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Religion, caste matter in Indian Punjab

Updated April 29, 2014

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A supporter of the BJP uses a mask of Narendra Modi as fan at an election rally.
A supporter of the BJP uses a mask of Narendra Modi as fan at an election rally.

Election time in Indian Punjab is mirror time. All the scars on the face of this only Sikh-majority state of India are pointed at by contrasting political interests. They might not ache but they do help the vying parties revoke some painful stories from the past and hedge their electoral bets with some emotional stuff.

Punjab has only 13 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, but the contests here this time have acquired more importance than the numerical significance of this state for a host of reasons. All major parties have fielded their strongmen here. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) chief strategist and one of its most prominent central leaders, Arun Jaitley, is contesting from the Amritsar seat, that is geographically attached to Lahore.

Congress is opposing him by fielding its former chief minister in the state and the titular maharaja of Patiala, retired Capt Amarinder Singh, in the same constituency. He is an old Congress man. He was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980 on a Congress ticket but resigned when Prime Minister Indra Gandhi launched an army operation against Sikh separatists who had made the holiest of the Sikh shrines — the Golden Temple in Amritsar — their headquarters. The operation carried out in June 1984 came at the peak of a major Sikh rebellion against the Indian state and was the lowest point in the history of Hindu-Sikh relations.

Months later two Sikh bodyguards of Mrs Gandhi assassinated her and this was followed by riots, mainly in Delhi, where charged mobs retaliated against Sikh citizens and reportedly killed around 3,000 in a matter of a few days.

It was followed by a years-long campaign to wipe out Sikh militancy, whose hallmark was killing of suspects in fake encounters. The memories of those violent times still haunt politics in Punjab.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that is struggling to redefine politics in India, promises Sikhs a healing touch. It has awarded the ticket for Ludhiana, the biggest urban centre of Punjab, to H.S. Phoolka, who is known for tirelessly waging a protracted legal battle for fixing responsibility of the 1984 riots. But typical of the legal system our two countries have inherited from the colonial era and have kept intact to date, results have been at best mixed. A few days ago, Amarinder Singh tried to absolve Jagdesh Tytler, the Congress leader who is one of the main accused of the 1984 riots, of any wrongdoing. He instead blamed the Akali Dal leaders of inviting Delhi to launch operation against Sikh militants 30 years ago.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is the biggest Sikh religious-political party. It controls the bodies that manage Sikh holy places and has ruled over Punjab for much of the recent past. SAD’s leader Prakash Singh Badal has been the chief minister of Punjab since 2007, almost half way through his second consecutive term. He has earlier thrice been elected to the same post, one of which was a full term and the others partial.

SAD is a strong ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party and has a seat adjustment agreement with it. On three of Punjab’s national seats SAD supports BJP candidates and on the remaining 10 it is vice versa. Akalis, like the BJP, mix politics with religion. Sikhs, however, make up around 60pc of Punjab’s population and the rest are mostly Hindus with Muslims and Christians forming minuscule minorities in its 28 million population.

Caste concerns

Punjabi Hindus do not generally identify with Akali politics and have served as the main support base of the Congress in the state. Congress also draws strength from the caste divide with landowning Jats making up the upper crust of the Sikh community, who have little affiliation with Dalits, from both the Sikh and Hindu folds.

In the recent past, while the Akalis have made concerted efforts to win over Hindus, Congress is trying its best to garner the support of more Jats. Congress candidate Amarinder Singh is also the chief of the Jat Mahasabha and one of his main election promises is that he will get Jats categorised as Other Backward Classes, the legal status that will ensure for them reservation in state resources/quota in jobs etc.

An additional element of complexity in Punjab is provided by the incumbency factor. The Akali Dal-BJP alliance has been in power in Punjab since 2007 and each elector holds a long list of unfulfilled promises against the provincial government. Congress plays this factor up for its own gains but the party has been in power at the centre since 2004 and thus itself faces the same incumbency factor at this level. The SAD-BJP alliance in turn tries to rest all blame for its deficiencies in Punjab on the non-cooperation and hostility of Delhi.

This blame game is providing the Aam Aadmi Party an opportunity to convert voter frustration into support for its own bid. AAP is aware of the Sikh sensitivities too and by fielding reputed human rights activists H.S. Phoolka, is trying to give a positive spin to a painful history.

The expressions of religious and caste divides are like scars on one’s face. These divisions run beneath the surface and intertwine in an intriguing way with the ‘political issues’ that float over the surface. Only the party managing a right mix of identity issues with stark realities of everyday life can sail smoothly over the turbulent political current called elections.