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February 12, 1998


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 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 do it

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 about.

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, or whatever.

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!

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