Punjab shutdown peaceful, clashes in Haryana


Chandigarh : A daylong statewide shutdown called by Sikh groups and religious leaders in Punjab passed off peacefully Tuesday but the state was crippled by a curfew-like situation in several areas.

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Punjab's Director General of Police N.P.S. Aulakh and media adviser Harcharan Bains said no major incident was reported during the strike.

Though there was no violence in Punjab, Sikh protestors clashed with the police in Ambala city in neighbouring Haryana, leading to injuries.

The 'bandh' also spread the town of Jammu in Jammu and Kashmir, where shops and businesses remained closed as angry Sikh youths took to the streets brandishing swords and sticks.

In Punjab, the shutdown evoked an overwhelming response not only because it was called by leading Sikh organisations – led by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority of Sikhs – but also because it was supported by the Akali Dal-led government.

Sikh groups say Gurmit Ram Rahim, the head of a large secular sect called Dera Sacha Sauda, has offended Sikh religious sentiments by impersonating the revered 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh. However, the protests also derive a political dimension from the fact that the Dera chief supported the Congress against the Akali Dal in recent assembly elections in Punjab.

The state came under some of the tightest possible security Tuesday, especially around the campuses of the sect. The largest in Punjab – at Salabatpura – was sealed off by security forces, with the Border Security Force, Punjab Police and sect followers putting up sand bunkers and barricades.

The 'bandh' evoked a complete response in practically all areas with shops, businesses, offices, educational institutions and other places closed. Punjab University postponed some of its annual examinations due Tuesday.

Public transport went off the roads, as did most private vehicles. Bus operators said they feared violence.

Security was tight in most parts of Punjab with 42 companies of paramilitary forces and thousands of Punjab Police personnel fanning out to keep the peace.

Most people in Punjab stayed at home, amid fears that the prosperous state could return to the kind of terror-fuelled violence that racked it in the early 1980s.

"It has never been like this in nearly 15 years. It makes me remember the days of terrorism in the state. I hope it passes off peacefully," said Harkirat Singh of Hoshiarpur town.

Markets in Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Patiala, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur and other places were shut.

"I don't understand what purpose this bandh will serve when both sides (Sikh community and the sect management) are so adamant. The loss is only for the state. Last week we lost business for almost seven days and today the same thing has happened," complained trader Ram Prakash Sharma in Jalandhar's Dilkhushan market.

But there was relief for Akali Dal leaders when the shutdown passed off peacefully.

The two-month-old Parkash Singh Badal government Monday was cautioned by its coalition partner the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which warned that the chief minister would held be responsible if the shutdown turned violent.

With 19 legislators in the 117-member assembly, the BJP holds the key to power in the state. The party has five cabinet ministers in the Badal government.

In a statement here, state BJP president Rajinder Bhandari made no bones about his party being upset with the manner in which the widespread protests against the sect head had been handled last week. The state saw widespread violence by Sikh activists and Dera followers.

The BJP has reasons to worry: it not only won a majority of its assembly seats in February from Punjab's urban areas but also has a substantial support base among traders. Trade and industry in the state have suffered losses due to last week's religious violence.

On Monday, Badal asked the Dera chief to apologise to the Sikh community. "No one is big or small. He should realise his mistake and apologise," he said.

The Dera maintained that its chief had expressed regret.