IN SEARING HEAT and amid ricocheting gunfire, when the Vijayanta Tanks of the Indian Army rolled into the parikarma of Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, it solidified a long-term narrative in Punjab politics: that the Congress was anti-panthic, and the Akalis were a panthic lot.
For three and a half decades, it remained an enduring narrative underpinning the state politics, even when Amarinder Singh gave a panthic hue to the provincial Congress.
This week, that narrative seemed to have been reversed, even if temporarily. The day-long mediocre debate, its idiom and diction particularly crude in parts, was telecast live from the Punjab Assembly, and while you may parse the hyperbole and demands to put aside all legal niceties and tie a rope around the necks of political opponents, the fact remains that the 'Congress is enemy of the Sikhs' narrative lost its currency.
For the first time since Operation Bluestar, on the highly slippery turf of public perception, the Congress advertised itself as a panthic party, ready to use law, force and tactics to defend the izzat and adab of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, while the Akali Dal was portrayed as the party that was responsible for the sacrilege of the scriptures.
The villain of the piece were the Badals and their kin, and the hero of the day was chief minister Amarinder Singh.
Punjab's politics seemed to have made an 180 degree somersault. All the other details seemed unnecessary.
But it is the other details that are deciding the next course of politics in Punjab.
The Badals today find themselves in such a hapless situation because, for decades, they did not allow a second rung of leadership to emerge. There is no buffer. For nearly a quarter century, Parkash Singh Badal had a Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and every time there was heat from the panthic flanks, Tohra would tamper it. A Captain Kanwaljit Singh could speak as an effective voice. Once the Badals decided to hog the entire spectrum, they put themselves bang in the middle for anyone with a clenched fist and righteous anger.
The Dhindsas, the Brahmpuras, the Malukas, the Totas either turned out to be, or were, bonafide citizens of Lilliput or Blefuscu. Anyone with the remotest possibility of developing a rebel gene in the future was enveloped in a loyalty blanket by adjusting his son in a prime position. Everyone became a Balwinder Singh Bhoonder — gentle, ineffective, with little capacity to apply his mind. He, in fact, is an example of a life lived as a boilerplate paragraph.
When the time came to take the heat, there was no buffer, and the Badals were singed to the core. The only people speaking with a gusto were Sukhbir Singh Badal, Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Bikram Singh Majithia. Rest of the party watched them, helplessly and with suppressed anger.
In the Punjab Assembly, every party became an Akali Dal, and the purpose of politics was reduced to appeasing a very angry Sikh crowd on the streets, and on social media. The Akali Dal had walked out — God knows why — and everyone else borrowed their dictionary and political philosophy.
Perception became reality, and the core issue became "the sentiments of the sangat
." The entire narrative of citizenry, citizens' rights, human rights, basic necessities, state of the farmers, the frustration among the youth, joblessness, bad economy, a sense of a darkness descending upon Punjab — all of this and more was reduced to 'what can we do to the Badals.'
If one were to listen attentively and suffer the hours of froth from the mouth, it seemed that mortal men were eager to proclaim themselves as the saviours of the immortal. The aan-baan-shaan of the Guru seemed predicated on the ability, proclivity and capacity of small time politicians and their masters — The Revealed Word of the Guru, awaiting the bravado of politicians, so that its supremacy can be reinstated.
But that is a matter between them and the God, if He spared time to watch the Assembly session. We are concerned here with the politics of Punjab.
For the first time since Op Bluestar, the Congress became the panthic party, and the Akali Dal was portrayed as the side responsible for sacrilege of Sikh scriptures. The narrative had reversed.
Now, all political parties speak in panthic lingo. The most bandied about phrases were 'Sikh hirdey', 'Sikh quom', 'panth', 'Gursikh', 'Sikhan de valoondhre hirdey' etc. The target was clear - 'Panth da jhanda gaddna hai'.
In politics, always pay attention to what is not being said. Never take your eyes off what is not being asked of the politicians. The test of a politician is if he comments on what is most crucial for your life, security, independence, rights. The test of the media is if it asks the questions that directly affect how your tomorrow will turn out to be.
And then join the dots to see how similar are these political parties which are so bitterly fighting among themselves, calling each other the dushman of the Sikhs, Guru-dokhi, panth-dokhi, thieves, robbers and worse. The fact is, that today, we have only Akali Dals in Punjab: the Badal Akali Dal, the Congress Akali Dal, the Kejriwal Akali Dal and the Khaira-Sandhu Akali Dal.
It is because you know their views on the highly sensitive issue of be-adbi of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The investigations might bring out who was responsible for such a vicious, hateful, unforgiveable crime, but we have a consensus: whosoever did so must be brought to book, and the rage and anger of the devout crowds is fully understandable.
The aan-baan-shaan of the Guru seemed predicated on the ability, proclivity and capacity of small time politicians and their masters.
It is the other issues on which you not only do not know their views, but will not hear them either. In fact, journalists do not even seek their views on these other issues. Amarinder Singh's views are not known on any of the issues about which Rahul Gandhi speaks tens of times in the course of a week, and yet no one is surprised. Parkash Singh Badal's views are not known on any subject that his contemporaries raise at the national level, and no one poses him a question.
Rahul Gandhi can raise all the ruckus over Rafael fighter jets deal but you have not heard and will not hear the word "Rafael" dropping from Amarinder's lips. The Congress may call for a series of countrywide protests against benefitting Reliance, but the word will not escape Amarinder's mouth.
Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh are both champions of provincial autonomy, and now you have the newly minted champions in Sukhpal Singh Khaira and Kanwar Sandhu whose group's raison d'être
is autonomy – 'khudmukhtiary
' as Sandhu rolls it out over his sharp tongue. Not one of them has or will squeak out a word on the PDP-BJP alliance, or its parting, or the possibility of their coming back together again.
In fact, when was the last time you heard the views of Amarinder or Badal or any of the other characters on the political firmament of Punjab on the issue of Kashmir? Last we heard was Amarinder Singh writing an article in a national newspaper demanding a bravery medal for an Army major who tied up an innocent Kashmiri citizen on the bonnet of his jeep to use him as a human shield against stonepelters.
That was Amarinder Singh. Did Sukhbir Singh Badal condemn it? Did you hear a Sukhpal Khaira or a Kanwar Sandhu waxing eloquent on the extraordinary application of mind by Major Gogoi in quickly rustling up a Kashmiri tailor and trussing him up on his jeep as a new Standard Operating Procedure to survive a seemingly tough ordeal of passing through a street in a fortified vehicle?
In politics, always pay attention to what is not being said. Never take your eyes off what is not being asked of the politicians.
In the Punjab Assembly, Kanwar Sandhu was hailing himself - others, too, should - as an expert in military matters. Have you ever heard his views on the surgical strike? His boss Arvind Kejriwal slammed Narendra Modi for the strike jumla, but came under fire. Punjab AAP learnt quickly, and did not set foot on the hot turf. Needless to say that you also do not know Badals' views on the surgical strike.
All politicians of a border state that has borne the brunt of the war with Pakistan full frontal do not pronounce their view in public on the question of surgical strike against it, and the media does not even ask them any such uncomfortable question. What do you deduce from it? That our polity has become so mature, and our media so understanding? Good luck.
Have you noticed that right from Amarinder Singh to Sukhbir Singh Badal, from a Navjot Singh Sidhu to the Dhindsas-Bhoondars Taksali Brigade, from that colossus of legislative skills Harpal Singh Cheema to the "Mujhe LOP se Kyon Nikala" Sukhpal Singh Khaira, every single dramatis personae of Punjab's politics was untypically available for hours this week to the pen-pushing, mic-thrusting brave media corps of Punjab?
Amarinder Singh and Badals are silent on the most crucial issues, and this silence reflects a nefarious political pact. Amit Shah, Amarinder Singh and Badals share the same conspiratorial silence. Everything else is a sideshow.
Has a single one of those politicians commented on the raids on, and arrests of, the leading lights of India's civil society? Did they utter a word when another batch of activists were rounded up by the police in June this year? Did you see any of these politicians refusing to answer a query fired by a media person? Did you see any of the Badals, or an Amarinder or a Majithia or a Sidhu or a Sandhu brushing aside the thrust microphone and refusing to answer whether the Pune police was doing a great patriotic duty by bundling off Sudha Bharadwaj for violent attempts to overthrow a regime?
Historian and author Ramachandra Guha tweeted, "I have no doubt that if Mahatma (Gandhi) was alive today, he would don his lawyer's robes and defend Sudha Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn't yet detained and arrested him too".
I have no doubt that were Mahatma Gandhi to be arrested by the Modi Sarkar and labelled as anti-national by Amit Shah, the Badals, Amarinder, Majithia and the rest of the ilk would not have uttered a word. You can have a view on whether the media would have shouted a question while they dragged the frail old man to be put under house arrest.
No matter what the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) might say about the demonetised currency returning to the banks, you will not hear it from Amarinder or Badal, or the Harpal Cheema-Sukhpal Khaira Punch and Judy sideshow at the circus.
The test of a politician is what he has to say about what is most crucial to your life, security, independence, rights. The test of the media is if it asks the questions that directly affect you.
You can argue that the latest debate in the Punjab Assembly was limited to the be-adbi issue, and the report of the Ranjit Singh Commission, but was it?
Manpreet Singh Badal described how Parkash Singh Badal was the man responsible for the 1978 massacre of the Sikhs at the hands of the Nirankaris. Was he unaware of the role of Parkash Singh Badal when he fought the by-election from Gidderbaha in the summer of 1995 with Parkash Singh Badal leading his election campaign from the front? It happened again in 1997. By 2002, he was 40 years of age and, by his own proclamation, an alim
dabbling in Urdu and occasionally in Persian, when Badal Sr. was again campaigning for him. You should go back and read his long-winding hosannas in praise of Badal Sr. in the Ajit, a newspaper he loved to read in those days. It is possible that he may have discovered the devil, the murderer of Sikhs in Badal Sr. much after he was made the Finance Minister by Parkash Singh Badal, snubbing Captain Kanwaljit Singh who seemed like a threat to the House of Badals.
But we need to ask just two questions: why did the media not ask Manpreet Badal about his supreme reticence in speaking out so far about the 1978 killings of Sikhs in Amritsar, and why did we hear the deafening collective silence of the Congress, the Akali Dal, the Aam Aadmi Party on the 40th anniversary of the Sikh-Nirankari clash of April 1978 which was just four months ago?
Amarinder Singh seems to be sitting on crucial pieces of evidence and witness testimony in the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, but did not deem it fit to share any of it with any of the Commissions or Committees probing the killings for decades now. Did the media ask him about this rather peculiar choice of withholding testimony in a matter of killings of thousands of Sikhs?
Punjab which fought against Emergency in a most exemplary fashion now has politicians who do not talk about the unannounced Emergency under the Amit Shah-Modi regime, and it seems normal to the media to not talk about it or ask questions.
As for the content, language and level of debate in the Punjab Assembly, may the Guru bless them and save us from these self-proclaimed protectors of the izzat and adab of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.
When did Manpreet Badal discover that Badal Sr. was responsible for killings of Sikhs in April 1978? In 1995, 1997, 2002 or 2007? Or not even by April 2018 when the 40th anniversary of Sikh-Nirankari clash went unobserved? In more evolved democracies, he would be facing a federal agent for suppression of material facts in a case of murder.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it most pithily, and sanely, by using state power to enforce the sacred, Punjab’s sacrilege law defiles the sacred, messes with the secular. But we are playing these sacred games on the floor of an Assembly whose only job was to protect us from these shenanigans and focus on how to build a world that the Gurus dreamed of, and worked towards.
They sacrificed their lives and more so that the poor do not go to bed hungry. They walked thousands of miles so that the darkness in people's lives gives way to enlightenment. They made supreme sacrifice to stem the onslaught of terror and atrocities, often being wreaked on others. They stood up for the fundamental right of others to practice their belief system. They waged wars for equality and an egalitarian society. They were not deterred by any Babar, any Aurangzeb. They were a people of the Word. We learnt from them to bow before the Word. We are a people of the Book that preaches tolerance and sacrifice, that enjoins us to work for the most marginalised, that makes it obligatory upon us to have no other aim but universal welfare.
And now we have puny little men with little compunction, inside the Assembly and outside, proclaiming themselves to be the protectors of this sacred word.
Their collective silence about the most pressing issues of our time tells more about them than all the froth from their mouth in the official or the mock session, whether telecast on "Zee Punjab Haryana Himachal” or "PTC News.”
It is time to reclaim the politics. The Guru is with you. He always was. Are we with Him?
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