Home minister Amit Shah’s announcement to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was, unsurprisingly, met with jubilation among Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Independent regional parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, AIADMK and YSR Congress supported the resolution on Article 370 and a Bill to reorganise the state in two separate union territories.
However, various opposition parties like the Congress, Trinamool Congress, DMK, Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) raised vociferous protests in the Upper House. Even National Democratic Alliance constituent Janata Dal (United) walked out of the House in protest, while all other allies of the BJP like Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal, Asom Gana Party and Bodoland People’s Front strongly supported the Centre.
Reaction from Punjab
One state where the Narendra Modi-led Union government’s move has received widespread condemnation is Punjab. The criticism has come from various sections including the Sikh religious clergy, Panthic outfits, political leadership, intellectuals, retired civil servants, student groups and farmers’ unions. The highest seat of religious and temporal authority in Sikhism, the Sri Akal Takht Sahib, has also stepped in and condemned the comments against the dignity and honour of Kashmiri women.
Giani Harpreet Singh, the acting jatehdar of the Sri Akal Takht Sahib, issued a statement urging Sikhs to protect Kashmiri women in all adverse circumstances. Recalling how Sikh women were treated by some people in 1984, the jatehdar took strong notice of the comments targeting Kashmiri women, and stated that Sikhs will not allow anyone to repeat 1984 with Kashmiri women. Such strong directives coming from religious leaders holds high significance for Sikhs living across globe. It is pertinent to recall that it was Sikhs who had come forward to help Kashmiri youth who were being targeted by right-wing groups in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack.
Condemnation of the Centre’s move to dismember a state without even consulting the people who live there has come not only from Sikhs living in Punjab, but from the Sikh diaspora as well. No doubt, the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the ongoing lockdown in the erstwhile state has sparked fear and anger among the Sikhs. There are fears that what has happened in Kashmir might happen in Punjab, and that the march of Hindutva under the BJP-RSS nexus could eventually harm the Sikhs as well.
Akali Dal gives up its stand on federalism and state autonomy
For Punjab, the biggest embarrassment was the support provided by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in favour of the Bill (J&K Reorganisation Bill 2019). A regional political party that emerged and evolved on the basis of its firm commitment to decentralisation and federal functioning has now significantly contributed to diluting the federal set-up of its neighbouring state.
SAD, which in the past has led various agitations and protests, and passed historical resolutions demanding greater autonomy for Punjab on the Jammu and Kashmir pattern, has now taken a shocking u-turn favouring centralisation.
One of the oldest regional parties of India, SAD contested the 1967 assembly elections demanding “Sikhistan”, and its Batala resolution in 1968 was essentially based on this articulation. The Batala Conference is considered a precursor to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973. In the Batala Conference, SAD demanded the ‘correction’ of the constitution on a proper federal basis, and said that states should have greater autonomy.
In the landmark Ludhiana Resolution of 1978, the SAD, apart from the decentralisation of powers, demanded shared political sovereignty in a coordinated manner with the Centre. The Akali leadership was also a major supporter of the Dharamyudh Morcha of 1982 which emphasised issues of state autonomy including the implementation of Anandpur Sahib Resolution.
SAD has contested and won several assembly elections on the basis of its federal agenda. Attributing people’s issues to strong interference from the Centre and the weaker position of the state has been a hallmark of Akali politics, especially under the leadership of five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.
By opting to support the Bill that scrapped vital provisions of Article 370, and even abolished the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir after imposing president’s rule there, the SAD led by Sukhbir Badal has deliberately given up its stand on federalism and greater autonomy for Punjab.
It is ironic that one of oldest regional parties of the country gave away its fundamental stand on Punjab by remaining more committed to power politics and political opportunism. By supporting the BJP’s anti-federal, anti-democratic move, Sukhbir Badal has clearly voted for dominant, centralised policies. The Akali Dal’s role in getting the J&K Reorganisation Bill passed confirms that present leadership has rejected the spirit of federalism and state autonomy, not only in theory but also in practice.
This irrational and irresponsible move is not only harmful for federal autonomy and Kashmiri identity, but also dilutes Punjab’s claim on Punjabi-speaking areas and the inclusion of Chandigarh within its territorial boundary as the capital city. It will be unrealistic and illogical for a regional party to demand the abandoning of Chandigarh’s status, when the same party had supported and celebrated the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. The Akali Dal has sacrificed Punjabis’ most vital demand.
SAD could easily have replicated the stand taken by the Janta Dal (United). Refusing to be a part of the passage of resolutions concerning the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Nitish Kumar’s party staged a walkout from the Rajya Sabha. Like SAD, JD(U) is also BJP’s alliance partner at the Centre. But unlike the Akali leadership, JD(U) upheld the party’s ideological position.
The Akali Dal has taken a regressive stand that is extremely dangerous for religious minorities. It is pertinent to mention that Punjab shares some vital similarities with Jammu and Kashmir: a long border with Pakistan; a history of suffering from Partition and militancy; and a religious minority being the majority (Sikhs in Punjab and Muslims in J&K). By ignoring these crucial facts, SAD has knowingly opted for a route that can be unfavourable for the interests of Sikhs.
Already having lost recognition as the Panthic party of Sikhs, SAD under the leadership of the Badals has also recorded itself as a political force contributing to dismantling Jammu and Kashmir and tinkering with the uniqueness of Kashmiriyat.
Now, the party is in no position to challenge any move by the Union government that attacks the federal fabric and autonomy of Punjab. What can it say now to stop the alteration of Punjab’s territorial boundaries and constitutional status? The Akalis have shown that their priority is not Sikhs and Punjabis, but instead a complete commitment towards the objectives of the Sangh parivar.
Kanwar Deep Singh Dharowali is a political analyst and research fellow.