Guru Granth Sahib desecration in Punjab: Congress, AAP use row over alleged sacrilege to hurt SAD's poll prospects

Punjab’s politics is in a holy mess with the ruling Congress and the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party taking a leaf out of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s book to cripple the state’s oldest party ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elections.

A report by the Justice (Retd) Ranjit Singh Commission, formed to investigate the alleged sacrilege of Sikh holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib in 2015, is being used by the two parties to pelt SAD, which so far maintained its grip on Punjab’s backwoods by exploiting religious passions of the people. The brisk stirring of the poll pot has turned the matter into the "Ayodhya of Punjab”.

SAD patriarch and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal was indicted by the commission, after which the popularity of the party plummeted in the state. The report was presented in the Assembly this monsoon session. The Ranjit Singh Commission, constituted by the Congress government in April 2017, underscored alleged inaction of the then SAD-led government against the culprits of sacrilege. A special investigation team (SIT) of Punjab Police was later formed that is now probing the matter.

File image of Parkash Singh Badal. AP

File image of Parkash Singh Badal. AP

Following the purported desecration of religious texts on 12 October, 2015 at Bargari village, two protesting Sikh youths were also killed in police firing at Behbal Kalan in Faridkot district two days later. This caused anti-SAD sentiment to spiral, especially among Sikhs, leading to the party’s defeat in the 2017 Assembly polls. Akali Dal netted just 15 seats, five less than debutant AAP.

Punjab Congress chief and Member of Parliament Sunil Jakhar said SAD cannot escape blame for the sacrilege and firing on Sikh youths. “Those involved in sacrilege act and those who did not act against the culprits will be brought to book by the Congress government. Justice will be delivered soon to the people of Punjab,” he said.

Concurrently, to protect its vote base from attacks by the Congress and AAP, SAD is also banking on religious overtures. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) — which is a statutory body comprising elected representatives of Sikhs concerned primarily with the management of sacred Sikh shrines under its control within Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh — has got Gobind Singh Longowal, considered a loyalist of SAD chief and former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, as its president. Longowal was elected a second time after Sukhbir proposed his name for the post. A majority of SGPC members owe allegiance to SAD.

In a bid to strike a chord with Sikh sentiments, Sukhbir credited the move to build the Kartarpur Corridor to the central government led by the BJP that is an alliance partner of SAD in Punjab. The corridor will let Sikh pilgrims visit the iconic Gurudwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur on the banks of river Ravi in Pakistan. The shrine is associated with the first Sikh master, Guru Nanak Dev, who commands deep respect from the community across the globe.

With anti-SAD public sentiment spiraling, many senior leaders have already fled the decks of the party and have launched attacks on Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir. SAD leader and Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa resigned from all party posts, reportedly annoyed with findings of the Ranjit Singh committee. Senior leader and former minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan also quit the party with similar reservations.

Another senior leader and the MP from the Khadoor Sahib Lok Sabha constituency, Ranjit Singh Bhrampura, had trained guns on Sukhbir while stating that he was not happy with the sacrilege incident at Bagari and the way SAD handled it. He offered to resign from all party posts before being expelled. Former MP Rattan Singh Ajnala was also thrown out after he revolted against the party.

Sukhbir Badal in a press conference at Chandigarh said the SIT on the sacrilege row formed by the Congress government was an attempt to frame him and his father in false cases. “The Congress is trying to score brownie points through this SIT by eliminating political opponents. The Congress is also hiding its failures in Punjab by distracting people through this inquiry,” he said.

Amid the political strikes on SAD in the state with religious ammunition, radicalisation of Sikh youths, apparently backed by Pakistani spy agency ISI, is spreading in Punjab. Critics say an attack this month on a religious congregation in Amritsar, allegedly aided by Pakistani elements, indicates the Congress and AAP are playing with fire by igniting religious issues. Two people have been arrested by Punjab Police for their involvement in the grenade strike. A plot to assassinate Parkash Singh Badal was also foiled mid-October with the arrest of some men associated with the pro-Khalistan movement, in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Experts believe that the desecration controversy will not only damage SAD’s prospects in the general elections but also spur radicalisation. Professor Jatinder Singh from the department of political science at Punjabi University in Patiala said SAD is considered to be a party close to the Sikh religion and naming of its leaders in the Ranjit Singh Commission report has dented its position. “While Congress may gain by attacking SAD on a religious issue, AAP is not likely to benefit. Meanwhile, the matter can radicalise Sikh youths,” he said.

However, even AAP doesn’t want the matter to die down. Its MP from Sangrur, Bhagwant Mann, said he would highlight the alleged inaction by SAD over the sacrilege row in Parliament’s winter session. “Action against culprits should be taken soon,” he said. Else, expect some “Mann ki baat” in the Lok Sabha this December.

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Updated Date: Nov 30, 2018 21:38:34 IST

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