The Rediff Election Interview/Bhai Ranjit Singh
'Why should I even react to what is no more, no
less than a cheap political stunt by Sonia Gandhi?'
Bhai Ranjit Singh, the jathedar of the Akal Takht, wields the ultimate
power, both spiritual and temporal, over the Sikh community. And
your first impression of him, as he strides into the visitor's
lounge of his home within the Guru Ramdassji Dental College campus,
is that he seams rather young to be wielding such omnipotence.
Authority, however, sits lightly on his shoulders. He is calm
and courteous -- and if he seems rather interview-shy, he yields
with grace to my importunity and, despite just having returned
to Amritsar from an official trip, takes time off to chat.
There have been, his staff indicate, a lot of official trips of
late -- the jathedar, who spent 12 years of his life as an undertrial
in the 1980 murder of Baba Gurbachan Singh, head of the Nirankari
sect, was finally conferred an official pardon by the President
of India only on November 8, 1997. And with that pardon has come
a freedom of movement he had lacked ever since he took over as
jathedar in 1990. "I was in jail at the time of
taking office," he reminds you.
In this conversation with Prem Panicker, the jathedar talks about politics, religion
And, of course, the case that made him a cause celebre.
As head of the Akal Takht, you must have welcomed the apology
tendered by Sonia Gandhi for Operation Bluestar, and for the anti-Sikh
riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi?
Why should I welcome, or even react to what is no more, no
less than a cheap political stunt by her? Bluestar happened in
1984, we Sikhs have been living here all along, so if the regret
was genuine, why was it timed now, and tendered not in Amritsar
but as past of an election campaign? No, I do not welcome it. In
fact, I do not even consider it worth taking note of.
It may have come late. But the central tenet of all religions
is that a sinner who owns up is forgiven. So...
Who is the sinner? The Congress party. That party created militancy
in Punjab for its own selfish interest. That party and its government
was responsible for the desecration of the Golden Temple, for
the anti-Sikh riots. Why should that party be forgiven, because
Sonia Gandhi said I'm sorry? What is she sorry for? Did she have
any role in all that?
Yes, all religions preach forgiveness --
but the sinner has to realise his sin and confess it. You cannot
But Sonia Gandhi was speaking on behalf of the Congress?
Was she? What is her official position in the Congress? Does
she have any designation? Is she a candidate? The fact is, she
is nobody -- tomorrow the Congress can turn round and say she was
speaking as an individual, not as an official party spokesperson.
As an apology, Sonia Gandhi's words are less than useless.
Suppose the Congress president, or a party spokesman, were
to tender an official apology -- will that heal the wounds?
If you commit rape or murder and then say sorry, can it really
heal the wounds of the victim, of his or her family? Bluestar was
worse -- our temple, the focus of our religion, was desecrated.
No apology can heal those wounds. But at least, it can give us
a measure of vindication in the eyes of the world.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, now allied to the Shiromani Akali
Dal-Badal had at the time supported, even endorsed, Bluestar.
But today it shares power in Punjab.
That is politics, and I am not concerned with politics, my
duty is that of the religious head. Why only the BJP? Everybody,
except Chandra Shekhar, former governor Nirmal Mukherjee and journalist
Kuldip Nayar, had supported Bluestar -- that is not for me to worry
So unlike the religious heads of Islam, and Hinduism, you are
totally divorced from politics?
No, I wouldn't say divorced, exactly. But I am distanced from
politics, yes. My goal is to bring the youth back on the religious
path -- the recent turmoil in Punjab has taken them away from religion.
Besides, a considerable part of my attention these days goes into preparing for the 300th anniversary of the establishment
of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh, which falls in 1999.
So, unlike say the Imam Bukhari, you won't be exhorting the
faithful to vote for, or against, any particular party?
No, never. The Akal Takht does not do that. We respect Sikhs
of all parties. For the Sikh, his Guru is
foremost, he will leave a party for the guru, but not the guru for
the party. So it is up to us to use that power properly, and not
to function as campaign agents for any particular group.
To come to the case against you -- what is the position now?
I have a Presidential pardon, I am a free man again.
However, the fact remains that the Delhi high court ordered
your arrest, you refused, and took refuge in the shadow of
the temple knowing no government could afford another Bluestar?
Let me explain. I will not discuss my conviction for murder
-- right or wrong, that is now history. But the fact remains that
I was arrested in 1984, and released on bail in 1996. For 12 years,
I was behind bars. As an undertrial, mind you. I was never allowed
out. Even my case was conducted in jail, the judge came there,
I was not even taken to court. So even if I accept my conviction,
my contention is that the maximum sentence is life imprisonment,
and that I have already served -- so why should I go to jail again?
But isn't it your duty to respect the law? You could have surrendered,
and then argued your case?
I have no faith in the impartiality of the courts. For instance,
what did the Delhi high court do? Where the original sentence
of the sessions judge was that I should serve seven years each
on three separate courts with the proviso that the total sentence
should not exceed ten years, the Delhi court in its review said
I should begin serving my sentence from the date of my going back
to jail. Then what of the 12 years I have spent inside?
You said the Akal Takht is above politics. Yet, in your case,
Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal asked Prime Minister Inder
Kumar Gujral to intervene. The Punjab government sent an official
letter praising you and terming your behaviour after coming out
on bail as "outstanding". The SGPC moved for Presidential
pardon.. Surely all this implies a close line between politics
and religion than you let on?
The government's letter about my behaviour was in response
to an official communique from the home ministry. As for
Badal's request to Gujral, you should understand that I was appointed
jathedar because I am the one who can withstand the militants's
pressure -- remember I was appointed while in jail. So Badal's
concern was not political, but a concern for peace in Punjab.
I respect the law -- but only to the point where it does not impinge
on my position, my services to the Sikh community.
You speak of your role in maintaining peace -- could you elaborate?
I believe that the key to peace lies in looking forward, not
backward. That is why, for instance, I ensured that the 1997
anniversary of Bluestar was a low key affair, without any hysteria.
I have not hesitated to stem militancy -- either by publicly condemning
incidents of violence, or by disbanding the World Sikh Council,
That is why the Punjab government, in its reply to
the home ministry, stressed that my presence, when I was out on
bail, had helped in stabilising peace in Punjab. And I wish to
once again stress one point -- nobody did me any favours by securing
my pardon. I had already served more than my sentence, by then!
The Rediff Election Interviews