A Jathedar is free

Print edition : November 15, 1997

The commuting of the life sentence on Ranjit Singh and the arguments held out in support of the step have grave implications.

AT 4-02 p.m. on November 9, the phone rang at the Amritsar home of Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh. New Delhi's Industries Minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Harcharan Singh Balli, was on the line to inform him that President K.R. Narayanan had signed the order commuting the remainder of his life sentence for the 1980 murder of Nirankari sect leader Gurbachan Singh. The Jathedar, head of the Sikh faith's highest seat of spiritual and temporal authority, had spent 13 years and five months in Delhi's Tihar Jail before being released on bail last year pending his appeal against conviction. Apart from breaking into a wry smile when Balli asked him for celebratory sweets, he gave little indication of his sentiments.

The Akal Takht. The commuting of the sentence on the Jathedar has brought into focus the character of religious politics in Punjab and the disturbing processes of communalisation in the State.-N. SRINIVASAN

Calls of congratulations followed from former Delhi Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana, who had lobbied hard on the Jathedar's behalf, and from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) politicians. "This is a great triumph for the Panth," Ranjit Singh said, "a victory for Sikhs over injustice."

The commuting of the sentence brought into focus the character of religious politics in Punjab and the disturbing processes of communalisation in the State. Ranjit Singh's killing of Gurbachan Singh is widely acknowledged as a critical moment in the rise of quasi-fascist Khalistan groups in Punjab. The murder was in reprisal for a violent clash on Baisakhi day, 1978, when individuals at a Nirankari gathering in Amritsar opened fired on protesters belonging to the fundamentalist Damdami Taksal led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha led by Fauja Singh. Thirteen demonstrators were killed. The demonstration was held to articulate long-standing anger among orthodox Sikhs that sections of the Nirankari scripture denigrated the Gurbani, and that the sect's belief in a living Guru was blasphemous. In time, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was to begin her fateful association with Bhindranwale. The preacher's Taksal gave rise to a large body of terrorist groups, while the Akhand Kirtani Jatha gave birth to the feared Babbar Khalsa.

Ranjit Singh was appointed Jathedar in 1990 at the behest of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) chairman Gurcharan Singh Tohra. If the choice of the one-time carpenter, then in Tihar Jail, may have seemed surprising, it in fact made perfect political sense. Ranjit Singh's disillusionment with the armed groups and the preacher himself was long evident. Shortly after visiting Bhindranwale following a visit by Gurbachan Singh, Ranjit Singh affiliated himself with the centrist Harcharan Singh Longowal. The reasons for this decision have never been made public. Shortly afterwards, Longowal and former Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala arranged his surrender before a New Delhi court. In an interview to Frontline (featured separately), the Jathedar made the startling disclosure that as early as 1984, he had disassociated himself from the Damdami Taksal-affiliated groups because he was unwilling to go along with the bandook-dharis (gun-wielding men). It is possible that he was disillusioned by Bhindranwale's inability to offer protection in the wake of the murder.

But the murder of Gurbachan Singh also gave Ranjit Singh far-right credentials, a factor that may have been decisive for the Akali grouping around Tohra. The Akal Takht had, in the political ambience generated by the rise of Khalistan groups, become a religious arbiter of mainstream politics. Ironically, the process had been initiated by Tohra himself. In 1979, Tohra and Jagdev Singh Talwandi took their political dispute with Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal to the Takht, seeking religious punishment of alleged personal failings and misdemeanours. In the end, Badal managed to get a favourable verdict from the then Jathedar, Sadhu Singh Bhaura. Again in 1980, the Jathedar was called upon to mediate differences between the Akali factions, and eventually released the list of party candidates for that year's Assembly elections. In a signal decision, the Supreme Court disqualified Akali candidate H.S. Fattenwala from seeking election for six years because of this interference of religion in political discourse.

By 1986, the office of the Jathedar was being used to marginalise the mainstream Akali political leadership. The pro-Khalistan Jathedar of the Takht, Darshan Singh Ragi, was deployed by far- right organisations in an effort to summon Chief Minister Barnala to the Golden Temple. His offence was to have attempted to make peace in the State, and the initiative against him centred on the attempted formation of a new Akali Dal. Shortly afterwards, Khalistan Tiger Force leader Gurbachan Singh Manochahal (he was later killed in a 1993 encounter), summarily declared himself Jathedar. He cited as his basis of legitimacy the Sarbat Khalsa of that year organised by terrorist groups, a revived archaic practice of general assemblies of Sikhs to decide matters concerning the community.

The Sarbat Khalsa did not settle the issue, but Manochahal's guns did. Ragi left the Golden Temple in fear. In the years to come, figures such as Bhindranwale's nephew Jasbir Singh Rode were to occupy the Takht. At some points, several claimants were at once insisting that they were the authentic Jathedar. Tohra's elevation of Ranjit Singh was an effort to end this chaos.

But the ghosts of history rarely fade away. The practice of using the Jathedar's office to shape political discourse was again deployed by Tohra. The Acting Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Manjit Singh, had for example ordered Badal to face hearings at the Golden Temple in 1996 for his supposed crimes against the Panth (Sikh community). Although he faced a day of abusive allegations, the real purpose of which were to force him to concede ground to rival Akali factions on the eve of the 1997 Assembly elections, the clever politician again won the day, shipping in over a lakh of supporters into Amritsar to display his power.

Manjit Singh represented the return of control to the political leadership represented by the SGPC, but the means by which religious authority was used to shape political processes had remained untouched by the experience of the previous decade of carnage. Badal's efforts to transform the Akali Dal from being a party of Punjab's landed Jat elite into a regional formation, through an alliance with the urban Hindu class represented by the BJP, failed at least in part because of these dynamics.

Jathedar Ranjit Singh was released on bail last Deepavali, after the High Court failed to decide his appeal against conviction within a Supreme Court-mandated time-frame. Back in the Golden Temple, Ranjit Singh was deployed to continue the same game. In April 1997, for example, Tohra sent a warning shot across the Badal Government's bows, arranging the honouring of key symbols of the Khalistan insurgency, including Bhindranwale's wife and family members of General A.S. Vaidya's killers at the inauguration of the rebuilt Akal Takht.

Earlier, pro-Badal figures in the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) were forced to undertake ritual penance at the Temple on the Takht's orders. This time, the offences attributed to Delhi leaders like Avtar Singh Hit were that they had abused their religious influence to amass wealth. Hit was also charged with a role in the assault of 1984 riots victim Satnami Bai. The use of a religious seat to arbitrate secular and political offences, however, was in fact a warning by Tohra and the SGPC to Badal of their abiding authority. Tragically, the centrist Akalis proved unable, even unwilling, to resist this process.

In early October 1997, the Delhi High Court upheld the conviction of Ranjit Singh, and ordered him to surrender to serve the few months remaining of his sentence. The two-judge bench consisting of Justices Arun Sahariya and M.S. Siddiqui, however, noted that "in this case, it may well be possible to achieve the reformative object of punishment... if the appellant would renounce fanatic sectoral militancy." The judges indicated that "the authorities concerned may take into consideration the need for closer monitoring of his conduct" and consider the suspension of his sentence.

The fact remained, however, that the Jathedar had to go back to jail. The Right in Punjab went into overdrive. Some groups argued that the status of the Jathedar was similar to that of the Pope, and that Sikh tradition since the time of Aurangzeb prohibited the surrender of the Akal Takht before the Delhi Takht. This line of argument was, surprisingly, affirmed by a group of over 70 people who described themselves as Sikh intellectuals. They included well-known human rights advocate Inderjit Singh Jaijee.

The first and foremost fact is that Ranjit Singh neither had, nor has, ever expressed any regret for his actions, nor condemned religious chauvinism. Despite his condemnation of armed groups, his position on public issues firmly upholds the primacy of religion over secular political discourse. Although a remission on the grounds of his having served over 13 years in jail would have been well-founded, and is a privilege extended to many long-term prisoners, the doctrine that compared it to the papacy was disquieting. Speaking to Frontline , Ranjit Singh affirmed this doctrine, claiming that "for Sikhs, the tradition that the Akal Takht must never bow down to the authority of Delhi is a sacred tradition." In the event, he moved no petition for remission of his sentence, saying that he and the Panth would respond to his arrest if ever it took place.

The task of preparing the petition was, in an unusual departure from legal custom, left to Tohra. Drafted by a retired Supreme Court Judge in Chandigarh and then rewritten by lawyer Ram Jethmalani, the petition went to the President. With the backing of both the BJP and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, its successful outcome was perhaps predictable.

THE consequences of the decision might leave little ground for comfort. In a prescient 1987 article, the late scholar Attar Singh pointed to developments in the Akal Takht. "In the revival and transformation of the institution of the Jathedar of the Akal Takht," he wrote, "as invested with the 'supreme authority' in matters both sacred and secular, can be located the search of the SGPC for a visible symbol of the body corporate of the faith. The present Gurdwaras Acts make no reference to the authority of the office of the Jathedar or to its functioning. But in actual practice, the 'exalted office' has been increasingly functioning as the sovereign or the 'president' of the religious republic with the SGPC chief as his primary adviser."

Communist Party of India leader Satyapal Dang said: "I have no objection to any prisoner being given remission, but I reject the claim that religious status gives immunity from law." With the tercentennial of the Khalsa scheduled to be celebrated in 1999, not by religious groups but by the SAD-BJP Government, that claim is likely to be developed, and may gather momentum.

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