The Sikh community till now has been mainly doing its politics through Akali Dal. In the last 100 years, one Akali faction would replace another, but there was never such an existential crisis, which the party faces now after it has lost space to a Delhi-based party even after it lost ground in the 2017 assembly elections.
After all, the Akali Dal constitution read, “Akali Dal is the sole manifestation of collective political will of the Khalsa Panth,” till its identity was changed from Panthic to Punjabi under the leadership of Parkash Singh Badal at the Moga conference in February 1996, organised to mark 75th anniversary of the second oldest party of the country. However, Badal Senior while speaking at Fatehgarh Sahib in the last week of December 1998, claimed that Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was a wing of SAD. Even as this statement was historically and conceptually incorrect, it reflected the reality of the time as he had already taken complete control of SAD and was on his way to exercising hegemonic control over SGPC. He made this claim when his fight with Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who headed the committee, intensified.
Though the party was a product of the Gurdwara Reform Movement and was founded in December 1920 to protect the functioning of the SGPC, time pushed the party into active politics. By that time, Akalis had already created their own unique and unparalleled history during agitations of the early 1920s – Guru ka Bagh and Jaito – which had hit international headlines, and their narration is an integral part of the Sikh political discourse. Akali Dal has its own history to cite which runs parallel to what was happening under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership in Congress in other parts of the country. In fact, no other party can boast of such history. Though there were a couple of other parties representing Sikhs, Akali Dal became their main and sole representative party.
“From 1930 till 1936, Akali leaders debated on their role in religious and political spheres and decided that they would actively participate in politics as it was a strong demand of the prevailing conditions. They contested the 1937 elections. They did their politics on their own terms even as Congress leadership wanted them to play the second fiddle. Then Akali leaders also played a central role in representing Sikh side during talks around the Partition,” said Prof Prithipal Singh Kapur, former pro vice chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, who has authored and edited several books on Sikh history.
“SAD and Sikhs had faced very big challenges in the past and the community confronted the situation and overcame the challenges but the situation this time has put a question mark on the future of Akali Dal and the Akali leadership is responsible for this crisis,” he said.
“Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other prominent Congress leaders had been arguing that Sikhs should be doing their politics through Congress only. They did not want exclusive politics of Sikhs as was being done by Akali Dal as they argued that Congress was a national party for all. After the country’s Partition, Nehru and Congress wanted Akali Dal to confine its role to social work and not participate in politics, which centered around Sikhs and their identity. At that time, there was a dual membership between Akali Dal and Congress and the former cooperated with the national party but Master Tara Singh and other Akali leaders kept SAD identity separate and its political role alive,” said former IAS officer and noted Sikh author Gurtej Singh.
It is against this backdrop that concern is being expressed in the Sikh circles as the community stares at a structural challenge. On any issue, social, religious, or political, in Punjab or the rest of the country or even abroad, Akali Dal is supposed to react on the community’s behalf. However, the party is facing an existential crisis as a major section of the community has turned against the Badals after the Bargari sacrilege and Behbal Kalan police firing issues.
Though strong concern is being expressed about SAD’s future by those opposed to the Badal leadership, the Akal Takht jathedar’s appeal was criticised by many on social media that this was an attempt to save the Badal leadership who actually created the situation.