Moving Rightward

Published : Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's dalliance with the far-Right, in response to the political challenge thrown at him by SAD chief Prakash Singh Badal, seems to have set the stage for a cycle of competitive communalism.

THE Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) press release was unashamedly ecstatic. "Never before in living memory," it read, "have the people of Punjab streamed on to the streets in such magnitude and spontaneity, exceeding by far the crowd seen at the start of Dharma Yuddh Morcha, the anti-Emergency Morcha or the Moga Rally."

As is usual, the actual goods were considerably less exciting than advertised. The SAD's November 27 Jail Bharo agitation was intended to bring a quarter of a million party cadre on the streets. The SAD had promised to fill the State's jails to protest against the Amarinder Singh government's economic policies, its prosecution of former Ministers on corruption charges, and its alleged interference in the recently concluded elections to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). In the event, less than 20,000 protesters came out, over half of them in the SAD's pocketboroughs in southern Punjab. The police refused to arrest them, defusing what dramatic intensity remained in the situation. The buses hired to ship away violent mobs remained unused, and the temporary jails set up to cope with the intended overflow stayed empty. SAD chief and former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal himself was only detained, after he insisted that failure to arrest him would create "an ugly situation", and was released after he finished tea and biscuits in the office of Muktsar Deputy Commissioner Usha Sharma.

But the collapse of the agitation ought not to give the Congress(I) any real reason for jubilation, for its political tactics in recent weeks have given its opponents a renewed lease of life. Badal and his aides had intended the Jail Bharo agitation to consolidate the gains the SAD had made in the course of the SGPC elections. Devastated by the State government's anti-corruption campaign, which has led to the arrest of several top SAD figures and is threatening to close around Badal himself, the party desperately needed an issue with which to regain some of its political legitimacy. The Congress(I) had thrown its weight behind Akali factions opposed to Badal, hoping to undermine his control of the Sikh religious establishment. In March 1999, Badal had succeeded in deposing his arch rival, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, from the leadership of the SGPC. He had then succeeded in retaining control of the body, although his relationship with the Golden Temple-based theocratic leadership was often strained. The Congress(I) believed that if Badal lost control of the SGPC, he would lose whatever little political influence he retained after the party's defeat in the Assembly elections held earlier this year.

Although the Congress(I) does not directly contest SGPC elections, Amarinder Singh allowed himself to be persuaded by his lieutenants that it ought to support the Tohra faction to weaken Badal further. On the face of it, the enterprise seemed possible. Badal's strength in the General House of the SGPC, which elects its President, had been falling steadily over the years. The Tohra faction commanded just 45 of the 176 seats in the 2000 elections, the first held after Tohra was dethroned after a quarter century of reign over the establishment. The next year the number rose to 56. There were signs, too, that all was not well in the Badal camp. At the end of October, the party was forced to expel two key figures, Mall Singh Ghuman and Pratap Singh, for siding with anti-SAD forces. Some of the former Chief Minister's lieutenants in the SGPC, like former Minister Succha Singh Langah, were in jail on corruption charges. All that was needed, it seemed, was a little prod to tip over the Badal applecart. Through late October, figures opposed to Badal, like Ravi Inder Singh, were telling the Chief Minister that they were willing to do the job for him.

Badal responded to the onslaught with a pre-emptive defensive manoeuvre. By mid-October, 88 of his party's representatives in the SGPC General House had been herded into the former Chief Minister's lavish farmhouse at Balasar, near Sirsa in Haryana. A neighbouring farmhouse, Ekant, was hired to provide additional accommodation to the growing flock of Badal loyalists. Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala, the SAD's ally in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and a long-standing friend of the Badal family, pitched in to provide police protection and medical support to the group. Ensconced in air-conditioned comfort, few of the inmates seemed to have any real complaints about their captivity. Nonetheless, the fact remained that the Tohra faction had been stripped of the opportunity to recruit fresh supporters. Figures in Tohra's Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal (SHSAD) repeatedly threatened to organise marches to liberate the `prisoners' in Balasar but had neither the resources nor the numbers to execute their threat. Other means had to be found to defeat Badal in the SGPC - and Amarinder Singh was the only one with the required means.

HARMINDER SINGH GILL, the head of the Far-Right All India Sikh Students' Federation (SGJC), fired the first shots of the anti-Badal counteroffensive. On October 29, he petitioned the Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission, which is empowered to address complaints against the SGPC, charging several pro-Badal members with having violated the terms of their office. Some, he claimed, had drawn travel allowances from multiple shrines, in violation of regulations. Others were accused of various kinds of apostasy, notably the consumption of alcohol. Even as the SGJC began deliberations on Gill's petition, the Punjab government pitched in with quasi-official support for his cause. On the same night the petition was filed, the Punjab Police arrested SGJC member Dara Singh on charges of drunken and disorderly behaviour. Although a medical examination proved that the SGJC member, who like his colleagues enjoys the status of a District and Sessions judge, had indeed been drinking, few believed that he had in fact entered into a brawl. Whatever the truth, Dara Singh's inevitable suspension meant that anti-Badal forces now had the upper hand in the SGJC.

Twelve pro-Badal SGPC members were suspended by the SGJC from November 7 onwards, sparking a few legal battles. While their votes did not, in the end, prove decisive, the group won the right to vote in sealed ballots, which would be opened in the event the verdict went against Badal. Even as this drama unfolded, the State government started more direct forms of action against the Badal group. On November 6, SGPC member Surinder Kaur was arrested along with her son for having illegally felled 40 trees. Meanwhile, both camps resorted to more direct tactics, so to speak, to win friends and influence people. On November 7, former Punjab Finance Minister `Captain' Kanwaljit Singh was detained on allegations that he had attempted to kidnap Tohra supporter Harbans Kaur Sukhna. The very next day, two Punjab Police personnel were arrested by their Haryana counterparts on charges of attempting a similar operation outside the Badal group's farmhouses.

As polling day drew closer, the drama escalated. On November 11, 98 of the 107 SGPC members whose support was claimed by Badal were driven out of Balasar under police escort directly to the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. They disembarked from their luxury buses to address a press conference at the upmarket Centaur Hotel, and were then promptly ushered into a chartered flight to Amritsar. There, meanwhile, the Punjab administration was doing its best to pretend that war was about to break out. The police had been ordered to seal off the crowded market streets around the Golden Temple, and over 2,000 pilgrims had been ordered out of the serais (free hostels) outside the main temple. Orders prohibiting large gatherings were promulgated throughout the State, and SAD leaders said that the police had been ordered to arrest any SGPC member attempting to enter Punjab by road. Across the State, some 1,200 second-rung SAD cadre had been arrested as a precautionary measure against a large-scale mobilisation. "It is like Operation Bluestar," exclaimed Badal's son Sukhbir Badal, on his arrival in Amritsar.

It was not - but Badal sought to milk the moment as much as he could. Minutes after his arrival, a Maruti 800 driven by an Assistant Sub-Inspector of the Punjab Police accidentally grazed against Badal's Hyundai Sonata on one of Amritsar's notoriously crowded roads. The politician proclaimed this to be an assassination attempt. Amarinder Singh's decision to send the Punjab Police inside the Golden Temple, he said, was an unprecedented act that had alienated him from the Sikh community. He then proceeded to camp inside the temple along with his supporters, in defiance of the order banning gatherings. Amarinder Singh responded by pointing out that the police had only entered the periphery of the Golden Temple complex, and not the sanctified space within it. It also rapidly emerged that plainclothes police had entered the Golden Temple on several occasions during Badal's rule, and that Tohra had filed a formal complaint that his supporters were being stopped from entering it. All this was, however, after Badal had chosen to convert his struggle for political survival into a battle to defend a supposedly beleaguered faith, anticipating a close election.

As things turned out, the ugly rhetoric was completely unnecessary. Badal's candidate for SGPC President, Kirpal Singh Badungar, was comfortably elected to a second term in office, with 91 votes. His opponent, Vir Singh Madhoke, backed not only by Tohra but other anti-Badal figures like Member of Parliament Simranjit Singh Mann and former SGPC President Jagdev Singh Talwandi, lost even though the 12 suspended pro-Badal members votes were not counted. The SGPC General House's first action after electing Badungar was to pass a motion demanding that the Akal Takht Jathedar, Joginder Singh Vedanti, summon the Chief Minister to the Golden Temple for his decision to send in the police, and that he be awarded "exemplary tankah (punishment)." The disclosure that Badal had himself used the police in the complex has so far staved off that possibility, but sources close to Amarinder Singh say that if it does come to pass, he will obey the Akal Takht. If so, he will become the first senior Punjab Chief Minster to accept the authority of the Akal Takht over temporal affairs. President Zail Singh, in a similar situation, had written to the Takht disowning responsibility for Operation Bluestar, but had not expressly condemned the action in his letter.

Amarinder Singh's conduct has also raised other disturbing possibilities. His alliance with the religious far-Right to marginalise the religious centre-Right has a particularly disquieting history. During the 1978 SGPC general elections, the Congress(I) government of Chief Minister Darbara Singh indirectly backed the supporters of the revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale against the official Akali candidates. Bhindranwale's supporters could win only some nine seats, and his close confidant Amrik Singh was defeated. None the less, the foundations had been laid for a fateful tragedy. Earlier Congress(I) regimes had also played a role in the factional affairs of the SGPC, but in considerably less incendiary circumstances. Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon had, for example, backed Prem Singh Lalpura as SGPC President in 1958 to defeat Akali strongman Master Tara Singh. And, in 1960, he unsuccessfully backed a Majha-belt Akali caucus against the official candidate. But the consequences of such interference in religious affairs by political forces was clearly understood - one reason why the Communist Party of India, which won 21 seats in the SGPC General House in 1955, subsequently vacated this arena.

Indeed, Amarinder Singh's dalliance with the far-Right may have set the stage for a cycle of competitive communalism. On November 13, for example, he met the International Human Rights Organisation's head, Dalbir Singh Gill, to discuss the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal issue. Two weeks earlier Gill had participated in a function at the Golden Temple to honour Beant Singh, one of the guards who assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The new political climate has also encouraged others on the Right to take a more aggressive position. Mann, who left the SHSAD on November 14, charging Tohra with allying himself with the Congress(I), recently wrote to the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi asking for that country's help in securing religious freedoms for Sikhs in India. Badal himself has now cast the contours of his future campaign in expressly communal terms.

An ill-thought-out political enterprise threatens to undo the enormous goodwill the Punjab Chief Minister has accumulated in the course of his anti-corruption campaign. In months to come, the social backlash that will most certainly be caused by the State government's aggressive privatisation programme could provide a wider basis to the kind of mobilisation the religious Right is seeking to bring about. Amarinder Singh's decision to withdraw free power to farmers has already alienated many in the middle and upper peasantry, the SAD's core constituency. Punjab will also be subject to enormous fissures as Singh's agenda for transforming the countryside, by moving away from cereal to cash crops, begins to gather pace. The fuel is in place: and too many people seem to be playing with matches.

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