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February 22, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Kuldip Nayar

It is fundamentalism again

The beginning of this century saw the agitated Sikh community removing mahants from gurudwaras. Their presence -- and hold -- was resented because they misinterpreted the Sikh religion and stood in the way of communion between devotees and the waheguru (almighty).

The end of the century is a witness to some Sikh priests returning as mahants. Once again the clergy wants to direct and control the life of Sikhs. It is Sikhism which should impress its image on the history of our times. Instead, it is the clergy that seeks to leave its imprint.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, representing the clergy, tried to harm the community in the process. He landed the Sikhs and Punjab, where most of them live, in such a mess that both are still reeling after what they went through in the last decade or so.

Now suspended Jathedar Bhai Ranjit Singh has come to the scene. His background is that he has spent 13 years in jail for the murder of the chief of a sect, Nirankari. He wants to play the role of Bhindranwale.

He too seems to be above the law of the land. He also considers himself the one chosen by god for a mission. He has been suspended from the Akal Thakt, the highest authority of the Sikhs. This came as a relief because he was using his office for political purposes. He should have gone out with grace when the other three priests of the Takht were at the ceremony to install his successor, Puran Singh.

Ranjit Singh was a head priest. He was not the Akal Thakt. He arrogated himself the religious authority that the Thakt enjoys. His demand that he will hand over charge only to Mohan Singh is untenable. One, he is nobody to name his successor because the appointment is done by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Its executive has already turned him out. Two, Mohan Singh, whom he has named, was the first choice but militants abroad have threatened to kill his son. That is the reason why Mohan Singh first accepted and then declined the offer.

Ranjit Singh should introspect why he was suspended. The Akal Thakt issues hukamnamas on political matters. But he summoned Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to explain why there was no separate personal law for the Sikhs and why the Anandpur Sahib Resolution on autonomy has remained unimplemented. This is the matter, which the Akali Dal should address to him, not a priest.

What is disconcerting is that the extremists, whether in India or in Canada, America and the Great Britain, have once again joined hands to serve their personal and political ends in the name of religion. These are the same people who had instigated terrorism in Punjab and had used religion for their gain.

It is, however, not surprising to see Gurcharan Singh Tohra on their side. He has always encouraged them. He was the one who, as the head of SGPC, had allowed Bhindranwale to carry arms to the Akal Takht, which was converted into a state within a state. Tohra would have staged a repeat if Ranjit Singh was allowed to continue.

This has divided the Sikh community between the militants, 30 per cent, and moderates, 70 per cent. What is new about this refit is the determination by the majority of Sikhs to stall the situation, which may lead to the Bhindranwale days. They do not want the misuse of religion. Badal has picked up on their behalf the gauntlet thrown down by fundamentalists. Till yesterday he was quiet and played a second fiddle to Tohra, with whom he differs in thinking, so as to keep the community united. Today, he has opposed him because he knows that Tohra wants only to stroke fires of confrontation and put the Sikhs against the state once again.

Hence, factions within the community are nothing new. They have been there for decades, particularly after the formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1921 when the separate electorates were introduced in the country. Several groups sprang up then to claim the leadership of Sikhs. And they used all methods to win. Mixing religion with politics at that time was of no avail because the Sikhs could vote only for Sikh candidates.

Yet there were no ranks in the community when it came to the struggle for independence. The Sikhs were part of the mainstream. Estrangement came only after partition. Sikhs leaders tried to have a separate country but the British rejected the demand. And the East Punjab at that time had a preponderant majority of Hindus, who did not even consider Punjabi as their mother tongue although they spoke it.

How to get a state, which will have a Sikh majority or, more so, how to gain power was the dominant feeling in the community. Morchas (agitations) were launched to pursue that end. Religion was now mixed with politics without compunction so as to prove to the Sikh masses that their religion was endangered without political power. Religion got furrowed deeper when the agitations were started from the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Wittingly or unwittingly, they boiled down to the Sikhs versus the Delhi durbar.

New Delhi had to play the role of adversary because the Punjab government had no authority to accept or reject the demands made. At times, the government of India interfered for political reasons. The ruling Congress party at the Centre did not want a political adversary, the Akali Dal, in Punjab to come to power. 'Operation Blue Star' in 1984 was the culmination of militant challenge by Akali extremists to the exasperated Congress and the state.

Many Sikhs blamed Bhindranwale for the situation but 'Operation Blue Star' hurt the community so much that it too came round to believe that the attack was a deliberate act to water down the Sikhs entity.

The killing of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi alone confirmed the doubts. The moderates in the Akali Dal and the Sikh intelligentsia realised the mistake of miring politics in religion. But the violation of Golden Temple's sanctity had made them so angry that they sank their differences.

What will happen if the extremists continued playing the religious card and moderates pointing out that it was wrong to do so. The outcome will depend on who reaches the Sikh masses and how. Does it mean that the confrontation will end up in terrorism in Punjab?

No, it will not, because the terrorists were primarily rejected by the Sikh masses, who refused in the end to give them shelter or succour. They have seen through their game of using religion for political objective. Religious zealots may not influence them. Tohra too realises it because terrorism exacted a heavy toll from them. But his problem is that he has no other way to stay before the public eye since he is also being removed from the SGPC presidentship. He will continue to play on the sentiments of Sikhs and that is the reason why he says again and again that the problem is religious, not political.

In fact, it is once again fundamentalism versus liberalism. Badal and his men should be supported because they are fighting the forces, which are trying to deform the Sikh religion with a vengeance and also endangering the country's secular ethos.

Strange, every religion has noble teachings and lofty moral goals. Yet in each religion these high standards are often far removed from what that religion seems to be in actual thought and practice. A few zealots disfigure the religion, as Tohra, Ranjit Singh and their associates are doing to Sikhism. Someone should tell them that they have played this game before and have failed dismally.

Kuldip Nayar

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