Punjab shuts down over Sikh-sect row


Chandigarh : Punjab was crippled Tuesday with a curfew like situation in several places due to a state-wide shutdown called by Sikh groups and religious leaders against controversial sect leader Gurmit Ram Rahim.

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Normal life was thrown out of gear in the wake of the protest call given by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority of Sikhism, and others.

The protestors say Gurmit Ram Rahim of the Dera Sacha Sauda has offended the sensibilities of the Sikhs by dressing up as the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh.

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

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

Though there was no violence in Punjab, Sikh protestors clashed with the police in Ambala city in neighbouring Haryana, where too the sect enjoys a large following. Some protestors and police officers were injured in the clash, stone pelting and cane charge.

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

Security was also tightened around the biggest Dera Sacha Sauda campus in Punjab at Salabatpura, 30 km from Bathinda. No one was allowed to go anywhere near it. The Border Security Force, Punjab Police and sect followers provided security, hurriedly putting up sand bunkers and barricades.

Most people in Punjab stayed put at home.

"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," rued trader Ram Prakash Sharma in Jalandhar's Dilkhushan market.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, whose Akali Dal is supporting the shutdown, said his government had made adequate arrangements to provide security Tuesday.

"I appeal to everyone to keep the bandh peaceful," Badal said.

But there was trouble for the two-month-old Badal government when coalition partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Monday evening cautioned that the chief minister would be responsible if the shutdown turned violent.

The BJP holds the key to power in the state with 19 legislators in the 117-member assembly. The BJP has five cabinet ministers in the Badal government. The Akali Dal has 49 and the Congress 44 legislators.

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 so as to defuse the tension. "No one is big or small. He should realise his mistake and apologise," he said.

The dera maintained that its chief had committed no mistake and there was thus no question of tendering an apology.

"We have already regretted the entire episode that might have hurt the feelings of the Sikh community," dera spokesman Aditya Insaan said in Sirsa, 300 km from here.