Late at night, on May 23, Swami Agnivesh and other religious leaders met Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) sect, at Sirsa, Haryana. Their mission: to bring about an amicable settlement to the ongoing confrontation between the Dera and the Sikhs in Punjab. But even as Agnivesh et al groped for a peace formula, Gurmeet Singh's followers were busy fortifying the campus walls against any attack. The "peace mission", it seemed, was an exercise in futility. Then again, perhaps not—a speculation-filled 24 hours later, there were reports that the Dera chief had communicated to Agnivesh that he was willing to go some way on an apology to the Akal Takht. But he had conditions of his own, like the dropping of the government case against him under Article 95 (hurting religious sentiments of the Sikhs).
Socially, what he did was like playing with dynamite but, in a relative sense, it's a minor legal irritant. The Dera chief's real worry was the CBI giving an adverse report on the cases against him. The Punjab and Haryana HC had set May 25 as the deadline for the CBI to complete investigations. This was likely central to the negotiations: Gurmeet Singh would talk peace only after the deadline passed to his satisfaction.
But this curious game had already had an unsavoury impact on Punjab's polity. Ever since clashes between the Dera followers ("premis") and Sikhs broke out following the controversial ad showing Gurmeet Singh in a Guru Gobind Singh guise, kirpan-wielding Sikhs have taken to the streets. Not surprisingly, it's given a fillip to the extremist brigade, on the fringes since the decline of terrorism a decade ago. The harsh decisions of the Akal Takht obviously sought to mollify this irate constituency. It had issued an edict ordering the closure of all
DSS sub-deras in Punjab by May 27. (The DSS has some 70 sub-deras, operating mostly in southern Punjab's Malwa belt.) It also wanted an unconditional apology from Gurmeet Singh for hurting Sikh sentiments. The Dera chief initially rejected both demands.
Meanwhile, the Punjab government is under pressure to sort out a crisis which even now can spin out of control. The sprawling 700-acre DSS headquarters at Sirsa as well as its smaller branches in Punjab are quite well-armed. Senior police officers disclose that at least 40 large and small guns are registered in the name of the DSS at Sirsa. Last week, Sikh protesters brandishing swords themselves were taken aback when bullets were fired at them, leading to the death of one Akali activist.
Meanwhile, sabre-rattling by militant Sikhs has already led many DSS followers to leave the deras and go back home. In several districts, the latter have also publicly come back to the Sikh fold to avoid retaliation. It is widely believed that Gurmeet Singh is holding out mainly because of behind-the-scenes support from the Congress. Implicit in the backing he gave to the party during the recent assembly polls was a commitment that it would help him out in the CBI cases.
Which is perhaps the reason why the Parkash Singh Badal-led ruling Akali Dal has taken a strident anti-Gurmeet Singh stand. Of late, it has also held Congress president Sonia Gandhi responsible for jeopardising the peace. In all this competitive politics, the only hope is the Punjabi's strong aversion to any more of militant violence. Hopefully, the sentiment will transcend even the religious outrage currently sweeping the state.