A widening rift in Punjab

Print edition : August 01, 1998

WHAT is most interesting about the Shiromani Akali Dal's (SAD) stand on Udham Singh Nagar district is the developments that have surrounded and shaped it. It takes little to see that the SAD's intervention in Uttar Pradesh's Terai region is an expression of the formation's deep aspiration to be the sole political platform of Sikhs everywhere. But what has remained largely unnoticed is that the SAD's aggressive posture on Udham Singh Nagar district has come at a time of renewed Hindu chauvinistic mobilisation in Punjab. The skirmishes on the Udham Singh Nagar issue are a sign of troubles to come, with consequences not just for the SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, but for the future content of Punjab's politics.

Interestingly, the first political mobilisation on the Udham Singh Nagar issue came not from the SAD, but from the centre-left. Former Union Minister and Punjab Bhalai Manch (PBM) leader Balwant Singh Ramoowalia began to campaign in mid-June on behalf of Terai Sikhs who believed that their lands and economic future would be compromised with the integration of the district into the new Uttaranchal State. SAD's silence was curious. Several important SAD figures own large holdings in the Terai belt although the Punjab Government has denied that any of its Ministers possesses such property. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal is known to have owned lands in Bazpur. However, those close to him claim that they were sold some years ago. The denial has found few takers because much of the land in Udham Singh Nagar is registered under fictitious names, a strategy adopted to circumvent land ceiling laws.

Nonetheless, the SAD began to focus on the issue only when the Punjab Congress(I) began to back Ramoowalia's campaign. On July 6, shortly after being appointed Punjab Pradesh Congress(I) president, Amarinder Singh announced that the future of Udham Singh Nagar would be one of his key concerns. "This district," he said, "has nothing in common with the hill people."

Sikh disquiet with the new proposals, he said, stemmed from the fact that "in the hill area there is a land ceiling law which allows land holding up to one hectare only, and the farmers would be losing land."

With the Congress(I) implicitly attacking the SAD's credentials as a genuine representative of Sikh interests, Badal took up the issue. In the wake of Amarinder Singh's press conference, an SAD-BJP delegation from Punjab met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to press its case. The members of the delegation attacked Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madan Lal Khurana's earlier argument that constitutional regulations barred the exclusion of Udham Singh Nagar from the new State. The alliance then established contact with All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Jayalalitha and Trinamul Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee to seek their support on the issue. Interestingly, Badal's address to the Punjab Assembly earlier in the day made no reference to the issue.

On July 9, former Chief Minister and Congress Legislature Party chief Rajinder Kaur Bhattal raised the issue in the Assembly. Pandemonium erupted in the House, with both the Congress(I) and the SAD accusing each other of hypocrisy. The Communist Party of India's Hardev Arshi attempted to inject some reason into the debate by pointing out that while the issue was of a serious nature, it did not constitute a matter of concern for the Punjab Assembly. Few members seemed to listen to his plea. Later in the day, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president Gurcharan Singh Tohra made oblique threats of withdrawing support to the BJP-led Government at the Centre and appeared to suggest the possibility of an SAD-led mass agitation on the issue. Although Tohra later denied having made these statements, the fact remained that he represented a growing sense of panic within the SAD on the issue of merging Udham Singh Nagar district with Uttaranchal.

Of perhaps more concern to the SAD was its alliance partner's State-level stand on the issue. Although two BJP Ministers had accompanied the June 6 delegation to New Delhi, the party did not intervene in the subsequent debate on the subject. The Punjab BJP's rank and file remained hostile to the SAD demand, and one senior BJP leader told Frontline that the SAD was "reacting as if Udham Singh Nagar was to be separated from Punjab."

This sourness reflected a broader breakdown in relations between the two parties. On July 5, BJP State general secretary Jagmohan Kaura had openly complained that the SAD had sabotaged his party's prospects in the recent panchayat elections. Activists of the BJP, he claimed, were routinely mistreated by SAD Ministers. Kaura's extraordinary outburst reflected the resurgence of Hindu chauvinist sentiments against the SAD in recent months. In one peripheral but significant development on July 5, the Punjab Shiv Sena had demanded reservation in employment and education for Hindus in the State.

The SAD is facing similar problems on its own flanks. Far-right communal groupings, until recently subservient to the SAD, are showing signs of breaking free. At the end of a three-day training camp sponsored by the Sikh Students Federation's Mehta faction, the grouping resolved to continue "the struggle for the spread of Sikh religion started by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale," and promised to honour all those who had laid down their lives in this struggle. In a thinly veiled attack on Tohra and other centrist SAD figures, the faction complained that many SGPC members were not amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs. The World Sikh Council's recent assault on the SAD's unwillingness to exhume the legacy of the post-1982 insurgency also suggests a hardening of the far-right forces' stand. Clearly, the SAD's claim to represent all Sikhs is being questioned, with potentially disastrous electoral consequences for the formation.

What implications will these developments have for the future of Punjab politics? Each previous alliance between past variants of the SAD and the BJP fell because of pressures from hard-liners in both the camps. As the Udham Singh Nagar issue illustrates, both SAD and the BJP have been forced to adopt postures aimed at placating the fringes of their communal constituencies. In hastening the coming into being of these mutually irreconcilable positions, the Congress(I) has proved adroit. Although it is unlikely that either the SAD or the BJP will allow the alliance to collapse in the short run, long-term trends point in the direction of a growing rift with grave communal implications. Udham Singh Nagar, it is evident, is only the pretext: the real battle is being waged behind the scenes.

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