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BJP’s Punjab Card: Political Jumla Vs. Anti-Sikh Past

CAA/NRC worsened BJP’s relations with Sikhs, who see its overtures as jumlas.
BJP’s Punjab Card: Political Jumla

Image for representational use only.Image Courtesy : The Print

On December 17, while the amended Citizenship Act (CAA) was sparking protests everywhere, the Akal Takht, one of the five seats of power of the Sikh faith, welcomed its inclusion of Sikhs and Hindus from neighbouring countries. Many Hindus and Sikhs are refugees in India, said Giani Harpreet Singh, the Jathedar or chief spokesperson of the Takht. They could now expect relief in the form of rights that citizenship confers. Singh also said, “...we Sikhs cannot differentiate against anyone on the basis of religion and caste. In the same way, the Constitution also does not differentiate on the basis of religion and caste. So, there was no need to keep the Muslims out,” Singh.

In highlighting a tenet of the Sikh faith, Singh has illuminated the dissonance that lies at the core of the relationship between the Sikhs and the Sangh Parivar-Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Sikhs are a religious minority in India who make up just over 57% of the population in the small northern state of Punjab. The BJP is an ally of the Akali Dal in Punjab, but it is keen to come to power on its own in the state. Reading the political tea leaves, the BJP has divined that the absence of a strong Opposition party, a weakened Akali Dal and disrupted Aam Aadmi Party state unit have cleared its way to power in the 2022 Assembly election.

Recently, BJP state president and Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, Shwait Malik, said as much. Senior BJP leader Madan Mohan Mittal has also taunted Akali Dal and said that it was not a younger brother any longer and would contest on more seats in the next election.

To strengthen its base in the rural areas, the BJP has started inducting Sikh faces (especially Jatt Sikhs). The Sangh Parivar is also working to create institutions named after historical Sikh personalities. These may appear to be oriented to social welfare on the face of it, but their real agenda reveals itself on closer examination.

In order to build its base among the Sikhs, the BJP is trying to win over those leaders who are angry with the Akali Dal, apart from running an ambitious enrolment drive for the state as a whole. The noted Sikh lawyer who represented many victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, HS Phoolka, has been in the news for generous remarks about the BJP. The BJP is also adopting every tactic possible to attract migrant Sikhs. For some time now, BJP leaders have been making announcements to draw their attention towards itself. In a speech during the Lok Sabha election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the Sikhs should get justice for the 1984 massacre. Home Minister Amit Shah has also said that Modi is benevolent towards the Sikhs and that only he has given the victims of 1984 justice.

Recently, the central government slashed the number of Sikhs on an official ‘Black List’ of those who are unwelcome in India, from 312 to two. As a result these black-listed Sikhs, who have settled abroad, would be able to come to India. This development in particular is one that migrant Sikhs have watched with suspicion and concern. The Centre also announced in September it would soon release eight Sikh prisoners of terrorism. Among these, a declaration of forgiveness for Balwant Singh Rajoana, sentenced to death for the murderer of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, immediately became controversial. Home Minister Amit Shah clarified in a reply to a question in Parliament on 3 December that Rajoana’s sentence has not been waived, but this was not necessarily taken at face value.

Similarly, the Sikh millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik, who now lives in Canada, was allowed a visa to visit India. Ripudaman was considered a suspect in the 1985 Air India hijacking case. He was acquitted by the Vancouver High Court for lack of evidence. During his acquittal, the judge clearly stated that his release did not imply his innocence. Malik is believed to have an old relationship with radical Sikh organisations, but many strident Sikh organisations consider him a spy working on behalf Indian agencies.

Now, the question arises, what is the meaning of the “love” that is being expressed by the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government towards the Sikhs? Will the Sangh and the BJP shed their anti-Punjab and anti-Sikh past, or do they just plan to shrug it off? The BJP and its progenitor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), want all of India painted in one color, espousing one idea and hardboiled into an undiversified culture. Some of their most prominent leaders have delivered hate speeches against the minorities. In this context, the Sikhs are bound to wonder what the RSS really means by wanting to be friendly. These questions need answers, starting with what the position of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar was when Punjab was burning in the 1980s, and during the 1984 massacre?.

BJP and Sangh’s anti-Sikh past.

When the “Punjabi Suba” movement was going on, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the former incarnation of the BJP, was running the “Maha-Punjab” movement. They tried to engineer quarrels between the two biggest sects residing in Punjab. As this movement went into overdrive, it got fulsome support from organisations that sought to open bidi, gutkha and tobacco shops near the Darbar Sahab (Golden Temple) gurudwara in Amritsar. Harbans Lal Khanna, who smashed a model of the Golden Temple, was a state-level leader of the BJP.

The RSS and the BJP were among the groups that pressured the government into putting Operation Blue Star into action. A few days before Blue Star, BJP leaders Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee sat on a dharna demanding that an army be sent to the court. Advani acknowledges this in his autobiography, My Country My Life, in which he also appreciates the military action. There were also reports of sweets being distributed by the RSS after the Operation, outside the Golden Temple.

Nanaji Deshmukh, who has been awarded the highest civilian honour, Bharat Ratna, by the Modi government, in one of his articles, Moment of Soul Searching, praised former prime minister Indira Gandhi for the military action taken in the Golden Temple and said that the 1984 slaughter of Sikhs was the result of the mistakes of Sikh leaders. He is angry with the BJP these days, but Arun Shourie, who was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet, also justified military action in the Golden Temple, in his article, Lessons from the Punjab, published in the book, The Punjab Story. Apart from all these, it is a fact that many BJP leaders were in the Congress during the Rajiv Gandhi era.

Similarly, the involvement of BJP and Sangh leaders in the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre is also a fact, one that the Sangh and BJP leaders want everybody to forget. The 14 FIRs lodged at the Delhi City police station include the names of 49 persons belonging to the BJP and the Sangh. More cases are registered at Srinivaspuri police station in South Delhi. Cases of murder, arson and looting have been registered against leaders of the BJP and the RSS at Ashram, Bhagwanagar and Sunlight Colony. One of the persons whose names are listed in the FIR is Ram Kumar Jain, who was the election agent of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections.

As the writer and historian Shamsul Islam says, “From the manner in which Rajiv Gandhi won the election in the name of nationalism after the [1984] slaughter was provoked by the sentiments of the majority, it is clear that fundamentalist Hindu organisations were completely with the Congress.”

In 1991, when Kalyan Singh headed the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, ten Sikh devotees were called “dreaded terrorists” by the police and killed in Pilibhit. The same Modi whom Amit Shah calls benevolent towards the Sikhs, previously insulted the Sikh community on the pretext of Sikh former prime minister Manmohan Singh. He satirized Manmohan Singh in a manner that was strongly opposed by the Sikhs. While chief minister of Gujarat, Modi brought a bill to snatch the land of Sikh farmers settled in Kutch and Bhuj areas of Gujarat. When the government lost the case in the Gujarat High Court, it took the case to the Supreme Court. According to Surendra Singh Bhullar, a leader of Punjabi farmers settled in Gujarat, “Now the local BJP leaders target us with hooligans. They want to push us out of the state. In fact, Modi is not only against Muslims but against all minorities.”

Many BJP leaders have been publicly making controversial statements about Sikhs. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, BJP MP Varun Gandhi made derogatory remarks against Sikhs. A few months ago, Haryana government minister Anil Vij also abused the Sikh community, again during an election campaign.

Many Sikh intellectuals and leaders believe that the RSS wants to meld their religion within the Hindu fold. Many instances of this have come up from time to time. Sikh history has been distorted by RSS and its publications. The battles fought by Sikh Gurus for all of humanity are being projected as anti-Muslim. In one instance, at a ceremony held on the occasion of Guru Arjan Dev’s 400th martyrdom day in 2006, BJP leader the late Sushma Swaraj objected to the name of “Chandu” being associated with the martyrdom of Guru Saheb. (Chandu, according to Sikh legend, is a man said to have been close to the Mughal court and who wanted to marry his daughter to Guru Arjan Dev’s son. When that did not happen, he incited the Mughal emperor against the Guru.) At the same ceremony, the demand for the lifting of the ban on the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, an RSS outfit, was also made by the BJP.

The Modi government is still using the term “Sikh terrorism” in government documents. According to a report published in The Caravan magazine in May 2019, the government’s standing focus group on terror financing aims to work on “Islamist and Sikh terrorism”. The “love” being expressed by the BJP towards the Sikhs is being observed by many Sikh scholars. They link the overtures to the current political climate in the country. They believe that the saffron government wants to suppress the Kashmiris on the one hand—but on the other hand it is trying to appear kind towards Punjab and the Sikhs.

In fact, the Hindutvawadi government is taunting Punjabis and Kashmiris through these overtures, because Punjab is the one state from where clear and strong voices in favour of Kashmiris have risen ever since 5 August 2019. Modi’s foreign visits have also been opposed by Punjabis and Sikhs abroad. There is a pervasive belief among the Sikh intellectuals that the hidden intent behind the sympathy shown by the BJP to the Sikhs. This sentiment is shared by the ordinary Sikhs as well.

This is the reason why the Akal Takht Jathedar has also demanded a ban on the RSS, the organisation that divides the country. Punjabi-origin journalist Gurpreet Singh, who lives in Canada, also says that the BJP wants to establish its credibility among the migrant Sikhs by falsely showing their affinity. This is because the Sikhs, who live in every corner of the world, have good standing in their countries. With their support, the BJP wants to create a liberal image for itself in the world.

By co-opting the Sikhs, the BJP and Sangh believe, they would paper over their past forever, but the Sangh does not even accept the independent identity of Sikhism. It insists that Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism. For all these reasons, it is unlikely that in coming times the BJP will be able to build a base among the Sikhs. In fact, Modi’s “Sikh love” is a political jumla, under the guise of which is an attempt to conceal the BJP and Sangh’s anti-Sikh history.

Shiv Inder Singh is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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