From religion to politics – Haryana sect dominates Punjab scene

The release of a film on a sect chief and the protests linked to it, an apology by a self-styled godman and the pardon to him by the Sikh clergy drawing the ire of Sikh hardliners. All of this was part of the politico-religious scene in Punjab last week.

At the centre of the current religious and political storm is controversial godman, Haryana-based Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was “pardoned” by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh religion, last week after he tendered an “apology” for the alleged blasphemy he committed over eight years ago when he dressed himself like the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh.

The events of the past week seemed to be scripted better than even the second film, ‘MSG-2’ (Messenger of God-2) featuring the godman, that was released the previous week. It could not have been a sheer coincidence that everything, which was against him for over eight years, fell into place for the godman within seven days.

Several lives were lost across Punjab in May-July 2007 when violent clashes between the Sikh community and Dera Sacha Sauda sect followers broke out after he set off a controversy by dressing like Guru Govind Singh.

Criminal cases were registered against him and the Sikh clergy, led by the Akal Takht, ordered social boycott of the godman and his sect. The government of the day in Punjab, which is the same even now, too went after the sect chief and his followers with all its might.

The Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, which had banned the release of the godman’s first film ‘MSG’ in January this year, this time did not issue any such official ban when the sequel was released across the country.

Citing law and order issues and apprehension of a backlash from Sikh community, cinema hall and multiplex owners refused to screen ‘MSG-2’.

The ‘unofficial ban’ led to protests from sect followers for nearly three days. They blocked railway tracks and roads. Even as the common man had to suffer, the Badal government chose to look the other way.

Within the next three days, in a quick chain of events, the sect chief sent his apology to the Akal Takht for his action of May 2007.

The Sikh clergy met and decided to pardon him with immediate effect. The Akal Takht even dispensed with the normal practice and diktat of making the religious offender appear before it at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar and handing down punishment.

The obvious reason, for those who matter in Punjab’s religious affairs and politics, is that Punjab’s assembly polls are about 18 months away.

With the sect chief openly supporting the BJP in last year’s assembly polls in Haryana and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) catching the fancy of people, especially youth, in Punjab, the Akali Dal leadership surely has something to be worried about.

No election in Punjab is complete without the sect, which is headquartered near Sirsa town in neighbouring Haryana, influencing it with the sheer strength of votes of its followers. They run into several lakhs in the state. Be it the Akali Dal, Congress or the BJP, everyone lines up to seek blessings of the sect chief.

It is clear that the Akali Dal leadership did not want to end up on the wrong side as far as the sect’s political influence is concerned.

Hence, all the political and religious drama that was enacted in the past week.

In politics, not everything can be left in the hands of the electorate or god. God-men matter a lot too!