Two CMs, Much Controversy Later, Sacrilege Cases Are Still the Burning Issue of Punjab Politics

The recent recurrence of sacrilege incidents ensures that the issue is alive again ahead of the February 20 polls.

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Chandigarh: Incidents of sacrilege relating to the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, continue to remain at the centre of political wranglings in Punjab since the first reported one, in 2015.

The recent recurrence of sacrilege incidents ensures that the issue is alive again ahead of the February 20 polls.

The lynching of a suspected accused caught during a sacrilege attempt at Golden Temple in Amritsar on December 19 is also seen to be an extension of the disappointment Sikhs have been nursing for years over the limited progress made in nabbing those behind the earlier incidents.

The issue has already cost two chief ministers their jobs in the Sikh majority state.

The first was five-time chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal patron Prakash Singh Badal. His party was reduced to an all-time low of 15 seats in the 117-member Punjab assembly during 2017 polls mainly for mishandling sacrilege cases.

The party was also accused of lack of action against those involved in the killing of two Sikh protesters in police firing at Behbal Kalan in Punjab’s Faridkot district from where sacrilege incidents began. Later, 160 cases were reported from various parts of Punjab.

Also read: Punjab: Kin of 2015 Behbal Kalan Firing Victims Accuse Congress of Neglecting Sacrilege Cases

Two-time chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh who took Congress to victory with a two-third majority in 2017 was the latest to lose his job last September. He is alleged to have paid the price for failing to honour his poll promise of speedy justice in sacrilege as well as drug cases, two issues that brought his party to power.

Congress’s Delhi bosses brought the leadership change at the fag end of their term in Punjab, possibly thanking it would beat anti-incumbency and divert public anger against the party on this issue. Furthermore, appointing Charanjit Singh Channi as the first ever Dalit Sikh CM would change the state’s political discourse as well.

Congress, it appears, miscalculated the reaction Channi’s appointment would evoke within the party.

Navjot Singh Sidhu, who gained prominence within the party as the main executor of Captain Amarinder Singh’s removal and was seen by his supporters as the natural option to replace him, did not let Channi settle for a day.

Right from accusing Channi of picking officers having links with those on the wrong side of sacrilege cases, Sidhu’s no-holds-barred attacks against his own government only made sure that Congress did not get off the hook on sacrilege.

He was further seen sharpening his attack against his own government when days after the sacrilege incident in Amritsar he joined the protesters in Faridkot. His repeated remarks that only politics had been done in this regard has been hurting his party’s image more effectively than Congress’s rivals who were already punished by voters in the last election.

In contrast, Congress’s fast emerging political rival in the state, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which too in the past was no stranger to internal turmoil, is leaving no stone unturned to gain sympathy over the issue, even using Sidhu as a tool.

In one of his recent addresses, Kejriwal was heard saying, “You think the public will take Congress seriously this time when the head of the party (Sidhu) himself has been criticising his own colleagues for playing politics over Guru’s sacrilege?”

“Punjab voters will never forgive either Congress or Akalis for not bringing those who were involved in this heinous act to justice,” he then added.

Kejriwal and his CM candidate for Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, frequently slam Congress for not arresting the real kingpin of sacrilege incidents over purported vested political interests. Justice for sacrilege was right at the top of the 10-point agenda Kejriwal released for Punjab on January 12.

SAD, in the meantime, is also on hectic campaign mode, with party president Sukhbir Singh Badal trying his best to cut political losses owing to public anger over the 2015 sacrilege cases, among other issues.

How badly the party performed can be seen from the fact that it won just eight out of 69 seats in Punjab’s politically important Malwa region (33 in 2012).

The party further suffered setbacks in its traditional bastion in the ‘Panthic belt’ of Majha region, winning just 2 out of 23 seats (12 in 2012).

The result in Doaba region was equally bad, with just five seats out of 25 (11 in 2012).

Wary of the danger from AAP, which has already eaten into the SAD vote bank by 18 seats in the 2017 polls in Malwa region, Badal some time back even exhorted his core Sikh voters not to punish the party for his previous follies and flaws. As many as 59% of Punjab’s three crore population follow Sikhism.

SAD further observed ‘Panthic Rosh Diwas’ two weeks after the sacrilege incident at Golden Temple in order to placate its traditional vote bank.

Also read: After 26 Years, SAD’s Politics Returns to Its Old Haunt. But Not Everyone Is Happy

Parkash Singh Badal said at the event that conspiracies were at work to weaken the ‘Khalsa Panth’ and dilute its separate and unique religious identity of Sikhs’.

Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal during the gathering. Photo: By arrangement

It turns out that the sacrilege incident had unseen consequences in Punjab politics.

Captain Amrinder Singh, who left Congress after losing his CM’s role, has now entered into an alliance with BJP and is determined to defeat his former party.

Divisions within SAD post the 2017 defeat has been blamed on sacrilege and the party’s dilution of Sikh politics. One of the faction Akali groups led by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa has also tied up with BJP, fighting in 12 seats in Malwa region.

From Justice Zora Singh to Justice Ranjit Singh commission

The first major probe under the SAD-BJP government was by a one-man commission under retired Justice Zora Singh who was brought in soon after the situation exploded following the killing of two Sikh protesters in October, 2015.

Zora Singh in his report submitted in June 2016 was critical of police firing on Sikh protesters but failed to address the moot question of who the real culprits were in these cases.

Zora Singh told The Wire that he was bound by several limitations. First, no one – police officials, protesters or other eyewitnesses – that the commission interacted with were forthcoming on naming anyone or providing any evidence that linked these incidents to someone.

“Without evidence how could I write?” Singh asked while blaming the then state government as well as police for not cooperating with him or even supplying proper records.

Zora Singh said he had clearly recorded in his report that Punjab police at that time did not properly investigate these highly sensitive matters. Some suspected names were coming forward but police did not take even a single man for interrogation.

“I even mentioned that police firing on Sikh protesters were absolutely unwarranted and recommended to identify erring officials and submit against them a chargesheet in accordance with law within six months. But nothing happened,” he said.

In one of his recommendations, the Zora Singh Commission then asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which was then handed over the probe by the Akali government to expedite and conclude its probe.

But things remained under wraps before the Congress government came to power in 2017 and appointed another one-man commission then headed by retired Justice Ranjit Singh to look into the matter afresh.

The commission in its report in 2018 went on to conclude that there were enough indications of the involvement of the followers of Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda in sacrilege incidents and also implicated many senior police officers for their role in firing on Sikh protesters.

The entrance to the Dera Sacha Sauda. Photo: Bazil Ashrafi

Various SITs, which the then chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh constituted based on Ranjit Singh Commission’s findings, arrested several Dera men.

But another round of controversies began when CBI contradicted the findings of Congress-appointed SIT and gave a clean chit to the Dera followers. Later, it submitted a closure report due to lack of evidence.

After a legal battle, the Congress government prevailed over CBI in continuing with its probe and also managed to get all case diaries from the agency as ordered by Punjab and Haryana high court in January, 2021.

Till that time, all was going well for Amarinder before the high court in April 2021 quashed a probe report by one of his SITs while stating that the findings of the Inspector General of Police (IG) Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh-led SIT – that former CM Prakash Badal and his deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal were responsible for the firings on Sikh protesters – lacked any specific material evidence.

Later, Kunwar Vijay resigned from the Indian Police Service and before joining AAP he went on to blame Advocate General Atul Nanda, who had close ties with Captain Amarinder, for allegedly not defending the case strongly enough in the high court.

This is when Navjot Singh Sidhu came into the picture and revolted against the Captain with allegations that the latter deliberately weakened the probe to save the Badals.

Captain ultimately had to go but the issue is still burning. In October 2021, the new home minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said in an interview to Indian Express that sacrilege cases would reach conclusion in days if not in hours.

Later in November, Punjab police grilled Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim who is already is serving a jail sentence in Haryana in separate cases, for seven hours. But the matter is still inconclusive.

Justice Ranjit Singh’s new book further fan the flames 

As if all of this was not enough, claims made in a new book by Justice Ranjit Singh further fanned political flames.

Interacting with The Wire, he said that incidents of sacrilege were connected to the controversial pardon by the Akal Takht of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh – given at the behest of then deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal in September, 2015. It was revoked days later, after expression of wide resentment from Sikhs.

Justice Singh said this pardon had roots dating back to 2007 when Akal Takht had issued a hukamnama for Sikh community to snap all ties with the Dera chief for his alleged blasphemous act of imitating Guru Gobind Singh in a ceremony.

While the FIR against Ram Rahim was later dropped in 2012, the immediate reason for the pardon to Dera chief in 2015 was the release of his movie in Punjab, he said.

“Things went haywire when the pardon to the Dera chief was taken back. Two weeks later, the pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found strewn in Bargari village in the intervening night of October 11 and 12. The matter exploded after two Sikh protesters demanding justice for sacrilege were killed in police firing,” Justice Singh told The Wire.

He said that during the Akalis’ time there was no investigation of any kind on these matters. Even the CBI did not move an inch during the Akali regime.

“I summoned a CBI official when I began my inquiry in 2018 and he could not show an inch of progress in key matters ever since they were handed over the probe. They were keeping quiet and so were the Punjab police while the Akalis were ruling,” said Justice Singh.

He said that even during the Congress regime, the investigation did not take place with the ferocity it should have shown.

“Leave my report aside, which was a fact finding report and submitted at the beginning of the Congress term in 2018. But does it take five years for any investigation to complete? It must have been brought to an end much earlier,” he told The Wire.

On why both Akali and Congress remain complacent on this issue he said, “It is for them to answer but everyone knows the politics behind it.”

Sumedh Singh Saini. Photo: Twitter/@HalkaGurdaspur

He said the intervention of the courts has also been extraordinary in these matters. For instance, as per recent HC orders, former DGP Sumedh Saini who is under scanner in a police firing case on Sikh protesters can’t even be called for questioning till March, which was unheard of in the past.

“A court can give bail to an accused or even stay the investigation. But to say that the accused can’t be called for investigation when the probe is underway is unacceptable. The government even did not challenge it,” said Ranjit Singh.

He said at present Punjab SIT probes on sacrilege have reached at the very top level of Dera Sacha Sauda.

On why the CBI findings were in conflict in his, Justice Singh said that he had thoroughly condemned CBI in his report as well as in his new book since he has never seen an investigating agency functioning so unprofessionally work blatantly favouring Dera followers.

“CBI ignored vital evidence including the voluntary statement by key Dera followers in admitting that their men were involved in executing sacrilege attempts,” he said.

“The way they had conducted the investigation, it was clear that CBI was acting under a political motive,” he added