Ear to the ground

How the Badals spread their control over Punjab (and why it is eroding)

From the police station to the gurudwara, the Akali Dal has a say everywhere.

In Punjab, the domination of the government machinery by the Badal clan is near complete. It starts right from the top, the cabinet of ministers, and trickles down to the ground, to the level of the police station.

A look at the allocation of responsibilities in the cabinet of the Akali Dal-led government reveals the control. Of the 18 ministers in it, five belong to the Badal clan: Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, Parkash Badal’s son-in-law Adesh Partap Kairon, Sukhbir Badal’s brother-in-law Bikram Majithia, and Janmeja Singh Sekhon.

These five control 22 government departments, including key portfolios such as home, vigilance, taxation and power. In contrast, the remaining 13 ministers look after a total of 32 departments – some of them embarrassingly minor, such as printing and stationery.

“There is one problem with this government – it doesn’t use us,” an Akali Dal minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Scroll.in. “I get paid well, but am not used worth a paisa. Power is concentrated in Parkash Singh Badal, Sukhbir Badal and their family members.”

This concentration of power with the Badals is not very old. It began about 12 years ago when Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who headed the Shiromani Prabandhak Gurudwara Committee, the elected representative body of Sikhs and one of the principal sources of religious leadership for Sikhs around the world, passed away. With his death, not only did the Akali Dal start controlling the committee, the Badals also became the unchallenged leaders in the party.

As veteran journalist Kanwar Sandhu put it, “The Akali Dal hasn’t had a rival bloc to the Badals.”

Anyone who “opposes them gets thrown out of the party or defeated in elections,” said Sucha Singh Gill, director-general of Chandigarh’s Centre for Research into Rural and Industrial Development.

This hegemony has in turn facilitated a reordering of the relationship between politicians and industry. Not only do companies face demands from Shiromani Akali Dal leaders for a share of their profits, but people close to the Badals or the Akali Dal have also come to dominate cash-generating industries like stone crushing and liquor distribution.

The swiftness of the Badal capture of the state’s systems is surprising, says Abhijit Sen, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. Even at the best of times, controlling a state is not easy. And Punjab, after all, has had a rough ride in recent years. Its agriculture has slowed. De-industrialisation has accelerated. The problem of drug abuse festers. The state’s capacity to deliver healthcare and education is crumbling. There is a rise in the number of people turning to living gurus, resulting in rising tensions between newer religious deras, or religious sects, and more orthodox Sikhs.

How, then, in this climate of decline, have the Badals managed to concentrate power among a few families without facing a backlash from a people reeling from multiple economic and societal pressures?

While travelling across the state and talking to people, both lay and experts, Scroll.in found four explanatory factors recurring with regularity.

Factor No. 1: Politics intersects with religion

The biggest factor is the Akali Dal’s control over the Shiromani Prabandhak Gurudwara Committee. “There has always been a role for politicians in the SGPC,” a former journalist explained. “The Akali Dal always had a role there. The difference is that earlier, you had politicians of all parties in the committee – but now, it is totally dominated by the Akali Dal.”

As an article in The Times of India in 2015 says, this process of political control over the Sikh clergy and the SGPC started around 1998, and it gives the Akalis two unalloyed advantages.

First, the SGPC, which is responsible for the upkeep of gurudwaras in Punjab and its neighbouring states, is cash-rich. Second, the SGPC determines what is preached in gurudwaras, so exploiting its control over the committee, the Akali Dal can push its political requirements. A case in point is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan of Dera Sacha Sauda, who angered a sizeable section of the Sikh community by dressing up as Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of Sikhism. “The SGPC announced a fatwa against him,” a senior member of SGPC told Scroll.in. But at the time, the government was trying to woo him to its side, “so the Akali Dal got the SGPC to take it back.”

The worst part of all this is that it has blurred the lines between religion and politics.

Factor No. 2: Control the messaging

The second major factor is the Badals’ sway over television news in the state, and by extension their ability to dictate the messaging.

As Firstpost pointed out in 2012, the biggest cable distributor in Punjab, Fastway Transmission, had “arbitrarily stopped beaming some channels which telecast stories against the Akali Dal, including channels like Punjab Today, Day and Night, etc”.

Instead, what it does air is PTC. The channel is owned by G-Next Media, which in turn is owned by Gur-Baz Media, which is controlled by Sukhbir Badal’s Orbit Resorts. In sum, local language news disseminated in Punjab is provided by a company controlled by the deputy chief minister.

Factor No. 3: The world of halka

Halka is the Punjabi word for assembly constituency. The institution of the halka in-charge is the Akali method of subverting the democratic structures. Here is how it works:

In the 2012 assembly elections, the Shiromani Akali Dal won 56 constituencies in the 117-member assembly. Its candidates who lost were made the halka in-charge of their constituency. “In constituencies where the Akali Dal lost, it is the halka in-charge who wields the real power [not the legislator],” said Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a professor at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University.

According to Master Mohan Lal, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader and a former transport minister in the Akali government, the decision to vest powers with halkas in-charge was taken by the executive committee of the Akali Dal. After that, control followed naturally. “The state government directed the police and the administration to follow the halka,” said Mohan Lal. In one stroke, the Akali influence extended to every constituency in the state, irrespective of whether the party had won it or not.

The state government too took steps to institutionalise the power of the halka. For starters, it remapped the jurisdictions of police stations to exactly overlap the boundaries of each constituency. This meant that the police had to act as per the dictates of the halka in-charge, who had the party’s authority behind him. For the police personnel, the operating norm became “SSP gaya bhaad mein, halkey ko khush rakho (To hell with the senior superintendent of police, keep the halka happy),” said journalist Daljit Ami.

The underlying logic is impeccable. “If an area has a Congress MLA, any good he does will be seen as coming from the Congress,” said the Akali minister who requested anonymity. “This poses a threat for the Akalis – if the Congress MLA does good work, why would the people vote for us? That is why we have the halka in-charge – to make sure the Congress doesn’t grow, and to protect our own base in the state.”

The fallout? As Mohan Lal said, “Where the Congress has won, not one paisa worth of work gets done as per the instructions of the local MLA.”

Ami added: “To get anything at all done, people have to go to the halka. Even for a domestic matter like divorce, the police won’t file a case without a letter from the halka.”

This then is another key to the Akali takeover of Punjab. The party has made election results irrelevant, rooted its control state-wide, and eviscerated any viable opposition.

Factor No. 4: Spiralling violence

Violence is not new to the Punjab. For over a decade it suffered fierce insurgency, and since its end, state-sanctioned violence has been the norm.

For instance, when the Congress was in power, says Sarabjit Singh Verka, an investigator with the Punjab Human Rights Organisation, its government granted Ponty Chadha the wholesale liquor license for all of Punjab. Chadha created his own private army, says Verka, and waged war on vendors of all liquor, desi or foreign, that did not flow from his own organisation. Chadha’s storm troopers would “raid marriage halls and parties to check the booze being served”, he says.

Even after the Congress demitted office, violence has continued. In a paper published in the December 26, 2015, issue of Economic & Political Weekly under the title “Rural Elites and the Limits of Scheduled Caste Assertiveness in Rural Malwa, Punjab”, Nicolas Martin writes: “My research on panchayats indicates that ruling SAD politicians use harassment and intimidation when they seek to secure their party’s stranglehold over particular panchayats, or when they are determined to give power to a particular village leader.”

The violence can be savage. Shiv Lal, who is an erstwhile halka in-charge of the sub-division Abohar and one of Punjab’s biggest liquor barons, is named in a murder FIR. According to the complaint, a Dalit was dismembered, his hands and legs chopped off, in Shiv Lal’s farmhouse.

And the violence is not always physical. The Akali government, says Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, a Ludhiana-based lawyer, has charged as many as 100-150 people under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. “If you charge someone with sedition, they will get bail in one or two months.” In contrast, those charged under UAPA do not get bail.

The state allegedly wields the Act as a weapon to check all opposition, whether it is people demanding an independent Khalistan or those fighting for the rights of farmers. For instance, Surjeet Singh Phool of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Krantikari) was arrested under UAPA.

Manjhpur himself was charged under UAPA, and it took him five years to get acquitted. “There is an unwritten instruction from the state that bail will not be given,” he says. “One result is that the number of agitations has come down. Yeh ek dabaney ka kaam chal raha hain. Dehshat ke halaat hain (This is a process of suppressing people. The atmosphere is one of dread).”

The fear extends all the way to the ministerial level. According to the Akali minister who requested anonymity, “Phones of all MLAs are tapped. There is surveillance.”

The bureaucracy is equally stricken with fear. “At one time, the cost of not cooperating with politicians was inconvenient postings,” said KR Lakhanpal, former finance secretary and Punjab chief secretary. “But now, people apprehend bodily harm, or at the least a vigilance case. The threat is enough – hang one, and the message to the rest is very clear.”

Concurrent to this process of intimidation has been the consolidation of the Akali and Badal control of the state. As the previous article in this series showed, industries like stone crushing now operate without legal permits, which, according to people in the stone crushing industry, has resulted in a mafia taking shape to control these operations.

The same is the case with liquor. As the business became centralised, the ability of the big players to flout the norms – as, for instance, putting vends near school and college premises – increased. Thanks to the control exercised by the halkas in-charge, several people Scroll.in spoke to claimed that cases are not filed when it concerns the big players. And if cases are indeed filed, the investigations are shoddy, witnesses are not examined or, under pressure, they turn hostile.

RS Bains, advocate and member of the Punjab Human Rights Organisation, describes the pattern. “The rebellious children are in jail,” he alleged. “Or they are killed. Ek jootha case bana to 5-10 saal ke liye gaye. If you take panga with a powerful guy, your life is destroyed. This is why people are leaving.”

The endgame

Put this all together and you get a larger picture of total control by the Akali Dal and the Badals.

These processes have reduced life in Punjab to something that looks Darwinian. With the police and the administration enfeebled to the extent of subservience, the only recourse people have are the Akali MLA, the halka and the dera. Two of these power centres are unelected and unaccountable.

If you want to file a police complaint, says journalist Ami, you have to go to the halka, who decides whether it is politically expedient for him to approve. If he turns you down, your only remaining option is the nearest dera. The halka, who is looking to strengthen his own voter base, will accommodate most requests from a dera – but then, the dera will filter requests on the basis of expediency: does it gain more by accommodating your request, or siding with the other party?

“We cannot go to the police,” said Kishan Chand, a ghoda-gaadi wallah who lives in the poor quarters of Nurmahal town in Jalandhar. “I can complain, but the police might get tapped by the other side and register a case against me instead. Nor can we get into a dispute with the rich.”

In recent times however, this matrix – of poverty, suppression and a sense of their religion being under threat – has put Punjab in a state of subcutaneous ferment. Anyone travelling in Punjab will hear loud murmurs of complaints about the Akali Dal. As an article by IP Singh in the Times of India says, “In Punjab there have been quite a few instances where Akali leaders and SGPC members have been chased away by protestors.”

Even orthodox Sikhs and farmers, who form the party’s core, are upset with it, says Sucha Singh Gill – the orthodox Sikhs due to the Akali Dal’s handling of the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan episode, and the farmers due to poor prices.

“There is no trust in the police, media, politicians or the government,” agreed Ami. And it is this simmering anger, he says, that is responsible for the large swings in favour of Manpreet Singh Badal’s Punjab People’s Party, and the Aam Aadmi Party. “People are now looking for alternatives.”

While working on this article, detailed questions were first emailed to Parkash Singh Badal, Sukhbir Singh Badal. Five days later, when there was no response, consolidated emails (with questions for all four leaders) and later faxes were also sent to Jangveer Singh and Harcharan Bains, media advisors to Sukhbir Badal and Parkash Badal, respectively.

Both Singh and Bains were alerted about these questionnaires – the first by phone, and the second by text when he did not answer the phone despite multiple attempts.

Subsequently, these questions were also faxed across to the offices of Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal, and to Bikram Majithia, who is in charge of the department for Information and Public Relations.

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