Ludhiana: The uproar created over the Justice (retd) Ranjit Singh Commission report on sacrilege incidents of religious scriptures in 2015, tabled during the Monsoon Session of the Punjab Assembly is being seen as a major setback for the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The report has indicted then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in a matter attached to the sentiments of Sikhs in Punjab.
Two Sikh protesters died in Behbal Kalan and one received grievous injuries besides many others who were injured in Kotakpura when the police baton-charged and opened fire on a protest demonstration against sacrilege of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, on 14 October, 2015. Inaction in these cases led to SAD facing the flak of Sikh voters in the 2017 Assembly polls. According to the 2011 census, 57.69 percent of Punjab's total population of 2.77 crore follows Sikhism, while 38.49 percent follows Hinduism.
The DSS effect
However, one outfit that has had a direct impact on the electoral performance of political parties in Punjab is connected to the sacrilege incidents as well. When Congress lost the 2012 Assembly polls, they sought the support of Dera Sacha Sauda, which had announced its support to SAD before the 2017 polls, resulting in the party's worst-ever electoral performance. A special investigation team (SIT) of the Punjab Police probing the sacrilege incidents of 2015 at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village and Bargari village had in June this year arrested four Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) followers, identifying them as the prime accused in the case.
The combined effect of DSS’s public bonding with SAD and the party’s poor handling of the sacrilege incidents led it to struggle even to open its account in Faridkot and Moga — two of the districts that remained the epicentre of sacrilege incidents in the state. While Congress won four seats in these two districts, AAP picked up the other three.
AAP's gain of two of the three seats in Faridkot in 2017 was SAD's loss. In Moga, Congress' gains of three of the four seats in 2017 came as SAD lost the three seats it had captured in 2012.
DSS has drawn the scorn of majority of Sikhs in Punjab as the sect head Gurmeet Ram Rahim had dressed up like the 10th Sikh preacher, Guru Gobind Singh, in 2007 creating ripples in political and social circles. The Justice Ranjit Singh Committee report now points at the involvement of DSS in the Bargari sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 that triggered protests by Sikhs, which had led to police firing on them. The report also mentions that the SIT formed to nab the culprits was not allowed by the SAD-BJP government to arrest DSS followers who were suspected to be behind the Bargari sacrilege incident.
A hardliner Sikh group, Dal Khalsa, has also stated that firing at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura was held under the rule of SAD leaders. "All acts of manoeuvering by Badals to save their skins reflect their guilty conscience," said Dal Khalsa spokesperson Kanwal Pal Singh. Such revelations could hurt any chance that SAD has at improving its performance in the ensuing Lok Sabha polls, in preparation of which, the party had been training its guns on the Congress government accusing it of failing to fulfil pre-poll promises, such as curbing the drug menace in the state.
The report may prove to be ammunition for the ruling Congress as well as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is struggling to revive its identity in Punjab, against the SAD-BJP alliance before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The visibly-frustrated SAD on Tuesday outrightly rejected the report, claiming it to be the handiwork of the Congress. However, the report is being given much weight by the state government due to the extremely detailed content that was gathered after questioning different civilian, police and other sources.
Launching an attack on SAD, Captain Amarinder Singh on Tuesday afternoon dared SAD through a tweet "not to run away from the debate" on the report.
Several details in the report, such as one that says that then home minister Sukhbir Singh Badal did not make efforts to curtail the sacrilege incidents taking place in different corners of the state are bound to leave SAD running for cover.
Report prepared in collusion with Cong: SAD
The report had already been leaked and was being circulated on social media. Frustrated over its findings, SAD on Monday had set up a stall outside the state Assembly to sell the leaked copies to common people even before it was tabled in the Assembly. On Tuesday, the party walked out of the Assembly.
SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal said that the report has no sanctity as ‘it has been prepared with collusion of Congress only to damage SAD in Punjab’.
"It seems that the author of the report has colluded with Congress and forgot that it was actually the Pakistan’s ISI who was involved in sacrilege incidents to create communal disharmony in Punjab by insulting the religious texts of different religions," said Badal. The report even states that Parkash Singh Badal was in constant touch with the top police officials before police opened fire on the protesters.
"There is sufficient material available on record in the form of telephone calls between the director-general of police and MLA Mantar Singh Brar with Gagandeep Singh Brar (chief minister's special principal secretary). It is on record that contact was established with Gagandeep who made the chief minister speak to Mantar. Soon thereafter, Mantar had spoken to DGP Sumedh Saini, that too on the asking of Gagandeep. The chain is, thus, complete and it is clear that Parkash Singh Badal was not only in touch with the district administration, but was in touch with the DGP as well, and was quite aware of the situation developing at Kotkapura and also about the proposed action by the police," the report states.
Baljit Balli, editor of regional bilingual news portal Babushahi.com, believes that the commission’s report is likely to dent the prospects of SAD in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
"The sentiments of Sikhs have been hurt by the findings of the report. Rural Sikhs who form the vote bank of SAD could again go against the party as was the case in 2017 Assembly elections, when they instead voted for AAP due to the sacrilege incidents and SAD’s failure to stop them," Balli said.
Professor Jatinder Singh from the department of political science at Punjabi University, Patiala, agreed with Balli's assessment. "SAD had already borne the brunt of public ire in the Assembly election held last year as the people were of the belief that it did not do anything to stop such instances. Now if the Congress and AAP keep using the report as ammunition, it could damage the prospects of SAD-BJP in upcoming elections," he said.
While SAD, which is also reputed to be one of the most powerful regional parties in country, is facing accusations of preventing action in the sacrilege case, it also controls the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) that further controls all Sikh temples of the state. This significant association with the Sikh faith entrusts the party with a responsibility to protect the religious sentiments of Sikhs. The party also expects their electoral support in return. The way Sikhs react to revelations of the report will decide the electoral fate of the Akali Dal.
The author is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 11:28:15 IST