How Competition for Sikh Votes is Pitting BJP Against the Akalis and Dividing Punjab

The RSS and its fronts are using the conversion of Sikhs to Christianity and the demand for the early release of Sikh militants from jail as issues to poach upon the Akali Dal’s vote bank among rural Sikhs.

BJP President Amit Shah, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Union Minister for Food Processing & Industry Harsimrat Kaur Badal during a function to mark 350th foundation day of Sri Anandpur Sahib on Friday. PTI Photo.

BJP President Amit Shah, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Union Minister for Food Processing & Industry Harsimrat Kaur Badal during a function to mark 350th foundation day of Sri Anandpur Sahib on Friday. PTI Photo.

Chandigarh: What was being murmured about for the past year or so finally got confirmed when Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal declared the other day that “Religion cannot be protected without capturing state power.” That he said this at one of the many functions organised by the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government to celebrate 350 years of the birthplace of the Khalsa Panth, the holy city of Anandpur Sahib, clears any remaining doubt about what he was trying to say. Make no mistake, the Akali Dal patriarch is referring to Sikhism and reminding people of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) old position as the champion of Sikh rights and issues – a role the party forsook in 1997 when it decided to become more inclusive and expand its vote bank to other communities.

Forget now the secular pronouncements and the resolve to protect the interests of all communities. The Akali urgency to return to basics is mainly because of competition from its ally, the BJP,  more so the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, currently working hard in rural Punjab to endear itself with the Sikh peasantry. The Aam Admi Party (AAP), that won four out of 13 Lok Sabha seats last year by playing, at least in part, on Sikh identity issues is also snapping at the SAD’s heels.

But first the RSS. In December, when this writer broke the story for the Indian Express of RSS shakhas sprouting in Punjab’s border areas two decades after the organisation was forced to shut down its activities by Sikh militants, the organisation was distinctly uncomfortable with the outing of its unnoticed activities. A senior BJP  functionary was despatched to meet me to stop more stories on the issue. But what became public in December was already creating unease in the SAD because the thrust of the RSS activities is to shame the Sikh organisations for not doing enough to prevent conversions of Sikhs to Christianity. The RSS – which is usually viewed with suspicion by orthodox Sikhs because of the Sangh Parivar position that Sikhism is part of the larger Hindu culture – has facilitated hundreds of Christians to re-convert to Sikhsim with the help of gurdwaras and some members of the SAD-dominated Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) acting in their personal capacity.

Ghar wapsi of Sikhs

One such member, Kiranjot Kaur, who has assisted the RSS in several ‘ghar wapsi’ ceremonies at gurdwaras, said, “The situation is so alarming that even Sikhs in Amritsar, which is the seat of Sikhism, are converting. We are a small minority, and we should be worried. Because of the politicisation of the SGPC, the religious agenda which it should be actively promoting has got diluted.”

The resultant furore over ‘ghar wapsi’ in Punjab led Badal to declare that his party is against forcible conversions. The SAD’s discomfort at the RSS targeting Christians and the many Pentecostal churches active in Punjab stems from the fact that the Akalis have only recently managed to wean away Dalit Christians in the state, particularly those in the impoverished border belt, from the Congress. Last Christmas, when hoardings by SAD leaders in Amritsar wished Christians, “Happy Christmas”, RSS workers pointed at them to tell Sikhs how their leaders were wooing other communities for political reasons, and turning a blind eye to the ‘massive conversion’ of Sikhs.

Its cadres located some villages where the local gurdwara had been locked for years as the entire population had converted to Christianity and got them re-opened with the help of organisations independent of the SGPC.

It is no secret that the BJP aims to rule Punjab on its own, just as it scripted a clear victory for itself in neighbouring Haryana last year. But doing the same in Punjab is not possible without changing the current discourse of Sikh politics. As a RSS functionary explains, “It is a difficult task, but we are certainly preparing the ground for the BJP in Punjab.”

The RSS does not discriminate between Hindus and Sikhs in its ‘ghar wapsi’ ceremonies, which are aimed at bringing converted Sikhs as well as Hindus back to their “original religion”. For the SGPC and its political benefactor the SAD, this is extremely disconcerting and both have reiterated many times in the last few months that Sikhs are a separate religion. The aggressive harvesting of Sikh peasant souls through re-conversions, dharma jagaran yatras, single teacher schools run by RSS-affiliated organisations like the Madhav Rao Muley Trust, the Ekal Abhiyan Yojana, or the Sarvhitkari Shiksha Samiti, motivating them to come to RSS shakhas, are being watched with dismay by the Akalis. As an RSS functionary said, “The Akalis are in a cleft. As a party that professes to uphold Sikh identity, it can hardly be seen to oppose the ‘ghar wapsi’ of Sikhs. This is actually what its religious arm, the SGPC should be doing, but for years it has ignored the crisis facing Sikhism…. we are only bringing this to the notice of the people.”

Khalistani prisoners

Earlier this month, Badal cleared the process for transferring nine Khalistani terrorists from jails in other parts of the country to Punjab jails, a  move aimed at facilitating their parole and possible release once legal hurdles are cleared. The first of these, Devinder Pal Bhullar, convicted for the 1993 bomb blast in Delhi, was shifted from Tihar in Delhi to Central jail in Amritsar last week. He was immediately transferred to the VIP ward of an Amritsar hospital. The BJP cried foul, saying it was not consulted on this very sensitive matter, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi even cancelled his visit to the mega show at Anandpur Sahib this week to show the party’s disapproval for leniency to terror convicts.

But few know that the RSS and its Sikh arm, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, have been pushing for the release of these Sikh convicts. Its president, Jaipur lawyer Gurcharan Singh Gill, has met Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh with a list of prisoners that the RSS wants released on humanitarian grounds.

Gill said that the Sikh Sangat believes that those prisoners who have completed 20 years in prison and are above 65 years of age should be given relief. Remember, in 2009, the then Sikh Sangat president Rulda Singh was shot dead by militants and since then the organisation became virtually defunct in Punjab. Today, it hopes to re-establish itself in Punjab by successfully taking up a couple of Sikh issues chiefly, release of Sikh prisoners and compensation for the 1984 anti Sikh massacre victims. Last year, the Sikh Sangat even supported a former militant, Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa, when he sat on a hunger strike in a gurdwara in BJP-ruled Haryana to press for the release of these convicts. Radical Sikh organisations who have otherwise been campaigning for the release of Bhullar and others ignored Khalsa because of his saffron links and the fast was eventually called off.

Sikh radical groups then propped up another activist, Surat Singh Khalsa in January for a similar hunger strike and his deteriorating physical condition is one reason why the Badal government moved to shift Bhullar to Punjab. For the first time in recent years, top police officials – some of them on the radar of Punjab terrorists – held a meeting with a handful  of former Khalistanis-turned-activists before finalising the state government’s plan to shift the convicts to Punjab. Badal walked away with the credit on this one, much to the chagrin of the Sangh Parivar.

Bhullar’s transfer was facilitated by the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi, which cleared his move from Tihar jail. The AAP is also pushing for relief to the controversial Sikh prisoners who have completed more than 15 years in jail. In January 2014, the short lived AAP government in Delhi ordered the setting up of a Special Investigation Team to re-examine the 1984 riot cases, a move that has endeared the party to many Sikhs. In the last couple of years, the SAD is also facing flak from radical groups like the US-based Sikhs for Justice for allegedly bartering away Sikh interests to gain political power. The SFJ’s constant barbs – such as filing cases in American courts when the Badals visit the US – and initiating well-publicised campaigns to take the matter of justice for 1984 victims to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, is shrinking the SAD’s appeal in the NRI community.

Panthic politics

It is said of the Badals that whenever the going gets tough – like now when the stock of the party is at an all time low because of poor governance – going back to the ‘Panthic agenda’ and religious politics comes in handy. But never before was it pitted against its own ally. The BJP, which has always been the junior partner in the long-standing alliance, has so far been content with its urban largely Hindu vote bank and relied on the Akalis to bring in the rural Sikh votes. As the saffron party tries making inroads into its ally’s Sikh vote ban, tension between the two is inevitable.

Badal’s counter to the Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi programme for Sikhs is a call for making the martyrdom of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur a national day. Guru Teg Bahadur was executed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for resisting the forced conversion of Hindus to Islam. Here also the Akalis and the RSS interpret the ninth Guru’s contribution in different ways. While the RSS points to his epithet ‘Hind di Chaadar’ to prove that the Sikh guru resisted conversions and it is only correct to bring back those who went to other religions, the Akalis feel that the Guru’s sacrifice shows there is no place for forcible or induced conversions – read ‘ghar wapsi’ – in Sikhism.