On the evening of 31 January 2017, soon after the end of a rally by the Congress candidate Harminder Singh Jassi at Maur Mandi, near Bhatinda, Punjab, two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed in an abandoned car and scooter blew up just as a vehicle carrying the politician drove past. Shrapnel hit Jassi’s car, killing his personal assistant and two others. Nearly a dozen others were critically injured, three of whom later succumbed to their injuries. Both the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) were quick to react to the incident, and to blame the Aam Aadmi Party. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal reportedly said, “We have been asking the Election Commission to take note of AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal mingling with extremists.” This was a sentiment Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress seemed to share: “The situation here is volatile, with the entry of AAP-sponsored outsiders.”
Throughout their campaign for the 2017 assembly elections, both the Congress and the Akali Dal have repeatedly pointed to the contact the AAP has established with the Sikh radicals in the state as well as the widespread support the party has gathered from Non-Residential Indians, as the basis for claiming that it is encouraging Sikh extremism and Khalistani separatism. But a look at the Maur blasts shows that the facts do not submit to such a straightforward explanation. If anything, the AAP’s attempts to reach out to Sikh radicals may be among the healthiest contributions the party is making in Punjab.
Jassi is a senior Congress politician whose daughter is married to the son of Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a self-described “social welfare and spiritual” organisation based in Sirsa, Haryana. The dera head has a large following in parts of Punjab and Haryana, and has never shied away from making political use of the influence he commands. Less than a week before polling began for the 2014 Haryana assembly elections, the political wing of the Dera Sacha Sauda openly declared its support for the BJP in the state. This announcement came a few days after Amit Shah visited the dera, reportedly seeking Gurmit Singh’s support, and after 44 of the state’s 90 BJP candidates met the dera chief. In Punjab, Gurmit Singh’s backing is of considerable importance—support for the dera is massive in the Malwa region, which elects nearly 70 of the state’s 117 MLAs. In the 2012 assembly election, the dera had backed the Congress, and the Akalis lost hold of many Malwa constituencies. On 1 February 2017, the dera announced its support for the SAD-BJP alliance.
The dera chief had earned the ire of Sikh orthodoxy in 2007, after he was said to have appeared publicly in garb usually associated with Guru Gobind Singh. Most of the Sikh community considered this a grave offense—clashes broke out between his followers and orthodox Sikhs in parts of the state. The Akal Takht—the highest seat of the Sikh religion—issued an edict forbidding the community from establishing any social contact with Gurmit Singh. But in September 2015, seeking to gain the dera’s support, Sukhbir Badal managed to ensure that the Sikh clergy pardoned the dera chief. Gurmit Singh did not have to appear before the Akal Takht, as those accused of offending the Sikh religion are expected to—an exemption that even Giani Zail Singh was not granted while serving as the president of India. The Sikh reaction to the pardon was extreme, and the Akal Takht subsequently revoked it.
The attack on Jassi took place against this background. It showed that there are elements in Punjab who still have the potential to carry out isolated terror attacks, and that these are inevitably linked to the Akali Dal’s long history of using Sikh radical politics to its further its own ends. But like Hindu radical politics—the correct term for the Hindutva-based politics of the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and elements such as the Sanatan Sanstha—Sikh radical politics in India takes on various forms, many of which have little to do with Sikh separatism, Khalistan or violence. At a time when attempts are constantly being made to bring the Hurriyat Conference separatists of Kashmir into the political mainstream, and a Hindu radical such as Amit Shah—to say nothing of the VHP’s Giriraj Kishore or the Hindu Yuva Vahini’s Adityanath—leads the BJP, the Akalis’ and the Congress’ repeated attempts to brand Sikh radicals as political pariahs is absurd.
So far, the history of the state has made these radicals the pawns of the Akali Dal. The Congress’s association with events such as Operation Bluestar and the 1984 massacres has ensured that no radicals in the state will overtly work with the party—though since Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, some have done so covertly. Other radicals, especially those who were accused of having committed violent acts during the course of their association with Bhindranwale, have carved successful careers with the Akali Dal—take, for instance, Virsa Singh Valtoha, who was earlier accused of murders, bombings and robberies, and is now the SAD MLA from Khem Karn. But those radicals who have been unable to make peace with the Akali Dal of the post-militancy era—but a fiefdom of the Badal family—have had no means to engage with democratic politics, except through the antics of mavericks such as Simaranjit Singh Mann, the sidelined leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), who has stayed firm on his call for Khalistan.
It is ironic then that Sukhbir Badal has repeatedly stated that the AAP not only has close links with radicals, but is funded by them as well. He did so only after Sikh radical groups reached out to the AAP. It is a move that makes pragmatic sense for both sides: a large part of the Sikh vote, disillusioned with the Akali Dal under the Badals, has been searching for an alternative other than the Congress. The AAP fills that vacuum. Consequently, many from the ranks of the radicals who work for the AAP today find ways of tapping Sikh sentiment that the party would never have managed on its own.
The radicals hope their association with the AAP will provide them the heft—financial and otherwise—to challenge the Akali Dal in the one arena that sustains the party’s power: the gurdwara elections, which constitute the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee. The SGPC manages all Sikh religious affairs in Punjab. Even if the Akali Dal loses the assembly elections, the Badals will retain power so long as they control the SGPC. If politics in Punjab has to expand beyond the nepotism and corruption rampant under the current regime, the battle for the SGPC is at least as relevant as the assembly elections.
Lastly—and perhaps this is most important—it is must be acknowledged that Khalistanis, who have now acquired the language of peaceful struggle, command gurdwaras and institutions in both the UK and Canada, even if they are in a minority within the Sikh diaspora in these countries. The way to dislodge or weaken them does not lie in the politics practiced by the Akalis, who have often used their own links with Khalistani forces abroad to cast themselves as the defenders of communal peace in India. It lies instead in the politics that connects the diaspora to India, and not just the ghetto of Sikh politics in Punjab. Despite all its shortcomings, the AAP is the medium through which radicals in Punjab and Sikhs abroad are, for the first time, connecting with a politics that extends beyond the state, to the rest of India.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.