On April 29, Arshdeep Kaur was with her mother, Shinder, on a bus from Moga to Bathinda, in Punjab, when miscreants tried to molest the 13-year-old girl. The bus staff joined the molesters in harassing her. The girl and her mother were finally thrown off the bus. While Arshdeep died on the spot, Shinder suffered serious injuries.
The death of the dalit girl led to huge public protests in Punjab, with the grieving father refusing to cremate the body for four days. Apart from grieving, the protests also symbolised the anti-Badal and anti-Akali Dal wave sweeping Punjab.
The transport company, Orbit, which operated the bus, is owned by the family of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. Under pressure, his son Sukhbir, who is the deputy chief minister, cancelled Orbit's permits and said the company's staff were being sent on an orientation programme. Punjab Congress president Pratap Singh Bajwa said the move vindicated his party's stand that there were rogue elements on the company's payrolls. The victim's father, encouraged by the massive public and political support, demanded the arrest of the bus company's owners. The police, however, took more than 12 hours to file a first information report.
For the Congress, the tragedy came as a godsend. The party organised dharnas outside the hospital where the teenager's body lay in the morgue and where the injured mother was admitted. It demanded the registration of criminal cases against the owners of the bus company and called a bandh, along with the Aam Aadmi Party. Some Congress leaders demanded a judicial probe while some others wanted the CBI to investigate the case.
Former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who is now the deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, demanded the resignation of Parkash Singh Badal, citing conflict of interest. He asked the Badals to shut down their businesses in transport, hospitality, media, travels and tourism sectors. The Congress alleged that the Badals used their official clout to grant prized route permits—about 250 of them—by falsely certifying that the state run transport services in those routes were not profitable.
The Akali Dal initially tried to fight back. Party general secretary Maheshinder Singh Grewal said the Congress and the AAP were using the tragic incident as a tool to reclaim lost political ground. "The opposition has been both opportunistic and callous. AAP leader Bhagwant Mann has been pictured in the media smiling while addressing a protest rally in Moga. He knows he is on his way out with a majority of party legislators expressing their lack of confidence in him. He is simply playing politics," said Grewal. The party also defended the Badals, saying they were not directly involved.
But the Badals eventually made a political settlement with the girl's family. The state government announced that an ex gratia relief and compensation amount of 024 lakh would be paid by the bus company. It offered a government job to a member of the victim's family, while the local administration announced more compensation and funds for the education of the girl's brother. Congress leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira called the compensation a bribe. "It is nothing but blood money, a bad law prevalent in some Arab countries," he said.
"It is not a big price to pay for one's political survival. But right now that seems difficult for the Akali Dal, which is battling a two-term anti-incumbency," said a retired bureaucrat of the Punjab cadre. He recalled a joke that is commonly heard in Punjab that everyone has a Badal neighbour, as the family has amassed huge benami properties. Though said in a lighter vein, it pointed towards the Akali Dal's loss of image.
With Sukhbir's wife, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, being a Union cabinet minister, the Congress raised the issue in both houses of Parliament, taking the battle to the Modi government and forcing the adjournment of both houses. It said there was complete breakdown of law and order in Punjab and demanded president's rule.
Elections to the Punjab assembly are due in 2017. The rejuvenation of the Congress will depend to a large extent on its victory in Punjab, where it is much better placed than in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Assam. The party will hold on to anything that makes for a political opportunity against the Akali Dal. That, perhaps, is the reason why a similar case of alleged molestation attempt in a bus in Patiala did not evoke a similar political response. That bus was not owned by the Badals.
UNDER A CLOUD
* A disproportionate assets case was filed against Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, his wife, son Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is the deputy chief minister, and others in 2003. The Badals, however, were acquitted in 2010, owing to lack of evidence.
* A public interest litigation was filed against the Badals, alleging irregularities in the transport department and corruption, in 2011. The PIL, however, was declined by the High Court on the ground that the petitioner should have first approached an investigating agency.
* In December 2014, Bikram Singh Majithia, Sukhbir's brother-in-law, was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate over his alleged involvement in the drugs racket in the state. Younger brother of Union Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Majithia is a state cabinet minister.
* Already facing anti-incumbency, the Badal government had to face flak from farmers because of delayed procurement of wheat, unseasonal rain and crop failure this year.
* The Moga molestation case has brought back the Badal business empire in the limelight. The family has stakes in the transport, hospitality and media sectors.