As Punjab gears up for Assembly elections next year, the politics of polarisation seems to have picked up pace.

Last Friday, pages of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, were found scattered near a cemetery in Malerkotla in Ludhiana. Violence followed. A few vehicles were set on fire by a group that was upset by having been denied a meeting with the local MLA.

The desecration of a holy book is not the first incident of this kind in Punjab. In fact, it seems part of a pattern to disrupt communal harmony in the state.

Late last year, a series of incidents of the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, had brought Punjab to the edge. Torn pages of the holy book were found in several places, leading to protests in which two people were killed in police firing.

Around that time, reports of torn pages of the Bhagvad Gita, the Hindu holy book, and the Ramayana also emerged, but that evoked a tepid response from Hindu organisations.

An island of peace

Malerkotla – the only Muslim-dominated town and Assembly constituency in Punjab – has had a long tradition of keeping the peace. The town was calm even in the surcharged days of the Partition, when the rest of Punjab burned, and also in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. The town has been a safe haven as its Sikh and Hindu residents prevent outsiders from entering the town during communally tense periods.

Malerkotla has seen a couple of stray incidents that could have led to communal tension, but whenever there is potential for tension, community elders step in to defuse the situation. For instance, last year a school boy from one community was beaten to death by boys belonging to another community. Community leaders got together to calm tempers. Similarly, a Hindutva group that sought to hold a march in the town to protest against cow slaughter was persuaded not to do so.

It also helps that the town’s politicians have had strong connections with the Punjab Police. Sitting MLA Farzana Nissara Khatoon is from the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and her husband Izhar Alam, is a retired DGP (Prisons). Her main political rival, Razia Sultana of the Congress, is married to Mohammad Mustafa, the current Punjab DGP (Human Rights). Despite their rivalry, these two families have ensured that communal harmony was maintained.

Deliberate attempt

This is why the latest incident seems a deliberate attempt to fan communal passions.

Punjab Muslim Front chairperson Shehzaad Hussain claimed that more than 1,000 pages of two new copies of the Quran were found torn in the cemetery on the third Friday of the month of Ramzan. The pages were later buried in the graveyard.

After hearing of the desecration, a group of locals marched towards the MLA’s residence. It is alleged that her security guards fired into the air to scare away the mob. Infuriated, the mob burnt some vehicles and damaged the legislator’s house. The police subsequently dispersed the protestors. Two protestors were injured. The police have booked 250 persons for the fracas.

MLA Khatoon said the incident was “political mischief” by rival parties. Her husband, Izhar Alam, was more direct. He that the “Congress was behind the incidents” in view of the approaching elections. The Congress’ Razia Sultana, who has been MLA from Malerkotla twice, reacted sharply by saying that Alam had “lost his mental balance and needed immediate treatment”.

The reactions from the government and the Opposition are familiar. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal said the government would not let the culprits go free, while state Congress chief Amarinder Singh alleged that the desecration was a conspiracy by the Badal government to disturb peace before the elections.

Malerkotla is part of the Lok Sabha constituency of Bhagwant Mann of the Aam Aadmi Party, which is contesting the Punjab Assembly elections for the first time.

Mann has demanded a judicial inquiry into the desecration. His party chief Arvind Kejriwal is coming to Punjab on July 3 as part of his social engineering experiment with a special focus on Dalit and minority votes. It is likely that Kejriwal will visit Malerkotla too.

Although there is a demand for an independent judicial inquiry into the desecration, the government has not agreed to it so far. Over six months ago, a judicial inquiry was set up to probe the incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, but it has not made any headway yet. Clearly politics is at play and the game will continue till the elections next February.