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I beg your Pardon…

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Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is again in the news. After the Sikh clergy ex-communicated him in 2007, it has suddenly pardoned him. Is there a political motive behind this?

By Vipin Pubby

Controversy over the alleged blasphemous acts by the head of Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has been ignited again with the decision of the Sikh clergy to pardon him. The move, many believe, is aimed at strengthening the chances of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal to stage a third consecutive victory in the assembly elections less than a year-and-a-half away.

The pardon to the Dera chief pertained to an alleged act of blasphemy in 2007. A section of Sikhs, particularly the radicals, had objected to Singh dressing in an attire believed to be worn by their 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh. It was alleged that he was imitating the guru while distributing amrit (nectar) to his followers. Incensed Sikhs attacked several centres of the Dera. Finally, the Dera chief denied that he had sought to imitate any Sikh guru. However, the Sikh clergy comprising the head priests of the five holy Takhts, issued him a hukamnama to seek pardon and also ex-communicated him. Though the Dera chief wrote to the Sikh clergy explaining his position, he was not pardoned. Now, after eight years, he has been pardoned in a rather hush-hush move.

The decision to pardon Singh came in the wake of the release of his second film MSG 2: The Messenger of God late in September. Punjab had banned the first film in the series on the grounds that it would lead to protests and vitiate law and order. Lakhs of Dera devotees had then made a beeline to cinema halls in neighboring Haryana, Delhi and Chandigarh. The Dera claimed the film had grossed over `100 crore, a figure disputed by the film industry on the grounds that the tickets were purchased in bulk by the Dera. However, the film was screened in several cinema halls for over two months regularly.

The present controversy started when the second film was released. This time, the Punjab government did not ban the film, but cinema hall owners and distributors alleged that it had unofficially sent a word around that the film should not be screened lest it lead to violence. A communication from an official of a leading mall and multiplex owner to the producer said that they had received verbal orders not to screen the film.

NEW DELHI, JAN 16 (UNI):-Members of Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Prabandak Committee participating at a demonstration in protest against the permission granted to film MSG in New Delhi on Friday.UNI PHOTO-74U
People protesting the pardoning of the Dera chief

With the film being screened elsewhere, Dera followers started protests at several places and also met deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. It is believed that a deal was stuck, as the protests were withdrawn immediately, and a couple of days later the Sikh clergy announded pardon to the Dera chief. Incidentally, Sukhbir Singh Badal is also president of the Shiromani Akali Dal whose candidates form a vast majority of members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Significantly, it is the SGPC which appoints the Sikh clergy.

Shortly after the pardon, despite protests, exhibitors started screening the film. Interestingly, the Dera has now claimed that the film is on the verge of grossing `200 crore—again, disputed by the film industry.

Most political observers see a clear political motive behind the grant of pardon and mending fences with Singh. The Dera claims the support of crores of devotees across the country and abroad. Although based in Sirsa, Haryana, the Dera has a huge number of devotees in Punjab. As per rough estimates, its followers have considerable influence in at least 40 of the 117 assembly segments in the state.

In the past, the Dera had been claiming that it does not support any political party. However, it was well-known that it would silently spread the word among its followers to vote for a particular candidate or party. No wonder, candidates across party lines would visit the Dera to seek Singh’s blessing before starting their campaign.

In the 2007 assembly elections, it’s believed that the Dera had pulled its weight in favor of Congress candidates. Though the Congress eventually lost to the SAD-BJP combine, it did well in Dera-dominated constituencies. Trouble for the Dera started shortly after the formation of the new state government, with reports of alleged blasphemy by Singh, who is also facing charges of rape, murder and forced castration.

The Dera came into the focus again on the eve of the 2012 assembly elections. There was uncertainty over support from it even though candidates had been meeting Singh. In what was more than a coincidence, a blasphemy case against Singh was withdrawn two days before the elections in February 2012 from a Bathinda court. It is believed that it was a quid pro quo and SAD-BJP candidates received support from Dera followers, which partly helped the alliance to retain power. The Dera had come out in support of the BJP in the Haryana Assembly elections where the party registered its first-ever win last year. It is believed that it was the BJP which nudged SAD to mend fences with the Dera in view of the coming elections in the state.

The current political turmoil in Punjab has seen the main opposition Congress witnessing a no-holds barred duel between former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh and the state party chief, Partap Singh Bajwa. Also, there is a virtual split in the Aam Aadmi Party, which got four MPs from the state. There were also reports that the Badals were toying with the idea of calling for a dissolution of the assembly and seeking early elections to capitalize on their popularity. They might be waiting for the outcome of the Bihar elections to take a final step.

The Dera, meanwhile, is exulting in the success of its second film and is planning a sequel. Reports say it may have Hrithik Roshan in some role. The two films produced so far are basically a documentary on the Dera and its chief with lavish sets.
The Dera, which allows its followers to practise any religion they wish, does take an undertaking from them that they will shun drugs and other intoxicants and live a simple and spiritual life. It is well-known for its contribution to social causes and has a lakh-strong volunteer force which is despatched wherever any calamity strikes. 

Meanwhile, some Sikh organizations had called for a bandh to protest against the pardon given to Singh. However, it did not evoke much response. These groups have decided to meet again next month and call for Sarbat Khalsa (congregation of general Sikhs) to oppose the pardon granted by the Sikh clergy. They have also demanded removal of the five Sikh head priests.

In an attempt to defuse the situation, the head priest of the Akal Takht has decided to form an advisory committee which would advise the Sikh clergy on important decisions. The SAD-BJP alliance will have to wait and watch for any further reaction from radical Sikhs to the issue.

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