Friday, October 02, 2015

The Politics of the General Pardon

By Daljit Ami

Right now the farmers in the south of Punjab, the belt where Dera Sachha Sauda has influence, are protesting against the government for compensations of their failed cotton crop. They have rejected the government package of Rs 600 crore, calling it way inadequate. At the same time, amidst mounting opposition, the Dera Sachha Sauda head has just released his second movie 'Messenger of God 2'. In the midst of it the five high priests of the Sikh faith have given the Dera head Gurmit Ram Rahim Insaan a general pardon on a year 2007 blasphemy allegation that he dressed in imitation of Guru Gobind Singh and conducted Naam Charcha, baptizing his folk into his faith, the way Amrit is a ritual in Sikhism. In present scenario it was almost certain that the decision to forgive Gurmit Ram Rahim Insaan will lead to a controversy. Most of the non-SAD Sikh organisations feel that the SGPC and the high priests are hand in glove with the ruling party, therefore, it is inevitable that politics will be read in any engagement with Dera. Moreover, the timing of pardon is important. On the one hand ruling the SAD is taking stock of situation with the 2017 assembly elections in mind and on the other hand the protesting farmers have prevented the SAD leaders including ministers from visiting areas where cotton crop has failed.

The farmers agitating for compensation are rejecting politicians who are showing up at their rallies expressing sympathy. The Sikh groups have rejected the decision of the high priests. The one connecting factor between these two rejections is that the people have unmasked the face of the politicians who believe they own the society and the priests who believe they own the religion. Mainstream politicians from ruling and opposition parties stands discredited. Their decisions and sympathies have been rejected.

The question of pardon is not new. The real question is who can ask for pardon and from whom can one ask for pardon. What are the basis of apardon? An apology is often a link and a milestone between time past and time future. An apology can be a way to prevent a controversy from raging on, a foundation to build good relations, it can pave way to a common destination, it can solve raging issues, but the immediate gains from an apology can also be an issue.

Given Punjab's current situation, it is important to establish what can be considered a due apology. Has the apology evolved out of a process or it has it been imposed like an edict? Does one meeting, one letter, or one event qualify for an apology? Yes, it can provided it is rooted in reflection and introspection. It is effective if the two sides agree that the events of the past were a mistake. The aggressive side needs to shed its ego and acknowledges the price it needs to pay against repeating its mistake. With this are associated the discourse of atonement, compensation, and punishment. An apology rests on such a discourse. In such a discourse an apology comes somewhere along the argument, it is not the aim for which the two parties meet. The event of an apology is a moment in the path on which the two parties decide to walk with each other. Without acknowledging the whole discourse an apology is merely a way to escape the situation and not engage with it. A mere apology, without the discourse, is almost always selfish and temporary.

Both the letters in this case of Sachha Sauda exhibit this behaviour: temporariness and selfishness. The Dera head's letter on plain paper terms the circumstances to be 'misunderstandings' and proceeds to give 'clarifications'. While the high priests have termed it to be a 'petition seeking an apology'. It is clear the sides are making it an argument about languaging and not about the essence of theblasphemy, the controversy or the pardon.

Newspapers report that it was in a meeting between the president of Shiromani Akali Dal and the head of the Dera in Mumbai that the ground for these letters was set up. There is a longer history to the letters. Once the controversy erupted the Dera followers had to face a number of sanctions. On the one hand there were moves to assimilate the formers back to the Sikh fold and on the other they were forced to not include the Guru Granth Sahib in their ritual worship. The argument was that those in power are punishing the Dera followers for voting for the Congress in the 2007 assembly elections. The Congress got a substantial victory in the Malwa region despite loosing in state elections.
Over time people, mostly in the villages and the controversy was also mostly rural, understood that there isn't much of clash between the Dera followers and the Sikh identity. Most followers visit the Dera casually and visit the Gurdwaras as well. The situation eased after the discord and the Dera did not clash politically with the Shiromani Akali Dal. The Dera supported the SAD allay BJP in the Haryana assembly elections and even participated in the Swachh Bharat mission led by the Prime Minister Modi. In fact, now there is no reason for the SAD and the Dera to not come together, their appointees meet each other. For SAD the matter is closed and that is what can be seen through this exchange of letters.

Yet, what needs attention here is an examination of how the Shiromani Akali Dal converts political issues into religious ones. The SAD leadership benefits from such stances and its splinter and rival groups keep the issues stuck in religion. SAD finds a new issue to milk and washes its hands off the communal seeds it sprinkles. The Dera has practically apologised from SAD in the political field which has culminated in pardon granted by high priests but the issue will keep simmering until it can be stroked again with another event or statement by the leaders. In this one can read the opportunism of the SAD. With such issues the SAD keeps the communal pot on the boil.

The Panthic (religious) outfits that distance themselves from the SAD view their politics only from a religious framework. These outfits pick the issues that SAD discards. With these issues they may not gain politiccal mileage but their activities continue. From time to time, per their need, the mainstream politial parties exploit the sentiments these Panthic outfits raise. Foreign aid from North America and Europe comes in handy and the diaspora media provides enough space for outbursts to such voices. These outfits have held that they shall not forgive the earlier crimes against the community but does not address the current issues. In the coming days these voices will pose questions on the performance of the high priests. The questions will be justified but even these Panthic outfits are in no position to answer them.

The political-economy of these Panthic outfits is associated with their agression. They keep searching for an other, an enemy. This other couldbe someone from whom they can distance themselves, or a government agent, or a traitor to the cause of Sikhism, or an old co-believer who has now turned a revisionist or reformist. Such outfits have a wide diversity in their views and thoughts but forgiveness is not one of them. They might mention the mistakes they themselves have committed in their documents written as introspection but never go into the details. How can those who do not need to apologize for their own errors ask someone else to apologize or can grant apology? The question of an apology can not be limited to the Dera Sachha Sauda alone, neither can it be limited to the Panthic groups.

On the one side the farmer organizations need to make people aware of how the politicians defraud them and on the other side the religious outfits need to keep their relevance alive. The powers that be and the opposition keep avoiding the people of Punjab but will revert to them at the time of votes. Isn’t this a chance to analyze mainstream politics, the Panthic outfits, and our agitations whose pain the people bear?

Translated by Amandeep Sandhu, author of Roll of Honour which has been translated by Daljit Ami into Punjabi as Gwah De Fanah Hon To Pehlan  

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