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Sikh politics in Punjab, -Panthic Politics Fluid, Focus Shifting To Agenda

March 11, 2019 06:53 AM


Panthic Politics Fluid, Focus Shifting To Agenda
Sikh politics in Punjab, for decades synonymous with the Akalis, is in a state of flux. TOI assesses its impact on the Lok Sabha elections

The Shiromani Akali Dal lost its traditional vote share to a major political party, Aam Aadmi Party, for the first time in the 2014 parliamentary elections. In 2017 assembly elections too, the AAP managed to win enough votes to ensure routing of SAD even though it won just 20 seats.

Different factions of the Akali Dal have been winning the Panthic votes by replacing each other, but in 2017 — for the first time after reorganization of Punjab in 1966 — its ceded its traditional vote share to the AAP, which does not have a Panthic identity. In 2014, Lok Sabha elections, the AAP had sought to strike a chord with Sikh voters by fielding a few prominent Sikh faces and won four seats.

The AAP now may be battling to stay relevant in Punjab but the fluidity it catalysed in the Panthic political space in Punjab is continuing and Panthic votes remain a slippery issue for SAD.

After the Partition, SAD continued to be the main political party for the Sikhs. Its politics was always at the loggerheads with the Congress, barring a couple of occasions, but the cataclysmic events of 1984 — Operation Blue Star and massacre of Sikhs in many places across the country — ensured that the Congress became untouchable for a major section of the Sikhs. The SAD remained the only political choice for the Sikhs and that helped Parkash Singh Badal become the chief minister thrice after 1984 and also to have complete familial control over the party. Badal Senior promoted Congress as untouchable for Sikhs for its “sins” of 1984 and ‘anti-Congressism’ remained central to his politics.

However, after Badal’s third term ended in 2017, assembly results revealed that not only a major section of Sikhs had voted for AAP in parts of Malwa region but a significant section had also opted to vote for the Congress to ensure SAD’s defeat.

As a result, the Akalis were decimated and reduced to their worst electoral performance. Out of the 77 seats won by the Congress, 40 assembly segments were rural with predominantly Sikh population and the Congress came to power on their strength. The highest success rate for the Congress was in “Panthic belt” of Majha region.

“Earlier Congress had a tough time in the Panthic belt but in 2017, the response from the Sikhs was coming much easily. Sikhs voting for Congress in 2017 gave the party tally a big push upwards,” says Punjab cooperation and jails minster Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, whose constituency Dera Baba Nanak is also part of this “belt.”

“Sikhs turned towards Congress after we promised justice in cases of Bargari sacrilege and Behbal Kalan firing,” he added.

The 2017 results and political developments and discourse thereafter have shown that permanent tags of “Panthic” and “anti-Panthic” are not working anymore. Sikhs seem to be discarding the concept and practice of political untouchability that had helped SAD (Badal) to have complete hegemony over the Panthic space.

The signs of this shift had come before 2017 assembly poll when a dozen-odd Sikh and other groups, led by former Akal Takht jathedar Manjit Singh, announced support for “good” candidates of AAP and Congress, including Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar, while giving a call to defeat SAD (Badal).

It appears that Sikhs now don’t mind opening to engagement even with the Congress and have now started going by politics of individual leaders and particular issues, just as they rallied around Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu on the issue of the Kartarpur corridor.

“Sikhs flirting with Congress is a temporary phenomenon and arising out of political compulsion as they want to get rid of the Badals, who were exposed completely after Bargari sacrilege and Behbal Kalan firing. Sikhs have neither forgotten 1984 nor forgiven Congress for that but common sentiment in the community is to get rid of the Badals at any cost. They had gone towards AAP for this reason. Earlier, people had impression that the Badals had dumped genuine Sikh issues at Delhi’s behest under political compulsion but the Bargari-Behbal Kalan events and then protecting the culprits throughout their remaining tenure made Sikhs realise their reality,” former IAS officer and noted Sikh scholar Gurtej Singh says.

“Panthic politics is not a prisoner of a single party or a leader anymore and is getting more agenda oriented. Sikhs are now pursuing their agenda of getting justice and are engaging with different political quarters, adding to the fluidity of Panthic political space. The narrative of Panthic agenda is being set from ground upwards and Bargari Morcha was its biggest manifestation,” according to Sikh author and political commentator Gurbachan Singh. “Notably, this Panthic agenda remains for justice. Sikhs and other Punjabis foiled attempts by the Badals to project the Bargari Morcha as ‘anti-Hindu’,” he adds.

However, SAD senior vice-president and spokesperson Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal claims the Congress permanently has an “anti-Panthic” tag and there is no dilution of its political untouchability among the Sikhs. He says that the SAD lost votes due to “false propaganda.”


Even as SAD appears to be on slippery wicket and the Badals are facing tough time there is no clear alternative to them as anti-Badal Sikh groups remain completely fragmented. The Bargari Morcha had emerged as a rallying point for Sikhs and it was expected that it could throw up a political alternative. However, the way the Morcha was lifted without giving any future roadmap only added to the fluidity in the Panthic space. Bargari Morcha leader Dhian Singh Mand, whose popularity sky-rocketed during the Morcha, is battling for political relevance now. Several Sikh groups had gathered under the banner of Panthic Assembly last October but its second meet on March 2 was lackluster, unlike the first one. Punjab Democratic Alliance-BSP alliance is now also desperately trying to take advantage of this fluidity while AAP and Taksalis too wish to encash this.


Interestingly, the SAD that claims to be the “only custodian” of Sikh issues is scrambling to claim credit for two biggest Sikh issues of 2018 — Kartarpur corridor and conviction of former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar in a 1984 anti-Sikh riots case. Sidhu got the credit for the corridor in public perception and H S Phoolka, a bête noire of Badals for the last five years, was hailed as hero of the dogged fight for justice for 34 years. In another example of Sikh politics focusing on agenda, Phoolka has already announced that in the November 1984 cases he would keep on taking support from the BJP and on the SGPC elections he would engage with the Congress government in Punjab to ensure the elections are held without any delay.


If Operation Blue Star was the Congress’ undoing in Punjab, the Bargari and Behbal Kalan incidents have become biggest trouble points for the Badals. Blue Star and November 1984 massacre have been permanent issues against the Congress in every election in Punjab but prevailing political issues have become important factors to tilt the balance. In the 2017 election, Bargari and Behbal Kalan appeared to have more traction compared to Operation Blue Star among Sikh voters despite desperate attempts by the Badals and Akali leaders to focus on 1984.

However, the two recent Bs — Bargari and Behbal Kalan — still appear to be dominating the political discourse as Lok Sabha elections are drawing near and the special investigation team is digging out details that can make SAD uncomfortable. This discomfiture in SAD can also be gauged from the facts that recently SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal demanded a probe by a Supreme Court judge and quite a few senior Akali leaders visited arrested IG P S Umranangal in jail.

Kartarpur Corridor

The Kartarpur corridor has emerged as a big positive factor and agenda in the Panthic political discourse. The BJP government at the Centre took a decision to open the corridor but all the political parties in the state are claiming credit for it.

Negative propaganda against cricketer-turnedpolitician Navjot Singh Sidhu by the BJP-SAD combine for his famous hug with Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa not only helped set the Kartarpur corridor in Panthic imagination but also helped Sidhu to remain at the centre of the issue.

However, the Union government’s announcement came in such a surprising way that SAD, which is part of the Union Cabinet, did not have advantage of knowing the decision in advance and it became a level-playing field for all political parties. Although SAD tried hard to claim entire credit, in public perception Sidhu walked away with the lion’s share of credit.

The corridor is the main positive agenda for the global Sikh community and is getting identified more with individual leaders rather than political parties. Even as Captain Amarinder Singh tried to appropriate credit, his claim that it was an ISI game-plan despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi terming it his government’s initiative, led to negative comments from Sikhs.

‘Real Referendum 2020’

There has been a lot of noise around ‘Referendum 2020,’ spearheaded by US-based Sikhs For Justice. The issue, however, did not find much traction among Sikhs in Punjab. The real ‘2020’ for Sikhs is the SGPC poll — The Union government, in response to Punjab MLA H S Phoolka’s letter, confirmed that tenure of current house of SGPC was already over and elections were due. Phoolka has started a movement to free SGPC from political clutches.

The Punjab assembly has already passed a resolution asking the CM to take up the issue with the Union government to ensure elections are held without any delay. The SGPC election will be a religio-political referendum of the Sikhs and will also decide the future of Panthic politics.


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