A fusion of politics and religion

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

It is illustrative of a certain political environment that all the leaders who attended the inauguration of the Khalsa tercentennial celebrations seemed oblivious to the dangers of communalism.

PRAVEEN SWAMI in Chandigarh

THE paintings at the media centre in Anandpur Sahib, helpfully put up by the Public Relations Department of the Punjab Government, recount the Shiromani Akali Dal's (SAD) authorised instant history of the Sikh faith. Starting from Guru Gobind Singh, they illustrate the defining moments of the religion, a narrative that for the SAD seems to consist largely of violent battles. Revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the figure at the heart of Punjab's ten-year-long carnage, is predictably excluded from this narrative. The last picture in the row is that of Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, who is staring out with a suitably epic gaze.

The celebration at Anandpur is more than just a commemoration of the formation of the Khalsa panth by Guru Gobind Singh 300 years ago. It is also a platform on which political legitimacy is being interrogated and established. If Badal has sought to represent himself as the heir to an unbroken Sikh tradition, the deposed chairman of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), Gurcharan Singh Tohra, has attacked the Chief Minister as a traitor to the traditions of the faith. Bhindranwale's seminary, the ultra-conservative Damdami Taksal, has used the opportunity to hawk posters of the preacher and tapes of his speeches, while maverick Akali politician Simranjit Singh Mann chose to call for a renewed struggle for Khalistan, this time through peaceful means.

A colourful array of unconventional figures have also entered the polemical fray. Hail Hair!, a book authored by Birendra Kaur and published by the Institute for Sikh Studies in Chandigarh, has put science at the service of faith. Writing in the institute's journal, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, reviewer Harkishan Singh claimed that the book comprehensively debunked the practice of shaving and described it as a "shibboleth created from trillions of dollars from the shaving industry and the like to perpetuate human lives against the dictates of nature." "It is time", Harkishan Singh proclaims, "to sound the bugle and say: 'Like Smoking; Like Shaving'."

If the tercentenary celebration provided a stage for politicians to construct a religious identity in their own image, their performances at Anandpur Sahib provide insights into the continuing battle of the Sikh Right, if such a monolithic entity does in fact exist, to represent the interests of the community. In all major mainstream political forces in Punjab, the language of the shrine and of faith appear to have decisively displaced secular discourse.

Badal's own representation of his place in Sikh history was perhaps the most interesting of those on display through the celebrations. On April 13, the penultimate day of the celebrations, he committed his Government to the creation of a new, "ultra-modern" city between Chandigarh and Anandpur. This new city, which would emerge from a fusion of high technology and Khalsa architectural heritage, would be home to sunrise industries, including information technology and biotechnology. Badal also announced a Rs.500-crore grant for the creation of an information technology facility at Anandpur Sahib, which he said would be "on a par with the most advanced institutes in Washington and New York."

While Badal's monumental ambitions have aroused more than a few sniggers from sceptics, the Chief Minister has clearly chosen to cast himself as a visionary figure. One of the SAD's key election themes was the re-creation of a modern version of Ranjit Singh's empire, a motif from which the Anandpur Sahib commitments have evidently emerged. The symbolic resonance of a new religious city close to Chandigarh, an icon of post-Independence secular modernity, was not lost on observers. Interestingly, Badal's notion of Sikh history rests on the appropriation of a wide variety of figures. Bhagat Singh, for example, was honoured with the Order of the Khalsa despite his commitment to atheism and radical socialism. The architect of the 1985 Punjab Accord, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, Planning Commission member Montek Singh Ahluwalia and industrialist Bhai Mohan Singh, were also honoured.

Yet, Badal's position as a moderniser is not an unambiguous one. In his struggle to marginalise Tohra, he acted like other SAD centrists in the past who were pushed to assert their religious credentials. Jagir Kaur, the new SGPC president, has for example adopted conservative postures in order to avoid attacks from the Right. In the course of her Women's Day address on March 8 in Jalandhar, she stunned her audience by asserting that the solution to sexual violence was for young women to dress more conservatively and keep their heads covered.

The Anandpur Sahib religious complex decked up for the Khalsa tercentennial celebrations.-

Badal himself has been forced to flirt with the religious Right. On January 30, for the first time since taking office, Badal shared a platform with a group associated with the Khalistan movement, the Sikh Students Federation (SSF), a faction of the All India Sikh Students' Federation (AISSF). At the meeting, Badal lavished praise on SSF leader Harminder Singh Sandhu, a terrorist who was killed in a police encounter in 1990.

Such contradictions are certain to sharpen in the months to come: a commitment to economic modernisation will coexist, however uneasily, with a similar commitment to social reaction. Although Badal's domination of the Akali political apparatus is undisputed, Tohra has in important senses succeeded in defining the terms of future engagement. The terrain of this engagement is expressly religious, and Badal could well find himself pushed to adopt Right-wing postures on issues perceived to concern the affairs of the panth, a category ranging from the future of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal to Tohra's demand for a separate Sikh personal law.

Tohra and the suspended Akal Takht Jathedar, Ranjit Singh, have carved out a more simple task for themselves. Both have defined their politics by assaulting the religious credentials of the SAD centrists. Both ensured a massive mobilisation of cadre for a march from the Akal Takht in Amritsar to Anandpur, culminating with a rally on April 13 to parallel Badal's show. Ranjit Singh told the rally that Badal had in essence betrayed the Sikh panth by undermining the authority of the Akal Takht Jathedar. Nonetheless, he continued, the Chief Minister would be forgiven if he "surrendered" before the Akal Takht. Ranjit Singh was removed as Akal Takht Jathedar on February 10, in the wake of a protracted battle with Badal, but continues to maintain that he still holds the office. Tohra was sacked as SGPC president a month later.

At a felicitation function on April 14, Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee president Jagir Kaur, Akal Takht Jathedar Puran Singh, Prof. Manjith Singh and Giani Kewal Singh.-

Frontal campaigns against Badal's supposed lack of commitment to the Sikh faith have formed the core of the Tohra faction's mobilisation. In media interviews, Tohra said that the SAD constitution required the party president, and all working committee members to be Amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs. He claimed that Badal and his close aides did not meet this qualification. Most members of the Anandpur Sahib Foundation, which is managing the tercentenary, Tohra alleged, drank liquor in violation of orthodox Sikh tenets. He called Jagir Kaur a mahantni (priestess), a derogatory reference to the pre-1925 control of gurdwaras by hereditary priests. He described the celebration itself as a "sarkari tamasha (government-sponsored show) which violates Sikh maryada (tradition)."

Opposition to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee inaugurating the celebration on April 8 was a central theme in Tohra's protests. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, he said, had backed Operation Bluestar. Tohra also asserted that the inaugural proceedings had not adhered to tradition, including the manner in which the Guru Granth Sahib was displayed. Other pro-Tohra figures were less subtle in their protests against Vajpayee's presence. On April 6, SGPC member Sarup Singh Dhesi moved the Sikh Judicial Commission, a body with powers of judicial review over the conduct of the community's religious affairs against the Prime Minister's visit. Dhesi claimed that Vajpayee ought to have been invited only if he conceded that Sikhs constituted a separate qaum (nation), and called for all Sikhs to undertake baptism in the course of the tercentenary.

That Tohra is emerging as a focal point for a wide variety of anti-Badal Akalis has become clear. His Anandpur rally was graced by the presence of Union Minister Surjit Singh Barnala, who for the first time signalled his explicit opposition to Badal. Mann too shared the platform, although Tohra made clear that the politician's call for Khalistan was not endorsed by him. The Sant Samaj, a Right-wing apex organisation of clerics led Sarabjot Singh Bedi, along with the Damdami Taksal, represented by Bhindranwale's successor Baba Thakar Singh, joined Tohra's Anandpur gathering. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar also spoke at Tohra's rally, asserting that whenever sants (priests) and the state had been in confrontation, the sants had always triumphed. Finally, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram's arrival signalled that he is open to an alliance with the Tohra faction.

Dark predictions of violence between the Akali factions at Anandpur Sahib did not deter the crowds.-

Should these events sustain their momentum, the tercentenary rally could mark the beginning of a new political formation in Punjab politics. The coalescing of the religious Right behind Tohra has underlined his plans to represent himself as the voice of a besieged Sikh minority. Six resolutions passed by the alliance around Tohra call for, among other things, the SAD to be led by Amritdhari Sikhs and for an apology from Badal to the Akal Takht for his action against Ranjit Singh. Tohra's ability to mobilise the religious establishment and its supporters was in stark contrast to the miserable failure of the official SGPC rally to Anandpur from Amritsar. Badal-affiliated religious figures, including Keshgarh Takht Jathedar Manjit Singh and Akal Takht Jathedar Puran Singh were nearly invisible during the celebrations.

The principal beneficiaries of the stand-off between Badal and Tohra have been marginal far-Right groups, who are scrambling to occupy the political space that has opened up for them. The AISSF assumed renewed visibility when it demanded that an invitation to singer Lata Mangeshkar to perform at the inauguration be withdrawn. Lata Mangeshkar eventually declined the invitation, citing health reasons. The Amritsar unit of the World Sikh Council (WSC) has also backed Tohra in his fight against Badal and demanded that the Chief Minister seek pardon from the Akal Takht. WSC president and former Supreme Court Judge Kuldip Singh refused to receive the Order of the Khalsa award, citing what he believes is government apathy to human rights violations committed by the state while combating the Khalistan insurgency.

In addition to the competitive communalism of the Akali factions, the Congress(I) has contributed its own effort to harvest religiosity. State Congress(I) chief Amarinder Singh chose a more popular idiom for the party's procession to Anandpur. Weapons of Guru Gobind Singh which belong to his family, the feudal rulers of Patiala, were taken through villages across Punjab. Large crowds gathered to witness the display of the historic weapons, a sign that the Congress(I) had succeeded in capitalising on the cultural climate of the tercentenary celebrations. Congress(I) leader Meira Kumar extended something of an apology for the party's role in the genocidal anti-Sikh violence of 1984, regretting unspecified "errors" which she promised would not be repeated.

The suspended Akal Takht Jathedar, Ranjit Singh, addressing a rally at Anandpur Sahib.-

However, the Congress(I)'s tactics could have disturbing long-term consequences. In 1972, Zail Singh, who later became Punjab Chief Minister and President of India Zail Singh, began to deploy the Akalis' own religious instruments against them. On one key occasion, during Zail Singh's chief ministership, horses believed to have come from the same lineage as Guru Gobind Singh's horse were paraded throughout Punjab in a display of state patronage. Hindu members of the Congress(I), in turn, sought to subvert the Jan Sangh by aggressively mobilising communal sentiments. The Akalis, pushed to the wall, responded by escalating their revanchist programmes. These events laid the foundations for the rise of Bhindranwale and Punjab's decade of carnage.

It is perhaps illustrative of a certain political environment that none of the national and regional political leaders who attended the inauguration of the tercentenary celebrations saw any reason to warn of the dangers of communalism. The privileging of religion as the principal political idiom in Punjab is even more tragic. For all its prosperity, an estimated 50 per cent of women in the State are illiterate. Communist Party of India MP Geeta Mukherjee said that Punjab also has the highest rate of female foeticide nationwide. Caste oppression and economic iniquity are rampant. Sadly, no major party in Punjab appears interested in placing the everyday secular concerns of the State's people at the centre of its political existence.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor