Ludhiana blast, sacrilege, lynchings… what’s brewing in Punjab?

For the first time in its history, Punjab is headed for a four-pronged electoral contest, but there’s a sense of foreboding of ominous times returning to disrupt a hard-won peace.

Golden Temple
The first incidents of sacrilege occurred in Punjab’s Faridkot district in June 2015.

With crucial Assembly polls due in the state in less than two months, Punjab is once again in turmoil.

The bomb blast that claimed one life and left several people injured at Ludhiana’s district court complex on Thursday has, predictably, triggered fear and suspicion.

Days earlier, sacrilege attempts in different parts of the state had led to lynching of the suspects by devout Sikhs who are still awaiting judicial closure of emotive cases from 2015, when torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found on the streets in some pockets of the Sikh-majority Punjab.

On Friday, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi addressed the media and claimed that the lynching incident in Kapurthala was a theft case and the gurdwara caretaker was arrested on murder charges. For other cases, the Ludhiana blast and sacrilege attempt inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there is yet no clarity.

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What the Punjabis fear

For the ordinary Punjabi in the state, there is a common thread that ties the two incidents – one of trepidation over the impact they could have on the social and communal harmony Punjab struggled hard to stitch together after the turbulent days of militancy and religious fanaticism three decades ago.

With elections round the corner and Punjab, for the first time in its electoral history, headed for a four-pronged contest between parties old and new, this strong sense of foreboding over political machinations behind the unravelling mayhem and its likely beneficiaries cannot be ignored.

Senior journalist and author Jagtar Singh, who has been covering the state since the 1970s, fears that the recent incidents – the blasts, the sacrilege attempts and subsequent lynchings – form a pattern whose only intent could be to “vitiate the atmosphere in Punjab before the polls”. Singh tells The Federal that he feels the incidents serve the purpose of diverting the public gaze from real issues that affect the people.

Punjab – its people, predominantly those from the farming community – was at the vanguard of the 15-month peasant agitation against the Centre’s now-repealed three farm laws. While protesting against the controversial legislations, the agitation, feels Singh, had also “questioned the communal way of politics in the country”.

It is instructive then that many in Punjab believe that the recent sacrilege attempts and lynchings have the potential to revive socio-religious fault-lines between the Sikhs and the state’s equally formidable population of Hindus who, through the phase of Sikh militancy in the 1980s, had suffered losses of home, hearth and livelihood.

‘A carefully-crafted conspiracy’

Award-winning writer Baldev Singh Sadaknama suspects that a carefully-crafted conspiracy “is at work, aimed at tampering with Punjabi society”.

Punjab’s contemporary history is the best reminder of why these recent episodes have stirred the state’s political and social cauldron.

The first incidents of sacrilege occurred in Punjab’s Faridkot district in June 2015, when a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book that the Sikh community worships as a Living Guru, went missing from a local gurdwara in village Burj Jawahar Singh Wala.

Also read: Farmers float new political party, to contest upcoming Punjab elections

In October, over 100 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found scattered in front of a gurdwara in Faridkot’s Bargari. Over the next few days, several such incidents of desecration of the holy book of the Sikhs were reported from different parts of Punjab, triggering protests by the Sikh community.

The use of brute force by the Punjab Police to contain these protests escalated tensions further instead of containing the mayhem that had already been spreading through the state like wildfire, as reports poured in from places like Behbal Kalan, Kot Kapura and others of protesters (and police personnel) being severely injured in clashes. Two Sikh youth were killed in Kot Kapura when the police opened fire to disperse the agitators.

As is always the case in such instances, enquiries were ordered, an SIT constituted, judicial orders issued and political rhetoric soared. But, six years and two governments later – one led by the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP coalition (2007-2017) and the present Congress dispensation – the slew of cases registered against the sacrilege and police firing incidents are yet to find judicial closure.

And this has now returned to haunt Punjab – its ordinary citizens and political brass alike – with the recent instances of alleged sacrilege attempts and sections of the public becoming law unto themselves by lynching suspects instead of letting the law take its arduous course.

Giani Harpeet Singh, acting jathedar of the Akal Takht – the highest temporal body of the Sikhs – recently justified the lynchings thus: “What option did the Sikh sangat have when the law failed to deliver justice?”

A dangerous course has been set for Punjab. The political brass, irrespective of party affiliations, ostensibly pre-empted the mood such a statement through the Akal Takht would swing among the Sikh majority – a votebank political parties have to necessarily court if they wish to rule Punjab.

No condemnation of lynchings

Expectedly, no condemnation of the lynchings has been forthcoming from top political leadership except from former state chief minister Amarinder Singh who denounced them.

Navjot Singh Sidhu, chief of the Congress’ Punjab unit who led a rebellion that cost Amarinder his chief ministerial chair on the issue of (among other things) his inaction in the sacrilege and police firing cases, went to the extent of demanding public hanging for the sacrilege-accused. Sidhu clearly gave no thought to his position and duty as a lawmaker while adding fuel to an already raging fire.

If Punjab – and people elsewhere – are wondering who stands to benefit politically this poll season from the turmoil that is keeping the state on edge, it is only natural.

However, the answer isn’t an unambiguous one. This churn comes at a time when the state’s politics was already undergoing a rapid churn; thanks to the peasant protests and the still-brewing revolt and tensions within the ruling Congress that had hoped to put its house in order after unceremoniously dumping Amarinder.

Similarly, the SAD and BJP, close allies of good times and bad, have parted ways since the Centre passed the farm laws, only to repeal them last month in the face of relentless protests and the threat of the electoral cost that the BJP would have to pay in the upcoming elections, not just in Punjab but in UP and Uttarakhand too.

The SAD went ahead and allied with Mayawati’s BSP, hoping to offset possible losses it could have suffered in its divorce with the BJP. The Congress too stands split, with Captain floating his own outfit and keeping its doors wide open to disgruntled Congress members – or those from any other outfit – and, at the same time, finding a new ally in the BJP.

The Congress, reeling under its typical factional feuds and dissentions, is praying that former chief Rahul Gandhi’s gambit of giving the state its first ever Dalit CM in Channi would help the party tide over all other problems it is facing presently.

The situation is also fluid in AAP, a party that had emerged as a serious third alternative in the largely bipolar polity of Punjab back in 2017 but one that has steadily lost its MLAs to the Congress over the past few years.

The AAP has failed to showcase its CM face till now despite pressure from its cadre and chief Arvind Kejriwal is still the central figure in the party’s poll campaign, banking on the populist narrative borrowed from his successful politics in Delhi.

Amid these changing political realignments and renascent incidents that can potentially flare up religious sentiments, it is anybody’s guess how Punjab’s two crore voters view the upcoming polls and choose their government.

Who will gain or lose?

Political analyst Ashutosh Kumar tells The Federal that the recent sacrilege attempts and the Ludhiana court complex blast is an attempt to polarize Punjab.

The Sikhs constitute Punjab’s majority but the Hindus are an equally important electoral bloc, whose support, says Kumar, is vital to any party that hopes to form the next government.

Also read: First sacrilege, now blast: Punjab CM says anti-nationals at work

Kumar says the recent disruption in law and order has the “potential to frighten Hindus, given that they suffered the most during the militancy of the 1980s”. Kumar recalls how, in the run up to the 2017 Assembly polls, the AAP was a clear favourite to win but ended up sitting in opposition, its impressive debut of winning 20 of 117 seats notwithstanding.

“Three days before voting (in the 2017 polls), a blast at a political rally frightened the Hindus who ended up voting for the then Amarinder Singh-led Congress,” says Kumar, a senior faculty member at Panjab University’s department of political science.

He adds that if the current revival of sacrilege incidents and blasts aggravates further, it could “decide the course of Punjab elections” but says that “who will gain or lose can’t be speculated right now since elections are still two months away”.

Many believe that the electorate’s focus will shift to real bread and butter issues only if these incidents fail to create communal unrest. Any rationale given by the Congress, Akalis or Amarinder to justify the lynchings or condemn the sacrilege episodes may only trigger further political jousting as each of these players in Punjab politics – with the notable exception of AAP – have a chequered past on the sacrilege episode.

The first sacrilege instances took place during the Akali-BJP rule, the shoddy investigations continued during Congress rule under Amarinder and now under Channi. None of them can claim innocence.

The AAP may, but then without a CM face and a coherent narrative tailormade for Punjab (and not copied from Delhi), there are no guarantees of electoral dividends for them either. Punjab 2022 is still an open contest. The losers, unfortunately, are only the state’s people – scared and numbed by this spate of violence and a foreboding of ominous times returning to disrupt a hard-won peace.

(The writer is a journalist based in Chandigarh)

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