With the Lok Sabha elections getting closer, Gujarat’s decision to evict farmers of others States, including some Sikhs who have been cultivating lands in Kutch for decades, has put Punjab politics on the boil once again.
The matter, which has gone to court, came under spotlight after the BJP made Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi its campaign chief for the general election. Incidentally, Mr. Modi began his campaign by addressing an impressive rally at Pathankot in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district on June 23. Utilising this, the Congress launched an offensive to embarrass the ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance, projecting Mr. Modi as “anti-minority,” pointing to the eviction of the Sikh farmers.
The Akali Dal, one of the pro-Modi constituents of the NDA, went into damage control, while the BJP was forced to emphasise that its election campaign spearhead was not “anti-Sikh.”After the 1965 India-Pakistan war, at the behest of the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, many farmers from Punjab — which had not been bifurcated by then — and from Rajasthan were settled in Kutch district. The decision helped to increase farm production. About three years ago, the Kutch Collector invoked the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act of 1948 and froze the accounts of an unspecified number of non-Gujarati farmers. The farmers approached the Gujarat High Court, which ruled against the Collector’s action. But the State government decided to challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court. The case will come up for hearing on August 27.
Coinciding with the Pathankot rally, Ajaib Singh, a member of the National Commission for Minorities, visited Gujarat and met the affected families. In his report to the Commission, he highlighted the cause of 500 Sikh farmers who had been asked to sell their land and return home. Prima facie, there appeared to be a discrimination against the Sikhs, he said, and Mr. Modi, who had the habit of suppressing and terrorising the minorities, was targeting the Sikh farmers.
The Akali Dal initially kept mum. The Congress criticised the government for “soft-peddling” the issue and demanded that the Akali leadership, especially Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, pressure Mr. Modi to withdraw the appeal from the Supreme Court, or it would not allow him to enter Punjab.
While the Akali leadership was sure that the developments had no communal overtone, it was forced into action, when some farmers decided to camp in Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in Delhi. The president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, Manjit Singh GK, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee chief Avtar Singh Makkar, All Sikh Students’ Federation, led by Karnail Singh Peermohammed, and different factions of the Bahartiya Kisan Union appealed to Mr. Badal to intervene.
Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh, who is also Deputy Chief Minister, met a group of Sikh farmers from Gujarat at his Delhi residence and promised them that he would lead a delegation of Punjab MPs to Mr. Modi. He said the State government would bear the expenses of their litigation.
Simultaneously, another group of Sikh farmers called on Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa in Chandigarh. Mr. Bajwa assured the delegation that he would bring the matter to the notice of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and raise it in Parliament during the monsoon session.
The BJP got Kamal Sharma, president of its Punjab unit, to launch a counter- offensive. Mr. Sharma criticised Mr. Ajaib Singh’s report, arguing that the matter did not concern only Sikh farmers: of the 800 farmers affected by the decision, only 28 were Sikhs. At the core of the matter, he said, was a circular issued on April 4, 1973, when the Congress ruled Gujarat. It laid out provisions for dispossession if an out-of-the State farmer bought land in Gujarat.
He also announced that Mr. Modi would address a rally in Punjab in October. The Congress resorted to such gimmicks as it was struck by Modi-phobia, he said.