As part of Punjab makeover, BJP gets some panthic faces

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi found an unlikely ally in Harnam Singh Dhumma, chief of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh seminary once headed by Khalistani extremist Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed in Operation Blue Star. While others like the SGPC questioned Modi’s announcement of December 26 as Vir Bal Divas to honour the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh killed by the Mughals, Dhumma commended him.

Arguably the most vocal chief of the Taksal after Bhindranwale, Dhumma said: “There are very few who fulfill their duty and the PM has done this. He should be thanked. He has told the entire world about the martyrdom of the two younger sons and mother of Guru Gobind Singh.”

Soon after Dhumma’s comment, his spokesperson, Sarchand Singh, once the president of the Sikh Students’ Federation, an organisation marshalled by Bhindranwale during the 1980s, joined the BJP. Singh, a professor of Punjabi, was followed by Kanwarveer Singh Tohra, grandson of the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who remained president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee for 27 years and was popularly called the pope of the Sikhs.

The BJP, which till a few months ago was struggling to find Sikh faces in Punjab, now has new members with strong Panthic credentials apart from disgruntled Akali and Congress leaders. The Damdami Taksal teaches Sikh scriptures and prides itself on protecting the tenets of the religion in their purest form.

But the BJP-Taksal association is curious for both sides. The BJP has been talking of a Khalistani hand since the start of the farm protests, and has raised the pitch after the blockade that prevented Prime Minister Narendra Modi from addressing a rally earlier this month in Punjab. BJP ally Amarinder Singh routinely talks of the “threat” posed by Khalistani elements in the border state.

Taksal though is closely associated with Punjab’s militancy years. In the 1980s, extremists commanded by Bhindranwale had made their base at the Taksal’s headquarters at Chowk Mehta, 40 km from Amritsar. As recently as 2016, there were allegations that the Taksal was involved in a bid to kill a Patiala-based preacher opposed to it, Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale.

Defending his entry into the BJP, Sarchand said when regional parties fail to resolve issues pertaining to the panth, an individual is forced to look for alternatives. “The state leadership has failed to get its demands met by the Centre. The BJP at the Centre can resolve long-pending issues such as the release of Sikh political prisoners and others pertaining to gurdwaras outside the state.”

Defending his entry into the BJP, Sarchand said when regional parties fail to resolve issues pertaining to the panth, an individual is forced to look for alternatives.

Sarchand also said the PM had demonstrated his sincerity by trying to bring justice to victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and by opening the Kartarpur Corridor to allow pilgrims visa-free access to one of the Sikh holy shrines. “The Congress attacked our religion, the holiest of our shrines (Golden Temple, during Operation Blue Star). The BJP stood by us, the PM celebrates Gurpurab, why shouldn’t we support it?”

Admitting not everyone is happy, Sarchan added: “To them, I say we should have a dialogue with the BJP as an insider.”

On the labelling of farmer protesters as “Khalistanis”, Sarchand said the PM had never called them that. “These are mischievous elements,” he said, adding that he would rally Sikh historians and intellectuals to support the party.

Tohra, a political greenhorn whose father was a minister in the Akali Dal Cabinet led by Badal Senior, said an old friend told him the RSS was very fond of Sikhs, and that the PM’s actions demonstrated it. After he joined the BJP, Tohra said, its leaders asked him what he would do for the well-being of Sikhs. “Even the Akalis no longer ask this question.”

On the bitterness caused by the farmer agitation, Tohra, an engineer-turned farmer whose actor wife Mahreen Kaleka has been supporting the farm agitation, shot back: “Has a Congress PM ever apologised for Operation Blue Star? But the PM (Modi) sought forgiveness for the three farm laws.”

While the BJP said the developments show that the Punjabis are having a change of heart towards it, other parties see “rank opportunism”. Senior Akali leader and former minister Dr Daljeet Cheema said: “People are joining the BJP for their personal gains, and the ‘panthic soch (thinking)’ will not condone it.”

Prof Amarjit Singh, director of Guru Granth Sahib Studies at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, said only time will tell whether the saffron party is really interested in resolving panthic issues. “It was during their tenure that Punjabi was removed as a special language by Jammu and Kashmir. Complete justice is yet to be done in the 1984 riots. The Sachar panel had provided streetwise details of the culprits, they can act on it. Also, if they are serious about Punjab’s welfare, they should open the Wagah border for trade.”

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