A memorial to Bhindranwale exposes the politics of radical Sikh organisations and the strain it is putting on the BJP-Akali Dal alliance
Last year, there was widespread concern when the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), at the instance of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-led government in Punjab, gave in to the long-standing demand of radical Sikh organisations to build a memorial for martyrs of Operation Blue Star within the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. Many felt the small, innocuous gurudwara would become the focal point of unrest in the State. Less than six months later, some of those apprehensions seem not far off the mark.
On April 27, the memorial was declared open at a quiet ceremony from which senior leaders of the SAD stayed away. Since then it has been the subject of a raging controversy because of a plaque, “unknown” to the SGPC and the Punjab government, dedicating it to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The names of other Punjab terrorists are also etched at several places of the memorial. The Damdami Taksal, the Sikh seminary that Bhindranwale once headed, had been entrusted with the task of constructing the memorial. Its chief, Harnam Singh Khalsa, supported by a group of vocal radical organisations, is insisting that no wrong has been committed as Bhindranwale was declared a Sikh martyr by the SGPC in 2003.
An embarrassed government led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, whose party controls the SGPC, has already removed a clock with Bhindranwale’s picture on it. It has also formed a committee headed by Giani Gurbachan Singh, Jathedar of the Akal Takht (the supreme Sikh temporal institution) to see how the etchings can be removed, a task easier said than done.
The Damdami Taksal went on a march from its headquarters in Chowk Mehta to the Akal Takht and submitted a memorandum that it would “not tolerate” the removal of the plaque. Another radical organisation, the Dal Khalsa, has appealed to the Jathedar to warn outside forces like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from interfering in the internal matters of the Sikh panth, and also snub the Punjab government for influencing the decisions of the SGPC. It has pointed out that the SGPC, in a resolution on May 3, 2012, had agreed to name the memorial after Bhindranwale and other martyrs and that the Taksal had only done its job. They also point to two other gurdwaras inside the complex dedicated to Baba Deep Singh and Baba Gurbaksh Singh saying that like them, Bhindranwale “too gave his life for the Sikh religion” and should therefore be honoured similarly.
Curiously, Mr. Badal had on the floor of the Assembly last year made a commitment that the memorial would not have any name or dedication on it and would instead be a peaceful shrine and place of worship. Its alliance partner, the BJP, which has asked the Akalis to remove all references to Bhindranwale from the structure, is also asking how the etchings and plaque managed to escape the attention of the State’s intelligence agencies. As a senior BJP leader told The Hindu, “If the otherwise alert intelligence department of the Punjab police did not know of this, it is a reflection on the functioning of the government. And if the government did indeed know of the surreptitious installation of the plaque then the Chief Minister is guilty of breach of privilege of the Vidhan Sabha where he has given a commitment.”
The strain on the alliance has begun to show. Punjab BJP president Kamal Sharma has said the party is against the glorification of terrorists, and has given time to the SAD to remove the names of Bhindranwale and others from the memorial.
Last week, a meeting called by the Jathedar, which included five Sikh high priests, failed to resolve the issue. He warned that this was an internal matter of the Sikhs and no one (read the BJP) should interfere.
With no immediate solution in sight, all eyes are on Mr. Badal. Though he has publicly distanced himself from the controversy saying that he “was unaware” of what was happening, few are buying the argument. Says Sikh scholar Gurtej Singh, “The stature of the Akal Takht jathedar has diminished to such an extent that today he is the nominee of the Badals and does not voice Sikh interests. The Chief Minister and his party are using the institution to control the Sikh population for their political ends. If the Akalis wanted to remove the plaque they would have done it by now and the so-called opposition from radical organisations really does not matter.” Clearly, there is much more to this imbroglio than meets the eye.