Crossing swords

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Members of the SGPC and supporters of the SAD (Amritsar) clash inside the Golden Temple complex on the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar.

THE sword fight between two Sikh groups inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar on June 6, amid cries of ‘Khalistan Zindabaad’ ( long live Khalistan) brought back memories of the highly charged, divisive, and militant period in Punjab’s history in the 1980s. The tussle broke out when supporters of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), a radical outfit led by Simranrjit Singh Mann allegedly tried to interrupt Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh’s speech at the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar and the guards of the Shiromani Gururdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) intervened.

What looked like a fight between two radically opposite political standpoints, analysts say, is rooted in the overall decadence of the Sikh religious and political institutions in the past two decades. The charge against the cash-rich SGPC, which is supposed to be an independent administrative institution for Gurdwaras, is that it has reduced itself to a mere extension of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal).

The SGPC’s failure to practise an inclusive Sikh religious ethos has opened up space for innumerable Deras in Punjab. The Deras address those concerns of people that are left unaddressed by the SGPC. As a result, many Dalits in the Sikh community turn towards the Deras and their preaching. Similarly, the SGPC by its inaction has also ceded space to the religious right. Radical groups such as the SAD (A) and the Dal Khalsa have in the recent past tried to rake up the Khalistan issue in the State. On a regular basis they campaign against the SGPC’s “failure” to protect Sikh interests and ethos and involve themselves in charity activities to attract the youth.

The political analyst Pramod Kumar told Frontline that the radical groups receive negligible support in Punjab but they exist only because of the funds they garner from some Sikh fundamentalist groups and individuals abroad. It is to appease these groups that the radical outfits talk about the cause of Khalistan, an issue almost dead in Punjab.

“The separatists are compelled to make some noise every now and then as they are hugely dependent on funds from outside. However, the issues they raise have absolutely no political mileage in Punjab,” said Hamir Singh, editor of Punjabi Tribune and an expert in Sikh Panthic studies.

In the aftermath of the militancy in Punjab the SAD (A) enjoyed unprecedented support for its radical stand. It won seven of the 13 parliamentary constituencies. However, all its MPs refused to enter Parliament in principle, following which the party lost steam. At present, its support base is limited to Sangrur district.

Clearly, the sword fight was a manifestation of the larger rivalry between the Badal-led SGPC and the SAD (A). The SGPC has tried to neutralise the inroads the radical outfits have made in Sikh religious institutions of late. As for the SAD (B), a section in the party has been uncomfortable with the single-point rhetoric of “development”. It believes that this has come at the cost of Sikh Panthic issues for which the party came into existence. In order to appease this section, the SGPC, in April 2013, inaugurated the controversial Operation Bluestar martyrs’ memorial inside the Golden Temple Complex. Simranjit Singh Mann and members of other radical outfits shared the dais with SGPC officials at the event. In the recently concluded parliamentary elections, Bikram Singh Majitha, an eminent SAD (Badal) leader from Amritsar, had to face punishment on the SGPC’s orders for naming Arun Jaitley, the BJP candidate from Amritsar, in one of the Sikh prayers. The SGPC was reportedly forced to act against Majitha because of pressure from the radical groups.

Experts say that the SAD (Badal)’s control over the SGPC prevents the religious body from taking up separatist issues openly because of Badal’s alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre. The SGPC sometimes caves in to the demands of radical outfits only because of the latter’s vociferous campaign against the political alliance. Groups like the SAD (A) and the Dal Khalsa have constantly canvassed against the SAD (Badal)-BJP alliance as a threat to Sikh identity because of the broader Hindu nationalism of the BJP. Therefore, the sword fight on June 6 has to be seen in the context of the part-time assertion of Sikh identity politics of the SGPC and the SAD (Badal).

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta