Once known as the bread basket of the country, today Punjab is a pale shadow of its past. Rising unemployment, drug trafficking and the recent unrest in the State have served it a heavy blow, writes Vivek Srivastava
The Akali Government in Punjab was yet to recover from the farmers’ protest over compensation for crop loss, that they found themselves at the receiving end of public anger over the alleged sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Clashes erupted across the state, leaving two people dead in Faridkot district of Punjab. As the unrest turned violent, Central forces were rushed to Punjab. Around 1,000 personnel were deployed in Amritsar, Ludhiana, Bhatinda and Jalandhar to contain the violence and anger. The unrest also took its toll on former Punjab police chief Sumedh Singh Saini, who was unceremoniously removed from his position.
As the State Government found itself on back foot, Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal issued a statement that there was a conspiracy to disturb peace in Punjab. "The desecration of Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a deep-rooted conspiracy aimed at inciting communal tension and destabilising the hard-won peace in Punjab," said Badal in a statement.
The police blamed the unrest on foreign hands, based on phone calls received by two brothers in a case that led to their arrest. This claim fell flat, as callers from Australia and Dubai said they were in touch with families in Punjab, as they had sent money for treatment of the protesters.
History behind the clashes
Tensions have been simmering in Punjab since September this year, when the highest temporal body of Sikhs - the Akal Takht accepted an apology from Dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim and pardoned him. In 2007, the Dera Sacha Sauda had angered Sikhs when he appeared dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh.
This was seen as an attempt by the Akalis to mend fences with the Dera Sacha Sauda. The Dera Sacha Sauda has a strong influence in the Malwa belt of Punjab. In 2007 it had supported Congress and the Akalis were defeated in the region.
In 2014 Dera Sacha Sauda had supported BJP in the Haryana Assembly elections. And now when relations often get strained between BJP and Akalis in Punjab, both are trying hard to garner as much support as they can for an eventuality like a split before the elections.
Indicating this, political observers say that Akalis are facing huge anti-incumbency and aligning with Dera is one the last options that the party is left with to contain damage before the 2017 assembly elections.
However, by the time it was realised that the decision to pardon Ram Rahim is bring a backlash, damage had been done. Though the Sikh priests revoked the pardon, it was too late and by now the tacit understanding between Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex representative body of Sikhs, and the Badals became very clear.
A senior Akali leader said that the Badals never anticipated such huge backlash over the decision to pardon Ram Rahim. Even senior Akali leaders have voiced their protest over the decision to pardon Ram Rahim and some have also resigned from party posts.
Politics of Religion
Since October 15, when the protest turned violent, several SGPC members have quit and some Sikh leaders have even demanded removal of the five Akal Takht Jathedars who constitute the top clergy.
The Panj Pyaras, the five beloved ones of the Guru, in a move that raised eyebrows summoned the Sikh clergy, as they claimed that the religion was in danger. The SGPC retaliated by suspending the Panj Pyaras. This has raised questions whether the Panj Pyaras have the authority to summon the Sikh clergy.
Some observers are of the opinion that the Panj Pyaras are too junior to summon the Sikh clergy, while some say that even Guru Gobind Singh had bowed before the Panj Pyaras.
Now, the chief of Takhts are staying away from public meetings.
Akalis in Trouble
Though the organisations that are leading the protests are allegedly pro-Khalistani, these protests are now mainly anti-Akali Dal Government. There is clear resentment over the lack of jobs and deteriorating law order situation in the state. These too are reasons behind the spate of protests.
“There is anger in the community against the Akali Government and instead of taking any action the Akali Government has confined itself to Chandigarh,” said a senior Akali Dal leader.
Akali’s ally BJP, concedes that the unrest has caused considerable damage to the Government and the State “The initial handling of the controversy could have been better,” said BJP State party chief Kamal Sharma.
These protests will also have an impact on the Panthic vote bank, which the Akalis have been trying hard to nurture for the coming Assembly election. In an effort to appease a certain section, the Akalis have been pursuing the demands of radical groups, which include possibly the release of Khalistan militants and/or shifting them at least to jails in Punjab in case they were lodged in jails of other States.
The opposition has been quick to latch on this unrest in the State. Congress MLA from Khadoor Sahib in Tarn Taran district, Ramanjit Singh Sikki, went to the extent of resigning from the Assembly.
They also point out that the resignations from SGPC are of those who are close to the Badals and this is a ploy to divert attention from the Akali Government.
Despite the Badals facing one of their worst crisis, the opposition, in particular the Congress, has not been able to set its house in order. The Congress could not put a united front and has been unable to capitalise on the issue.
This unrest could divide communities in Punjab as there is huge resentment over the manner the Jathedars acted.
The Khalistan movement could also see a revival. Already the Punjab Government has supported the demands of radical groups. These groups are capable of initiating violent protests all across the State.
Also, one of the reasons why these protests turned into anti-Government is because of the pent up anger against the Badals. Rising unemployment, drug problem and farmers’ protests are some of the reasons why the people are turning against Prakash Singh Badal and his son. The Chief Minister and his family also have huge influence in SGPC, a fact resented by many in the state.
June 1: Guru Granth Sahib goes missing from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village Gurdwara in Faridkot district.
June 15: It is alleged that followers of Dera Sacha Sauda are behind the theft.
Oct 12: Pages of allegedly the same Granth Sahib found in neighbouring Bargari.
Oct 13: Protesters clash with police.
Oct 14: Two protesters are killed in police firing in Faridkot district.
Oct 16: All FIRs against protesters withdrawn.