Peeved in Punjab
Economist Nov 28th 2015
The Sikh religion provides for a gathering of believers, the Sarbat Khalsa, in times of great crisis. It was convened regularly in the 18th century, when the Mughal empire was trying to exterminate the Sikhs. But it was called just twice in the 20th century. The last time was in 1986, as a response to bloodshed that began with the Indian army’s assault on the Sikhs’ Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Sikh militants, some calling for their own Khalistan (“land of the pure”). It culminated in the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and—in mob revenge—of thousands of innocent Sikhs in Delhi.
And so a tremor was felt in the state of Punjab when a Sarbat Khalsa was called for November 10th, to be held on an unassuming patch of ground outside Amritsar. Its topic was blasphemy and the desecration of the Sikhs’ holy book: torn pages had been showing up around the state for weeks. On the day itself the ground shook, when as many as 100,000 people gathered. The meeting concluded by calling for the ousting of the three high priests of Punjab’s most important temples or gurdwaras. One of the chosen replacements happens to be a pro-Khalistan separatist, in jail for assassinating a chief minister of Punjab in 1995.
The present state government is led by a father-son duo of Parkash and Sukhbir Singh Badal and their Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party. They took the whole thing as an affront. It was instigated, they huffed, by criminals, by the allegedly anti-Sikh Congress party and by “foreign elements”—meaning either Pakistan over the border or Sikhs with separatist leanings in the West. The Badals understand that they and not the religious leaders were the real target—for their family is widely thought to control the gurdwaracommittee that appoints the priests. On November 23rd Sukhbir Singh Badal led a huge counter-rally of supporters through the impoverished southern part of the state. The SAD’s procession was met by cheering crowds and none of the black flags of protest that had been promised. It was as if the religious fire of the Sarbat Khalsa had blown out.
Certainly, few in Punjab want another fight for an independent Khalistan for Sikhs. The state has desperate problems, but they are not religious in nature. Farming is in steep decline as short-sighted policies have depleted the water table and encouraged the cultivation of unsuitable crops. This year fake pesticide brought infestations of whitefly to the cotton crop. Not long ago Punjab was relatively rich, its farming prosperous; but today it ranks 12th among India’s states in GDP per person. There is little industry. The police spend their days shaking down motorists; educated Punjabis look abroad for work. Social ills have sprouted, drugs worst of all.
Few seem happy with the Badals. Their many businesses have thrived, though little else does. Their electoral hold on the state is helped by the fact that not only are they Sikhs, like most of Punjab’s population, but they are from the Jat Sikh caste, the majority within the community. Their political opponents are in chaos. Congress, the party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is especially weak in Punjab, tarnished by the massacres of the 1980s, while myriad small parties have failed to coalesce. Yet the Badals feel sufficiently threatened by the prospect of assembly elections in 2017 that they are reaching for new sources of strength. So SAD seems to have manipulated Sikhism’s high priests into a series of reversals over a charge of blasphemy lodged against a populist preacher. Party leaders might have hoped to attract the flock of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, whose self-promotional videos are wacky beyond belief; but that proved too much for their orthodox base.
In early Sikhism, church and state were figured like a pair of joined swords. In the 17th century it seemed natural that the best men should rule both worlds. But with a political leadership that looks wobbly, and an anarchic opposition, the ruling party’s control of religious authority raises stakes to an uncomfortable degree. Radicals may dream of putting a terrorist at the summit of Sikhism. Nearly everyone else just wants a better life, free of fake pesticides.