Sacrilege of holy book keeps Punjab on tenterhooks

Sacrilege of holy book keeps Punjab on tenterhooks

Punjab’s history bears testimony that the festival of lights was observed as a “Black Diwali” at the revered Golden Temple in the holy city of Amritsar only twice. The first one was over three decades ago in protest of the military operation to flush out militants from the Golden Temple. Then, eight years later in 1992, the festival was the same sombre affair when the two assassins of General A S Vaidya were hanged.

This year’s Diwali on November 11 will be another such day in Punjab’s history when there will be no grand show of lighting and fireworks at the Golden Temple and elsewhere. If this underlines the seriousness of the recent ongoing crisis in Punjab, there’s more to worry about.

Punjab hurtles into an unsettling, belligerent phase ahead. Rising incidents of sacrilege in the last two weeks or so have turned into a major escalating emotive issue for the Sikh community and others. Emotions have spilled onto the streets of the state with widespread protests, violence and even killings. The state government has desperately tried everything to douse flared tempers – from police theories of a “foreign hand” orchestrating acts of desecrating the sacred Guru Granth Sahib, to the removal of its blue-eyed Punjab DGP.

The imminent political overtones inherent in the impasse will settle sooner or later, but the “social unrest” that the incumbent crisis has stirred is potent enough to put Punjab on the boil. The incidents have led to a surge in radical sentiment, supported by a large section of Sikhs and believers of faith. Punjab remains tense, and at stake, is the governments credibility with a little over a year left for Assembly elections.

The incumbent regime’s popular image on being benevolent towards farmers and committed to Panthic credentials is now being questioned. The opposition is busy building a perception that the Akali Dal is bereft of all such certifications and is a mere bystander to the escalating crisis that, sadly, runs the risk of flaring up into a communal flashpoint.  

At the heart of the crisis is the sacrilege issue, which is a cold blooded unholy act by design. But certain other contentious issues, equally volatile in nature, that occurred around the same time led to a ripple effect in the burgeoning crisis. There have been nearly a dozen incidents of desecration of the Sikh holy book since October 12.

In the Sikh religion, the holy book is considered supreme and worshiped as the Guru. Torn pages of the holy book scattered on streets left an outraged community up in arms – many among them wielding naked swords pledging to avenge such acts of desecration. Matters touched a low when two Sikhs protesting sacrilege were killed in police firing.

Hundreds of protesters were booked. But sensing trouble, all cases were withdrawn within no time. On Sunday, the DGP was removed, perhaps, in a desperate bid to assuage hurt Sikh sentiments. Some public order is restored for now, but at the same time Sikh organisations and hardliners have upped the ante.

Growing dissent, even within the Akali Dal and the SGPC, found voice within this scaling religious framework of sorts. The fact remains that in the last 9 years of Akali rule, besides pursuing its development agenda, the government has overtly manifested and espoused its image as a party championing the cause of religion and the Panth. This narrative always had an inherent potential risk. 

The incidents of sacrilege have come at the worst time. The Akali Dal is facing a daunting task grappling with a prolonged farmers agitation and a potentially threatening turmoil over the granting of pardon to the head of prominent sect Dera Sacha Sauda by the Akal Takht – the highest temporal seat of Sikhs. The Takht later withdrew the ‘pardon edict’ amidst growing opposition from the Sikh community.

Growing trust deficit
Sikh hardliners and outfits don’t see sacrilege and the controversy over clemency to the sect chief in isolation. Indications of a trust deficit is growing by the day. The SAD-led SGPC members are resigning and so have some of the local Akali leaders. Denials apart, the clemency earlier granted to Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim was arguably a miscalculated move that misfired.

The Akali Dal thought it would help the party garner votes of the many owing allegiance towards the sect. Instead, it polarised Sikhs and radical Sikh outfits and proved counter-productive. It forced a retreat and eventually led to the withdrawal of the ‘pardon edict’ by the Akal Takht. The sect head had courted controversy in 2007 when he was alleged of blasphemy trying to imitate the Sikh guru.
The complexities surrounding the case proved just how indecisive and arguably gullible is the SGPC. The Panj Payare (five Sikh beloved) last week had asked the SGPC to summon the five high priests in wake of the clemency controversy.

SGPC president Makkar, in retaliation, suspended the Panj Payare for summoning the priests at the Akal Takht, only to later revoke the suspension under pressure from Sikh organisations.

Farmers in Punjab are on a warpath, blocking roads and railways seeking higher compensation for damaged crop due to the attack of the white-fly. Talks of a truce between the government and farmers have failed. The only relief, however, is that farmers aren’t anymore squatting on railway tracks and national highways causing enormous inconvenience to people and a loss to the exchequer.

Clearly, Akali Dal patriarch and octogenarian Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal faces his most daunting task in recent times. Badal has confronted worst situations before, only they were different times then. Whatever may be the government’s call to deal with the present impasse, the nearly three weeks of prolonged hostile crisis is a haunting reminder of Punjab’s dark 80s.

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