Religion has returned to the centre stage of Punjab’s politics and will remain the flavour of the state’s general election battle in 2019. This suits the ruling Congress, is essential for the Shiromani Akali Dal and a compulsion for the Aam Aadmi Party.

If more confirmation was needed, it came on Sunday. The Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal held rallies in each other’s bastions that day – the ruling party in Lambi, the Opposition party in Patiala – but it was a protest march from Kotkapura to Bargari in Faridkot district that stole both their thunder. It was organised by a group of religious organisations and saw participation by hardline Sikh outfits and a rebel faction within AAP. They were protesting against the government’s failure in taking to “logical conclusion” the investigation into the alleged desecration of Sikh holy texts in 2015 and the police’s killing of two people in a subsequent agitation. The previous day, the AAP leadership had held a protest with the same theme at Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s residence in Chandigarh.

Religion has been the dominant theme of Punjab’s politics ever since the report of the Ranjit Singh Commission was leaked, and later tabled in the Assembly, in August. The commission had been set up by the Amarinder Singh government in April 2017 to inquire into all alleged instances of the desecration of holy texts over the previous three years. The report put the heat on the Akalis, especially Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal, who were in power when the police firing on protestors at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan occurred in October 2015. Badal senior was chief minister at the time while his son served as his deputy.

They are also drawing fire for letting the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, which manages the Sikh places of worship, and the Akal Takht, Sikhism’s highest temporal authority, grant a pardon to the Dera Saccha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, only to withdraw it following an outcry in 2015. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, currently in jail for rape, stood accused of blasphemy for allegedly wearing attire similar to that of the Sikh guru Gobind Singh in 2007. In the last few months, several followers of the Dera Saccha Sauda have been arrested for alleged sacrilege.

It hasn’t helped that Sukhbir Badal “ran away” from a debate on the Ranjit Singh Commission’s report in the Assembly last month. There is churning even within the Badals’ own party. That at least is the meaning being ascribed to senior leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa quitting all posts citing ill health, and MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, former MP Rattan Singh Ajnala and former minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan staying away from the Patiala rally.

Advantage Congress

All this has enabled the Congress to encroach upon the Akali Dal’s traditional religious turf. At the Lambi rally, Amarinder Singh and Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar released the poster for “Mission 13” – a reference to Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats, of which the party holds just three – while ramping up their attacks on the Badals. It was the chief minister’s first foray into Lambi after unsuccessfully contesting against Parkash Singh Badal in last year’s Assembly election and, not surprisingly, he focussed on the issue of sacrilege.

“Badal claimed to have slept through Behbal Kalan firing but the then director general of police exposed the lies before Justice Ranjit Singh Commission,” Amarinder Singh said. “How can Badal claim that he did not know about such an important development as police firing? He should feel ashamed.”

The chief minister said he promised to take action against the Badals once the Special Investigation Team probing the incidents of police firing submits a report.

Raising the rhetoric on the desecration issue will not only help the Congress force the Akalis on the back foot ahead of the election but also divert public attention from the ruling party’s unfulfilled campaign promises. It has been facing criticism for the “partial loan waiver” to farmers which has drawn protests as well as the failure to generate employment and curb the drug menace.

The Badals, on their part, have taken recourse to projecting their party as the “true representative” of the Sikh Panth. Speaking at the Patiala rally, Parkash Singh Badal thundered that the Panth will never allow the “enemies of Sikhs, the Congress party”, to grab gurudwaras and preside over Sikh heritage.

Seeking to absolve his party of blame for the violence over alleged sacrilege, Sukhbir Badal said the “real demons” are those who commit desecration “to destroy peace and communal harmony in Punjab”. Specifically referring to an alleged instance of sacrilege at Bargari, the immediate trigger for the violence in 2015, the Akali Dal chief said, “If anyone was mortified by this incident it was the Shiromani Akali Dal. The Congress used it to launch a defamation campaign against us and is still teaming up with elements that are using the name of the Panth to earn money in the name of religion.”

AAP’s compulsion

After coming badly unstuck in the last Assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party is desperately trying to get its act together for 2019. The then nascent party was the big surprise of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, winning four seats in Punjab. Its fortunes have since plummeted, faring miserably in subsequent elections and losing many senior leaders. Now, realising that religion will be a key issue in the upcoming election, the party has jumped on the desecration bandwagon. Its leaders sat on a dharna outside the chief minister’s residence on October 6, protesting against alleged incidents of sacrilege of holy books and demanding the arrest of those responsible for the police firing at Behbal Kalan in 2015.

The party’s leaders have alleged that Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal are “hand in glove” and that the Congress is protecting the Badals.

But the very next day, the party’s rebel group led by Sukhpal Singh Khaira threw a spanner in the leadership’s works by joining hands with hard liner organisations to march from Kotkapura to Bargari. That the march drew a large crowd indicates that public anger over sacrilege incidents has far from died down – and is set to animate Punjab’s political discourse going into the election.