In Punjabi, the Sikhs refer to their holy book Sri Granth Sahib as a father figure. When its pages are found torn and scattered on streets, it is like discovering limbs of the father’s body strewn on the streets. Over the past week, many such instances have been reported in Punjab villages, leading to hurt, unrest and anger. Protestors from the Sikh community are up in arms, blocking roads and traffic in the state.

On Sunday, the protestors in Barnala, Moga, Faridkot, Beas and other places in Punjab did not follow what their radical religious group leaders like Bhai Panth Preet Singh, Bhai Ranjit Singh Dadrianwale asked them to do: hold up traffic between 10 am and 1 pm.  After the many barricades per town and villages over the last four days, the decision was to set up posts at one place per district. Local jathedars and heads of gurudwaras have violated even those instructions.

No one – the police, the government or the media – can say when the state will return to normalcy. Fearing unrest, schools and colleges in many towns have announced a holiday. In the time of paddy harvest, the grain markets are lying vacant.

The protestors are demanding the arrest of miscreants who have desecrated the holy book in villages: Bargari near Faridkot, Baath near Taran, Mishriwala near Ferozepur, Kohrian near Sangrur, Ghawaddi near Ludhiana; the Panj Granth pages have been found in Sarai Naga near Muktsar.

More such incidents have been reported from various parts of the state. The protests spiralled after last Wednesday's lathi charge and killing of two Sikhs – Gurmeet Singh and Krishan Singh - in village Behval Kalan by the police, officially said to be in self-defence.

In another clash between protestors and police, the Inspector General (Bathinda range) Jatinder Jain along with many policemen sustained injuries from sharp edged weapons and swords.

While television channels in the state are not showing the news of protests and the print media coverage is thin, the deaths – termed martyrdom – have incensed the diaspora Sikh groups who have become active on social media, putting out theories and speculations about the possible culprits.

Double bind

Since the protestors were unable to name the miscreants, they highlighted an earlier grievance against the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee and the high priests of the Sikh faith who recently gave a general pardon to the head of Dera Sachha Sauda over an alleged case of blasphemy of Guru Gobind Singh that had been pending since 2007. Three days later, the high priests took back their orders.

There have been many instances of protestors chasing away SGPC members who attempted to reach these sites of protest. There were moves to gherao the SGPC head Avtar Singh Makkar in Ludhiana.

The Akali leadership isn’t daring to face the people. The ruling Badal family and the Shiromani Akali Dal has long been accused of politicising the SGPC and appointing its own people as members and priests in the forum meant to manage the gurudwaras.

Ground reality

Apart from anguish over desecration of the holy book and the simmering anger at the monopolising of the SGPC by the Akalis, Punjab today is marked by the fear that common people feel from the protestors who block everything from vegetable supplies, fuel, ambulances and all other essentials.

Restive youth in saffron turbans with sticks and swords roam the streets shutting down shops, schools, and institutions. In Barnala district farm labourer Pargat Singh’s scooter tripped on the trees felled by the protestors – a common tactic across all big roads. He died from injuries sustained in the accident. Prem Singh from village Jakhepal was returning from his fields on his combine harvester and was chased by the protestors and beaten badly. Many more incidents of roughing up and intimidating common people are coming to light.

Earlier the state witnessed protests against the film MSG 2 and a week-long rail roko or stopping of trains campaign by the farmer-labour unions over the failed cotton and basmati crops. This season of protests has now entered its fourth week and is likely to continue until October 25 when the Antim Ardas – last prayers – for the men who died in police firing will be solemnised.

The farmer-labour unions are conducting peace marches but they too had earlier chosen October 23 as the day for picketing Akali leaders. No one knows what will happen if the issues combine and combust but one thing is clear: instead of focusing on solving the agricultural issues, with this mix of religious politics and allowing a fear psychosis to build up, the administration has shown utter contempt not only for law and order but also been totally unmindful of its effect on industry and markets, and for the state's economy.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Punjab.