MY UNCLE HAD always wanted to go back to his village in Punjab. When he passed away in Delhi mid-August, his daughter Minni took his body to village Chakklan, district Morinda. The shareeka — larger family, kin, village community — took over the funeral rites. After the cremation, we discussed where to conduct the Sehaj Paath — the reading of the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, in its entirety. Many of my elderly female relatives have bad knees. We knew they would find it hard to climb up to the village Gurdwara on the first floor. On the suggestion of a kind neighbour, we decided to host the Guru Granth Sahib at his dignified outhouse across the road.
By resurrecting the ill-considered blasphemy bill, the Punjab government has shot itself in the foot. The proposed law may have grave implications for the entire country
Sikh prayers include the humble phrase bhool chook mauf — "forgive us our shortcomings”. Our worry was not about inadvertent mistakes. It was about beadbi — meaning sacrilege, blasphemy — a scourge that, since October 2015, stalks Punjab. Any mal-intentioned or mischievous person, or a drunkard or drug addict, or one of unsound mind or hate agenda can commit sacrilege. We, who were grieving our uncle, taking care of our aunt with Alzheimer’s disease, managing meals and sleeping spaces, planning the logistics of the final bhog ceremony and langar (communal meal), now had an additional task of protecting the Granth Sahib.
The verses of the holy book that are supposed to soothe us, heal us, give us strength, were now under three locks. The fear of possible sacrilege made us anxious, made us imprison the mellifluous Granth Sahib
, and turned the simple act of prayer and grieving into a ritual of caution and watchfulness. Minni and my wife Lakshmi stayed on outdoor night vigils for the whole week. We were relieved when the prayers passed without incident and, after the bhog
, we returned the Granth Sahib
to the custody of the gurdwara
Scourge of sacrilege
As lawmakers in Punjab discussed a controversial — and potentially dangerous — bill on blasphemy on Tuesday, the scourge of beadbi raised its head again. It all started in 2007, when Gurmeet Singh aka Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, impersonated Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and last Sikh guru. He drew widespread criticism from the Sikh community. In September 2015, the Sikh management body Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) granted general pardon to Gurmeet Singh. The Sikh community felt betrayed. A month later, during the farmer-labour strike to demand compensation for cotton crop losses due to whitefly pest attack, pages of the Granth Sahib — referred to as ang (limbs), for the holy book is considered a living Guru — were found littered on the streets of village Bargari, Faridkot. During the protests that ensued, two people were killed and scores injured in police firings at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan. As more instances of sacrilege across religions were reported, Punjab’s composite society protested on the streets in silent anger and with black flags for over 15 days, but did not give in to provocation. With the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government appearing to be all at sea, a controversy-ridden Sarbat Khalsa (plenary meeting of Sikhs) was organised in November by non-Akali leaders, and the issue of "religion under threat” became part of the discourse leading to the state elections.
Like all of Punjab, I too asked: Who cleared the police firing against protesters? Who was benefiting from sacrilege? Was it the Dera? Was it to distract from the farmer-labour strike? Was it the political parties? The SAD, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party milked the issue in their election campaigns. In the absence of answers, the long-standing traditional support for the Akalis waned and SAD lost miserably in the elections.
The Congress government appointed the one-man Ranjit Singh Commission to investigate the sacrilege incidents and the police shootings. The panel looked into 122 plus another additional 35 hitherto unreported cases of sacrilege of the Granth Sahib, Gutka Sahib (shorter version), gurdwaras, Bhagvad Gita, Koran, and the Bible. It studied the findings of earlier panels headed by Justice Jora Singh, and the reports of various Special Investigative Teams (SITs). Ahead of the Ranjit Singh report’s release in August this year, it was mysteriously leaked, thereby allowing the SAD and SGPC to dismiss it and the witnesses to recant.
Committee faced a wall
Former director general police Sumedh Singh Saini, former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, and SGPC members had declined to depose in person before the Ranjit Singh committee. Nevertheless, based on media reports, previous testimonies and witnesses, the report reveals how the police lied, gave confusing statements, concocted stories, hid and destroyed evidence, and bullied and silenced witnesses. The report concludes that the police firing was unwarranted and unprovoked.
Since the time of militancy in Punjab (1978-93), including seven years under President’s rule, human rights organisations have produced reports on the alleged high-handedness of the police, but Ranjit Singh’s is the first official report to lay bare both the police and the previous government’s evasion and lack of accountability. Surprisingly, on his last day in office as DGP, Saini presented an annexure stating that former CM Badal knew ahead about the police action.
The report holds the Dera responsible for the incidents of sacrilege and records how, under pressure from Akali leaders, the police did a shoddy job of investigating 95 traced cases, leave aside the untraced ones. It cites the calls for a non-Akali Sarbat Khalsa as the prime reason behind the Bargari sacrilege. It completely ignores the farmer-labour strike. This is the fault line of Punjab’s politics: Its agrarian economy has failed in providing succour and sustainability to its people, but, instead of addressing it, time and again the state is pushed towards religious issues.
For the first time in history, the assembly passed a unanimous resolution against the SGPC for breach of privilege, for rejecting the panel report before it was tabled in the house.
The issue gathered momentum this week as the SAD on Tuesday walked out of the assembly debate on the panel report and conducted a mock session in the parking lot. In a free-for-all for seven hours, the Congress and AAP members attacked the Akalis and Badals. Given the history of militancy and fears of disturbing communal harmony, never before has the role of police been such a part of assembly discussions. Yet, in this marathon discussion, minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa elaborately detailed the actions of ex-DGP Saini. The Action Taken Report has summoned 32 police officers involved in the firing. It is a welcome beginning towards making the police accountable — a long-pending step. At the same time the non-Akali Sikh leadership - which had given the call for the earlier Sarbat Khalsa - was also holding a demonstration over the sacrilege at Bargari. Traditionally, this was a section that the Akalis used to appease and now the Congress has tilted towards them.
For the first time in history, the assembly passed a unanimous resolution against the SGPC for breach of privilege, for rejecting the panel report before it was tabled in the house. The assembly passed another resolution to take back the sacrilege cases handed over to the CBI by the previous government and, instead, have its own SIT probe them. Both resolutions assert Punjab assembly’s independence from both religion and the Centre. Their implications are massive for Punjab’s religious-political narrative and Centre-state relations. It remains to be seen if these moves will alter the public perception of SAD. Meanwhile, Sukhbir Badal, SAD president, has launched his attack on the Congress.
In the middle of all the developments surrounding the Ranjit Singh committee report, the Congress also managed to shoot itself in the foot, with a move that has grave implications for the nation as well. In April 2016, as a face-saver, the SAD had brought in a regressive blasphemy law amending IPC 295 ("Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class...”), supported by an even stricter IPC 295A ("Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs...”), by singling out and adding as 295AA the Guru Granth Sahib to it, and sent it for a Presidential nod. It was a farce because 295A already encompasses 295AA. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre had returned the amendment, saying it violated the secular principles of the nation. On Tuesday, instead of letting the Bill slide by, the Congress passed and returned the Bill, after adding the ‘Gita, Koran and Bible’ to it, and recommended life-imprisonment for the accused.
While Punjab looks to heal from the scourge of sacrilege, the new law now forces not only the Granth Sahib
but even other religious texts behind three locks. To some extent one can understand the law in the context of monotheistic religions like Sikh, Islam and Christianity but how will it work for polytheistic Hinduism with a hundred Ramayanas, a thousand Mahabharatas, a million other revered texts and icons? My aging aunts, who find it hard to walk a few steps, habitually ask a younger cousin or their kids to get them the Gutka Sahib
from the shelf at home. They sit in their chairs and doze off while praying. As they nap, they leave the Gutka Sahib
in their laps, or next to the pillow. Are they committing blasphemy per the new law? Aunts and uncles in Panjab carry the Gutka Sahib
, the Hanuman Chalis
a, the Holy Bible
in their leather purses or kurta
pockets. Is that blasphemy? At village Chakklan itself, a samadh - shrine on a grave - of an unknown village elder has recently become a temple with a trishul
and a shivling
. Is that blasphemy? On the Pakistan border in Amritsar, at village Naushera Dhaala, the 16th Century saint Baba Jallan ji's samadh
has recently turned into an elaborate Gurdwara
. Have the followers committed blasphemy? When Captain Amarinder Singh took his famous oath at Damdama Sahib in December 2015 promising to eradicate drugs, he held a Gutka Sahib
in his hands. Everyone on the stage were wearing shoes. Was that not blasphemy? What exactly is a ritual, a prayer, a way of life and a blasphemy? Merely inserting names of texts into a revision of law, without due deliberation, is going to be detrimental to the way of life of the people in Punjab and the nation.
By asking for the penalty, the Congress has reduced its own efforts of exposing the double-faced SAD — namely, misusing the police tapping religion as a vote bank while also allegedly abetting blasphemy. If passed, it may become a national law and anything could be added to the list of holy icons. This is how, to make a louder noise than required, the Congress has made a blunder. The only hope is that the President withholds his nod. Yet, it is anyone’s guess whether the BJP — whose own rise is through Hindutva as a vote bank — will let that happen.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on non-fiction book on Panjab. This article initially appeared in The Hindu Businessline, and is being reproduced here as per special arrangement with the author.
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