THE DERA, DEALS AND DESECRATIONS

Hindustan Times (Patiala) - - News -

Pun­jab’s re­cent tryst with tu­mult has its epi­cen­tre in the 11-year-old con­flict be­tween the Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs. A flash­point came in 2015 with in­ci­dents of sacri­lege in the Malwa re­gion. HT pieces to­gether the jig­saw of des­e­cra­tion plot that is cast­ing shadow on state’s hard-earned peace.

REWIND Peace in Pun­jab is of­ten de­cep­tive. Lurk­ing be­neath the ve­neer of ev­ery­day nor­malcy is a cease­less col­lu­sion and col­li­sion be­tween the forces of pol­i­tics, faith and fa­nati­cism. This deadly mix has un­canny ways of cleav­ing open the ten­u­ous com­mu­nal and sec­tar­ian fault lines with vi­o­lent con­se­quences. The bor­der state’s re­cent tryst with tu­mult has its ge­n­e­sis in the 11­year­old sim­mer­ing con­flict be­tween the Sirsa­based Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs. A flash­point came in 2015 with a string of in­ci­dents of sacri­lege of Guru Granth Sahib in the Malwa re­gion. The re­sult­ing parox­ysm of Sikh anger swept the Shi­ro­mani Akali Dal out of power in 2017. But emo­tive is­sues never fade away in Pun­jab. Prin­ci­pal correspondent Ravin­der Va­sudeva pored over a plethora of FIRs, con­fi­den­tial but ex­plo­sive find­ings of a three­year­long po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the Jus­tice Ran­jit Singh report to piece to­gether the jig­saw of a di­a­bol­i­cal des­e­cra­tion plot that has shaken the SAD to its core, trig­gered po­lit­i­cal tremors and is cast­ing a long shadow on the state’s hard­earned peace

It was a scorch­ing af­ter­noon on June 1, 2015, when chil­dren of the non-de­script Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala vil­lage in Farid­kot dis­trict told the gur­d­wara granthi that the sa­roop of Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book the Sikhs wor­ship as the liv­ing guru, was miss­ing. “Aunty ji, baba ji (Guru Granth Sahib) nahi hai ethe (Guru Granth Sahib is miss­ing),” a panic-stricken 10-year-old boy shouted as he ran to the house of granthi Gora Singh and his wife, Swaran­jeet Kaur.

The granthi, who taught the gur­bani to vil­lage chil­dren daily, was away to per­form a path (a prayer) at a house in the vil­lage. At first, Swaran­jeet thought some­thing un­for­tu­nate had hap­pened to her hus­band but the boy and his friends took her to the gur­d­wara to show her the palki where the sa­roop of Guru Granth Sahib was miss­ing.

She called up her hus­band and an an­nounce­ment was made ask­ing vil­lagers to gather at the gur­d­wara. “Kise ne Ma­haraj saab de sa­roop nu chori kar leya hai. Sareyaan nu benti hai ke jaldi

to jaldi gur­d­wara saab pu­jjo (Some­one has stolen Guru Granth Sahib, ev­ery­one is re­quested to reach the gur­d­wara at the ear­li­est),” was the an­nounce­ment.

An un­easy calm had pre­vailed at Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala, a vil­lage with a pop­u­la­tion of 2,000, for the past few months be­fore the in­ci­dent. The vil­lage had seen an in­crease in Sikh re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties and it had be­come a con­tentious is­sue be­tween the Sikhs and fol­low­ers of the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda.

As vil­lagers took up the mat­ter with the po­lice, a team headed by then deputy in­spec­tor gen­eral (DIG), Ferozepur, AS Cha­hal and then Farid­kot se­nior su­per­in­ten­dent of po­lice Cha­ran­jit Sharma reached the spot and a case was reg­is­tered the next day.

The po­lice could not get any lead for a week. The de­lay and sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter led to anger build­ing up against the po­lice. Vil­lagers and lo­cal Sikh or­gan­i­sa­tions kept rais­ing the alarm about the dis­con­tent brew­ing.

On June 10, a spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion team, led by Sharma, was formed but it could not make any head­way for three months.

POSTERS TRIG­GER TEN­SION

On Septem­ber 25 morn­ing, ten­sion gripped the vil­lage when a res­i­dent no­ticed posters with abu­sive lan­guage against Sikhs and their Gu­rus at the samadh of Pir Dhodha ad­join­ing the gur­d­wara from where the holy book had gone miss­ing on June 1. The deroga­tory lan­guage was writ­ten in bold with a black ink marker.

The pre­vi­ous evening, a sim­i­lar poster with deroga­tory lan­guage against Sikhs was stuck on the wall of a gur­d­wara in Bar­gari vil­lage, barely 3km away. It was re­moved by lo­cal res­i­dents.

Both posters told Sikhs that their “liv­ing God” had been stolen from Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala and was in Bar­gari vil­lage. Its angs (parts, Sikhs wor­ship pages of the holy book as body parts) will be cut and scat­tered in the near fu­ture and if Sikhs had the guts they could re­cover it and get prize money, the posters dared.

The posters put forth a de­mand too. They said that Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s lat­est film, Mes­sen­ger of God-2 (MSG-2), be re­leased in Pun­jab.

The movie had been re­leased in neigh­bour­ing Haryana and other states on Septem­ber 18 but it was not screened in Pun­jab due to protests by Sikh or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Sikhs have been in con­fronta­tion with the dera, which en­joys a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing in Pun­jab, ever since the dera head com­mit­ted a blas­phemy in 2007 by at­tir­ing him­self as Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru.

PAR­DON TO DERA HEAD ADDS IN­SULT TO IN­JURY

The po­lice did not take the threat se­ri­ously and dis­missed the dera an­gle as a diversionary tac­tic, says the Jus­tice Ran­jit Singh Com­mis­sion, con­sti­tuted by the Cap­tain Amarinder Singh gov­ern­ment to probe the cases of sacri­lege of holy books dur­ing the SAD-BJP rule.

With the cops clue­less, the anger of Sikhs only grew in Septem­ber 2015. Re­li­gious lead­ers such as Pan­th­preet Singh, Ran­jit Singh Dhadar­i­an­wale and rad­i­cal Sikh leader Bal­bir Singh Daduwal started lead­ing peo­ple’s protest agianst the gov­ern­ment.

The sacri­lege was not the only is­sue that an­gered Sikhs. On Septem­ber 24 when the anti-Sikh posters sur­faced at Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala and Bar­gari, the Akal Takht, which is the high­est tem­po­ral seat of the Sikhs, par­doned Gurmeet Ram Rahim in the blas­phemy case.

The man­ner in which the par­don was granted added in­sult to in­jury. Most Sikhs felt it was done at the be­hest of SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal to gar­ner dera sup­port in the 2017 assem­bly elec­tions by al­low­ing the re­lease of MSG-2.

ANGER BOILS OVER

On Oc­to­ber 12, pages (angs or parts) of Guru Granth Sahib were scat­tered in front of the gur­d­wara at Bar­gari and on an outer road of the vil­lage.

As news spread, lo­cal res­i­dents and mem­bers of Sikh or­gan­i­sa­tions reached Bar­gari and be­gan a dharna (protest). The po­lice reg­is­tered another FIR but by then pub­lic anger had boiled over.

At 3pm, the pro­test­ers headed for the nearby town of Kotka­pura and kept the torn pages of the holy book at the dharna site. It was at this stage that the SAD-BJP gov­ern­ment sensed the pub­lic anger and rushed po­lice from var­i­ous dis­tricts to Kotka­pura, a Hindu-dom­i­nated town.

The po­lice feared the large gath­er­ing of Sikhs, led by rad­i­cals, could trig­ger a law and or­der prob­lem. On Oc­to­ber 14 morn­ing, they re­sorted to the force­ful evic­tion of the Sikh pro­test­ers af­ter declar­ing the assem­bly un­law­ful.

The Sikh pro­test­ers re­tal­i­ated and burnt po­lice ve­hi­cles, in­jur­ing po­lice­men. The po­lice re­sorted to lath­icharge to dis­perse the pro­test­ers and their lead­ers were ar­rested. Pro­test­ers, how­ever, have a dif­fer­ent take on the day’s de­vel­op­ments.

“The san­gat (gath­er­ing) was do­ing path (prayer) in the morn­ing at the dharna site when the po­lice came and started the lath­icharge and then opened fire,” says Daduwal.

In videos that sur­faced af­ter the ten­sion, po­lice of­fi­cials are seen re­quest­ing the pro­test­ers with folded hands to lift the dharna. There is also footage of pro­test­ers beat­ing up po­lice­men and torch­ing their ve­hi­cles.

The po­lice fi­nally got the site evicted by 7am. They say they got a mes­sage from Bar­gari that pro­test­ers had sur­rounded the po­lice post and were about to set it on fire.

A team led by then Moga SSP Cha­ran­jit Sharma rushed to Bar­gari with po­lice per­son­nel. On the way, the pro­test­ers blocked the road at Be­hbal Kalan. Des­per­ate to reach Bar­gari, the po­lice opened fire on the pro­test­ers, killing two peo­ple.

IN LINE OF FIRE, AKALIS PAY A HEAVY PRICE

The killings evoked re­sent­ment against then chief min­is­ter Parkash Singh Badal and his son, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the then deputy chief min­is­ter who held the home port­fo­lio.

The anger against the sacri­lege, the apol­ogy to the dera head fol­lowed by the fir­ing had mul­ti­plied their anger man­i­fold and peo­ple started boy­cotting SAD lead­ers.

An FIR of at­tempt to mur­der was reg­is­tered against SSP Sharma and other cops but it failed to as­suage the hurt of the Sikh com­mu­nity.

Ten­sion gripped Pun­jab for sev­eral days. All ma­jor roads of the state were blocked by Sikh pro­test­ers. Shi­ro­mani Gur­d­wara Par­band­hak Com­mit­tee mem­bers were thrashed and the en­tire SAD lead­er­ship re­mained con­fined to their houses.

On Oc­to­ber 24, the gov­ern­ment tried to con­trol the dam­age by re­plac­ing the DGP Sumedh Saini with Suresh Arora.

The Jus­tice Zora Singh Com­mis­sion was set up to probe the in­ci­dents of fir­ing and sacri­lege but its sug­ges­tions were not im­ple­mented. The assem­bly elec­tions in 2017 left the SAD dec­i­mated as it won only 15 of the 70 seats. It was the party’s worst-ever tally.

DERA’S ROLE IN SACRI­LEGE: HOW AND WHY

The spe­cial in­ves­ti­gat­ing team (SIT), headed by DIG Ran­bir Singh Kha­tra, says the trig­ger of the sacri­lege by dera fol­low­ers was the tus­sle they had with Sikhs in the re­gion.

In March 2015, ten­sion gripped Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala vil­lage over a gath­er­ing of a Sikh preacher, Har­jin­der Singh Man­jhi, who used to crit­i­cise the Sirsa dera head. Dera fol­low­ers op­posed his gath­er­ing and the mat­ter reached the po­lice.

The is­sue was re­solved with the un­der­stand­ing that Man­jhi would not speak against the dera head. But on the third day of his dis­course, Man­jhi con­vinced some dera fol­low­ers in his gath­er­ing to shun the sect. They fol­lowed suit, throw­ing lock­ets con­tain­ing the dera head’s photo on the ground.

This rat­tled lo­cal lead­ers of the dera and they de­cided to avenge the dis­re­spect to Ram Rahim.

“Ena ne sada guru pairan vich ro­leya, asin ena da guru pairan vich rolange (They in­sulted our re­li­gious head, we will in­sult theirs),” was the re­ac­tion of the king­pins of the sacri­lege in­ci­dents, Mo­hin­der Pal Singh Bittu, Pardeep Kaler and Harsh Dhuri.

Bittu was asked to plan the re­tal­i­a­tion. He chose Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala to steal the Guru Granth Sahib as Man­jhi’s dis­course was held there.

RE­TRAC­ING THE CRIME

The SIT found two dera fol­low­ers, namely Sukhjin­der Singh, alias Sunny, of Kotka­pura and Ran­deep Singh, alias Neela, of Farid­kot ex­e­cuted the con­spir­acy.

On June 1 2015, Sunny and Neela rode a mo­tor­cy­cle to dera fol­lower Gur­dev Singh’s shop fac­ing the gur­d­wara. Gur­dev sig­nalled them to go ahead. Neela stole the holy book and en route to Kotka­pura met Nis­han Singh, Baljit Singh, Shakti and Ran­jit Singh Bholla who were wait­ing in an Alto car.

Shakti and Baljit took the holy book in the car to the naam char­cha ghar at Kotka­pura. Later, the sa­roop was hid­den at Baljit’s sec­ond house at Sikhan­wala vil­lage, where he stored junk items.

On Septem­ber 24, us­ing the film, MSG-2, as a ploy to hurt sen­ti­ments of the dera, the ac­cused pasted posters chal­leng­ing the Sikh com­mu­nity. On Oc­to­ber 12, Sunny, Nis­han, Baljit, Ran­jit and Shakti met at Kotka­pura. Baljit brought Guru Granth Sahib from his house in a car.

At Dhilwan vil­lage, they cut the pages with a pa­per cut­ter and scat­tered them at Bar­gari and Burj Jawa­har Singh Wala. The rest of the pages were handed over to Bittu and were thrown in a lo­cal drain.

“The co­in­ci­den­tal cor­re­la­tion be­tween the sacri­lege and the af­fix­ing of posters, spread­ing of angs is too ap­par­ent to show the dera link in the crime. MSG-2 was re­leased on Septem­ber 16 all over In­dia. Around this time, the move was ini­ti­ated to or­gan­ise par­don for the dera head. This could not have taken place sud­denly. On Septem­ber 24, the posters came up and the same day the par­don was granted,” says the Ran­jit panel. “All this could not be ig­nored eas­ily,” the panel adds.

HT PHOTOS

FAITH VS FAITH: Snap­shots of the vi­o­lence that singed the Malwa belt of Pun­jab af­ter the sacri­lege in­ci­dents in Oc­to­ber 2015, pit­ting Sikhs against Dera Sacha Sauda fol­low­ers.

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