By Jaideep Sarin
Chandigarh : The edict by the Akal Takht – the highest temporal seat of Sikhism – that the Dera Sacha Sauda sect should close all its campuses in Punjab by May 27 could lead to a constitutional crisis and embarrass the Akali Dal government led by Parkash Singh Badal.
Questions are being raised on how a faith can be asked to summarily wind up its activity in Punjab when the constitution of a secular country allows freedom of religion and faith.
The hardened stand of the Akal Takht, under pressure from hardline Sikh organisations like Damdami Taksal, has once again increased tensions – after early last week when violence erupted over the fight for faith.
The Sikh community took to the streets demanding the arrest of sect chief Gurmit Ram Rahim for blaspheming their religion by attiring himself like the 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh. The sect followers reacted with violence in Bathinda after effigies of their spiritual leader were burnt across Punjab.
With the sect completely ruling out vacating its dera campuses in Punjab – the biggest one spread in 150 acres at Salabatpura, 30 km from Bathinda – a major crisis is in the offing.
"It seems these people are talking like the Taliban. We are constitutionally a secular country and everyone has the right to follow any faith or religion. How can they ask someone to shut down the deras?" asked a law professor at Panjab University who did not want to be named.
The Badal government, whose responsibility it is to ensure safety of the dera campuses and followers, was quick to wash its hands off Sunday's Akal Takht edict.
"The May 27 deadline to close deras is for the sect and not for the government to implement," Badal government's media adviser Harcharan Bains stated.
He said the government would fulfil its constitutional duty to maintain law and order.
"In the present context, an apology from the dera chief can help matters," he asserted.
The Badal government, which registered a criminal case against the sect chief just hours before the Akal Takht meeting Sunday even after the godman had expressed regrets over the incident, will have to walk the tightrope since the Sikh community and leadership are the main support base of the Akali Dal.
The political affairs committee (PAC) of the Akali Dal last week passed the buck of controlling the sect chief on the Haryana and central governments as he is based in Sirsa in Haryana.
The state government did not expect the Akal Takht 'hukumnama' to be so harsh. Only a day earlier (Saturday), the state's media adviser claimed that the situation was well under control and Punjab was not on fire as the media had projected.
He also justified the delayed reaction of the Badal government to the violence saying that it wanted to deal with the issue psychologically rather than with force.
The new edict has now forced the Badal government on the backfoot and it is trying its best through back channels to get the dera chief to apologise to the Sikh community to assuage hurt feelings.
The dera chief had Saturday expressed regrets over last week's incidents but did not apologise.
The Akal Takht and other Sikh organisations have given a call for a statewide shutdown Tuesday.