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Jalandhar: Brought back into the limelight by slain singer Sidhu Moosewala’s posthumous song ‘SYL’, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has decided to display the photo of militant Balwinder Singh Jattana at the Central Sikh Museum that is located in the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) in Amritsar.
The SGPC is a body that is responsible for the maintenance of gurudwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Its president Harjinder Singh Dhami, who presided over a meeting of the body’s executive committee on July 6, announced said Balwinder Singh Jattana’s photo would be displayed at Central Sikh Museum because he was “a brave struggling Sikh who opposed the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal for the protection of waters of Punjab”.
The canal was designed to carry water from Punjab to Haryana and Rajasthan. Its construction was stopped in July 1990, after Jattana and other militants of the Babbar Khalsa – a pro-Khalistan group – shot dead the canal’s chief engineer M.S. Sikri and superintending engineer Avtar Aulakh. A year later, Jattana was killed in a police encounter on September 4, 1991.
Jattana was in the news nearly 31 years after his death when Moosewala’s song ‘SYL’, referenced him. In the song, Moosewala demands sovereignty and adds that if the government did not relent, “someone like Balwinder Jattana will return”.
The song, which was released on June 23, created a buzz across the region and garnered rave reviews. However, the Union government banned it within three days, on June 26.
Talking to The Wire, SGPC president Dhami said the body gets requests from families and independent groups to install photos of different Sikh personalities in the museum. “The decision to install photos is taken by the sub-committee of SGPC, which decided to put up Jattana’s photo.”
Asked if such a decision could be interpreted as the SGPC encouraging extremism, Dhami said, “The SGPC is a Sikh body constituted to represent the Sikhs. We have earlier installed the photos of Beant Singh and Satwant Singh (assassins of former prime minister Indira Gandhi), Sukhdev Singh Sukha and Harjinder Singh Jinda (assassins of former Army Chief Gen A.S. Vaidya) and many others.”
Dhami further added that the SGPC honours Sikhs who fought for their community, sacrificed their lives or brought laurels in the fields of religion, politics, Sikh issues, Punjab affairs or exceptional government service.
Last month, the SGPC installed the photo of Dilawar Singh, one of the assassins of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh ahead of the Sangrur by-poll held on June 23. Because the affairs of the SGPC and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) are inextricably linked, the move was seen as an attempt to gain the Panthic (Sikh religious) vote. The SAD’s candidate for the election was Kamaldeep Kaur, the sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who assassinated Beant Singh.
Hardliner’s role in the move
Kanwar Pal Singh, the leader of the Sikh Hardliner group Dal Khalsa, told The Wire that he had submitted a memorandum to the SGPC on July 4 to install Jattana’s photo.
“The SGPC did not take this decision on their own. We have been late to honour Jattana. It was because of his actions that the SYL canal construction was stopped,” he said.
Kanwar Pal Singh admitted that Moosewala’s song ‘SYL’ was hugely popular, people had come to know about Jattana. “We felt that it was the right time to approach the SGPC with this demand,” he said.
“He sacrificed his life for the sake of Punjab’s river waters and richly deserves a place in the Central Sikh Museum,” Singh said.
The Dal Khalsa leader said that those who are rattled by this move should understand that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Bhagat Singh was also labelled a terrorist and killed by the British, he said as justification.
‘Exposes SAD’s double standards’
Malvinder Singh Mali, a former advisor to Punjab Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, said that ideally the Central Sikh Museum was meant to project the glorious history of Sikhism.
Mali, who has worked with two previous Punjab governments, said that this approach witnessed a shift after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. “The SGPC displayed the photos of Sikhs who were mercilessly killed in the 1984 riots at the Central Sikh Museum,” he said.
The move to display Jattana’s photo exposes the “double standards” of the SAD leadership, he said. “When they were in power, they never raised their voice for the extrajudicial killings of Sikhs during the militancy period in Punjab despite promising justice to the families. Now, when they are out of power, a desperate SAD leadership is trying to cling to anything that may help them regain the lost ground,” he said.
Mali pointed out that if the SAD was serious in its approach to Sikh issues, they should have supported the Anandpur Sahib resolution instead of signing in the Rajiv-Longowal accord. “Rather in July 1985, the SAD agreed to construct the SYL canal. At that time, the SAD was headed by Harchand Singh Longowal, who too was killed by Sikh militants on August 20, 1985. Basically, a section of Sikh leadership sided with the Sikh radicals and the SAD merely focused on forming governments,” he said.
The people will not be convinced about the party’s sincerity towards Sikh issues through actions such as putting up Jattana’s photo at the museum, Mali added.
Victims of Indira Gandhi’s policy: Sikh historian
Former Panjab University history professor Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon supported the SGPC’s decision to install Jattana’s photo at the museum. He said he condemns violence of any form, adding that the slain SYL canal officials, Sikri and Avtar Aulakh, were “victims” of Indira Gandhi’s politics.
“The construction of SYL was illegal. Indira Gandhi forcibly went ahead with the construction of the SYL canal. River water is a state subject but Indira Gandhi trampled upon Punjab’s river water rights through Sections 78, 79 and 80 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966. Till 1966, Punjab had direct control over its river waters. Gandhi ignored all peaceful means of redressing the demands of Sikhs, leading to one disaster after the other,” he said.
Dhillon, who has penned many important books on Sikh history and Punjab’s affairs, said that in this context, there is nothing wrong with putting up the photo of Balwinder Jattana at the Central Sikh Museum. “Sikhs have the right to project their heroes,” he added.
About the Central Sikh Museum
The Central Sikh Museum was established in 1958 at Amritsar. The museum has been divided into different eras of Sikh history. Apart from the life and historical developments of Sikh Gurus, Hindu and Muslim saints, the museum also contains rare paintings, pencil sketches, portraits and rare handwritten ancient holy books.
The museum also displays the history of the travels of the first Sikh master, Guru Nanak Dev and a detailed account of the Sikh struggle after 1708.
This is followed by portraits and paintings of the Sikh Empire and contemporary history, including the independence movement of Punjabi-speaking states, the Sikh-Nirankari clash, Operation Blue Star period, Sikh scholars, religious, social and political figures.
The museum also displays portraits of Sikh war heroes. Among those who are honoured are Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, the hero of 1965 Indo-Pak war; Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora, the poster boy of 1971 Bangladesh war; Major General Shabeg Singh, who participated in the 1971 and later joined the Khalistan movement; IAF Marshal Arjan Singh; Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, the only IAF officer to have been honoured with the Param Vir Chakra.
Interestingly, the portraits of these war heroes are displayed alongside Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the 14th head of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh seminary. He emerged on the national scene during Operation Blue Star in 1984. Bhindranwale was declared a ‘martyr’ of the Sikh community by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism in 2003 and his photograph was put on display at the museum though many consider him a terrorist.