Facing elections in 2017, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which is ruling Punjab in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, has indicated that it is likely to take refuge in two emotive issues – incidents of the desecration of the Sikh holy book, and the sharing of river waters with neighbouring states – to beat a tide of anti-incumbency.

The Punjab Assembly started its two-week long Budget session last Tuesday. A press note released by the Parkash Singh Badal government prior to the session listed the introduction of a bill to make the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib an offence punishable with life imprisonment. An Indian Express report said that the bill “proposes that Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) should be amended in its application to Punjab and include life imprisonment for causing ‘injury, damage or sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib with the intent to hurt religious feelings’.”

At present, Section 295 of The Indian Penal Code defines injuring or defiling a place of worship with the intent to insult the religion of any class with punishment for “a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both”.

“The amendment is primarily aimed at making a stringent provision in law to ensure exemplary punishment to all those who flare up communal tension,” said a note by Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.

Playing to the gallery

But the catch in Punjab’s proposal is that the draft bill seeks to increase the penalty to life imprisonment only for “sacrilege of the Sikh holy book”. For all other religions, it seeks an increase in maximum punishment under Section 295 from two years to 10 years.

Punjab may be the only Indian state with the majority of its population following the Sikh religion, but the proposed change means that the Shiromani Akali Dal is privileging Sikhism above others, in violation of the Indian Constitution.

Queries by Scroll.in to the Shiromani Akali Dal spokesperson Harcharan Bains did not get a response.

The proposed amendment seems to have been prompted by 13-odd incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, in October 2015 against which widespread protests brought the state to a standstill for over a week. The protests were mostly non-violent but the ruling party’s attempt to contain them led to police firing in Behbal Kalan in Faridkot district in which two people were killed. The First Information Report didn’t name anyone as responsible for the firing. In November, the government handed over three desecration cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Since then, there has been a deafening silence on identifying or pursuing the miscreants. The latest incident of desecration was reported from Ramdiwali Musalmana village in Majitha, near Amritsar, last week. The culprits, who seemed to be under the influence of drugs, were nabbed. By bringing up the amendment now, the Shiromani Akali Dal perhaps wants to build the perception that it is the sole guardian of the Sikh faith ahead of the elections.

Political games

The Shiromani Akali Dal’s attempt to project itself as the defender of the faith is perhaps tied to its loss of face in dealing with another emotive issue – sharing of Punjab river waters with Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. With elections coming up, Opposition parties are also trying to capitalise on this issue. On the opening day of the ongoing Budget session, the Congress accused the Shiromani Akali Dal of betraying the cause of Punjab, and stalled the proceedings in the Assembly.

Time seems to have blurred public memory of the fact that the river water dispute – which has plagued Punjab for the last 50 years – was one of the primary causes of militancy breaking out in the state in the 1980s. The insurgency took over a decade to quell.

In 1966, Punjab was trifurcated as per the Reorganisation of Punjab Act to form two new states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (see detailed timeline below). In 1976, prime minister Indira Gandhi violated the Act to give one-third of Punjab river waters to Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. In 1977, Devi Lal the chief minister of Haryana requested his friend the chief minister of Punjab - Prakash Singh Badal, who also happens to be the current CM – to link the Sutlej river to the Yamuna. While Badal agreed, other Akali leaders opposed the move and Badal soon joined the chorus. In 1978, the Akalis passed the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Among other demands, they sought the redistribution of river water to favour Punjab. The Dharam Yudh agitation followed in 1982. This catapulted Sikh extremist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to fame, and eventually resulted in militancy in the state.

In 2004, defying a Supreme Court call to complete the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, Amarinder Singh, then the Congress chief minister of Punjab, helmed the Punjab Termination of Waters Agreement Act, which annulled all previous agreements pertaining to the sharing of the Ravi-Beas waters with Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. The Act went to the President who referred it to the courts. Last week, the Supreme Court resumed hearings on the validity of the Act with representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre and in Haryana opposing it. This was a blow for the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has been in alliance with the BJP for the last quarter century. Not to back down, it de-notified 5,000 acres land for the canal, a move which will see land acquired for the project being handed back to its owners. In doing so, the party has shown its readiness to confront the Centre and the courts on the matter.

Water wars?

This not-so-brief but complicated history reveals two main points. One, that the Akali role in the river waters dispute has always been ambiguous, and two, the Congress resolved the issue in a partisan manner – favouring Punjab based on the Riparian principle, a legal term used to describe the rights of landowners through whose property a natural watercourse runs.

When Amarinder Singh helmed the Act annulling all water sharing agreements, neither Congress president Sonia Gandhi nor Manmohan Singh, then the prime minister, supported his stance. But in Punjab, Amarinder Singh was given the sobriquet of the “saviour of the waters of Punjab”.

The Aam Aadmi Party, which has emerged as a force to reckon with in Punjab, has also waded into the matter. However, AAP is the ruling party in Delhi whose chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, hails from Haryana. Therefore, the party has to tread carefully as openly taking sides will upset at least one of its constituencies. AAP has pulled out an old advertisement showing Amarinder Singh inviting Indira Gandhi for the inauguration of the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal in 1982. The party has also claimed that if elected, it will nab the culprits behind the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.

The fact of the matter is that Punjab no longer has enough water for its own needs. Kaptan Singh Solanki, the Governor of Punjab, Haryana and administrator of Chandigarh, backed Punjab’s argument in his address during the Budget session. But it is also clear that Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi need water. However, instead of providing a framework towards a solution, all three political parties are adding fuel to fire - whether it is regarding the desecration of the Sikh holy book, or sharing Punjab’s waters. It’s going to be a long, hot wait till the Assembly elections next year.

Timeline: The story of the waters of the northern states:

  • 1947: Partition of India. Questions over what happens to the waters of Punjab which forms the basin of the River Indus that is now in Pakistan.
  • 1960: Indus Water Treaty gave India and Pakistan the use of three rivers each. Punjab got Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. 
  • 1966: Punjab trifurcated. Haryana wants water, but Punjab claims right as per the Riparian principle of use of water. 
  • 1976: Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, intervened ruling that of the three rivers, each state would get one third water. She did this in violation of the Reorganisation of Punjab Act 1966.
  • 1978: The Akalis pass the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Among other demands, they sought the redistribution of river water to favour Punjab.
  • 1979: Haryana approached the Supreme Court to implement allocation of water. 
  • 1979: Parkash Singh Badal chief minister of Punjab challenged the allocation.
  • 1979: Badal’s friend Devi Lal took over as CM in Haryana. Though the river Yamuna only flows through Haryana, Devi Lal requested Badal to link the Sutlej to the Yamuna. Badal agreed. The design of the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal was finalised and the first notice for land acquisition was issued. 
  • 1982: The Akalis started the Dharam Yudh Morcha to implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The agitation catapulted Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale into the limelight. 
  • 1985: The Akali Dal government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala undertook the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. 
  • 1990: Work was halted when militants gunned down a number of workers, the superintending engineer, and the chief engineer. 
  • 2002: The Supreme Court issued a directive to the Punjab government to complete the canal. 
  • 2004: Amarinder Singh, then the chief minister of Punjab, helmed the Punjab Termination of Waters Agreement Act, 2004. The Act annulled all earlier accords and awards on the apportionment of river waters between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan.  

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Punjab.