How can we make sense of the current crisis in Sikh and Panjab politics?
By Guest Contributor
2nd September 2018

Dr. Gurnam Singh

There was once a time when Panjabis, both in India and in the diaspora, mostly belonged to two groups. You were either an Akali or a Congress party supporter.

But thanks to history, infighting, factionalism and the emergence of new voices - the Aam Adami Party (AAP) and various Akali Dals, as well as internationally based groups such as the Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) - it is not an overstatement to suggest that Sikh unity and Panjab politics is in meltdown.

And things are likely to get worse.

And it is not only politicians who can’t get on with each other. Following the Sarbat Khalsa in November 2015, Sikhs have the unprecedented spectacle of rival Jathedars of the 5 Takhts. We have preachers, jathas and deras at loggerheads with each other on matters of Sikh doctrine, resulting in protests and even violent clashes in and around Gurdwaras on a regular basis.

And to cap it all, as was evident during the recent Panjab 20:20 Referendum campaign by the SFJ, there appear to be significant cracks amongst pro Khalistani groups about what Khalistan or Panjab's liberation means and the best way to achieve it.

This all begs an important question. How has such a proud Panth, with one Guru Granth, one maryada (give or take a few differences), that has gone through a genocide during the past 35 years, become so confused about its sense of self and its future?

Misrule in Panjab

After a decade of (mis)rule by the Badal clan, when Captain Amrinder Singh was elected as Chief Minister of Panjab in November 2015 even some Khalistanis appeared relieved that BJP / RSS influence in Panjab could be at an end.

But that thinking was premature. As the widely reported love-in between Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu and Pakistani Army Chief General Bajwa demonstrated, the RSS is still alive and kicking in Panjab. Even Captain Amrinder Singh felt compelled to condemn his minister.

We know Navjot Sidhu is a master at grandstanding. Most of his press statements were in Panjabi and he went out of his way to emphasise the common heritage of peoples in West and East Panjab. He even raised the desire to see an open border, raising the tantalising idea of some kind of unification of the Panjab. I wonder whether he was tapping into Panjabi nationalism, not seen since the days of the Anandpur Resolution agitation of the late 70’s and early 1980’s.

Moreover, the theatrics on show this week, when the Ranjit Singh Commission report was tabled, are unprecedented. Never has there been such discord and recrimination amongst the political class, with most fire aimed at the Parkash Singh Badal and his Akali Dal.

In an act of desperation, Sukhbir Singh Badal led a walkout from the assembly and at a hastily organised press conference, claimed he had exposed a conspiracy between Judge Ranjit Singh, Sukhpal Kheira (AAP), Gurpatwant Pannu, (Sikhs for Justice), Jathedar Bhai Baljeet Singh Daduwal, the Pakistani ISI and the CM Captain Amrinder Singh!

It was nothing more than a case of political opportunism.

A changing environment for Khalistanis

Whereas Khalistanis were once ignored as crackpots or terrorists, today the environment is a bit different.

We can see this in the huge interest the Indian state and media displayed in the SFJ Panjab Referendum 20:20 rally held in London. The impact of this event on Panjab politics cannot be understated.

Highly respected AAP politicians, notably Dr Dharamvir Gandhi and Sukhpal Singh Kheira, went out of their way to defend the democratic principle / right for self determination and a referendum in Panjab. It was this tacit support that led to Khaira's dismissal as leader of the Panjab AAP. That in turn has resulted in deep splits within the AAP in Panjab.

Navjot Sidhu and Sukhpal Khera are clearly sensing the blood and both no doubt have ambitions to become the next CM of Panjab, which probably also explains their playing a Panjabi nationalism card, which they know amongst the traditional Akali vote bank will be very popular.

Moreover, any unity that may have existed amongst pro-Khalistani groups too appears to be at rock bottom. We might have expected open opposition to the Panjab 20:20 referendum campaign from India. But astonishingly even pro-Khalistan Sikh groups such as Sikh Federation UK (SFUK), Amritsar Akali Dal and Dal Khalsa have been lukewarm at best.

The Labour MP Preet Gill even argued that "non-binding referendum have very little impact on governments" and raised fears that those "promoting the idea" may face imprisonment in India. The fact that Preet Kaur Gill is closely allied to the SFUK further confirms the levels of distrust amongst Khalistani groups about how to advance their cause.

Panjabis face a Hinduva project is gaining in strength. Violence, particularly against minorities and women is still alarmingly high in India. Now is the time for Panjabis and the Sikh Panth to unite to defend the humanitarian and democratic ideals that characterised its spirit.

Perhaps when we finally hit rock bottom, things can only get better. Perhaps out of the current crisis a new movement for civil and political rights can emerge, led by a new breed of honest leaders. But unless a progressive alliance capable of breaking the stranglehold of the criminally corrupt political class emerges, we could see further fragmentation of the Panth and our religious and political institutions becoming further engulfed by the Hindutva project.

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