After a month of turmoil in Punjab, all eyes are now on the proposed Sarbat Khalsa or a "worldwide" congregation of the entire Sikh community, on November 10, the eve of Diwali, a call for which has been given by radical Sikh organisations.

While the institution of Sarbat Khalsa was started by Guru Gobind Singh, it has been convened very rarely in the recent past. It was last called in 1986 when a decision was taken to tear down the Akal Takht that had been rebuilt by a government-backed organisation after having been severely damaged in Operation Bluestar and to rebuild it all over again through the Sikh tradition of Kar Seva. A resolution asking for the establishment of Khalistan was also passed at the same meeting.

Religious roots

The roots of the agitation lie in the sudden and secretive pardon granted by the Sikh clergy on September 24 to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who had been accused of blasphemy in 2007 for imitating the clothes and gestures of Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh gurus.

This had led to violence and tension in the state and the Sikh clergy had then issued a Hukamnama or edict calling for social boycott of the Dera chief, who had sought to clarify that he did not intend to show disrespect to the Sikh guru. His "regrets'' were suddenly, after eight years, accepted in September, leading to charges of it being a politically motivated decision.

While the pardon seemed to be the immediate cause, the pent-up anger against the Akali Dal, discredited by years of non-performance and corruption, was further stoked by regular motivated incidents of sacrilege, which is what led to it spilling out on the streets.

The Sarbat Khalsa has been called to remove the clergymen who issued the pardon. While the clergymen as well as the SGPC declined the demand for their resignation, they attempted damage control by annulling the decision to grant pardon to the Dera chief. Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal expressed regrets over the incidents of violence, including of police firing in which two protesters were killed, and ordered a CBI inquiry into the series of acts of sacrilege besides ordering shifting of the Director General of Police Sumedh Singh Saini.

While the police arrested a few Sikh youth and claimed these acts of sacrilege were being engineered from abroad, the public at large remained sceptical, given the discredited administration's track record. Also, the incidents of desecration continue to be reported from various parts of the state.

Factions and fissures

The Sikh clergy, the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, considered to be the parliament of Sikhs, as well as other Sikh organisations owing allegiance to the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, claim that the call for Sarbat Khalsa is not valid as such a meeting can only be called by the head priest of the Akal Takht.

Shiromani Akali Dal Amritsar chief Simranjit Singh Mann and United Akali Dal chief Mohkam Singh, who had given the call for the meeting, counter that a significant section of the community can indeed call for the Sarbat Khalsa if the religion itself faces danger or if any important decision regarding the faith is required to be taken.

There is a real possibility that the proposed meeting, whether or not it is sanctified as Sarbat Khalsa, may not get a massive response. One reason is that the call was given by radical organisations, with participation of diaspora groups. Secondly, the upsurge was directed more towards the Badals than the clergy.

Given the stranglehold of the Badals on the Golden Temple complex, it was proposed to hold the meeting at Baba Naudh Singh in Amritsar. But organisations like the Dal Khalsa, Shiromani Akali Dal Panch Pardhani and Akhand Kirtani jatha, among others, want the venue to be the Golden temple complex itself.

In the absence of an agreement on the venue, demands for postponing the meeting have also come up.

The fissures among those who have called the meeting, and the dispute over whether or not the Sarbad Khalsa can be convened in this manner may already have taken some sheen away from it, but the Badal government as well as the Sikh clergy are bound to suffer a further setback by the resolutions passed at the convention.

The apprehension among a section of the establishment is that some of the extreme elements may try to again slip in their agenda for a call for Khalistan, even though it has virtually no support left in the state.

If nothing else, it would lead to more embarrassment.