The lunatic fringe of Sikh extremists organised a gathering on November 10, which they proclaimed as a "Sarbat Khalsa" deliberative community assembly, where a convicted and jailed murderer and terrorist has purportedly been appointed as the jathedar of the highest seat of temporal authority in the Sikh faith, the Akal Takth. Other extremists have been assigned as jathedars of the other important shrines, the Takht Kesgarh Sahib and Takht Damdama Sahib.

This gathering, organised by prominent Khalistani advocates and sympathisers, reportedly included a significant number of non-resident Indian Sikhs. Khalistani slogans were raised, and Bhindranwale portraits displayed, at the gathering. Inevitably, the tamasha attracted substantial media attention and raised apprehensions in some quarters that a Khalistani revival was imminent.

No such danger exists. As with past opportunistic mobilisations by the defeated rump of Khalistani extremists, this initiative will also collapse under the burden of its own contradictions. Indeed, in identifying themselves with Khalistani objectives and raising a convicted terrorist and murderer to the revered seat of the Akal Takth, the organisers of this sham Sarbat Khalsa can only discredit themselves in the eyes of the wider community. This disruptive cabal has been rejected again and again by the people of Punjab. In the general elections of 2014, the party of one of its chief illusionists, Simranjit Singh Mann’s Akali Dal–Amritsar, stood for nine parliamentary seats in Punjab and garnered a total of just 35,516 votes (an average of 3,946 votes per constituency). Crucially, the sham Sarbat Khalsa has further exposed the utter lack of intellectual depth and spiritual leadership in this disruptive clique which can only throw up criminals and terrorists among its guides, and has underlined the reality that they have no roots in the Sikh faith, and no respect for its most revered symbols and institutions.

Extremist carnival

There are, nevertheless, several issues that this extremist carnival has raised. One of these is that, despite their reiteration of Khalistani demands – in their references to resolutions of the "Sarbat Khalsa" of April 1986 – several speakers sought to project a conciliatory and inclusive line, promising to take all communities along. Of course, this was immediately diluted by a call and a veiled threat to the Hindus in Punjab to observe a "black Diwali" in view of the acts of sacrilege against the Guru Granth Sahib – which have, on available evidence, most likely been engineered by elements within the same extremist elements with the intention of creating unrest among the Sikhs. The obvious reasons for this relatively pacific line are, first, that the militants do not see themselves as currently strong enough to adopt their characteristically vituperative line; and, secondly, members of the Bahujan Samaj Party and some elements of the Congress – including a prominent leader who had "recently resigned" from the party – had also been roped into participating in the fake Sarbat Khalsa, and an inclusive line, consequently, was adopted as a political expedient.

The second issue is the substantial participation that the extremists were able to drum up – reliably estimated at upwards of 100,000. But this is an index, rather, of the seething resentment against the ruling Akali Dal and the Badal dynasty, and the visible absence of a political alternative in Punjab, than of any resurgence of Khalistani sentiment. Significantly, the extremist gathering was the culmination of months of street, and sometimes violent, political mobilisation, most recently on the "sacrilege" issue, and before that on the movement by distressed farmers protesting inadequate compensation for massive crop damage they had suffered. The sham Sarbat Khalsa was just another opportunity to articulate the rising public frustration and rage against years of corruption and mis-governance in Punjab. It is useful, in this context, to note that, after nearly a decade and a half of the most virulent terrorism, Punjab was still ranked as the second most prosperous State in India on per capita Net State Domestic Product, and maintained this position through the end-1990s. By 2013-14, endemic corruption and the collapse of governance had brought Punjab down to the 14th rank. Complete data is not yet available for all States for the year 2014-'15, but Punjab is likely to have slipped even further, at least to the 15th position, with Karnataka overtaking it.

Murky politics

These factors are compounded further by a rising sentiment against the murky politics of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages Sikh shrines in the state and is at the core of sectarian politics in Punjab, and which has long been controlled by the Badal family and their dominant faction of the Akali Dal. Akali and SGPC politics has long encouraged competitive extremism among various factions of the Akali Dal and surviving splinters of the erstwhile Khalistanis, and this proclivity is invariably exacerbated in times of political crisis in Punjab. The crisis of governance and approaching Assembly elections ensure that temperatures on this count will continue to rise. The crisis that has now been provoked within the SGPC, as a result of brinkmanship in the wake of the obviously engineered acts of "sacrilege", further ensures that such chaos will continue until this problem is resolved.

It is useful, in passing, to note that part of the problem, at least, goes beyond Punjab and the Khalistanis. There is an enveloping environment of polarisation and a renewed aggression in extremist religious formations of all faiths in India today, and extremist politics is discovering new ground everywhere, particularly in areas where a significant political vacuum exists. Punjab is ripe for such exploitation.

The role of the extremist element within the Sikh diaspora is also visible here, both in the mischief they seek to create and exploit, and the degree to which they are, in turn, exploited by local opportunists. Intelligence agencies in Punjab have documented very significant inflows of funding through various routes to the many surviving Khalistani sympathisers in Punjab, and an augmented flow was visible in the days immediately preceding the sham Sarbat Khalsa. Crores have been collected by the organisers of this event – including an overwhelming proportion of foreign contributions in response to online solicitations. Interestingly, little or nothing was actually spent: the land, the tenting and other infrastructure, were all contributed by locals; and the langar and other elements of organisation and hospitality, as usual, were based on voluntary donations and involvement of the participants themselves. Khalistan may be an utter delusion – but it is still a productive cash cow for those who are willing to milk it.

Offenders against the faith

This fake Sarbat Khalsa also declared Lt Gen KS Brar and me tankhaiya – offenders against the faith. It is this religious mafia, rather, that is tankhaiya; they have brought Sikhism into disrepute and the Sikh community into contempt. In this, they are not very different from the Takfiri groups of extremist Islamists, who go about declaring everyone who disagrees with them murtad (apostate) or kafir (unbeliever). Such actions, by a congregation that has no base in the religious institutions of the Sikhs, no legal sanction, and whose leaders have repeatedly been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Sikhs, have no validity and no resonance among the people of Punjab.

Some concerned members of the Sikh community have recently approached the Supreme Court to ban "sardar jokes", because they denigrate the community and bring it into contempt. They would do better to protest the actions of this lunatic fringe and the many others within the Sikh religious leadership who have made a joke and a business out of the Sikh faith.

Former Punjab Director General of Police, KPS Gill is President, Institute for Conflict Management and  Publisher, South Asia Intelligence Review.