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Punjab on Religious-Political Brink: Is Badal Govt Losing Grip?

Punjab in turmoil as Sikh clerics demand arrest of & punishment for those involved in desecration of the holy book.

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Snapshot

Trouble for Badal’s Government

  • Tension in Punjab after reports of desecration of the Sikhs’ holy book
  • Coincides with taking back of the ‘pardon’ granted to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh by the Sikh clergy
  • Dera chief has condemned the sacrilege attempts
  • With state polls due in 2017, the crisis has embarrassed Badal government
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Half a dozen instances of desecration of the holy book of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, in the last one week has seen large-scale violence return to Punjab. Such violence was last seen during the bloody 1980s and 1990s.

Police firing has seen two deaths, as agitated Sikhs have clashed with police at several places. A state-wide bandh evoked a massive response across the state. The situation remains tense as agitators demand the arrest of those responsible.

The reports of desecration from different parts of the state, are no coincidence. Clear attempts have been made to vitiate the atmosphere in Punjab in the aftermath of the pardon granted by the Sikh clergy to Ram Rahim Singh, head of Dera Sacha Sauda. In a couple of places, the culprits even left posters which contained greetings generally used by Dera followers. The aim was clearly to implicate the Dera.

Punjab in turmoil as Sikh clerics demand arrest of & punishment for those involved in desecration of the holy book.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Was the Dera Targeted?

The Dera has issued a statement disassociating itself from the incidents. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has tweeted condemning the acts of sacrilege, saying the Dera respected the Sikh gurus and the holy book and demanded severe punishment for the culprits.

The incidents took place shortly after he had been granted pardon by the Sikh clergy for an alleged act of blasphemy. But the pardon was resented by a large section of the community, particularly hardliners and even Sikh bodies based abroad.

In an unprecedented act, the Sikh clergy, dominated by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), annulled its own pardon, saying the Sikhs will continue to boycott the Dera and its followers.

After the earlier pardon granted by the clergy, it is unlikely that Dera supporters would have desecrated the holy book. But there are indicators this was done by those opposed to any rapprochement with the Dera. Some Sikh religious groups do believe the Dera, that considers Ram Rahim Singh as its living guru, is weaning away members of the Sikh community.

Punjab in turmoil as Sikh clerics demand arrest of & punishment for those involved in desecration of the holy book.
Sikhs burn an effigy of Punjab state Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal during a protest against the killing of two Sikh boys, in Jammu, India. (Photo: AP)

Crisis for Punjab Government

Sensing the anger in the community against the acts of desecration, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, who is also the SAD President, announced a reward of Rs one crore to anyone with information about the culprits.

The state government is currently under pressure on other fronts as well. Another core constituency, the farmers, have been up in arms. Lack of rain in August and the supply of substandard pesticides, has led to loss of almost the entire cotton crop in the state.

It has emerged that government-approved pesticides, for which manufacturers even enjoyed a subsidy of Rs 33 crore, were fake or substandard. The government has suspended its Director of Agriculture, that has only confirmed suspicions of a scam.

Punjab in turmoil as Sikh clerics demand arrest of & punishment for those involved in desecration of the holy book.
Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal at a meeting with Farmer and Farm Labour Unions at Punjab Bhawan. (Photo: PTI)

Farmers had demanded a compensation of Rs 40,000 per acre, and Rs 20,000 for farm labourers affected by the crop failure. When the government rejected this, they launched a week-long ‘rail roko’ agitation causing the cancellation and diversion of 800 trains. Public outcry led to the withdrawal of the agitation, but farmers now plan to gherao ministers and MLAs, which would again embarrass the government.

State elections are less than a year and a half away, the Badals don’t seem in control of the religious and political tension gripping the state. They will have to be cautious and sensitive in dealing with these issues sensitively to stay in the political race. Fortunately for them, the Congress and AAP are also in a mess, but surely it is time for the SAD-BJP alliance to put its house in order.

(The writer is a Chandigarh-based senior journalist)

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