FROM THE ARCHIVES

Power at stake

dera-sacha-sauda Caption: Apologise, or else: Sikhs staging a protest against the Dera in Amritsar

Politicians don't want a repeat of the 80s

As Sikhs crossed swords with the supporters of Dera Sacha Sauda, the people of Punjab kept their fingers crossed. Equally worried were the politicians. Many of them had a flashback of the 80s when they were reduced to nonentities as the armed forces and the bureaucracy took charge of the state in the bloody years of terrorism. As the state convulsed again this May, no party wanted the ignominious history to repeat itself.

"Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his party were the first to use the volatile situation to their advantage. But in less than 72 hours, they could envisage the magnitude of their loss if violence continued," said Gurbaksh Singh, an Akali supporter. "So they went out of their way to ensure that the May 22 protest was peaceful."

Badal used the mid-May clash to get back at Dera chief Baba Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh for supporting the Congress in the Assembly elections in February. Sources said Badal asked Akal Takhat Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti to issue an edict calling for the social boycott of the Dera. Badal reasoned that it would prompt the predominantly poor Dalit Sikhs to leave the Dera for fear of excommunication. This would, in turn, dilute Gurmeet Singh's clout.

But the ageing pro-Khalistanis, who have never been too fond of the moderate Akalis, upset Badal's plans. They unsheathed their kirpans and raised pro-Khalistan slogans. Sikh mobs, whose sentiments had been hurt by the Dera leader's portrayal of himself as Guru Gobind Singh, did the rest. "Even if their [pro-Khalistanis] demands [of Khalistan] had been conceded, they would have some incomplete agenda to take up. Their moment can come any time, though they may not gather any support," said Gurbaksh Singh. By setting a deadline for the closure of the deras in the state, they cornered the Badal government.

Meanwhile, the Dera leaders distributed CDs containing photos of Badal and son Sukhbir with the Dera chief. As it became public that the purpose of the meeting was to seek votes, Badal hid himself behind the statement: Sikh sentiments had been hurt and the redemption was an apology.

The fear in the Badal camp seemed genuine and the clashes exposed the fragile coalition ties. The BJP's Punjab unit president, Rajinder Bhandari, warned of a rethink on ties if the issue was not sorted out quickly. The BJP, which has non-Sikh supporters, did not want the Sikh clergy to run a parallel government by setting deadlines. "We share their sentiments about the insult to the Guru. But nobody can play with the law and order and social harmony of Punj ab," said Bhandari.

The Congress was as jittery as the Akali Dal. In return for Dera votes, the party had assured help in securing a clean chit for the Dera chief and his supporters in the criminal cases against them which were being investigated by the CBI. But the showdown saw the party sharing the Akali sentiment at the all-party meeting which condemned the advertisement which landed the Dera chief in a soup. Nor did the Congress support the Sikhs against the Dera. "This will harm them in the parliamentary elections," said an Akali worker.

An end to the stand-off seemed likely as, on May 23, the Dera said "a solution was on the cards". But are the recent clashes an indication of an unfinished battle against terrorism? "The Sikhs want a positive expression of their political self-consciousness, rejecting the negative fundamentalist-terrorist way that is unacceptable to the Sikh doctrine " said Sikh historian Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia. "This is essential to prevent the re-emergence of fundamentalist ideology and militancy. The battle against fundamentalist terrorism has almost been won on the ground, but the war in the minds against fundamentalist ideology is yet to be won."

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The Week

Topics : #Punjab | #controversy

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