilege was caught on video by a channel that provides live telecast from Harmandir Sahib, the 'beadbi' or sacrilege angle is being disputed in the second incident. The Kapurthala district police has claimed that the deceased had come to "steal" from the Gurdwara and not to commit sacrilege.
The brazenness of the first case can be seen clearly in the video and this has led many to believe that such an act could only have been committed as part of a premeditated conspiracy.
The Punjab government has announced a time-bound Special Investigation Team to probe the case.
While there's no justification for mob justice, it would be wrong to not look at how past cases have shaped public psyche in Punjab around sacrilege.
Three instances are particularly important here as in all these cases it was the people demanding justice who ended up being killed.
1978 NIRANKARI INCIDENT AND 1986 NAKODAR SACRILEGE
Veteran journalist Jagtar Singh says, "One has to go back to the Sikh-Nirankari confrontation in 1978 that pushed Punjab into dark tunnel for more than a decade".
Nirankaris were considered heretical by orthodox Sikhs as they had begun revering their founders and their successors as Gurus. The then leader of the Nirankaris Gurbachan Singh is also said to have compared himself to Guru Gobind Singh and said that he would create 'Sat Sitaras' to compliment the 'Panj Pyare' of Sikhism.
These beliefs are considered sacrilegious among Sikhs. There was also a perception among Sikhs that Nirankaris had support of the state.
In that context, granting to the Nirankaris the date of 13 April that year to hold their convention in Amritsar upset Sikhs even more as it coincided with Khalsa Day.
Sikhs took out a non-violent protest and moved towards the venue of the Nirankari convention but the police and armed Nirankaris attacked the protesters, killing 13 Sikhs.
Sixty two Nirankaris were charged in the case, which was tried in neighbouring Haryana. But all were acquitted on grounds of self-defence.
Jagtar Singh writes that the violence that followed the 1978 killings, "consumed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Akali Dal chief Sant Harchand Singh Longwal, Chief Minister Beant Singh and Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, besides thousands of others, known and unknown".
This also included Nirankari leader Gurbachan Singh who was assassinated in 1980.
In the middle of the 1980s turmoil, a major sacrilege incident took place in 1986 in the town of Nakodar in Jalandhar district when five copies of the Guru Granth Sahib were burnt.
When Sikhs protested demanding action against those behind the sacrilege and recover the burnt copies so that they could be disposed off in a respectful manner, they were fired upon by the police.
Four Sikh men were killed in the police firing.
2015 SACRILEGE INCIDENTS
The 2015 sacrilege cases that created a political storm in Punjab actually involve three separate cases.
The first incident was on 1 June in which a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in Faridkot district.
The second incident was on 24-25 September in which abusive posters emerged in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala and Bargari, threatening that the Guru Granth Sahib will be thrown on to the streets. One of the posters also challenged the police and Sikhs to recover the Guru Granth Sahib stolen from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala.
This was said to have been the handiwork of Dera Sacha Sauda followers upset at the film Messenger of God starring sect founder Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh not being allowed to release in Punjab.
The third incident was on 12 October when torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found on the streets leading to Bargari village in Faridkot district.
When Sikhs protested against the sacrilege and demanded action against those guilty, they were fired upon by the police at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura. Two protesters were killed in police firing.
The anger against the sacrilege and the deaths caused by police firing was one of the major reasons why the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance was routed in the 2017 Assembly elections.
THE GRIEF AROUND BEADBI
Beadbi is a very important issue for Sikhs because the Guru Granth Sahib isn't just a holy text. For Sikhs, it is considered a living Guru. Therefore any act of sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib is equivalent to attacking a living Guru.
But the doctrinal part is only one aspect.
The 1978, 1986, and 2015 cases also show that sacrilege cases are often followed by inaction against those behind the act. And in contrast in all three cases, the police fired upon and killed some of the Sikhs protesting against these incidents.
Sikh activists say that inquiries, be it through state police or central agencies or inquiry commissions, have seldom led to punishments and people are fed up of this routine of "SITs and CBI".
On the other hand, the number of sacrilege cases have kept increasing and in many of them, the accused were let off on grounds of mental instability.
In this context it is important to look at what the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of Sikhs, had said after the killing of a man accused of sacrilege at the farmers' protest at Singhu Border.
Giani Harpreet Singh, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht had said, "There is nothing above the Guru Granth Sahib for Sikhs. But how sacrilege incidents are being reported and accused are often termed mentally ill to avoid the unfolding of conspiracy have hurt the confidence of Sikhs in the law and justice system."
According to the Akal Takht Jathedar, over 400 incidents of sacrilege have taken place in the last six years.
One such recent incident took place at Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib at Anandpur Sahib in September this year but the police says that the accused was a drug addict suffering from a mental illness. Many Sikhs have accused the police of trying to cover up the incident.
ATTEMPT TO INCITE TROUBLE BEFORE ELECTIONS?
The nature of the Harmandir Sahib incident has sparked speculation that this could be part of a design to destabilise Punjab ahead of the Assembly elections and create divisions in society.
It is not uncommon for mysterious incidents to take place on the eve of elections in Punjab.
A blast took place at Maur Mandi on the eve of the 2017 Assembly elections and this did change political equations. Fearing a revival of Khalistani militancy, a section of Hindu voters did consolidate behind Captain Amarinder Singh following this incident.
However, it later turned out that the blasts were carried out by Dera Sacha Sauda followers and not Khalistanis. But by that time the elections were already over.
Whether the incident was part of a conspiracy or not may never be known. But what is clear is that the sacrilege issue may push several other issues to the backburner in the elections. Also, if the past is any indication, sacrilege incidents mostly tend to go against the incumbent government.
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