Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whilst making a strong bid for power in Punjab, has landed itself in a mess by hurting the religious beliefs of a section of the highly sensitive Sikh community.
Not wanting to lose even a slim chance of cornering the AAP, the ruling coalition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched an all-out attack on the "outsider" party.
|The contentious manifesto places AAP's poll symbol - a broom - with Golden Temple in the backdrop.
Their argument is that the AAP has not been sensitive enough to respect Sikh beliefs or was deliberately trying to create a communal divide in the state.
The latest gaffe, which has placed AAP in an embarrassing situation is the release of its "Youth manifesto" that carries a photograph of the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines, with party supremo and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in the foreground.
What has got the Akalis' and a section of Sikhs incensed is the placement of the party symbol - a broom - alongside the Golden Temple in the photograph.
Ashish Khetan, the head of AAP's Delhi Dialogue Commission and also in-charge of the party's campaign in the state, was made aware of the faux pas shortly after the copies of manifesto were released at a press conference.
He had committed another blunder, ostensibly unintentional, at the same function by stating the AAP manifesto was "as sacred to us as the Guru Granth Sahib and the Geeta". This too angered those who thought he was equating the holy book with the party's manifesto.
He immediately tendered an unconditional apology and said the sacrilege was not intended. Khetan also said the AAP has deep respect and regard for the sentiments of Sikhs.
This was, however, too late and too little for a section of Sikhs and the Akalis in particular. A police case was instituted against Khetan under Section 295-A of the IPC for allegedly hurting religious sentiments upon a complaint by the All India Sikh Students Federation Karnail Singh Peermohammad.
A recently amended section of the Act provides for life imprisonment if a violator is found guilty of sacrilege. The punishment for desecration of holy text like the Geeta and The Quran, is 10 years' imprisonment.
Not content with the registration of the case, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), controlled by SAD, has also filed a complaint in the lower courts to prosecute Khetan. The controversy is likely to keep Khetan busy at least till the elections.
Conscious of the damage it may cause to the party's prospects in the state, Kejriwal has declared that he will visit the Golden Temple shortly to seek apology and do "seva" for atonement. Another party member, senior advocate HS Phoolka too has made his way to the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht to seek forgiveness.
The Akalis have found another stick to beat the AAP with after the allegations that the Delhi government had demolished a piao (water dispenser) outside Gurdwara Sis Ganj. The AAP had denied its involvement in the incident and had got the piao restored.
The latest controversy over the Golden Temple's placement with a broom comes close on the heels of reports of the desecration of the Quran at the Muslim-dominated town of Malerkotla.
Three persons had torn copies of the venerated text and strewn its pages in an evident attempt to hurt religious sentiments and inflame passions. Nearly 40 persons were injured in police action after the rioters engaged in arson and damaged the local legislator's premises.
A couple of days later, the police claimed to have arrested three persons. These included a father and son duo from Pathankot, who the police said, were members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). A former colleague of the duo also confirmed their association with the VHP while the organisation itself did not deny the charge.
The third person the police arrested was Vijay Kumar. Initially, the police said he was with the other two when the pages were strewn. It also said that a raid at his house in Delhi led to the recovery of some torn pages of the holy book.
Then in a strange twist the police claimed that Kumar was in touch with Naresh Yadav, an AAP MLA from Delhi, who had promised to give him Rs 1 crore for the act.
The police promptly booked the MLA under Section 153-A IPC (promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language and acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony) and has been interrogating him since.
AAP also finds itself on the wrong foot on the issue of the SYL canal.
While Kejriwal had announced he was not in favour of the SYL canal as the state did not have any water to spare, he made an ambiguous statement on the issue after he was quizzed by reporters there.
The Akalis have been demanding that Kejriwal come out clean on the issue. The AAP has also hit back at the Akalis and the Congress. One of its senior leaders, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, came out with the statement that leaders of the SAD and the Congress had disrespected the holy text.
He pointed out that one of the ministers and some Congress leaders had put a "tilak" on the holy book, which was against the tenets of Sikhism. He also produced a video clip to prove his point.
AAP leaders from outside the state have found to their chagrin that a section of Sikhs are sensitive to anything to do with their religion. Perhaps, it's time Kejriwal and his brigade chose their words carefully when referring to the community.