Punjab is angry. For seven days and counting, there have been highway blockades and rail rokos, day-long bandhs and clashes with the police across the state. Capping it all was a police firing in Faridkot on October 14 in which two protesters were killed and more than 100 injured.

On Tuesday, central paramilitary forces were deployed in Amritsar, Ludhiana and Jalandhar. With no end in sight to the protests, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal called for an emergency meeting of his cabinet on Tuesday evening.

The crisis was triggered by several reports  over the past fortnight of alleged desecrations of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The desecration of the holy book is a highly sensitive and emotive issue for Sikhs, especially hardliners and radical elements in the community.

So far, the police claim to have detained five culprits in connection with the vandalism. Among them are two brothers, who allegedly committed these acts at the direction from their "master" in Australia. The authorities claim to have call records to prove this. Two granthis (priests) and a woman have also been detained. One of the granthis allegedly admitted that he thought the controversy would bring more devotees to his gurudwara ‒ and so more donations. The woman, meanwhile, has allegedly confessed that someone had promised to pay her Rs 1 lakh to tear the pages of the holy book. The police are yet to identify the person who offered her the money.

Root cause?

Significantly, the trouble started a few days after the Sikh clergy on September 24 rather surreptitiously pardoned Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the controversial head of the Dera Sacha Sauda cult. Rahim had been accused of blasphemy for imitating the clothes and gestures of Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh gurus.

The decision was not well received by the Sikh community. It was revoked on October 16, but much damage was done and the resentment remains. Soon after the pardon in September, a section of the radicals called for a 12-hour bandh, which was not successful.

But backed by radicals abroad, this section subsequently called for a Sarbat Khalsa – a congregation of the community – in November in order to remove the clergymen who issued the pardon. It is after this that incidents of desecration of the holy book started to be reported.

Government on the backfoot

Some of the people responsible for the sacrilege left clues that hinted at the involvement of Dera followers, such as signing posters with a greeting associated with the cult. The Dera chief immediately took to Twitter to dismiss the charges.

The protests have put the Parkash Singh Badal government on the backfoot. The chief minister has prayed at the Golden Temple and has written to the head of the Akal Takht – the Sikh seat of power – to express his grief and dismay at recent events.

In light of the violence, deputy chief minister and home minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal, on Monday cancelled next month’s Kabaddi World Cup, which was to be held in stadiums in 14 districts across the state.

A reward of Rs 1 crore was announced for any information about those responsible for desecrating the holy book.  The government said it would withdraw all cases against protesters booked by the police during the agitation. The chief minister also announced a judicial inquiry into the police firing.

But the anger refuses to dissipate.  The outrage of the Sikh community may also be a reaction to the concentration of power – both in the political as well as the religious realm – in the hands of the Badals.

The protests by Sikhs against the desecration of the holy books follow demonstrations just over a week ago by thousands of farmers seeking higher compensation for crop losses to drought and insect infestations. It's clear that the Badals and their party, the Akali Dal, are already losing a chunk of their support base. They will have to rethink strategy if they hope to retain power come the next assembly election a little over a year from now.