Punjab: where politics and religion mix well (Punjab Newsletter)

December 31st, 2011 - 1:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party Chandigarh, Dec 31 (IANS) In a country where secularism is enshrined in the constitution, mixing religion with politics may be a big no-no for many political parties. But, in Punjab, the two things go quite hand in hand.

The mix is all too evident — from the political stages at Sikh religious congregations to the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal openly contesting and dominating the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the mini parliament of Sikh religion that controls all gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

The state, which goes to the polls Jan 30 to fill its 117 assembly seats, is seeing heightened political activity from major players - be it the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the opposition Congress, the newly floated People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) or others.

At congregations of the Sikh religion, one day is set apart for political rallies. The latest one was held Tuesday (Dec 27) at the Shaheedi Jor Mela at the holy town of Fatehgarh Sahib, which is associated with the martyrdom of two sons of the tenth Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh.

While parties want to take advantage of the readymade audience of tens of thousands of people who converge to the congregations, people too do not mind attending them after having completed the religious part.

“Having political stages at the religious congregations is an accepted and decades-old practice in Punjab. The main parties also don’t mind because they can get so many people to listen to them at one place,” Jagmohan Singh, a trader from Mohali who attended the Saheedi Jor Mela at Fatehgarh Sahib last week, told IANS.

This time, the ruling Akali Dal held a big rally at Fatehgarh Sahib. The Congress too held its political stage, but its main leaders, including state Congress chief and former chief minister Amarinder Singh, were missing from the event as they were in Delhi to finalise party candidates for next month’s assembly poll.

All eyes are now on the Maghi Mela in Muktsar district, the home district of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his politically estranged nephew and PPP chief Manpreet Singh Badal. It will be held Jan 14, a time when campaigning for the Punjab assembly poll will be at its peak.

The Muktsar religious congregation is held annually to pay tribute to 40 Sikh warriors killed in the Battle of Muktsar against Mughal forces in 1705.

The turnout at PPP’s political conference at the Maghi Mela earlier this year - former finance minister Manpreet Badal’s first big political event after leaving the Akali Dal Oct last year - made the Akali Dal and Congress leadership sit up and acknowledge him as a potential third force in state politics.

The other main religious congregations are held annually at the Baisakhi Jor Mela at Damdama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda district in April and the Hola Mohalla celebrations at Keshgarh Sahib gurdwara in Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district in March every year.

“The religious congregations are an important part of the Sikh calendar. The political stages are also an accepted norm at these congregations for decades,” SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar said.

In fact, the SGPC leadership actively campaigns for Akali Dal candidates during all elections.

The Election Commission this week said that gurdwaras and other religious places should not be used by parties and candidates to seek votes.

(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at jaideep.s@ians.in)

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