The recent Punjab and Haryana High Court order quashing the Congress government-appointed key SIT probe into incidents relating to desecration of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 has thrown the state into fresh political turmoil and exposed the failure of successive governments to take the matter to its logical conclusion, writes VIVEK GUPTA reporting from Chandigarh.
SIX years ago on June 1, 2015, the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book the Sikhs worship as the living guru went missing from a gurdwara in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in Faridkot district of Punjab.
Months later in October, copies of the Guru Granth Sahib were found desecrated in multiple places in Punjab, including Bargari in Faridkot, triggering a massive Sikh protest across the state.
The issue escalated after the police retaliated against Sikh protesters at two places in Faridkot on October 14, 2015 – first in Kotkapura town, where many were injured due to caning and water cannoning by the police, and then in Behbal Kalan village, where two Sikh protesters were killed in police firing.
These events had a major political fallout for the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) state government, which faced its worst ever defeat in the 2017 assembly polls.
The Indian National Congress (INC), which turned the demand for justice for the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib and the subsequent firing incidents as its main electoral campaign issues gained massively and formed the state government with a two-thirds majority in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha.
What has now thrown the state into fresh political turmoil is the recent verdict by Punjab and Haryana High Court that quashed the INC government-appointed key Special Investigating Team (SIT) that was probing cases related to the post-sacrilege firing incidents and administrative failures behind these events.
High Court’s order and its fall out
The High Court in its ruling on April 9 stated that the investigation carried out by probe officer Inspector General of Police (IG) Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh and his five-member SIT was not free from blemish. His personal malice and mala fide functioning by totally usurping the powers of SIT constituted in the first instance, has been duly demonstrated on record.
Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, who has resigned from the Indian Police Service since the High Court order had blamed the then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, now President of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), behind the firings on Sikh protesters. The high court observed that this was based on a hypothetical approach of the officer, and was done without any specific material evidence.
As per the court ruling, what could have been a simple investigation had been made to fester and converted itself into a quagmire wherein every concerned person found themselves entrapped. “This has resulted from a dangerous mixing of religion, politics and the police administration; because of which the aggrieved persons must be finding themselves to be cheated and endlessly waiting for real justice,” it added.
In compliance with the High Court orders, the INC government on May 8 constituted a new probe panel under the additional director-general of police L.K. Yadav, directing it to finish the probe into the Kotkapura police firing case within six months.
Another SIT was formed under IG Naunihal Singh on May 17 to probe into the cases connected with the Behbal Kalan firing incident that was also earlier under the Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh-led SIT.
The INC government has already got egg on its face when pursuant to a different order of the Punjab and Haryana High court in January this year, it had to dissolve another SIT led by Deputy IG Ranbir Singh Khatra and replace it with one led by IG S.P.S. Parmar to probe the key case of the stolen Guru Granth Sahib and two other related sacrilege incidents at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala and Bargari villages between June and October of 2015.
While opposition parties have already trained their guns at the INC, accusing its government of its non-serious approach towards solving these cases, what has hurt the INC government the most is infighting within its own rank and file.
Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has come under intense attack from his own cabinet colleagues and party MLAs, who fear that the party’s mishandling of the matter may cost it dearly in the assembly polls due early next year, just like with the NDA in the previous polls.
Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu went one step further and blamed Captain Amarinder Singh for not conducting a fair probe in order to shield the SAD’s Badal family, whom Sidhu believes were responsible for the sacrilege and the post-sacrilege police firing incidents. Although the Punjab and Haryana High Court has noted that there is no material finding yet on the involvement of the Badals in flaring up these matters.
Sensing trouble, INC’s central leadership has been meeting MLAs and party leaders from Punjab to pacify the situation but the outcome remains uncertain.
Where does the probe currently stand?
Since the occurrence of the first sacrilege incident at Faridkot’s Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village on June 1, 2015, successive governments have gone on to constitute two judicial commissions and four SITs, besides a parallel probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Yet, the probe remains inconclusive and culprits have not been punished by a court of law.
Three parallel probes are currently underway. The first line of investigation is to find out who the culprits were behind stealing the Guru Granth Sahib from the Burj Jawahar Singh Wala Gurudwara and related sacrilege incidents in Faridkot and other places in Punjab, what their main intention was, and if it was a political conspiracy or a result of religious fault lines already existing within Punjabi communities.
The second line of investigation is over the police firing at Sikh protesters and subsequent killing of two protesters at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura. It is seeking to determine if the police acted in self-defense, as it then claimed, or it mishandled the situation and fired on peaceful protesters in haste in order to disperse them.
As far as the probe into the police firing is concerned, while the NDA government did not take any action against policemen present on the ground at the time of the Sikh protest, except removing the then Director General of Police (DGP) Sumedh Singh Saini, the INC government-appointed SIT, which stands quashed now, made several high profile arrests in both the Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura firing incidents.
These included the then IG Paramraj Singh Umranangal and the then Senior Superintendent of Police Moga Charanjit Singh Sharma, who was supervising the police action on the ground, apart from many Station House Officers of the area’s police stations, along with former SAD MLA Mantr Singh Brar. Former DGP Sumedh Singh Saini was also booked in the Behbal Kalan police firing case.
Since separate FIRs (first information reports) were registered into the police firing incidents at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan, the SIT made separate arrests in both these cases and filed charge sheets accordingly.
Many of the accused were common in both the charge sheets, that also promised to investigate the role of the then CM Parkash Singh Badal, and the then Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal.
The High Court order came as a big blow for the INC government. All charge sheets and arrests made in the Kotkapura firing incidents have fallen flat, and the new SIT formed to probe the matter will now have to start from scratch.
Although technically arrests made and charge sheets filed in the Behbal Kalan firing incident is out of the purview of the High Court order, the INC government still formed a new SIT for this case to save itself from any last-minute embarrassment.
Rift in different probes on sacrilege incidents
Now we come down to the most crucial aspect of the matter: who actually orchestrated the unholy act of stealing the Guru Granth Sahib, and was involved in its desecration by tearing and strewing its pages in the streets.
As these events were occurring frequently, the then NDA government handed over the probe of these incidents to the CBI on November 1, 2015.
Before handing over the probe to the CBI, the Punjab police initially claimed that the sacrilege was done at the behest of handlers in Australia who had funded the conspiracy to trigger disturbance of peace in the state.
The police then changed track and blamed on Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) sect in the matter, which has had a long prevailing tension with Sikhs in the region.
Before DSS head Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted of rape and murder in Haryana in 2017, his dera (‘camp’) had seen a meteoric rise in Punjab, especially within the Sikh Dalit population. Politicians from Punjab often visited him before elections to seek his support.
But Ram Rahim’s alleged blasphemous act of imitating the tenth Sikh guru Guru Gobind Singh in May 2007 did not go well with the larger Sikh community, as they often sought action against him.
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The state often witnessed tension between Sikh devotees and DSS followers. So much so, that Ram Rahim’s movies were not allowed to be screened in Punjab.
But the CBI probe found no conclusive evidence of DSS followers’ involvement in the sacrilege incidents. It even filed a closure report in July 2019.
However, the INC government challenged the CBI move. It ultimately took control of the sacrilege-related probe, and handed it over to a new SIT under DIG Ranbir Singh Khattra.
The Khattra-led SIT arrested seven DSS followers in a case relating to the theft of Guru Granth Sahib from a gurudwara at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala in 2015
Last year, Ram Rahim, who is currently lodged in Rohtak Jail, and DSS’s three national committee members — Sandeep Bareta, Pardeep Kler and Harsh Dhuri — were also booked as accused in this case.
Even the probe by the new SIT under S.P.S. Parmar that replaced the Khattra-led SIT in January this year on the direction of the high court is not different.
As per a media report, the genesis of the chain of events in the sacrilege case lies in a diwan (‘religious congregation’) by Sikh preacher Harjinder Singh Manjhi in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in early 2015. He exhorted people to leave the DSS sect. Sikhism underlines Guru Granth Sahib as the living Guru, and not any human being, as the dera followers practised. This incited the DSS men, who hatched a conspiracy to take revenge.
Senior Journalist Hamir Singh said that given the bitter relation between DSS followers and Sikh devotees, there is a possibility that dera men might have been involved in the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib and related incidents.
But the problem with the police probe so far is that they failed to establish the main conspirators behind the incident. The police claim that a DSS follower Mohinder Pal Singh Bittu, who was murdered in the high-security Nabha Jail in Patiala after his arrest in sacrilege cases was the main conspirator. Even if so, he must have been getting instruction from someone higher up that is not yet established.
All police have done so far is arrest local followers, which is not enough to instill confidence within the general public, Hamir Singh added.
If we assume that the DSS is not responsible, as the CBI claimed, then who were the real culprits? Such things don’t exist in isolation. There is always a deeper motive in play when such incidents take place, said Hamir Singh.
He further averred that there is always vote bank politics behind such issues which are deliberately given air, especially before elections, because political parties don’t want people to question them over the lack of development.
According to Harjeshwar Pal Singh, Professor of History at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College in Chandigarh, the sacrilege issue continues to get traction in Punjab even six years after the incident because the holy scripture of Guru Granth Sahib has a supreme place in Sikh religion. Therefore, people naturally want justice.
“This issue would not have taken centre stage again in Punjab had the cases related to sacrilege and post sacrilege firings been taken to their logical conclusion by Captain Amarinder Singh’s government. With Congress infighting and the failure of the Captain’s government to handle it well, this has again emerged as a key issue before fresh polls and may have political repercussions,” he adds.
(Vivek Gupta is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh. The views are personal.)