A battle for supremacy

Print edition : December 05, 1998

Sikh politicians and groups, desperate to emerge as the sole representative of the Sikh faith in the next millennium, are set for a decisive showdown against the backdrop of the Khalsa's tercentenary.

THE celebration of three hundred years of the Khalsa has begun, but with a dark counterpoint. As the foundation for the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex was laid at Anandpur Sahib, the tercentennial became a platform not only for religious celebration but also for competition among communal factions. Preceded as it was by the assassination of anti-Khalistan campaigner Tara Singh Hayer in Canada (see following article), the Anandpur Sahib celebration symbolises efforts by religious chauvinists to undermine centrist control of Sikh politics. Followed in quick time by the resignation of Brajinder Singh Hamdard, editor of Punjab's influential newspaper Ajit, from the Anandpur Sahib Foundation to protest against the growing communalism in the Sikh milieu, the Anandpur Sahib celebration seems certain to be the beginning of a bitter battle for religious leadership.

The November 22 celebrations in themselves went well. The Panj Piaras, five symbolic representations of Guru Gobind Singh's first initiates into the Khalsa, laid the foundation stone for a massive memorial complex. The complex is being designed by Moshe Safdie, who was commissioned personally by Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal after a visit to the architect's famous holocaust memorial in Israel. The structure, replete with medieval references, will house among other things a museum and a library.

Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, SGPC chairman Gurcharan Singh Tohra and four Sikh priests lead the procession on November 22 that marked the inauguration of the tercentennial celebrations of the Khalsa.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The Punjab Government ensured a lavish spectacle, complete with elephants, martial displays by the Nihangs who see themselves as the army of the Guru, and caparisoned horses from the lineage of Guru Gobind Singh's own favourite stallion. Speeches by Badal and Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president Gurcharan Singh Tohra marked the end of the inauguration.

Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh.-S. ARNEJA

The absence of the controversial Akal Takht Jathedar, Ranjit Singh, at the inauguration was politically significant. A week before the inauguration, Ranjit Singh had made it clear that he would not attend the event and pointed darkly to unspecified design defects in the memorial complex. Since the Anandpur Sahib Foundation, which will supervise the execution of the complex, was controlled by two of his arch-rivals, the real reasons for Ranjit Singh's anger were transparent. Jathedar Manjit Singh of the Keshgarh Sahib Takht had been expelled from the precincts of the Akal Takht earlier this year after a bitter battle for theocratic power, and through the affair Hamdard had been the principal critic of the Akal Takht Jathedar. Efforts made to secure Ranjit Singh's participation fell through.

HAYER'S was only the second Khalistan political execution of its kind overseas, though Canada-based terrorists had been involved in several crimes elsewhere, notably the bombing of the Air-India Boeing 747 Kanishka. The first victim of such a crime was United Kingdom-based journalist Tarsem Singh Purewal, who was executed in 1994 for exposing misappropriation of funds by Khalistan leaders. Initial investigations into Hayer's killing are believed to be focussing on International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) members. Although the ISYF and Ranjit Singh have no formal connection, the terrorist organisation has been strongly supportive of the Jathedar in the langar controversy. Interestingly, Ranjit Singh, who has stoically refused to condemn Hayer's assassination, had criticised Sikhs in the West on November 7 for moving away from his interpretation of the Sikh tenets.

If Ranjit Singh's inability to condemn the assassination was comprehensible, the response of centrists in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was not. No Punjab Minister criticised Hayer's assassins, and a vague expression of regret emerged from Badal and his party colleague Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa only after they were cornered by journalists. Under attack from chauvinists, the centrists in the SAD as usual chose their favoured ostrich-posture mode of engagement.

Keshgarh Sahib Takht Jathedar Manjit Singh.-VINO JOHN

Meanwhile, Sikh hardliners continued to demand that Ranjit Singh's conditions for joining in the November 22 celebrations be met. On the day of Hayer's assassination, Ranjit Singh changed the focus of his attack to the memorial complex's Minar-e-Khalsa, a towering concrete representation of the iconic Sikh sword, the khanda. Ranjit Singh did not spell out just what his objections to the existing design were, but maverick politician Simranjit Singh Mann had earlier claimed that it encouraged "idol worship".

But the wages of appeasement were soon to be paid out to Prakash Singh Badal. Blistering attacks on Hamdard by Tohra and Ranjit Singh finally pushed him to act. A day after the Anandpur Sahib celebration, Hamdard resigned from the Anandpur Sahib Foundation, protesting against the unwillingness of Badal and the SAD to defend him against the Jathedar's assaults. At a two-hour meeting with Badal, Hamdard argued that the Chief Minister's silence jeopardised the long-term prospects of communal peace in Punjab, sources told Frontline. Hayer's killing, he said, had illustrated the existence of chauvinist forces intolerant of dissent and willing to resort to violence. Extremism was lurking just below the surface of Punjab politics and it would resurface if unchallenged by the centrists, Hamdard warned the Chief Minister.

The Panj Piaras, symbolic representations of Guru Gobind Singh's first initiates into the Khalsa, lay the foundation stone for the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex at Anandpur Sahib.-SANDEEP SAXENA

How Prakash Singh Badal responded to this criticism is not known, but at the time of writing, Hamdard's resignation had not been accepted. However, Hamdard's drastic action illustrates growing frustration among the centrist SAD intelligentsia. Neither the burning of copies of Ajit during the langar controversy, nor physical assaults on liberals, including former Advocate-General Gurcharan Singh Grewal who met in Chandigarh to discuss the issue, invited any official censure. Congress(I) politicians, by contrast, responded sharply to Hayer's killing, with State party chief Amarinder Singh proclaiming that "the truth cannot be silenced". Tohra, for his part, took at least some quiet satisfaction at the disarray in Badal's camp and the evident inability of the Chief Minister to stand up for his professed political beliefs.

IT is possible that the tercentennial celebrations, scheduled to culminate in early 1999, will see a decisive showdown. For all factions of Sikh communal politicians, the event will be their last chance to establish themselves as sole spokesmen for the faith into the next millennium. The key protagonists in this process will not only be the Khalistan-affiliated figures, Tohra and Badal, but also the Sikh clergy as an independent entity, jockeying to gain control over the political system. The Congress(I), too, has announced its own parallel Khalsa celebrations, seeking to establish its credentials as a legitimate custodian of Sikh religious interests. If the first signs of this conflict are indicative of what is to come, the tercentennial is certain not only to be a people's festival, but a politician's battlefield.

Other aspects of the tercentennial celebration have passed almost without notice. The Union Government will contribute some Rs.200 crores towards the celebrations at Anandpur Sahib. The Punjab Government, too, has made budget allocations for this explicitly religious enterprise. Indian embassies abroad have been instructed to market the tercentennial as a tourist spectacle. Newspaper reports suggest that many ordinary people in Punjab are incensed at such extravagance, coming as it does at a time when money is not available for basic development work.

Relics associated with Guru Gobind Singh on display.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Except the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, no political grouping has opposed the use of state funds to back the celebrations at Anandpur Sahib. Given that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the SAD are coalition partners, the Hindu right's interests in Anandpur Sahib are only too evident. State funding for religion in Punjab is only the dress rehearsal: for the Hindu right, the real drama is yet to come.

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