Sacrilege issue back, Congress fears 2015 trump card may hurt it now

Sacrilege issue back, Congress fears 2015 trump card may hurt it now

Having made the 2015 sacrilege at Bargari a political issue to target the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) during the 2017 Assembly elections, the ruling Congress finds itself in a tight spot, worried about the fallout of the two fresh cases of alleged sacrilege followed by lynching, coming so close to the 2022 polls.

The incidents have come just when the Congress seemed to be stabilising after a long bout of intra-party fighting. With Punjab headed for a four-cornered contest, any issue could alter the equations enough to prove a game-changer.

In 2015, the Akalis had been wiped out, and one of the main reasons was the Bargari sacrilege case, especially after the police firing on protesters. The Congress had promised to bring the guilty to book.

Policemen stand guard outside the office of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the organization responsible for the management of Sikh temples near the Golden Temple in Amritsar. (AP)

The new incidents serve as a reminder that the Congress government has struggled to do that – with former chief minister Amarinder Singh accused by own partymen of being hand in glove with the Akalis. The mob anger following the two recent incidents, at the Golden Temple and a gurdwara in Kapurthala, could be a reflection of the public disillusionment, Congress leaders said in private.

“We are guilty of not acting against the culprits in the Bargari case. Had we acted, we could have told people that we have done our bit and we will not spare anyone who indulges in such acts,” said a party leader on condition of anonymity.

The SIT on the Bargari sacrilege case had filed a chargesheet blaming the theft of the Guru Granth Sahib from a gurdwara on the Dera Sacha Sauda. It was only last month that the SIT questioned the dera head, Ram Rahim Singh Insan, at Sunaria Jail in Rohtak. Recently, it also questioned the dera vice chief, Prithvi Raj Nain.

As Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu consistently puts pressure on the Charanjit Singh Channi government on the matter, on Sunday – a day after the lynching at Golden Temple — Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Randhawa sought to put the ball in the Centre’s court. Randhawa, who holds the Home portfolio, said the Centre was yet to give assent to the Code of Criminal Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018, and Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2018, which seek to make desecration of holy books punishable up to life.

On Monday, Randhawa shot off a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah demanding that these Bills be cleared. The two legislation cover holy books across religions, including the Guru Granth Sahib, Gita, Quran and the Bible.

Randhawa told The Indian Express, “Sacrilege incidents hurt religious feelings and there is always a threat that the reaction could create law and order issues. That is why we want the Centre to either reject the Bills or give them its assent. If they reject them, we will find another way (to make the punishment more severe). Nobody is scared of Sections 295 and 295 A (which cover the acts now). The accused are bailed out in 15 days.”

Randhawa added that had the laws been in place, “the culprits (in the recent cases) would have been scared of the law and not committed such crimes”.

The Congress has said that the incidents seem part of a “conspiracy” to polarise and scare Hindus away from the party. “Something is going on. We are waiting and watching,” a leader said, adding that the lynchings were suspicious as these eliminated evidence that could have led to the real motive.

Seeing an opening for the Akalis, who are yet to fully recover from the 2015 debacle, SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal taunted the Congress, citing what it had said during the Bargari sacrilege incident. “You said that the then CM should be jailed, that he had allowed it. You did politics and did not catch the guilty and deliberately spent five years defaming the Badal family and SAD,” he said.

While he did not want to do politics on the matter, “we want the culprits to be caught”, Badal added. “Since no culprit was caught in the last five years, the accused were emboldened.” The SAD chief also asked why the inquiry committee included Randhawa. “A judge should have been on the committee. This shows that they do not want to catch the culprits.”

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