Continuing its alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is consistently driving Punjab’s political powerhouse of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) (Badal) into a corner. The latter’s compulsion of keeping the alliance afloat has led to the SAD facing Hobson’s choice. This is because as the BJP moves ahead implementing its core agenda of Hindutva, the Akalis are toeing the line of their ally at the cost of alienating their core support base of Sikhs and also their decades-old claimed legacy on issues like federalism. The last four months have seen them getting caught on the wrong foot on several important issues of national interest and making mere feeble noises does not guarantee any positive outcome for them. These issues include abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35 A in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP advocating one nation one language, the commuting of death sentence of former chief minister Beant Singh’s assassin Balwant Singh Rajoana etc.
The latest issue where the party has come out with a stand that sounds ‘ambiguous’ is the Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) where while welcoming the move of the centre, the party has also said the Bill cover all persecuted people irrespective of religion. A statement issued by the party said that keeping in view the country’s socialistic, secular and democratic credentials as well as humanitarian principles Muslims should not be excluded from the Bill on the basis of religion. Observers are pointing out that if the whole issue gets diluted if Muslims are included in the exercise and if the SAD is keen on this stand, it needs to be more vociferous on the issue.
This came a day later of the Congress Chief Minister of the state Captain Amarinder Singh coming out strongly against both National Register of Citizens (NRC and CAB in Delhi. He said, “Let the proposed CAB be passed by the parliament and come to our assembly where we have 2/3rd majority…it will not be passed in my state.”
The feeble voice raised by Akalis is in direct contrast to common man in Punjab who is speaking with conviction against the CAB and CRC.
The party was placed in a tight spot by none other than union home minister Amit Shah on the issue of commuting of death sentence of Rajoana. Replying to a question from Ravneet Singh Bittu who is also the grandson of Beant Singh as to why the centre had commuted the death sentence, Shah came out saying, "Please, don't go by media reports. Koi maafi nahi ki gayi."
Barely three months ago, newspapers had carried reports of the centre commuting the death sentence. While Shah’s statement in the Lok Sabha is still being interpreted through different prisms, it needs to be recalled that the SAD on November 14 had come out with a statement asking the Congress party not to oppose the commutation of the death sentence into life imprisonment. SAD’s Member of Parliament Prem Singh Chandumajra said the Congress should accept the ‘healing touch’ applied by the NDA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi following appeals of the SAD and the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). “The decision is also in keeping with the sentiments of the Sikh community and is designed to assuage their hurt sentiments following the series of attacks on their religious institutions as well as human right excesses by the Congress governments at the centre and the state. We must not forget that thousands of innocent Sikh youth were killed as part of the state-sponsored terror unleashed by the Congress government led by Beant Singh. The commutation of Bhai Rajoana’s sentence and the release of Sikh prisoners languishing in jails after the completion of their sentences seek to apply balm to the aggrieved psyche of the Sikh community. We should let this closure take place instead of trying to aggravate the situation,” he added.
Now after Shah’s statement, all that the party president Sukhbir Singh Badal could say was that the SAD would meet Shah soon and apprise him about the special circumstances to ensure Rajoana’s sentence was commuted. “I am confident that the home minister will see our point of view as well as that of the Sikh community and take an appropriate decision in the matter,” he said.
However, the issue that has done maximum damage to the SAD’s image is its stand on the abrogation of Article 370 and 35 A in Jammu and Kashmir. By going along with the BJP, its stand has been diametrically opposite to the sentiment of the masses. Punjabis have been on the forefront to speak out on behalf of the Kashmiris and have been opposing the centre’s moves in Jammu and Kashmir. There have been protests galore to oppose the centre’s moves. People have been saying that the SAD has compromised with its core ideology of federalism and regional autonomy by siding with the BJP led central government. After all, this was the party that had reportedly contested the 1967 polls on the issue of Sikhistan.
It needs to be understood that Punjab now remains the only state where a national minority is in majority and its location along the Pakistan border further makes the matters more complex.
While the Akali stand on the issue of Kashmir has been a U-turn in terms of its ideology, the radical groups in Punjab continue to play up the issue of Kashmir. Dal Khalsa and Akali Dal (Amritsar) had decided to organize an event in Srinagar to mark the World Human Rights Day on December 10. Their cadres were however stopped from entering Jammu and Kashmir.
A statement issued by Dal Khalsa president Harpal Singh Cheema said, “We will not stay silent and continue to expose the lies of the Indian state and stand for the rights of the people of Kashmir who are facing the worst persecution in the present times.”
Party leader Kanwarpal Singh while speaking at the sit-in protest at the border said, ‘It is ironical that even on the occasion of Human Rights Day, we are not allowed to talk and uphold human rights. The stoppage of Sikh leaders and human rights activists by the government from entering Jammu and Kashmir is a loud declaration by the Indian state that just as there are no rights of the people of Kashmir. Not only that, even those who want to observe Human Rights Day for the people of Kashmir have no right to do so.”
Observers further point that the SAD’s response to the one nation one language push of the BJP has also not been vociferous although it did reportedly pass a resolution saying, “The party firmly believes that throughout the country the regional languages serve as inalienable symbol of the rich multi-cultural character of our federal and democratic polity.”It has again been the student and civil society organizations that have come forward to say a big no to the BJP moves.
It has been reported in the past that many of the SAD supporters are not happy with the party playing to the BJP tune. The top Akali leadership has also been under attack from its rival parties that have been taking potshots at the Badal family accusing it of compromising on the interests of Punjab for the lure of a central cabinet berth held by Harsimrat Kaur Badal. Despite the discomfort, the Akalis seem to be eager to continue with the alliance for now.