As discussed in these columns earlier, the values of tolerance and communal harmony are best protected when the local populace and the state administration work in tandem to prevent outbreaks of violence. If the local populace is unresponsive to the need for tolerance, it is incumbent upon the state administration to enforce the rule of law. Under the institution of the state, it is the local police that protect citizens, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. What we see in Punjab today is representative of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-led state government’s utter failure to maintain law and order, despite prior warnings. For the uninitiated, the current unrest in Punjab arises from the desecration of a book sacred to the Sikh community. Subsequent to the news of its desecration, large parts of the Sikh community in Punjab, especially in the rural areas, came out to protest last week.
These protests, however, were met by the heavy hand of the local police, who reportedly gunned down two men, allegedly in self-defense. These deaths, however, further escalated the protests against the state administration. Unable to deal with the protests, paramilitary forces were called in to control the situation. Investigations into the desecration have shown that members of the traditional Sikh community were involved, despite attempts to portray the protestant Dera Sacha Sauda sect as the group behind this act. However, the anger of various Sikh groups, especially the radical ones, against the state administration stems from the pardon by the Akal Takht — the highest temporal seat of the Sikh community — to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. In 2007, the Dera chief was accused of hurting Sikh sentiments after donning attire similar to that of Guru Gobind Singh, which according to various Sikh groups was an act of sacrilege. The pardon by head priests, who are widely regarded as government proxies, who have seen the move as an attempt to bring the Deras into the SAD fold ahead of assembly elections in 2017.
Although the protests have died down due to the presence of central forces, all of the prior unrest could have been avoided had the state administration taken cognizance of the warning signs. News reports on Wednesday have suggested that central intelligence agencies had issued a warning to all district officers in Punjab that Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency could attempt to instigate unrest in the state. The intelligence input was issued more than a fortnight before the unrest began. Irrespective of whether the ISI was involved, the state administration did not pay heed to this warning. Moreover, according to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, an organisation responsible for the upkeep of Gurdwaras, the torn pages from the Guru Granth Sahib had been stolen from an area adjacent to the place where the desecrated parts were found on October 12. In a state that had witnessed massive communal unrest in the not so distant past, the state administration should have responded and taken swift action the troublemakers. Unfortunately, clashes between protesters and the police have caused shutdowns and blockages in several parts of the state, leaving the common man at the mercy of restive goons holding sticks and swords. Protests against the desecration of the holy book have come amidst another agitation by farm and labour unions that have demanded greater compensation from the state government, following the destruction of vast swathes of cotton crops. Farmers in the state, backed by several organisations, have been protesting for about a month by disrupting railway operations in the state. This is not to suggest that the two protests are inter-linked in any way. However, the concoction of an agrarian crisis and communal politics has allowed an environment of fear to flourish in the state. For the state government, this could have serious repercussions on the economy, dissuading investors from spending their money in Punjab.