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Punjab at crossroads: Sikh clergy gives in to radical rhetoric (Punjab Newsletter)

Chandigarh, June 8 - Once touted as the most progressive state in the country, Punjab is today at a crossroads. The contradictory actions of the state's leadership, especially the ruling elite, are sending confusing signals on whether the state wants to move ahead or go back in time.

The latest decision of the Sikh clergy led by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh religion and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), to set up a memorial for the "martyrs" of the 1984 Operation Bluestar is one step that has shown that the leadership has given in to the radical rhetoric of the terrorism years (1981-1995).

The operation was carried out by the army to flush out heavily armed terrorists from inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. The complex, except for the sanctum sanctorum, had suffered heavy damage.

Even worse is the fact that on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the Operation Bluestar Wednesday (June 6), the Sikh clergy honoured Balwant Singh Rajoana with the title of 'Zinda Shaheeda' (living martyr). Rajoana is facing the death penalty for the conspiracy on the assassination of then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh (Aug 31, 1995). Conferring the title of a 'martyr' on a man who has been convicted by the higher courts of murder of a chief minister is being questioned by some Punjab leaders.

While this is being seen by many as an attempt to push back the state into the dark terrorism days, the other end of the tunnel is where the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, led by its president Sukhbir Singh Badal, is trying to give an economic and development push to the state that has lagged behind others owing to a lack of industrial investment in the last over two decades.

Radical Sikh organisations like the Damdami Taksal, Dal Khalsa and the pro-Khalistan factions of the Akali Dal had been demanding the memorial for over two decades but the SGPC and the Sikh clergy had ducked the issue so far.

The contradiction facing the state is that the SGPC and the Sikh clergy cannot be seen taking decisions in isolation and without the blessings of the Akali Dal leadership -- meaning Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his Deputy Chief Minister son Sukhbir Badal.

But Sukhbir Badal, who harps on his development agenda for Punjab, tried to distance himself from the controversy over the memorial and Rajoana.

"The government has nothing to do with the memorial. The project belongs to the SGPC and Damdami Taksal. I am not aware of facts in the Rajoana case," an evasive Sukhbir Badal told the media Wednesday.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an alliance partner of the Akalis in the government, has gone public with its opposition to the Operation Bluestar memorial and the move to honour Rajoana.

"The BJP is absolutely against the memorial. Building an Operation Bluestar memorial after 28 years is inadvisable. The Akali leadership is playing into the hands of extremists and radicals," senior BJP leader Balramji Das Tandon said.

In his view, by honouring Rajoana, the Sikh clergy is "making heroes out of criminals".

State Congress president Amarinder Singh too lashed out at the Akalis and the SGPC for the memorial and the Rajoana controversy and accused them of playing politics with Punjab's peace.

"The memorial will serve no purpose other than creating a communal divide and fear among a section of the people. I condemn the move to glorify Rajoana," Amarinder Singh said.

Amarinder Singh had resigned from the Congress after the central government ordered Operation Bluestar on the Golden Temple complex June 1984. In March this year, he had opposed the death penalty for Rajoana but clarified that he was only against capital punishment and not trying to save Rajoana.

(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at jaideep.s@ians.in)


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