The Shiromani Akali Dal-led government has been struggling to bring normalcy in the state of Punjab which has been reeling from back-to-back agitations over the past several weeks. Reminiscent of the terrorism days of 1980s and 90s, the paramilitary forces — deployed after the Central government’s intervention — are these days seen marching down the streets of major towns which have been hit hard by protests triggered by the desecration of the holy book of the Sikhs.
The state government had barely managed to stop protests by the Dera Sacha Sauda followers for not screening their guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim-starrer MSG-2 in cinema halls in Punjab when another agitation took over. This time the community to take to the streets were the Akalis’ trusted vote-bank, the farmers. Their cotton crop devastated by the whitefly pests, furious farmers squatted on the tracks blocking trains, throwing life out of gear. Their anger increased further after it came to light that the government had been selling them spurious pesticides.
Meanwhile, with an eye on the 2017 Assembly elections, the ruling party orchestrated a pardon by the Akal Takht to the Dera Sacha Sauda head for his alleged blasphemy. Clearly neither the ruling party nor the Takht had any clue of the fallout of this move. The radicals rejected this move, snowballing it into an unprecedented row. Though the Takht later withdrew its pardon, its heads were summoned by the “Panj Pyaras” causing an unsavoury crisis within the Sikh establishment.
What flared the crisis was the desecration of the Sikhs’ holy book. A few torn pages were recovered in a village in Faridkot district triggering the protests. The police responded with firing killing two persons which aggravated matters so much that the protesters started doubting the government of sincerity in its efforts to resolve the crisis.
The Punjab government first announced a reward of Rs 1 crore for the arrest of persons behind sacrilege. The protesters were unimpressed and the agitation spread to other areas. Terming it a result of “extreme provocation”, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal then announced that all cases against protesters would be withdrawn as he said, “My sentiments have also been deeply outraged by the desecration, and I can understand the actions of the people.”
However, Punjab continued to simmer with more incidents of sacrilege coming to light.
Then Sukhbir, who also handles the home portfolio, ordered the suspension of Faridkot SSP Charanjit Sharma hoping in vain that it would appease the agitators. Often acclaimed for his astute handling of critical situations, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s appeals to Sikhs to calm down too were of little help.
The protesters wanted government to act against those who had shown disrespect to their holy book. The government made a few arrests and claimed that the protesters were funded by some people in Australia and Dubai. But the radical Sikhs rejected this claim too. The state then ordered a case of murder against the cops who were involved in Faridkot firing but the protesters said they wanted their arrest as well.
With the crisis far from being over, it poses a huge challenge to the SAD-BJP government, which wouldn’t have wanted all this at a time when elections are just over a year away.