Punjab that suffered untold misery for more than a decade due to terrorism may again suffer sectarian strife and worse, if wisdom does not prevail. Mischief mongers – radicals represented by likes of Simranjit Singh Mann, Damdami Taksal that produced Bhindrawale, Punjab Congress leaders who are unable to swallow their defeat in the recent Assembly elections, Sacha Sauda Dera head Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim and his followers – have all played a part in generating tensions in the state reviving the specter of terrorism. Fortunately, Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, eminent citizens? sincere efforts to douse passions by conducting back channel negotiations have saved the situation to a great extent. Unlike in late 70s and 80s, Punjab media has, by and large, played a positive and responsible role by not inciting passions. Punjabis – both Sikhs and Hindus – who suffered the most during the era of terrorism – have showed commendable wisdom and courage in preserving communal harmony and Hindu-Sikh unity against all odds. So far, they have refused to be carried away by saber-rattling Sikh youth and Dera followers who indulged in violence at several places, particularly Bhatinda. The Government too rose to the occasion after initial hesitation and prevented the situation from going out of hand. Most disturbing aspect of the development is that pro-?Khalistan? slogans were raised during anti-Dera demonstrations in the first few days. The Punjab Government needs to take the people into confidence as to what action it had taken, or proposes to take, against these anti-national elements.
The stage for confrontation was set by an advertisement inserted in a number of Punjab papers by the Haryana-based Sacha Sauda Dera in which the Dera Chief appeared in attire claimed to resemble that of Guru Gobind Singh and imitating the act of the Guru. There was a sharp reaction and Sikh youth expressed their anger by holding protests and burning the effigy of the Dera head. Followers of the Dera took to the streets against the insults heaped on their chief that led to clashes at several places. Public perception is that the controversial advertisement was a deliberate attempt to provoke a confrontation. The Sikh high priests took cognizance of the advertisement and summoned a congregation at Takht Damdami Saheb in Talwandi Sabo near Bhatinda. It was an error of judgment. It would have been better to hold the congregation at the Akal Takht in Amritsar as was desired by the Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti. Certain radicals saw to it that it was held in Talwandi Sabo – that was too close to the places that witnessed violent clashes. The high priests, it is reported, wanted to issue a dictat asking the Sikhs to sever social, religious and political ties with head of the Dera and his followers but were forced to announce a ?hukamnama? excommunicating followers of the Dera. While the Jathedars wanted to give 10 days notice to the Dera to apologise and close all Deras in Punjab, radicals shouted them down and forced them to give the Dera authorities mere three days to fall in line. Dera authorities rejected the demand but issued a statement in which Dera chief expressed regrets for the development.
It is most gratifying that the Punjab bandh observed on a call given by the Akal Takht belied the predictions of the prophets of doom and passed off peacefully. It was a total and peaceful bandh as both the Sikhs and the Hindus scrupulously observed it. No one, not even the Congress, opposed it. BJP, that is part of the state government, issued a strongly worded statement on the eve of the bandh cautioning the Chief Minister that he would be responsible for any loss of life and property during the bandh. While underlining its commitment to Hindu-Sikh unity, the BJP said it wouldn'thesitate to take ?hard decisions? in the interest of the people of the state. It provoked a strong reaction from Akali Dal indicating that relations between the alliance partners were under strain. BJP had limited options in the matter. It is extremely apprehensive that forces unleashed by the confrontation between the Sikh clergy and the Dera may plunge the state to yet another spell of sectarian strife. Another grouse of the BJP state unit is that the Akalis don'ttake them seriously and rarely takes them into confidence on even major issues. BJP national leadership is backing the state unit on the issue but the state unit lost no time in commending the Chief Minister for his firm handling of the situation during the bandh. This may lessen the tension between the two parties.
The Punjab Government has earned kudos for the handling of the bandh. Although some Sikh demonstrators burnt effigies of the Dera Chief at several places but Dera followers didn'treact obviously fearing reprisals from Sikhs. The administration and the police did commendable job and gave full protection to sensitive placers like Salabatpur Dera near Bathinda. The Chief Minister worked hard to control the situation by dispatching Akali Ministers and legislatures to their constituencies to ensure that peace was maintained and there was no untoward incident during the bandh. No other party was equally active. Punjabis heaved a sigh of relief that the day passed off peacefully. However, there are certain issues on which the Sikh high priests are not on solid ground. Their demand that all branches of the Sacha Sauda Dera be closed by May 27 is impractical and extremely controversial. Not many outside Punjab know that an over-whelming majority of Dera followers are non-Sikhs. The Sikh clergy have no right to deny them their constitutional right to propagate their faith and set up places of worship and assembly. This is not to deny that the Dera Chief is no moral exempler. CBI is enquiring into two cases of murder and sexual exploitation against him and his followers. There are serious allegations about the Dera in Sirsa being used for drug smuggling and countless other undesirable activities. The cases against the Dera are pending in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It is for the Haryana Government to investigate the affairs of the Dera and to advise the Dera Chief to exercise restraint and not to say or do things that can give handle to radicals among Sikhs to arouse sectarian passions.
The Dera Chief has declined to offer apology demanded by the Sikh high priests though he had through a statement expressed regrets for the happenings and maintained that he had the highest regard for Guru Gobind Singh and couldn'tever imagine to imitate the Great Guru. Jathedar Vedanti and the Punjab Chief Minister have expressed the view that an unqualified apology would help in restoring normalcy in the state. It will not be wrong to interpret this statement as an indication that the demand for removing all Deras in Punjab may be dropped if an apology was forthcoming. Some sort of compromiser on the issue is the need of the hour. The issue needs to be resolved in the spirit of forget and forgive. No one should stand on false prestige. An apology doesn'tlower anyone'sprestige.