The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has no one but itself to blame for the huge public response to the Sarbat Khalsa (Sikh congregation) called by pro-Khalistani outfits last week. A party that came to power in 2007 on the promise of development decided that ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections, the best way to get around the disenchantment with its government’s performance, especially in its second term, was to play the panthic card. Over the last few months — from canvassing for the repatriation or release of Sikh militants in jails in other states, to thinking up a new Anandpur Sahib anniversary — it has made a show of its panthic credentials. Along the way, its leaders have brazenly used Sikh religious institutions like the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) and the Akal Takht for political ends. This was most evident in the 2007 blasphemy charge against Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmit Singh “Ram Rahim”, the pardon to him in September, and its revocation three weeks later in the face of protests. The public anger at the incidents of sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib, in fact, only brought together anti-SAD forces over the cynical attempts to politicise Sikh religious bodies, and the ruling party’s governance failures. That the government did not have the political or administrative courage to prevent the Sarbat Khalsa assembly in Amritsar only showed how badly the SAD is trapped in its own game. All it could do was to declare — rather pointlessly — that only the Akal Takht is empowered to convene the Khalsa.
The hardline organisers of the Sarbat Khalsa have named their own jathedars to four of the five seats of Sikhism. Their choice of Jagtar Singh Hawara — convicted for the 1995 assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh — to head the Akal Takht, is a blatant ploy to put pressure on both the state government and the Centre for his release from jail. But with differences surfacing among the hardline parties, it is clear that most people in the community have realised that the motives of these self-appointed saviours of the Sikh religion are equally suspect.
If there is still a silver lining for Punjab, it is its people, who have over the years shown the pro-Khalistanis their place. Voters have repeatedly humiliated leaders such as Simranjit Singh Mann at the polls. It is instructive that he lost his deposit in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; he has not been able to win even an SGPC election. There is no indication that this is about to change. The mainstream political parties in Punjab must quickly focus on reclaiming the political space. In the interests of the Sikhs, the SAD must summon up the political nerve to leave religious institutions alone.