Fundamentalist designs in Punjab

Print edition : February 03, 2001

The attempt by Shiv Sena activist to demolish a mosque in Gurdaspur point to the larger fundamentalist mobilisation initiated by the Hindu Right to bring back Hindu voters weaned away by the Congress(I).

PUNJAB saw in the New Year its own little version of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. On January 14, a dozen Shiv Sena activists broke down the walls of a mosque in Dhariwal village near Gurdaspur and installed a Siva idol in a room used for Id prayer s. A havan ritual was held at the site, and the activist continued to occupy the site until Punjab Police personnel intervened and arrested them. The mosque, a modest structure on a small plot of land which was never under any religious disputatio n, had been used on a regular basis before Partition. In recent years, use of the site, which is owned by the Punjab Wakf Board, had been restricted to Id and other religiously important days.

Dhariwal's Muslim residents have been granted police protection but are deeply insecure about their future. The reasons are not difficult to see. Six months ago, Shiv Sena activists had used threats and coercion to ensure that repairs to the mosque were not carried out. Some local residents believe that this was owing to the fact that the local vice-president of the Shiv Sena, Pawan Tandon, wished to usurp the plot on which the mosque stood. Tandon's house stands next to the mosque and so the charge tha t the demolition was part of a land-grab plan appears plausible. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the demolition comes in the context of a larger fundamentalist mobilisation in Punjab, in which the rights of the State's Muslims, as that of its Christia n residents who have also been targeted for harassment and abuse, are sacrificed for political gain.

A broad enterprise of Hindu chauvinist mobilisation is only too evident. The Dhariwal demolition came just days after Sudershan Chauhan, organising secretary of the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, the Sikh affiliate of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), announced that the Sangat would hold celebrations from January 5 in temples where the Guru Granth Sahib would receive ritual honours. Although ostensibly innocuous, the Sangat's programme was in fact designed to provoke Sikh chauvinists, who have for long claimed the existence of a project to subsume their faith into a larger Hindu identity. Late last year, an RSS poster bearing a map of India, with the Sikh religious symbol Ek Omkar below it, provoked Sikh chauvinists for similar reasons.

Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti voiced the Sikh religious establishment's outrage on January 1. "Sikhs have a different identity from Hindus," he said, "in particular because we are against all forms of idol worship." To treat the Guru Granth Sahib as a kind of temple idol, he said, would be to insult the book. Reports in the Punjabi language press that Sudershan Chauhan's statements had been made by RSS chief K.S. Sudershan provoked further anger. Faced with this kind of sentiment, the RSS b acked down. It told the National Minorities Commission on January 17, that it did indeed accept that Sikhs belonged to a separate faith with a separate identity. Chauhan, the Commission was told, had been removed from the Sangat, and had in any case made his announcement in his personal capacity.

WHAT sense might be made of the RSS position? For the moment, the organisation seems to have decided not to engage in a confrontation with Sikh chauvinists. In a letter to Vedanti, the Sangat's Madanjit Singh said his organisation "accepts the supreme te mporal authority of the Akal Takht". Vedanti and Sudershan are expected to meet in February at the Minorities Commission to discuss the character of Sikh identity. But there can be little doubt about Sudershan's larger ideological position. In Chandigarh for the first national executive committee meeting of the Sangat in April, he proclaimed that Sikhs were part of the "Hindu mainstream". He charged that organisations which claimed that the community had an "exclusive identity" were secessionist ones. D escribing the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, as a "national hero", Sudershan said that the RSS was "working hard to revive the custom of the eldest son of every Hindu family being raised as a Sikh". The "national hero" label was latched on to by Sikh revanchi sts such as Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who promptly proclaimed that the RSS was seeking to equate purely temporal political icons with the divine status of the Gurus.

Sikh Sangat mobilisation served two purposes for the RSS. First, it sought to expand the Hindu Right's constituency among rural Sikhs, where the RSS has had little influence. Quiz contests in schools, district-level festivals and military-style training camps have become regular features of the RSS' activities in Punjab. Attacks on the minorities, notably the tapping of anti-Muslim prejudice, are an integral part of this programme. More important, though, the inevitable confrontation with the Sikh relig ious establishment served to consolidate the RSS' influence among its core Hindu constituency. The Bharatiya Janata Party's alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has alienated many urban Hindus, and recent elections to urban bodies saw a marked def ection of Hindu voters to the Congress(I). By advertising its opposition to the Sikh Right, the RSS hopes to bring its flock together again.

It is also important to note that Sikh chauvinist reaction to the RSS is driven by internal concerns, the consequence of a bitter feud for power within the theocratic establishment. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president Jagdev Singh Ta lwandi's appointment of the Akal Takht's former Jathedar, Puran Singh, as the Golden Temple's new head granthi (priest), has been one major issue of contention. Puran Singh was sacked as Akal Takht Jathedar in March 2000, after he excommunicated Talwandi 's controversial predecessor, Bibi Jagir Kaur. The edict of excommunication was subsequently overruled by four other high priests to the irritation of leaders of the Sant Samaj, an alliance of religious leaders. The Samaj, which represents folk religious idiom and practice rather than Golden Temple orthodoxy, backed Puran Singh's claims that Sikhs were descendants of Luv and Kush, and opposed Kaur's efforts to create a new almanac which would delink Hindu and Sikh festival dates.

Several areas of engagement have evolved as a result of these internal battles. The Akal Takht's present jathedar, Vedanti, has been considering the setting up of an advisory committee to decide on the representation of Sikh religious history in books an d school texts, and to resolve disputes on traditional practice, notably on the powers of the Akal Takht Jathedar to issue edicts. The almanac issue continues to resurface at regular intervals, and is scheduled to be referred to an expert committee. Veda nti is also in the midst of a controversy over a religious text, the Dasam Granth, with his counterpart in the Hazoor Sahib shrine in Nanded, Maharashtra. Vedanti had forbidden discussion on the Dasam Granth, and the edict has been defied by the Hazoor S ahib religious establishment as well as the ultra-orthodox Damdami Taksal. The powerful jathedars have also been using their status to browbeat the SAD-BJP's politicians, with Vedanti charging on January 13 that they were "patronising drug peddlers and h arming society".

POLITICS has more that a little to do with this mosaic of feuds. The BJP has been mirroring the RSS' agenda and distancing itself from the SAD. At a press conference on January 3, State Minister and BJP leader Balramji Das Tandon bitterly attacked the S AD's Kanwaljit Singh's management of the Finance Ministry. Tandon claimed that Kanwaljit Singh had, despite repeated meetings, failed to pass on sanctioned funds from the Centre to municipal bodies. "My district presidents," Tandon said at the press conf erence, "have been asking whether the government wants them to start an agitation to recover their dues." Tandon also complained that the share of taxes from octroi that was due to the municipalities was not being made over. Other BJP leaders have made n o secret of their disquiet, with State president Brij Lal Rinwa charging the SAD-led government with corruption and insisting that the next Chief Minister should be from his party.

Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has, for the most part, remained silent on the issue, but it is not clear how long he will be able to resist pressure to retaliate. Kanwaljit Singh, for example, has been suggesting that the SAD make opposition to the W orld Trade Organisation (WTO) regime a major component of its mass platform. Farmers in Punjab have been hit hard by agricultural imports, but the BJP remains committed to the new order. At a meeting of the Political Affairs Committee of the SAD on Janua ry 10, several senior party leaders, notably Cooperation Minister Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, attacked the BJP for its criticism of the State government. Badal, he said, should make it clear to the BJP that the coalition rests on collective responsibility. A lthough it is unlikely that the disputes will bring down the alliance in the near future, it is important to recall that each alliance between the SAD and the Hindu Right in the past fell because of feuds between the hardliners on either side.

Several leaders on the far right of Sikh communal politics have been using the situation to undermine the SAD centrists around Badal. At a rally in Ferozepur on January 12, Member of the Lok Sabha Simranjit Singh Mann said that the RSS mobilisation would "vitiate peace in Punjab, and lead to bloodshed". The RSS, he said, was engaged in bringing about a regime of terror directed at the minorities. Mann also complained about Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Vietnam, because that country had supported Operation Bluestar. The maverick right-wing politician also attacked the RSS and the Shiv Sena for opposing his decision to celebrate the anniversary of revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's birth. "If the nation can celebrate the bi rthday of Indira Gandhi," Mann asked, "why can't Sikhs observe the birth anniversary of their national hero."

Others on the Sikh Right have not gone quite so far in their polemic, but their line of attack is not very dissimilar. The breakaway Sarv Hind SAD's Manjit Singh Calcutta attacked Badal on January 7 for failing to confront the BJP and the RSS. "The SAD's major ideological plank is the protection of the Sikh identity," he says, "but Badal is subverting this very principle, for which Sikhs have fought valiantly." His party colleague Prem Singh Chandumajra had, a day earlier, alleged that Badal was an RSS agent and asked voters to support "the real supporters of Punjab's interests". Both made their speeches as part of the Sarv Hind SAD's Panthic Chetna Jagao-Punjab Jagao movement (Wake Sikh Religious Identity-Save Punjab), set up in response to the Sikh Sangat mobilisation.

THERE is little doubt that these multiple strains are sustaining and sharpening communal divisions in Punjab. The Hindu Right's ugly display of might in Gurdaspur is just another sign of an enterprise to establish the primacy of religious identity as an idiom of political discourse in the State. The Communist Party of India, for example, has bitterly protested against the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib in police stations in Moga district to mark the beginning of the New Year. The police held the readi ngs in the Samalsar and Baghapurana areas ostensibly to promote better relations with the public. But, as CPI leader Randhir Gill has pointed out, the readings are just part of a long series of abuses of State authority to sustain religious and caste cha uvinism.

Among the few politicians outside the organised left to have taken on the communalism unleashed in Punjab is the Lok Bhalai Manch's Balwant Singh Ramoowalia. Ramoowalia has taken exception to Talwandi's description of the Radha Soami, Sacha Sauda and Nir ankari sects as "government shops", saying that such polemic "tarnished Sikh philosophy, its principles and traditions for petty political gains". He also attacked plans to bar Sehajdari Sikhs from voting in SGPC elections. Sehajdari Sikhs are members of the faith who do not observe some mandates, such as uncut hair. The All India Rangretta Dal, one of the largest organisations of Dalit Sikhs, has also condemned efforts to disenfranchise Sehajdari Sikhs, many of whom are from the Scheduled Castes. "More than 50,000 Hindus and 500,000 Sehajdaris have abandoned their association with the Sikh faith and the Guru Granth Sahib because of the Akalis," Ramoowalia said. "The only answer is for the SAD to stop mixing religion with politics."

The fraught character of political discourse in Punjab seems certain to deepen in coming months. The SAD's decision to dissolve its local bodies on January 10 and hold inner-party elections is widely seen as a precursor to an early Assembly election.

Badal has been spending much of his time touring villages and hearing public complaints, in an evident effort to rebuild his mass credentials. But since Sikh and Hindu chauvinists have an interest in sustaining divisive debate on faith and identity, the issues will continue to haunt Punjab.

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