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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Punjab: At ground zero, a hard earned peace, unease over politicking

This week, Sikh outfits carried out a “rosh march” from Bargari to Badal village, calling for action against the Badals on the issue of desecration, but villagers from here stayed away. Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh also often raises this issue to flog the Akali Dal.

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma | Published: May 16, 2019 9:46:01 am
Granthi Gora Singh at the gurdwara from where the Holy Book was stolen on June 1, 2015. Express

A narrow, winding road leads to the Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in Jaitu tehsil of Faridkot district. A little off the Bathinda highway, it’s a sleepy little village with 4000-odd residents. But on a hot summer evening, there is hardly anyone out on its streets. A lone bicyclist and an announcement from the village gurdwara are the only signs of activity as you enter.

There is nothing except for silence to show the trauma the village witnessed over the last four years or that single incident whose ripples can still be felt across the state. It was on June 1, 2015, that a saroop of Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from the gurdwara. It was a group of children, who had arrived to attend a class in gurbani who first spotted the theft. “Koi Babaji nu lai gaya hai (Somebody has taken away Baba ji),” they ran to granthi (priest) Gora Singh’s wife, Swaranjeet Kaur. For a second, she thought they were referring to her husband.
Gora Singh still remembers that feeling of disbelief. ‘’I thought someone had played a prank, so I looked everywhere inside the compound,’’ he recounts. He called the pradhan Ranjit Singh who informed the panchayat.

Unable to find the saroop, they sent for the police. The policemen searched every house. As news about the disappearance spread like wild fire and prompted some Sikh bodies to start a protest march, the police even emptied the 4-acre pond behind the gurdwara to rule out dumping of the saroop into the water body.

Four years on, no one knows for sure who stole it. Gora Singh says it was there when he left home around 9.30 am. ‘’There were 10 labourers working under MNREGA in the compound. They left for lunch around 12.30pm. My children returned from school a little later and my wife got busy with them. I reckon this incident took place around 1.30 pm.’’ But no one saw the thieves. Later, the police surmised they had used a motorcycle to take away the holy book.

The theft was just the beginning; three months later on September 24, a poster was affixed on the walls of the gurdwara in Bargari, a village across the highway, threatening to bring harm to the saroop if Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s movie MSG 2 wasn’t released in the state. A day later, a similar poster was found at the samadhi of Pir Dhoda, in the same compound as that of the gurdwara. This coincided with the Akal Takht pardon to Gurmeet Ram Rahim for a blaphemy case dating back to 2009.

Soon afterwards, on October 12, torn pages of the holy book were found at Bargari. A wave of anger ran across the state, and furious villagers led by Sikh bodies sat in dharna. As rumours of violence by agitators swirled around, two protesters were killed in police firing at Behbal Kalan village, just a few kilometres away, on October 15.
As grief and anger seared the state, the sleepy village turned khaki. “There were policemen everywhere.

We couldn’t walk the street leading to the gurdwara without being questioned by them. Youngsters were beaten up for no reason,’’ says Seb Singh, a farmer.

Sarpanch Hartej Singh, who has recently made sure that the CCTV cameras leading to the gurdwara are working, says the village went through a very rough patch. His wife Charanjit Kaur remembers how the policemen would turn their house upside down. “They would rummage through everything.’’

Jaswinder Singh, an elderly farmer, says, “Najaayaj bahut kutte gaye (many were beaten up without any reason). The police officials gathered us all and took our handwriting samples. They thought one of us had written that abusive letter.’’

For Gora Singh, it was the beginning of a nightmare. “I don’t remember the number of times my wife and I were called for questioning by the police,’’ he recounts. ‘’I don’t know why they thought we had a hand in this conspiracy. Why would I do this to my own gurdwara? Guru vi saada, te beadbi vi saade te marhi ja rahi si (The guru granth sahib was ours and we were being accused of desecrating it).’’

All hell broke loose when Gurdev Singh, a Dera Sacha Sauda follower who ran a shop across the gurdwara, was shot dead on June 13, 2016. “I was kept in CIA custody for three days,’’ says Gora Singh. By then, the desecration had snowballed and a commission of inquiry was also doing its work.

The interrogation, be it by the Punjab Police or the CBI, they claim, was relentless. Swaranjeet Kaur recalls being called to the police for day-long questioning sessions. “There were times when we would return so late that our two children would go to sleep on empty stomach.’’ Scared of the police officials at their door, the villagers also started keeping their distance from the couple.

Gora Singh, who had barely seen the whole of Punjab, was summoned to Delhi for a lie-detector test with his wife. Then, he was sent to Gandhinagar in Gujarat for a narco test. “He managed to retain his sanity only because of the almighty, a lesser man would have crumbled,’’ cries his mother. Singh alleges he was tortured, made to lie on slabs of ice. “They gave electric shock to my wife, we had to rush her to the hospital as her uterine cysts burst,’’ he mops at his eyes.

The incident continues to evoke fear. A family in the Pandit mohalla claims complete ignorance about it. “We don’t step out of our house, we know nothing,’’ says the mother as her two grown-up daughters look stricken. An old man with a flowing beard gets down from his cycle when you stop him but clams up the minute you mention the theft. “It was very sad, but I know nothing.’’

The mention of sacrilege in the Lok Sabha polls worries the locals. “Politicians have appropriated the issue now, they will continue to rake it up when it suits them,’’ rues Gora Singh, who claims neither the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the Sikh body for the upkeep of gurdwaras, or the radical outfits that carried on dharnas at Bargari village that lasted several months, have ever enquired about the well being of this village or the shrine.

This week, Sikh outfits carried out a “rosh march” from Bargari to Badal village, calling for action against the Badals on the issue of desecration, but villagers from here stayed away. Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh also often raises this issue to flog the Akali Dal.

In the flourishing Bargari market fronting the highway, Sukhpreet Singh says there was tremendous anger at the desecration, lots of dharnas and fact-finding too but there has been no outcome. “I can’t see any closure in the future, for politicians won’t let this issue die.’’ Ramesh Kumar, a shopkeeper, agrees. “There is no stability here, they will keep this pot boiling.’’

Back in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, Sarpanch Hartej Singh is grateful for the peace that has returned to the village. Police officials admit the village had never sought police intervention before this incident. Then Superintendent of Police (SP), detective AS Sandhu says the village had not seen even a case of preventive arrest until that fateful afternoon.

The villagers have had a long history of harmonious co-existence. No one knows the exact year the gurdwara came into existence, but old-timers say it is very old. It’s also the only one shared by all communities unlike many other villages in the Malwa belt that have separate shrines and cremation grounds for the upper castes and Dalits. People who come to worship at the gurdwara also bow at the well-kept mazaar in the same compound. We ask a child to step into it for a picture, but he refuses. ‘’I haven’t covered my head.’’

Sarpanch Hartej Singh, who contested as an independent, says though the mazaar is looked after by the three Muslim families in the village, the entire village takes pride in it and contributes to functions.

The village is slowly returning to normal. The shrine has got a new coat of paint, Gora Singh has been given a new set of rooms on the first floor of the langar hall, and this year, they plan to start gurbani classes for the children once again. From June 1.

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