Punjab: On the Boil

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A stolen holy book. Erupting streets and offending posters. An inept government and angry farmers. Is Punjab inching toward the brink? Open follows the fault lines of a volatile state

On 1 June in an obscure village in Punjab’s Faridkot district, a copy of the holy book of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib was stolen. The theft took place from the Gurdwara at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, a village tucked in a corner of the district. It was an act that would badly rock Punjab four months later, in mid- October, bringing fearful memories of the state’s decade-long encounter with terrorism and a secessionist movement.

By Punjab’s standards, Burj Jawahar Singh Wala is a small village that is home to roughly 2,000 people. It has not had any history of communal violence and houses a cluster of Muslim families who were ‘saved’ in the carnage that followed India’s Independence and have stuck there. The Gurdwara in the village houses a Muslim shrine as well, something that is not usual for a Sikh place of worship.

Things have, however, changed in this village, and in many other parts of Punjab since then. For almost two weeks from 12 October onwards, the state was hostage to massive protests against the government. In the past months, there have been a series of incidents of desecration of the Sikhs’ holy book, adding more fuel to this fire. As a precautionary measure, Border Security Force had to be sent to major towns of the state and a large part of southern Punjab—the Malwa region—was gripped by protests that virtually locked it down for two weeks.

One could say that the state government was caught napping as the crisis unfolded at lightning speed and it could do little. But is that really so? The story, as it unfolded in Faridkot district and elsewhere in Punjab is disturbing and there is ample evidence that the ruling party—the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)— has been negligent. The sequence of events since 1 June clearly points in this direction. After the initial report of the theft— when they responded quickly—the police made little headway in the case. In fact, between 1 June and 12 October when violence broke out in the area, the police did little in spite of indications that trouble was brewing. The police denies this. What is mildly shocking is the claim of the residents that for the seriousness of the matter, virtually no leader of any significance bothered to visit the village, especially from the ruling party. It was only after protests became almost uncontrollable that some attention was paid to the matter. By then it was too late.

If only it were true that the desecration of a religious book inflamed passions momentarily, one could ignore it as a quirk in the life of an Indian state. But the truth is that the episode, the political calculations behind such incidents and Punjab’s bigger economic and political crises, points to something more disturbing. Punjab and its politicians are playing with fire and are again experimenting with political ideas that were discarded in 1990s after the state’s dangerous brush with militancy and secessionism. As is often the case with such politics, the genie once unleashed cannot be bottled back easily and certainly not without incurring great costs.

To return to the story, on 12 October, three-and-half months after its theft, pages of the Granth Sahib that was stolen were found strewn in the dead of night in the adjoining village of Bargari. “It was very early, around 3.30 am as we were getting ready for morning prayers after our ablutions that terrified villagers came running to me with the torn pages of the holy book,” the village preacher, one Budh Singh, says.

The 112 pages from a volume of around 1,400 pages, were accompanied by posters on the walls of the village exclaiming ‘victory’ at the deed. By the morning, the village witnessed a gathering of thousands of excited and inflamed Sikhs and soon after that the protests fanned across the district. Within no time, a large part of the state was gripped by protests. Two days later, protestors turned violent on National Highway 15 and in a pitched fight with the district police, two persons were shot dead, further inflaming the situation.

The discovery of the torn pages, nearly four months after the theft of the book from which they were ripped out raises troubling questions. For one, what was the police doing during this period? In a state where the police have very good local intelligence sources, this is inexplicable. For obvious reasons, the district police are tight-lipped and do not want to comment on the subject. This fear has moved upward in the police hierarchy.

When questioned on the episode and the apparent police inaction, AS Chahal, the deputy inspector general of police (DIG) of Ferozepur range under whose jurisdiction Faridkot district falls, says, “You cannot say that we did not take any steps to find the missing holy book. We searched every house in the village and adjoining villages. The police was there for a month and along with the villagers we made a thorough search. We even drained the village pond to find if someone had thrown the book in it as an act of mischief. But all this was to no avail.” But Chahal refuses to answer other questions saying that he is not authorised to speak on the subject.

One such question involves the issue of posters planted in the two villages allegedly at the behest of the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda, an influential religious sect led by a preacher called Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh that is based in Sirsa, Haryana.

The sect has huge influence in the Malwa region—the southern part—of Punjab and the districts of Haryana that adjoin Punjab. In the past 15 years, the sect has gained a massive following that often translated into political influence. Politicians in both states have wooed the controversial leader repeatedly as a nod from their chief reportedly ensures en masse voting. This has been denied by the Dera but the impression persists.

The SAD has often been at loggerheads with the Dera. Most of the Dera’s followers in Punjab have been pitted against Sikhs and in the past years, there have been numerous incidents of violence between the two groups in the state.

In the recent case, a number of posters were plastered in the two villages allegedly at the behest of the Dera followers, claiming ‘victory’ and ‘revenge’ over the Sikhs. Slowly, but perceptibly, matters are changing. Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, which has had a village committee for managing the gurdwara that had all sections of the village since one can remember, now has a committee that is made up only of baptised Sikhs even if the number of such persons is just a miniscule fraction of the population.

“We have removed the followers of the Dera from the community. Now only baptised Sikhs manage its affairs,” says Gurjant Singh, a former soldier who is also a member of the village panchayat. It was Singh who informed the police on 1 June about the missing holy book.

If these villagers are quiet, but firm on what they feel, their neighbours in Bargari are outspoken. “If the government does not act, we will protest again,” Chamkaur Singh, another villager, says with quiet determination.

These protests come against the backdrop of another round of protests, held almost at the same time. This part of the state has seen a near wipe-out of its cotton crop this year due to a very intense pest attack. Initial estimates point to a 20 to 25 per cent of the acreage of around 4.5 lakh hectares being affected by a whitefly attack. To top this loss, the poor response of the state government—meagre compensation and checking the spread of spurious pesticides—brought farmers on the roads in late September and early October. Just like the religious protests, these farmers, too, brought the state to a grinding halt.

These stories, when seen together, add up to something disturbing. The raison d’etre of the SAD for a long time has been that it is Punjab’s natural governing party and that it represents the interests of an important political constituency in the state—its farmers. But in the decade or so that it has been in power, the party has been able to do little to change the worsening fortunes of farmers. Take for instance the current turmoil in Southern Punjab. It is not just a holy book that has roiled this part of the state but also a destroyed cotton crop. Almost at the same time, farmers in the region had been protesting against the meagre compensation paid for the destruction of the cotton crop due to a large-scale whitefly attack. The insecticides supplied were more often than not spurious. This is not an isolated instance.

“These farmers have suffered not only from crop losses, debt and other agricultural issues. There is an agrarian crisis in Punjab where it is not clear where the state is going: Punjab is doing the same thing today that it was doing 30 years earlier. In the meantime, the economic structure and aspirations of India and those of people living in Punjab have changed dramatically. The SAD has failed to handle issues of governance and economic management. Now it is only left with one political weapon: religious polarisation,” argues Surinder Jodhka, a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who has done empirical work on Punjab’s agrarian crisis and the nature of the secessionist Khalistan movement of the 1980s.

This is not an exaggeration. On 24 September, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committtee (SGPC), the guardian of Sikh shrines but actually the core of the Sikh clergy at Amritsar, pardoned Ram Rahim in a 2007 blasphemy case brought before it. This it did on the basis of a letter by the Dera leader who denied any wrong doing. This led to an explosive reaction in the Sikh community and within 24 hours, the SGPC reversed its decision, making a mockery of the entire process. Notably, it was on 24 September that posters were plastered on the walls in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, taunting the Sikhs there to find their holy book if they could and proclaiming victory.

“Ultimately this is about the use of religion in politics in Punjab. The pardon of the Dera chief and the flip flops over the disciplining of Sikh clergymen who protested against the pardon to Ram Rahim point to a certain kind of political calculation. This is a risk free strategy for the SAD. If appeasing the Dera does not work, then religious polarisation of Sikhs against the Dera will deliver the same political dividend,” adds Jodhka.

It adds up. The usual course for voting for or against a political party representing a particular interest—farmers, labour or any other special interest—is to vote on the basis of what that party delivers to its supporters. But if that party fails in this endeavour then the game is up. In SAD’s case, there is double congruence: its supporters are farmers but they are also Sikhs. If it fails to deliver, it can always turn to religion. Open tried to get in touch with the spokesperson of the SAD, Daljeet Singh Cheema but he was not available for a comment.

This kind of political strategy has been tried before in Punjab in the 1980s. On that occasion, the strategy was to create a split between Hindus and Sikhs and weaken the Akalis by splitting their moderate and extreme factions. This led to disastrous results in 1984. Since then, it has been the staple of Punjab’s politics not to make that mistake again. But from all appearances, the SAD is on the path to repeating that performance. As the old adage goes: the first time it is a mistake, the second time it is a farce.

How should these apparently disparate events, the theft and desecration of a holy book; the multitudes of farmers on Punjab’s roads protesting against ruined crops and damaged lives and the flip-flops of the Sikh clergy be seen?

The economist Timur Kuran has analysed the inability to predict sudden political events—revolutions, strikes etc—in terms of the divergence between foresight and hindsight. In forming expectations, we systematically overestimate stability of regimes. This kind of reasoning may have limited applicability in a democracy. But even democracies have destabilising episodes and India has had its fair share of them. Kuran argued that individuals who become increasingly sympathetic to political change do not necessarily publicise their evolving dispositions. In Punjab, too, the villagers who burst out in protest on 12 October did not publicise their anger for months on end. But all it took was a spark to rock Punjab. These protests now have a significant presence of Sikh radicals—notably those from the Damdami Taksal, the Sikh seminary that produced Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale. On 10 November, when the ‘community’ meets again to take stock of what needs to be done, another spark may arise. The state government needs to wake up and act responsibly.