Parkash Singh Badal: The Leader Who Saw the Making of Punjab

During the course of his seven-decade-long political journey, he never missed the chance to speak about Sikhs, Punjab’s rights and communal harmony in Punjab.

Jalandhar: It was February 1984. Parkash Singh Badal and a host of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) workers reached Delhi’s famous Bangla Sahib Gurdwara and burnt a copy of Article 25 (B) of the Indian constitution, demanding the Union government to amend it and give separate identity to the Sikhs. That clause said that the “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly”.

Badal not only tore the copy of Article 25, he even wrote a letter to the United Nations raising the same demand. However, later Badal admitted several times that his actions were based on orders from Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, who was the president of SAD during the insurgency-hit Punjab of the 1980s.

A staunch supporter of federalism, Parkash Singh Badal breathed his last on April 25, 2023 at the age of 95. During the course of his seven-decade-long political journey, he never missed the chance to speak about Sikhs, Punjab’s rights and communal harmony in Punjab. He would take pride in the fact that Punjab never witnessed any communal clashes.

During his career, he witnessed the historical, religious and political developments of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s such as the Sikh-Nirankari clash of 1978, Operation Blue Star in 1984, the Rajiv-Longowal Accord in 1985 and the militancy in Punjab in the early 90s.

And in his main rival congress, Badal found the political ground to grow as the tallest leader of Punjab. His attacks against the Congress revolved around Operation Bluestar, its alleged anti-Sikh stance and corruption. He was known for maintaining cordial relations with everybody, a quality which earned him respect across party lines.

Tryst with BJP

By adopting moderate stand and politics following the SAD-BJP alliance during the historic Moga Conference of 1996, Badal started a new chapter in not just Akali politics but that of Punjab’s politics too.

During the Moga conference, Badal gave the slogan of ‘Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat’. Despite stiff opposition from the then SGPC chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Badal went ahead with the SAD-BJP alliance and ruled Punjab for two consecutive terms from 2007 to 2017. However, it often left the SAD juggling between the ideology of ‘Panthic party’ (focused on Sikh politics) and a ‘Punjabi party’.

The SAD’s journey with the BJP came to an end in 2020, severing ties with the party because of the three farm laws. But the damage had already been done. If its show of 18 seats in the 2017 assembly elections, owing to to aaparent failure to curb drug abuse and a lack of progress in sacrilege cases, was considered dismal, it was reduced to merely three seats in 2022. It clearly hinted at that the Akalis’ base was eroding in Punjab.

Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal. Photo: By arrangement

‘Art of compromised politics’

Director of World Punjabi Centre from Punjabi University, Patiala, Professor Balkar Singh said, “From being a common farmer, he became a sarpanch and a wealthy politician. His art of compromised politics, sometimes under pressure from the public and largely with the Centre, ensured his political success.”

Along with SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra and ex-SAD president Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, Badal was one of the few leaders who not just led but was also well informed about the behind-the-scenes politics of fundamental issues like Punjabi Suba Morcha, Anandpur Sahib Resolution, Dharam Yudh Morcha and the agitation against Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.

Jaspal Singh Sidhu, a former journalist who covered nearly all the major developments of Punjab, said Badal was the main leader of the Punjabi Suba (state) struggle. “Punjabi Suba came into existence in November 1966 but Chandigarh was not part of it. He did not do anything for it. Badal was the main architect of Dharam Yudh Morcha, which started on August 4, 1982 from the Golden temple. He was the first one to volunteer and court arrest for it. Badal’s political trajectory was like that: if needed, he would compromise with the public, else go in sync with the Centre,” he said.

The Dharam Yudh Morcha led to the protest against the SYL Canal.

The senior journalist also said that during the 1997 assembly elections, Badal announced the constitution of a Truth Commission to expose fake encounters and human rights violation cases in its election manifesto. “That Truth Commission never saw the light of the day. Leave taking action against the guilty police officers involved in fake encounters, Badal appointed most of them to key posts and left the victims begging for justice,” he added.

The senior journalist said while the BJP kept on expanding its centralist agenda, Badal as chief minister chose to brush aside Punjab’s interests for the sake of electoral gains. “The rout of SAD [in the previous two assembly elections] was primarily because it kept ignoring the interests of Sikhs and Punjab,” Sidhu said.

Also Read: In Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab Loses a Mass Leader

Overt and covert messaging

Badal also sought to commute the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was convicted for the assassination of former Punjab CM Beant Singh. In 2012 Badal and his son, then deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, handed a mercy petition to the President, seeking clemency for Rajaona. The latter was supposed to be hanged on March 31, 2012 but the Union government stayed it on March 29, 2012.

It was for this reason that the recently formed SAD-BSP alliance fielded Rajaona’s sister Kamaldeep Kaur as the ‘joint panthic candidate’ for the Sangrur by election in May 2022, where SAD (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann won.

The former CM was also known for subtly conveying even the toughest of messages. With a laugh, he would convey messages which hold deep meaning. At an event in Lovely Professional University, where the then president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai was the chief guest, CM Badal – while concluding his speech – asked Karzai to “stop the smuggling of heroin from Afghanistan” as it was affecting the youth of Punjab.

Senior congress leader and the first woman CM of Punjab Rajinder Kaur Bhattal shared an anecdote about Badal. “He was committed to his party and Punjab issues. During the Dharam Yudh Morcha, he could not attend his only daughter’s wedding because he was arrested,” she said.

Badal spent many years in jail during emergency and for participating in different morchas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him the Nelson Mandela of India during an event in Delhi in 2015.

When in power Badal undertook several populist measures like providing free power to farmers, Atta Dal scheme for the poor, Shagun scheme for the marriage of SC girls and distribution of cycles to girl students in government schools. All of them struck a chord with the voters.

In Badal’s demise, people not only lost a popular leader but a politician whose life spanned parallel to that of Punjab’s journey.