Updated: September 20, 2021 7:16:22 pm
Before the Congress put an end to the suspense and announced the name of Charanjit Singh Channi as the next Chief Minister of Punjab Sunday, giving the state its first Dalit CM, it was said to have played with the possibility of another first.
There was speculation about Punjab getting a Hindu CM for the first time after it was created as a Sikh-majority state in 1966. That was not to be.
The Congress retreat from one of the possibilities before it, even as it embraced another, may have made explicit the unstated assumption of Punjab politics — that the CM in a Sikh majority state will always and only be a Sikh. In the process, it may have hardened a line.
But hours before its decision Sunday, Giani Harpreet Singh, acting Jathedar (high priest) of the Akal Takht, the youngest to hold the office so far, opened up a significant new space.
Speaking to The Indian Express at his office at Talwandi Sabo — he also serves as the Jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib — on the possibility of a Hindu CM for Punjab, he said: “Behtar insaan hona chahiye (should be a good person), achchai pehle number pe (human goodness is the primary consideration). Sikh hona ya Hindu hona secondary hai (whether Hindu or Sikh is secondary).”
For many, though, the Jathedar said, “face matters”. “A Sikh CM matters for the aam public… speaks of Punjab’s pehchaan (identity)… just as Hindus take pride when (one among them) does well in US (politics)…”.
It is not as if “Hindu” and “Sikh” have been walled off from each other in Punjab politics. Even though no Hindu has become CM, all the main parties, Congress, SAD and AAP fashion themselves as catch-all parties, and in alliance or singly, court all castes and communities.
(For now, the BJP has pushed itself into a lonely corner, after the Modi government brought in the controversial farm laws which also led to its break-up with the SAD).
In 2012, the SAD, as part of its attempts after the Moga declaration of 1995, to shift from a panthic agenda to one that speaks of Punjabi identity and Punjabiyat, for the first time, nominated 12 Hindu candidates — and nine won.
That the BSP has an average 4 per cent vote in a state with a total Dalit population of nearly 32 per cent, also speaks of a politics of cross-cutting cleavages.
And yet, Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh’s expression of openness is an important step towards blurring faultlines — it comes from someone who occupies Sikhism’s highest religious and highest temporal seats.
The Jathedar’s comment also comes in a fraught context: The farmers’ movement against laws brought in by a BJP-led Centre may be creating a two-toned predicament in Punjab — on the one hand, it is drawing people together, across communities, rallying Hindu traders to the cause of Sikh peasants, against a Centre perceived to be obstinate and unyielding.
On the other, it is also stoking fears of a BJP-led assault on Sikh identity, with perceptions of an endangered MSP reviving not just older resentments against the Centre, but also spectres that feed on the Sikh consciousness of being a majority and also a minority — a majority in the state, a minority outside it.
The Jathedar, too, spoke of rising dangers: Incidents of “be-adabi” or sacrilege — “kaun log hain, uske peeche kaun si saazishein hai (who are the people who do it, what are the conspiracies behind them”); interference by the RSS — “anyone who believes in one religion should not interfere in another”. And an overbearing and insensitive Centre — “Sikh issues are not so big that the Centre cannot solve them, but since 1947, Centre has not been serious about fulfilling the promises made to the Sikhs, to keep them safe and protected… Centralisation of power is always damaging to the country, state governments are becoming like municipalities”.
And yet, on the farmers’ agitation, he made a distinction that softens the edge — it is a “kisan aandolan, not of a dharm (religion), even though most farmers are Sikhs”. The solution, he said, can only come “baatcheet ke zariye (through dialogue)”. Because “jo movement lambi chal jaati hai, us mein dikkatein aa jaati hain (if a movement stretches too long, it runs into troubles)”.
“There must be negotiation in any dialogue, and we have seen this worldwide, in compromises between countries, and states, or in land disputes… Kuch sarkar maane, kuch kisaan maane”, he said. But as the “bigger, more responsible” side, the government must take the initiative.