On October 12, reports started coming in from Punjab that the Guru Granth Sahib had been desecrated; torn pages from the Holy Book were found in seven places in the state. As pressure mounted on the government to arrest the people responsible for the desecration, the state came to a standstill and paranoia reached an all-time high as people started invoking Khalistan in conversations.
The Badal-led government, happy to pass on the responsibility to someone else, wildly fanned these claims by stating repeatedly that a "foreign hand" was responsible for the unrest in the state. It is a tried and tested method for the Akali Dal used to distract people from the real issues that have been plaguing their governance and Badal's repeated inability to take responsibility for his failures in the state is turning out to be his biggest fallacy as a leader.
It is an internal conflict that has little to do with Khalistan and everything to do with people's dissatisfaction with their leaders who are a poor representation of their aspirations as well as their faith, says, writer Amandeep Sandhu who has been working on a book on the state. The Sikh community has been organised in a layered power structure for three centuries. There are five takhts in the community; the high priests of these takhts have been oracles for the Sikhs on matters of religion, conflict, community building and society.
There are also the Panj Pyaras, the five chosen Khalsas that are the absolute supreme and are usually elected by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), which is the central managing committee of Gurudwaras. These structures were laid down in place with the aim of community representation and placing power in the hands of people, just like the modern day democracy, rather in the hands of a chosen few high priests.
Over the last few decades, the SGPC has come under fire for increasing religious intolerance, high levels of corruption and aiding politicians especially the Akali Dal. The anger that we saw in Punjab over the last couple of days has been simmering for a long time coming.
On September 24, the five takht heads - Gurbachan Singh (Akal Takht), Mal Singh (Kesgarh Sahib), Gurbaksh Singh (Damdama Sahib), Iqbal Singh (Patna Sahib) and Ram Singh (Hazoor Sahib) - had issued an edict pardoning Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh for his alleged blasphemous act of wearing an attire similar to that of Guru Gobind Singh in 2007.
The community has been angry with the takht for pardoning the Dera Saccha Sauda chief, Ram Rahim, for this act. On October 22, the Panj Pyaras, going by the powers vested in them as representatives of the community summoned the five heads, also known as Jathedars, to discuss the pardoning but were suspended in the process by the SGPC. Gurbachan Singh, the Akal Takht Jathedar said, "The Panj Pyaras do not have the authority to summon the five Takht heads. They are among the ordinary 'granthis' of the Golden Temple nominated to conduct 'amrit sanchar (baptism ritual)' or lead 'nagar kirtans'. It is the first time they have overstepped their jurisdiction."
The suspension of the Panj Pyaras has only fuelled the outrage and the Sikh community is directly in loggerheads with the SGPC that wants to allot all the power to their high priests and manipulate their religious positions to rake in votes for Badal and the Akali Dal. In this tussle for power, the biggest loser seems to be Punjab.
As Gurudwaras become more jingoistic in their doctrine of religious philosophy, they are slowly losing their appeal to a number of people living in Punjab, especially the minorities and the Dalits, who prefer to go to various Deras instead as they offer them a more secular indoctrination and are ironically more accepting of them.
These Dera chiefs also play out an important role in politics as they have the power to influence voters. For example, when the Akal Takht issued directives to all Sikhs to cut tie with Ram Rahim and his followers in 2007, and filed a police case against him, he retaliated by urging all his followers to vote Congress in the upcoming assembly polls. The result of which was a majority of Congress seats in south Punjab, where most of his followers reside.
Right before the 2012 Assembly polls, the police filed a closure report on his case. Recently, he was pardoned by the takht and chaos ensued.
Majority of the Sikh anger is directed at the inability of the state to comprehend its issues and the low level of tolerance that it shows for dissent. In a healthy society, there will be debate and dialogue. People should be allowed to protest, the more the state tries to repress dialogue, the more issues will fester.
Putting 120 road blocks in a 12-district state, firing at the protesters and repressing free speech are what fester fear and issues that can easily be solved with an open dialogue. For the majority of the Sikh diaspora population, these become signs and validations of an oppressive state that continues to wrong their community.
And it is a shame that the government as well as the state police are complicit in hate mongering and spreading the fear by passing the buck on foreign hands, which they directly fuel, with their inaction and organised oppression.