Punjab powder keg

Professor Pritam Singh examines recent events in Punjab, where a blend of economic, political and religious unrest is creating a highly volatile situation.


Punjab has witnessed an explosion of mass anger in recent weeks, primarily confined to the Sikh community, as discontentment has emerged into the open. The roots of this dissatisfaction have been variously economic, political and religious in nature; but what makes this current discontent especially explosive is the convergence of all three.

This first started with the economic discontentment of Punjab’s Sikh farming community, particularly the cotton growers in the Malwa belt of Punjab. The cotton crop had suffered heavily as a result of a pest epidemic which, it was discovered later, was not neutralised due to a spurious pesticide sold to the cotton growers. The compensation offered by the Punjab government to the affected cotton growers was paltry, especially in relation to their demands. This resulted in mass protests by the peasantry, mainly aimed at disrupting rail transport links between Punjab and the rest of India.

The farmers’ protest then acquired an additional source of strength as it was joined by landless agricultural labourers who had lost their potential earnings during the relatively lucrative cotton-picking season. This joint protest by the farmers and labourers took on a political dimension when allegations emerged that the agricultural minister, who is a senior leader of the ruling Akali Dal party, had been involved in corrupt practices regarding the sale of spurious pesticide. These growing allegations resulted in the suspension and arrest of Punjab’s administrative head of the agricultural department, who was accused of being the chief organiser and beneficiary of the corruption. The enquiry is still going on.

While this economic-cum-political dimension was unfolding, a religio-political issue burst into the open. This concerned the pardon by Akal Takhat, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh community, granted to the head of Dera Sacha Sauda for having earlier behaved in an inappropriate way.

The Akal Takhat, one of five takhts (seats of power) of the Sikh faith
The Akal Takhat, one of five takhts (seats of power) of the Sikh faith

Let us capture the most essential points of this religious issue. It is claimed that the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a sect with its headquarters in Haryana and some following in the adjoining districts of Haryana and Punjab, wore a robe at a ceremony whose purpose was to make him look like the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The mainstream Sikh community reacted with outrage because in the Sikh imagination, no one can or should pretend to look like any of the ten gurus. Any attempt to do so is viewed by the Sikhs as an insult to their guru and while the Sikhs are willing to tolerate, in varying degrees, any disagreeable behaviour, they will not countenance an insult to their guru. Sikh outrage resulted in some violent clashes between them and the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda and led to loss of lives on both sides.

Eventually, the Akal Takhat intervened to issue an edict (hukamnama) for a social boycott of the Dera. The stand-off between the Sikhs and the Dera followers remains a source of continuing instability and social friction in Punjab. This has resulted in the state’s scarce financial, administrative, security and judicial resources being disproportionately diverted to deal with the conflict and its associated problems. It has also adversely affected the resources of Sikh institutions allocated to deal with many other serious problems faced by the Sikh community within Punjab, the rest of India and globally.

The Dera chief recently submitted in writing that not only did he not impersonate the Guru, he could never even think of doing so because he had great respect for the Guru. The signed declaration is accompanied by a video clip reiterating the same position. On the basis of this, the five Jathedaars led by the Akal Takhat Jathedaar accepted this submission, pardoned the Dera chief and withdrew the edict about boycotting the Dera.

This pardon by the Sikh clergy has evoked strong protests by the Sikh community in Punjab and abroad, provoked by suspicion about the motives behind the decision and dissatisfaction with the decision-taking process. The motives, it is suspected, could be the ruling Akali Dal party’s desire to win votes from the Dera followers in the coming 2017 Punjab Assembly Elections, resulting in pressure from the ruling establishment on the Jathedaars to take this decision. Suspicion about the motives behind the decision provided weight to the argument of dissident Sikh organisations that the Jathedaars had compromised their reputation as neutral arbiters of contentious issues in the Sikh Panth.

Coming now to the process, the Jathedaars seem to have taken the decision almost in secrecy, without consultation with wider sections of Sikh religious and political organisations. A vital decision on this scale did deserve to be deliberated, if not openly in public, certainly by consultation with a wide range of opinions. With both the motive and process behind the decision-making appearing to be tainted, the content of the decision itself-which could have been positive for social cohesion in Punjab, especially in its countryside—has been overshadowed.

The overwhelming rejection by the Sikh community of the Akal Takhat decision to exonerate the Dera chief eventually forced the Jathedaars to revoke the pardon. This has further eroded trust in the existing Jathedaars, though not in the institution of the Akal Takhat.

To these two forms of conflict another was added when, in a number of places, sacrilegious acts were committed, including tearing down the pages of Shri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikh faith, considered as a bodily representation of the gurus. This infuriated the global Sikh community and Sikh protests in Punjab intensified to the extent that the Punjab government had to request Delhi’s central government to send paramilitary forces to maintain law and order. Following the recent shooting to death of two protestors by the Punjab police, an investigation is underway. Though the police claim that as yet unnamed external forces are responsible for the killings, this claim is not trusted by the Sikh community.

The overwhelming fallout from these economic, political and religious protests is the erosion of trust in the political, administrative and religious establishment in Punjab. Whether this erosion of trust will lead to positive and creative political alternatives or degenerate into destructive cynicism is something that is difficult to judge at this time. However, the activity of the masses during these different forms of protest is reassuring, in terms of the strength of democratic and collective traditions in Punjabi society.

(Pritam Singh is a Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, and the author of Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond.)

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