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The history of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which is the second-oldest party in India after the Congress, is the story of the several factions formed and dissolved over the course of its history of more than 100 years. The Badal family has led the main Akali Dal faction for over two decades but now, following its recent electoral reverses, that grip seems to be loosening.
The leadership of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which is the Sikh community’s apex religious body with leaders who are elected, set up the Akali Dal in 1920. The SGPC, from which the SAD draws its power and legitimacy, had emerged the month before as a body to administer the Golden Temple in Amritsar and other historical gurdwaras.
For a long time, the SGPC election was the parameter to decide which SAD faction was the most accepted among Sikhs. But the SGPC election became irregular after Independence and Assembly and parliamentary polls started playing a bigger role in deciding who would be considered the main SAD faction, especially after the state of Punjab in its current form came into existence in 1966. Though the tenure of the SGPC general House is for only five years, the last election was held in 2011.
The tumultuous years
A year after Operation Bluestar, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s father Baba Joginder Singh dissolved the two main SAD factions — the Talwandi and Longowal groups — and formed an ad-hoc committee in 1985. Akali leaders such as Harcharan Singh Longowal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and Parkash Singh Badal, who joined the party in the 1950s, resigned from their positions. But soon afterwards, Joginder Singh was sidelined and the main Akali faction led by Longowal resumed its control of the party.
In June 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Longowal signed an accord. The government agreed to most of the Akalis’ demands and promised to look into others. The government agreed that Chandigarh would be transferred to Punjab, a commission would determine what Hindi-speaking territories would be transferred from Punjab to Haryana, and an independent tribunal would adjudicate the river water dispute. On August 20, the day Longowal announced that the Akalis would participate in elections set to be held the following month, he was assassinated.
In the election, despite Joginder Singh’s boycott call, the polling percentage was 65 per cent and the Akalis won 73 seats. Badal and Tohra were part of the SAD at the time that installed Surjit Singh Barnala as chief minister of Punjab. Captain Amarinder Singh, who later went on to become the chief minister, was a minister in the Barnala administration.
However, the churn among the Akalis continued and Tohra worked to undermine Barnala during the SGPC presidential election in 1986 by bringing the SGPC House over to his side. Barnala wanted Kabul Singh to become SGPC president but instead, Tohra got elected as the president of the religious body. Tohra made several key appointments, including choosing Darshan Singh Ragi as the Akal Takht Jathedar, who later clashed with Barnala. Ragi also had the support of some Sikh militant groups.
On January 29, 1986, a Sarbat Khalsa was convened at the Akal Takht Sahib and a Panthic committee was the result of the deliberations. The committee announced the fight for Khalistan on April 29 that year and the Barnala government sent in security forces into the Golden Temple the following day to arrest the committee’s members and their supporters. Two devotees died in the action by the security forces, which failed to make any notable arrests. In protest, 28 SAD MLAs, including ministers Amarinder Singh, Sukhjinder Singh, and Sucha Singh Chhotepur, resigned from the Barnala government. Badal and Tohra also resigned from party positions, forcing Barnala to take the support of Opposition parties to save his government. This divide in the party led to Barnala losing control over the SGPC later that year. It marked the beginning of his end in politics.
In 1987, Akal Takht Jathedar Darshan Singh ordered the dissolution of all the SAD factions and formed a new United Akali Dal on February 5 that year. Former IPS officer Simranjit Singh Mann who had been in jail since he resigned from the police force after Operation Bluestar became its president. Joginder Singh also returned to the political limelight in this new Akali Dal. The following year, Barnala lost his standing in Akali politics following Operation Black Thunder that was conducted to flush out remaining pro-Khalistan militants from the Golden Temple. The Centre also imposed presidential rule.
The United Akali Dal bagged six seats in the 1989 state elections, with Mann winning from prison. The party’s main leaders, including Badal and Tohra, were a part of this Akali Dal. But Mann could not keep his control over all the Akali factions and the boycott of the 1992 Assembly polls by Sikh militants and several Akali factions damaged Mann’s political standing and popularity at the time.
Two years later, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) emerged following the Amritsar Declaration of 1994. Akali factions and leaders such as Amarinder Singh, Tohra, Mann, and Barnala signed the declaration on May 1, 1994. Parkash Singh Badal faction was not part of it. The declaration proclaimed that India needs to be restructured with a confederal constitution. But the popularity of SAD (A) declined and soon after Mann was the only notable name left in the party.
In the meantime, the SAD symbol and registration with the Election Commission were with advocate Manjit Singh. The lawyer was earlier with Surjit Singh Barnala and subsequently joined the Badal faction. That is how the party symbol and registration came to be with the Badals. The Badal faction won the 1995 Gidderbaha by-election using this symbol. In 1996, Parkash Singh Badal became the SAD president but faced opposition from Tohra for control of the SGPC. But Badal prevailed and slowly assumed control of both the party and the religious body.
At the Moga convention that year, the party shifted from being the representative of not just the Sikhs and the “panth” but of all communities in Punjab. The following year, the SAD-BJP alliance stormed to power in the state, with Badal as the chief minister.
Talking about how Badal in the context of Akali politics, SGTB Khalsa College, Delhi, associate professor Dr Amanpreet Singh Gill said, “Before 1997, Akali politics was a matter of democratic pluralism, reflecting the character of Panthic egalitarianism. Popular factions were voted to power, whether they retained the main party symbol or not.” Dr Gill is the author of Non-Congress Politics in Punjab.
The SAD lost the 2002 Assembly elections, giving hope to the anti-Badal factions. But, the party won the 2004 SGPC election at a time the Congress was in power in the state. Amarinder Singh, the CM at the time, was accused of attempting horse-trading in the SGPC House but Badal overcame the challenge. At the peak of his control over the party and the SGPC, Badal made Avtar Singh Makkar the president of the religious body.
The first signs of a crack in the Badal family came in 2008 when Badal’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal was appointed party president. This riled up Sukhbir’s cousin Manpreet Singh Badal and he eventually quit the party in 2011. In the SGPC election that year, Manpreet tried to resist the SAD but the Badals won comfortably. Instead of forming a new Akali Dal faction, Manpreet Badal formed a new party but when it did not work out he joined the Congress in 2014.
But a steady electoral decline has shrunk the Badals’ political capital. In the Assembly elections earlier this year, the party recorded its worst performance in state polls, with its tally plummeting to three constituencies. Sukhbir Singh Badal himself lost from Jalalabad. Worryingly, while Simranjit Singh Mann got elected to Parliament from Sangrur the SAD failed to secure more votes than its former ally BJP.
Now, with SGPC general secretary Karnail Singh Panjoli saying that the SAD’s poor run at the polls reflects “people’s distrust in the present Akali leadership” and calling on the party’s leaders to resign, the Badals face their sternest test yet.
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