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Saturday, June 12, 2021

In Punjab, two prayers with a political twist and consequences

While BJP leaders in the state have openly come out in support of the priests, other political parties claim it’s a ploy to woo the Dalits, who form 31.9 per cent of the state’s population.

Written by Raakhi Jagga | Ludhiana |
Updated: June 3, 2021 5:40:59 pm
On May 20, a video of former granthi Gurmail Singh seeking a Dalit CM in Punjab began doing the rounds on social media.

In a state going to polls next year, two prayers (ardaas) at two different gurdwaras, seeking a Dalit chief minister for Punjab, and praying for the well-being of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are leading to much disquiet and discussion. While BJP leaders in the state have openly come out in support of the priests, other political parties claim it’s a ploy to woo the Dalits, who form 31.9 per cent of the state’s population.

It was on May 20 that a video of former granthi (priest) Gurmail Singh seeking a Dalit CM in Punjab and the release of Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim began doing the rounds on social media.

Later, it was found that the ardaas was conducted at Gurdwara Daswein Patshahi, Beer Talaab village, in Bathinda district. That very evening, Gurmail was arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments following a complaint by Harpal Singh Khara, an advocate. Gurmail is still behind bars. His wife Rajpal Kaur, sarpanch of Beer Talab village, recently met Vijay Sampla, National Chairman of SC Commission, at Jalandhar, seeking security cover and financial aid from the Union Government.

On May 22, Harpal Singh conducted a similar ardaas at Ravidass Gurdwara in Ambedkar Nagar, Sangrur, this time in the presence of some BJP SC Morcha leaders. Two days later, he was removed as the granthi of the gurdwara, and was also asked to vacate the house on the premises.

Harpal Singh, a resident of Chatha village in Sangrur district, who had been granthi of the Ambedkar Nagar Gurdwara for more than 10 years before his unceremonious ouster last month, claims it was just another prayer that he performed after being approached by some people, who were later identified as members of the BJP SC Morcha. “Immediately after the ardaas, I even apologised for any offence that I may have caused to other members of the congregation,’’ says Harpal, who now lives on rent and is frantically looking for another job as a priest.

Unlike Harpal, Gurmail had left priesthood a few years ago, and had floated an outfit called International Khaas Aadmi Party. Kuldeep Singh Bhangal, a villager of Basti No 6 next to Beer Talaab, says Gurmail used to relay gurbani from his house through a loudspeaker and villagers enjoyed listening to his discourses. A few days before the ardaas, Punjab BJP secretary Sukhpal Saran, who was booked for comparing farm laws to Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama in January this year, visited his house on May 16.

Confirming it, Saran said, “Gurmail wanted to join BJP, so I along with a few others called on him. But before he could officially join us, this controversy erupted.’’

Condemning Gurmail’s arrest as an effort to suppress the voice of Dalits, Saran, however, was quick to distance himself from the part of the ardaas that sought the release of Dera Sacha Sauda chief. “I have nothing to say about Baba Ram Rahim…The granthi has already said in police remand that he performed the ardaas of his own free will, and not under any pressure.’’

Bathinda SSP Bhupinder Singh Virk said they are investigating the matter from various angles. His wife Rajpal has told the police he was on anti-depressants.

Talking to The Indian Express, Vijay Sampla said, “Rajpal Kaur met me to demand cancellation of the FIR against her husband, we have taken up the matter with the local police.”

Defending the ardaas, Sampla said, “Is praying for a Dalit CM a crime? This shows political pressure on the gurdwara management committees and even the police… Most of the political meetings of Shiromani Akali Dal take place in gurdwaras, why object to Dalits praying for a CM?’’

What he did not say is that Harpal Singh was fired by management of Ravidass Gurdwara, which is headed by Dalits.

Congress legislator Amarinder Raja Warring, alleged that having lost ground in Punjab due to the farmers’ agitation, BJP was now trying to divide people on the basis of caste.

“In Punjab, Dalits and other castes live in harmony, such efforts are doomed to failure.” He added, “Congress is a secular party, we have always given due respect to leaders from all castes…If a leader is dynamic, has the ability to lead the state, he/she can be the CM. Why put a tag of caste on it?’’

Baljinder Kaur, AAP MLA from Talwandi Sabo and national working committee member of AAP, said since polls are coming closer, BJP is trying to use religion for politics.

“Their support for such prayers shows they are trying to divide voters on the basis of caste, but I think Punjab voters are wiser, and they know BJP is the party behind the black laws.”

Dalit organisations too voiced their suspicion. Lachman Singh Sewewala, general secretary of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU), saw in the prayers a ploy to create a division between the Jat farmers and Dalit labourers.
“When it comes to farm laws, we are on the same page, perhaps BJP is trying to create a rift between us. But Dalits need to stay united. What benefit will we get from a Dalit CM? There are so many Dalit MPs in the country, why don’t we have a Dalit PM? Why no prayers for that?’’

Sewewala pointed out how the government is yet to implement Land Ceiling Act.

“Atrocities on Dalits have increased under BJP rule in the country. We are not impressed with this talk of Dalit CM.’’

Gurmukh Singh, an active member of Zamin Prapati Sangrash Committee, Punjab, said that fights for the rights of Dalits, also objected to the prayer for Dalit CM. “It’s a clever ruse to divide people on the basis of caste, why are such prayers not being performed in other states? Such efforts will only disturb peace in Punjab, we do have minor differences with landlords but still we live in harmony.’’

Ronki Ram, professor of political science at Panjab University who has worked extensively on Dalits, said it’s unfortunate that even after more than seven decades of Independence, political parties are trying to divide people on the basis of caste. “Here the target is the SC vote-bank of Punjab. Dalits are yet to get 33% of the panchayati land for agriculture as dummy candidates continue to be fielded in many villages even now. Dalits need good education and livelihood more than anything else.’’

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