Season of discontent

Print edition : November 27, 2015

A Sikh spiritual leader addressing a gathering on the highway in Kot Bhara near Bathinda on October 22, protesting against the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, . Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Farmers stage a dharna on railway tracks demanding fair compensation for a failed cotton crop, in Muchhal village near Amritsar. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP

Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Bikram Singh Majithia, Revenue Minister and brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, chief of Dera Sacha Sauda. Photo: K. Ananthan

Punjab was forced to remain under siege by paramilitary forces for more than a week in October following violent protests by some Sikh radical groups over the alleged desecration of Sikhism’s holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib. Already reeling under a failed kharif crop, the agrarian State went through another bout of turmoil when pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found scattered on the streets in at least three different villages of the State. The series of agitations fomented a political crisis as most protesters held the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-led State government responsible for an Emergency-like situation.

The crisis first unfolded when farmers’ groups staged rail roko dharnas across the State in September demanding fair compensation for a failed cotton crop and for the declining market prices of Basmati rice. These protests, in which farmers and agricultural labourers came together, disrupted rail traffic for many days and set the stage for the larger crisis in the State. The government was forced to release funds to compensate the farmers as the agitations attracted support from the general public. The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), or SAD, often described as a party of peasants, faced a lot of flak for the high-handedness with which the government dealt with debt-ridden farmers.

The agitations, in a way, created a perception among farmers that the government was anti-farmer. Reports of a widespread pesticide scam and the forced sale of low-quality Bt cotton seeds through government outlets only reinforced this perception. Farmers blamed the government for the destruction of their cotton crop by the rampant whitefly insect this kharif season.

It was during this time of widespread unrest that the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex gurdwara management body in Punjab, exonerated Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda, of the charges he faced. The Dera chief had, in one of his prayer meetings in 2007, worn a garment that made him look like the last Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Since the Dera chief had been accused of various crimes like kidnapping, extortion and rape, organised Sikh religion saw Rahim Singh’s act as blasphemous. This had led to violent clashes between Dera supporters and Akali Dal activists.

The exoneration of the Dera chief was perceived by many radical Sikh groups as a political ploy by the Badals, and they stepped up their protests against the SGPC in the already volatile State. Sikh radical groups such as the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and the Dal Khalsa saw the exoneration of the Dera chief as a desperate attempt by the SAD (Badal) to appease the Dera Sacha Sauda, which commands a large support base in the Malwa region of Punjab and has the power to influence State Assembly elections, due in early 2017. The SGPC is largely perceived as an institution controlled by the Badals, and the exoneration of the Dera chief cemented this understanding amongst the public. “People began to believe that even the Jathedars [the five holy heads of the SGPC] do what the Badals ask them to do. In times of financial crisis, they also felt that they had no control over their own religion. This led to a religious crisis,” said a political observer on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, the Panj Pyare, who form the nucleus of the Khalsa (originally Guru Gobind Singh’s five special disciples; the present ones are officially appointed by the SGPC), demanded that the Jathedars should resign for exonerating the Dera chief and mismanaging the SGPC. The war within the SGPC came out in the open, following which it suspended the Panj Pyare. This inflamed the crisis further.

As reports of the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib started to come in, people took to the streets in protest. On October 14, after the police fired at a gathering that was silently protesting against this act of sacrilege in Kotakpura, a hamlet in Faridkot district, killing two people, the violence became viral. Protesting groups clashed with the police in many places across the State, attacked government buildings and gheraoed State Ministers. The government, for the first time after the decades of militancy, had to deploy paramilitary forces to control the growing violence, bringing the bogey of insurgency back.

Many political analysts believe that the present crisis, which has seen many low-level riots across the State, has dented the image of the Badal clan irreversibly and this could influence the results of the next Assembly elections. This correspondent noticed that the SAD was being perceived as a party completely hegemonised by the Badal clan, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal. The Badal clan is said to have stakes in almost every business in Punjab. While it monopolises the cable TV and bus transport business in the State, it also has large stakes in the State’s construction industry, sand and stone mining, and media.

The Badals are seen as using their political power to corner all the resources of the State. Most people feel that the SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine runs the most corrupt government in Punjab; even a religious body like the SGPC is seen as acting at the behest of the Badals. Many people allege that the politically powerful Badals have used the police to suppress dissent, thereby alienating a large chunk of their support base. A senior Akali leader, on condition of anonymity, told Frontline: “Many factions of the SAD are unhappy with the way the Badals have run the second term of their government. Despite such a huge victory for the BJP, our ally in the State, the Badals settled for only one member in the Union Cabinet. And who is that member? Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of Sukhbir Badal. The whole Badal clan is in politics, including Bikram Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of Sukhbir Badal. Senior Akali leaders are bound to be upset with such a state of affairs. While the BJP is canvassing against dynastic politics nationally, it has not said a word against the Badals here.”

The Badals are now seen as micromanaging the present crisis by taking steps to control the damage done to their reputation. The Jathedars have reversed the decision to exonerate the Dera chief of charges and reinstated the Panj Pyare. The State government has set aside Rs.643 crore to provide compensation to farmers and about Rs.70 crore for agricultural labourers. It has also told the media that the present crisis is being fuelled by some foreign extremist groups, in association with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Despite these measures, there is strong resentment against the SAD on the ground. This is reflected in the way many top leaders of the party are distancing themselves from the Badals. Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, a senior core committee member and a vice-president of the SAD, who was sent to Uttar Pradesh to expand the SAD’s base there, resigned from the party’s membership to join the Samajwadi Party. He was also made a Minister in the Uttar Pradesh government in the recent State Cabinet shuffle.

Ironically, the SAD was elected to power on a development agenda in 2012. It had mounted a successful campaign about its pro-people agenda and had stayed clear of its traditional Sikh Panthic agenda in the last Assembly elections. Many believed that Sikh Panthic extremism was finally over in 2012 as none of the political parties played on religious emotions, thus isolating extremist groups. However, the present violence has again foregrounded religious anxieties. Despite talk of prioritising governance, the SAD-BJP government has always pandered to extremist forces in one way or another. For instance, the SGPC lobbied with the State government in 2012 to commute the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajaona, one of the assassins of former Chief Minister Beant Singh. The SGPC’s plea was seen as an attempt by the government to appease religious extremists.

“People see the Badals as serving their own interests. The SGPC and the Akal Takht are perceived as the political arms of the Badals. The political credibility of the SAD is at an all-time low since the Badals are seen as businessmen, not politicians, largely because of their inconsistent politics over the last few years. No one knows which side the SAD is on. This has created confusion amongst the public. This may harm the party unless it does some serious introspection,” said Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

The agitations in Punjab metamorphosed from a farmers’ protest into a religious protest. In a State which has painstakingly made its way back to peace after decades of militancy, such violence may divert people’s attention from the financial crises that are looming large. The growing agrarian crisis in the State had, for the first time, united upper-caste peasants and Dalit agricultural labourers. But the religious tone of the agitation against the Dera Sacha Sauda has the potential to alienate the Dalit agricultural labourers, who support the Deras. Punjab, in the last few years, has seen intermittent skirmishes between Dalits and the upper-caste, politically powerful Jat Sikh peasants. Backward-caste people who are in non-agrarian occupations also support the agricultural labourers.

This has resulted in diffusing the larger Punjabi political identity created in the aftermath of the militancy. Since both the Congress and the SAD are dominated by Jat Sikhs, they have been struggling to evolve a successful political tactic to address all the communities in the State. Consequently, any party which micromanages the elections better and has more resources wins, and this leaves the State in a desperate need for a positive political agenda. The success of the Aam Aadmi Party, which campaigned against corruption and the drug menace in the 2014 parliamentary elections, is in an additional factor for both these parties to consider. As of now, the Badals, largely because of their own doing, have become a common enemy of all the stakeholders in the State’s politics.

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