Guru Gobind Singh JI, the tenth master of the Sikhs gave a call to his community to look upon the sacred Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru. The Sikh community, in pursuance of the order has reposed complete faith in the holy Granth that is revered as living Guru. It is from this source that the community draws its spiritual solace. The Sikh community cannot tolerate desecration of the holy book or the “Gurudwara” (abode of the Guru).
The year 2015, witnessed a series of incidents of desecration of the holy Guru Granth Sahib, in certain places across Punjab, which have had a severe impact on the collective psyche of the community. On June, 01, 2015, in the first reported incident, the holy Granth was stolen from a Gurudwara in village Burj Jawahar Singh Wala in Faridkot District of Punjab The incident elicited widespread distress and condemnation with the community leaders demanding immediate arrest of the culprits.
A few months later on September, 25, posters came up at a place called Dhodha Peer Samaad with derogatory language against the holy Granth and against two religious teachers. At this stage the previous incident was still unsolved. The posters gave a challenge to trace the stolen Holy Granth at Village Bargari also in Faridlot District.
On 12 October, 110 torn “Angs” (Pages) of the holy Granth were found lying on the ground in front of Gurudwara Pathshahi Dasvin in Bargari, Faridkot. First Information Reports (FIRs) were recorded with respect to all incidents. The government instituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the incidents of sacrilege.
Public sentiments and anger peaked after the Bargari incident. The people and local religious heads respectfully wrapped the Angs, placed them in a Palki (palanquin) and started a Dharna (protest sit-in) followed by call for a Bandh (lockout). Members of Sikh religious organisations joined the protestors and clashes with the police were reported the next day at village Buttar Kalan in adjoining Moga District. On 14, October angry protestors blocked the highway; they were brandishing swords and were a large and very violent crowd. The protests spread like wild fire and at nearby Kotkapura two protestors lost their lives in police firing, in what is now being referred to as the Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura firing incidents. Many civilians and policemen were injured.
On 15, October, the Punjab government announced formation of a Judicial Commission headed by Zora Singh, a retired Judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The very next day, the government ordered withdrawal of all cases against the arrested protestors even as the Akal Takht revoked the pardon give to the alleged Godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the leader of a commune named Dera Sacha Sauda. The Godman had been earlier accused of blasphemy for appearing in a congregation dressed as Guru Gobind Singh. It is notable here that Ram Rahim was convicted on multiple charges of rape and murder and sent to jail less than a year later on August, 25, 2017, he is likely to stay in jail for life. At that stage, however, the police ruled out the role of the Godman and his followers in the incidents of sacrilege.
The measures failed to assuage the sentiments of the community and the protests spread rapidly to encompass ate entire Malwa region of Punjab. On 20 November, the Punjab Cabinet proposed to increase the penalty for sacrilege from three years to life imprisonment; the bill was passed on 22 March, 2016.
The Justice Zora Singh Judicial Commission, in its findings, speaks of a sloppily carried out investigation by the SIT. There was no connect with the local police authorities and key witnesses identified by the locals were not interrogated. No one was taken into custody. Ultimately the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The judicial commission does admit to fearsome violence and agitation by the locals that included stone pelting, brandishing of swords and other hand held weapons and also possible fire with 12 Bore guns. In its final recommendations, however, the report suggests that the firing by the police that led to the death of two civilians and injuries to a few more was unwarranted and carried out without proper magisterial oversight. The commission also called for an early completion of the investigation by the CBI into the incidents of sacrilege and finally for compensation to the civilians injured long with compensation and job to next of kin of the two civilians who died in police firing. Justice Zora Singh later joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), contested the parliamentary elections from Jullundur as a candidate of the party and lost.
The state elections held in Punjab in 2017 witnessed the routing of the ruling SAD/BJP coalition who were delegated to third position, behind the Congress party and Aam Aadmi Party. Captain Amarinder Singh, whose Congress party had a clear majority, took oath as chief minister on March, 16, 2017.
One of the first actions taken by the new government was to declare the report presented by the Justice Zora Singh Commission as inconclusive and constitution of another commission, in April 2017, under Justice (retired) Ranjit Singh to probe cases of desecration of the holy Guru Granth Sahib and other religious texts.
The commission landed into controversy as the senior SAD leaders Prakash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal refused to appear before it despite being summoned. Justice Ranjit Singh also filed a criminal complaint against Sukhbir Badal for speaking against the commission and him in person.
The “Highly Confidential” report of the commission was handed over to Chef Minister Amarinder Singh personally by Justice (retired) Ranjit Singh on June, 30, 2018, but to the embarrassment of the government, it got selectively leaked before being tabled in the state assembly.
The report, though more comprehensive in nature did not add much to the findings of the Justice Zora Singh commission. It re-established the arbitrary nature of investigation into the sacrilege cases by the SIT convened by the previous SAD/BJP government while commending the role of Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Police, Shri RS Khatra, and his team in tracing out the incidents of sacrilege. It upheld the previous finding of the Police firing being unprovoked and went a step further to name a few officers for the lapse while recommending registration of criminal cases against them. It raised the threshold of compensation to be giving to the civilian victims of the violence considerably.
The most significant aspect of the report was that it clearly named members of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect for having carried out the desecration. The reason attributed was revenge for an attempt by a Sikh religious teacher, Harjinder Singh Manjhi, to wean away followers from the fold of the Dera.
On the basis of recommendations by the commission the Government of Punjab, on September, 1, 2018, constituted a five member SIT, to further investigate the incidents of sacrilege. The SIT is headed by Prabodh Kumar, Director, Bureau of Investigations. The members include Inspector General (IG) Crime Arun Pal Singh and Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, SSP Kapurthala, Satinder Singh and Commandant Police Recruits Training Centre, Bhupinder Singh. Notably, a notification has been issued by the Government of Punjab to withdraw the Investigation into the sacrilege incidents by the CBI.
The SIT has remained in the media glare ever since its constitution. Its summons to actor Akshay Kumar and the Badal duo elicited intense media coverage. Actor Akshay Kumar, on being interrogated denied having organised a meeting between Gurmeet Ram Rahim and Sukhbir Badal at his residence in Mumbai. The SIT seems to be satisfied with his statement since he has not been called again. The second major controversy was removal by the Election Commission of one member of the SIT, Kunwar Vijay Partap Singh during the period of elections. Captain Amarinder Singh, sought to give to this a political spin by alluding that the order was passed by the Election Commission at the behest of the BJP with the intention of delaying the investigation. The said officer was reinstated as a part of the SIT immediately after the election.
Amidst controversy, the SIT, on June, 2, 2019 filed a charge sheet against former SAD legislator, Mantar Singh Brar and five police officer including Paramraj Umranangal, Inspector General of Police; Charanjit Singh Sharma, Senior Superintendent of Police; Paramjit Singh Pannu, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police; Baljit Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police and Gurdeep Singh Pander, Station House Officer. They were charged under Sections 307 (attempt to murder), 323 (causing hurt) and 341 (wrongful restraint) of the Indian Penal Code and under the Arms Act. It is being alleged that the charge sheet has been filed unilaterally by Kunwar Vijay Partap Singh.
It is quite apparent from the various investigations and reports that sacrilege of various degrees against the holy Guru Granth Sahib did take place in multiple areas of Faridlot District in Punjab over a few months in 2015. It is also apparent that the acts of sacrilege were deliberate and vicious attempts by some anti-social elements with a vengeful attitude to denigrate a religion and cause disharmony among the people.
As the events unfolded, distress and apprehension within the Sikh community rose, as could be expected and took the form of a violent agitation. This could have been avoided by the government of the day by carrying out a dynamic, time bound investigation and nabbing the culprits which would have assuaged the sentiments of the community to a great deal. As the agitation spun out of control the police had no option but to re-establish law and order.
All security personnel, be it from the army, the paramilitary or the police forces across the country will agree that the situation during a violent agitation, in which very angry and armed civilians confront the law, is always very sensitive, challenging, dynamic and critical. It creates uncertainty and panic in which accidents do happen. Under the circumstance some fatal casualties due to firing that may be in self defence or under panic conditions, though unfortunate, do take place. In this case many police personnel sustained injuries; some could have lost their lives too. It becomes the duty of the state to protect its security personnel who, at that point in time were performing a very difficult task and were, in fact, successful in imposing law and order despite tremendous odds against them. If they had failed there would have been hell to pay for them. So this becomes a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you do not.
It is relevant to add here that the police officers entrusted with the duty of re-establishing law and order were not the same as those entrusted with the investigation. It is the perpetrators of this heinous act and those who failed to catch them who should be taken to task, not those who were performing a specific duty of maintaining law and order.
When those maintaining law and order are targeted, a very wrong message goes out to the security agencies and their morale gets adversely affected.
When incidents of sensitive nature happen, politics are not too far behind. In this instance too political parties are taking postures and making statements that can help exploit the situation to their advantage. A Bargari Morcha was created and publicity intensive events carried out. The SAD wishes to wash its hands off its responsibilities while the Congress is looking to punish somebody to embarrass the opposition.
The aforementioned political postures are definitely missing out the crux which is the sentiments of the people. Across India and the world, and especially so in the Punjab, the Guru Granth Sahib is revered universally by all communities; its desecration has had left a deep scar on the collective psyche of the people. The job in hand for the political leadership is to assuage the sentiments and heal the wounds; they need to join hands in getting the perpetrators to book and also creating systems where such a thing is never ever allowed to happen again. Exemplary punishment and corrective action are the need of the hour, not belligerent political posturing.
(Jaibans Singh is a reputed expert on Punjab affairs, columnist and author)