The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s renewed campaign in Punjab to absorb the Sikh identity into its notion of a “Hindu Rashtra” has provoked an aggressive response from radical Sikh organisations. The confrontational atmosphere, emerging in the midst of growing differences between the Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party, is threatening peace in the state.

The tension, faint thus far, first manifested itself on November 18, when the Akal Takht, the seat of authority of the Sikh religion, cautioned against increased RSS activity in Punjab’s rural areas.

The warning came at a meeting of Singh Sahibs, or apex clerics, presided over by Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh, inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. It followed reports of a series of marches organised by the RSS in a few towns and villages of Punjab’s Malwa region, where swayamsevaks openly sported guns and other weapons. There were also reports of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visiting the heads of various deras (sects) in Punjab.

Strong blowback

Although the Akal Takht’s caution is said to have been partly fuelled by the strained ties between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP, the RSS’s aggressive campaign in the state has nevertheless started creating political waves even outside the ruling coalition.

The threat of the RSS figured prominently when the radical elements in the Sikh Panth opposed to the Shiromani Akali Dal joined hands to form yet another Akali party – the United Akali Dal – on November 22 in Amritsar. The United Akali Dal is formed by the United Sikh Movement, a socio-religious group led by Bhai Mokham Singh (a member of Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal), with the stated objective of fighting drug addiction and preventing Sikh youth from cutting their hair.

Among the major resolutions passed at the Amritsar convention of the United Akali Dal, one demanded “an autonomous region for the Sikhs where the community could experience freedom” within India and the other warned the Sikhs against the designs of the RSS, “which is trying to spread its wings in Punjab”.

Bhai Mokham Singh accused Shiromani Akali Dal of first allowing the RSS to spread its influence in Punjab and then using the Akal Takht to raise an alarm against the Sangh’s activities. “Who has brought RSS in Punjab? It is [Parkash Singh] Badal.” Bhai Mokham Singh told “Who controls the Akal Takht? It is Badal. Who has ruined Punjab? It is Badal.” He added that Badal’s “mock fight against the RSS has no meaning. Both are harmful for Punjab and both will have to go”.

The feeling that the RSS and the BJP have been using the Shiromani Akali Dal to dilute the Sikh identity is fast gaining ground in Punjab. In the past, the Sangh’s attempts to subvert the Sikh identity have attracted a hostile response, providing fodder for the radical voices within the community. In 2009, for example, the head of the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat (the RSS’s Sikh wing), Rulda Singh, was assassinated in Patiala. The two suspects put on trial were allegedly members of the militant group Babbar Khalsa International.

Spreading the word

The RSS, however, has a different take on the role that it plays, primarily through its Sikh wing. Formed in 1986 in the midst of secessionist violence in Punjab, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat was revived during the tercentennial celebrations of the foundation of the Khalsa order, which began in April 1999, soon after the formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government in the state.

The Southeast Asia convener of the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, Nirmal Singh Randhawa, maintained that his organisation is not doing anything that would subvert the Sikh identity. “We are only spreading the message of the Guru Granth Sahib [the Sikh holy book],” Randhawa said. “The day the RSS tries to subvert the Sikh identity, I will be the first to leave the Sikh Sangat.”

Like other RSS outfits, ambiguity shrouds the Sikh Sangat. But that has not prevented Sikh religious bodies from seeing through the Sangh’s designs. In August, the fact that Patna Sahib Jathedar Giani Iqbal Singh shared a dais with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat so infuriated Sikh religious organisations that they called for a religious and social boycott of the Sikh cleric for his alleged association with the RSS.

This suspicion also explains why the BJP was unable to get senior party leader Arun Jaitley elected in the Lok Sabha elections from the Sikh-dominated constituency of Amritsar at the height of the “Modi wave”.