Can a Non-Sikh Be Punjab's CM?: Here's Why This Question Itself is Wrong

·8 min read

'Punjab's chief minister has to be a Sikh.' We have heard different versions of this statement many times in the past from difference political entities.

Congress leader Ambika Soni said this last week when she was asked if she is in the reckoning to be the next chief minister of Punjab.

Soni's statement led to several political observers, mainly Delhi-based, tweet that "It took an Ambika Soni to tell the Gandhis that a Sikh has to be the chief minister of Punjab".

But this went beyond Soni. A group of Congress leaders are said to have used the same argument to scuttle the chances of former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Kumar Jakhar of becoming the chief minister.

Curiously, many of the leaders who used this "Sikh CM only" argument happened to be Hindu themselves. Some of them had even complained in the past that Hindus aren't getting adequate representation.

Also Read: 'Have Declined the Offer, Punjab CM Must Be a Sikh': Ambika Soni

Outside the Congress, even Aam Aadmi Party convenor Arvind Kejriwal had earlier promised that "the CM of Punjab will be a Sikh". Though months after this statement he is yet to declare who that will be.

Then of course there are Hindutva supporters who are alleging injustice to Hindus in Punjab and labelling it as "secular hypocrisy".

But is it really an unwritten rule in Punjab that the CM has to be a Sikh? Or do the above assertions actually reveal what these people think of Sikhs? Is this belief being perpetuated to project Sikhs and Punjab in a certain way?

To understand this, we must briefly go back to the formation of the state of Punjab.

THE PUNJABI SUBA MOVEMENT

The roots of the formation of Punjab as it exists today lie in the Punjabi Suba movement, which began soon after the Partition in 1947 and continued till the state was formed in 1966.

Akali Dal leader Master Tara Singh, who led the Punjabi Suba movement, said that, "There is not the least doubt that the Sikh religion will live only as long as the Sikh panth exists as an organised entity."

The Akali Dal believed that this could be achieved only if the community has its own territorial unit — that is a Sikh majority state.

The geographical scope of this at that time were the seven Sikh majority districts in East Punjab — Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Firozpur, Ludhiana, and Ambala, along with Patiala and East Punjab States Union.

Also Read: Historic or Symbolic? What Charanjit Channi Becoming Punjab CM Means for Dalits

However later, the Akali Dal articulated this purely as a linguistic demand, in line with the linguistic reorganisation of states taking place outside north India.

Sardar Hukam Singh, who led the movement after Master Tara Singh's arrest, described the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state as a "secular" one. In 1950, the Akali Dal passed a resolution in May supporting a state based on Punjabi language and culture. Religion was not mentioned explicitly.

The linguistic and cultural nature of the demand was re-emphasised by Fateh Singh who led the movement in the 1960s.

However, despite the emphasis on linguistic identity, it did become a 'Sikh vs Hindu' issue. The Punjabi Suba movement was opposed tooth and nail by the Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha, Jan Sangh and many Hindu Congress leaders.

These entities pushed the message of "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan". In fact, this section even started a campaign encouraging Punjabi speaking Hindus to list their language as Hindi in order to scuttle the Punjabi linguistic demand.

The 'Save Hindi' campaign launched by these sections in the 1950s had turned violent and several gurdwaras were desecrated, which in turn hurt Sikh sentiments.

The traumatic period before the formation of Punjab state in 1966 also involved the arrest of over 57,000 Sikh youth and the killing of 43 people in the police raid on Harmandir Sahib in 1955.

The background – both the Opposition of Hindu groups like Arya Samaj and the targetting of Sikhs by the state – are important to understand the identity and political ethos of Punjab state.

This background doesn't mean that it is imperative for a Sikh to be the CM of Punjab or that Punjab can't have a Hindu CM at all.

But it is true that it would be very difficult for many Punjabis to accept a CM who represents the political strands that opposed the formation of the state.

However, a non-Sikh who stands for Punjabiyat may be welcomed. Seth Ram Nath, a Hindu Congressman, was an active part of the Punjabi Suba movement.

In the present day, a leader like Dr Dharamvir Gandhi espouses Punjabiyat and commands respect from all communities. In the 2014 election from the Patiala Lok Sabha constituency, he did better in Sikh dominated segments while Congress' Preneet Kaur was relatively better placed in Hindu-dominated areas.

WHAT SURVEY DATA SAYS

Data from surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly polls, is relevant to understanding what people feel about whether Punjab can have a non-Sikh CM.

In the survey, people were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement 'Chief Minister of Punjab should be a Sikh'.

The results of the December 2016 survey is as follows:

Fully agree: 29.3 percent

Somewhat agree: 6.2 percent

Somewhat disagree: 10.3 percent

Fully disagree: 42.5 percent

Can't Say: 11.7 percent

This shows that about 35 percent respondents felt that the CM of Punjab should be a Sikh while 53 percent felt that it is not necessary for the CM to be a Sikh.

Since Sikhs account for close to 58 percent of Punjab's population, the CSDS data clearly shows that even a sizable number of Sikh voters don't find it necessary that the CM of Punjab should be a Sikh. This is in complete contrast to the unwritten rule argument we discussed earlier.

However, in a months time, the picture had changed. In January 2017, a much larger proportion of people agreed that the 'Chief Minister of Punjab should be a Sikh'.

Now this could be due to the fact that elections were closer and existing CM candidates were weighing more in the minds of people. It's also possible that AAP's ambiguity on the CM candidate issue may have sparked fears that an outsider like Arvind Kejriwal may become CM.

In either case, the data shows that the notion that the CM should be a Sikh isn't set in stone in the minds of voters. It changes based on circumstances.

When observers in Delhi or even politicians in Punjab assert that "only a Sikh can be the CM of Punjab" they end up creating a wrong picture of Sikhs as being communal or rigid in matters of political representation.

This wrong perception of Sikhs being reactionary has actually been used in the past two decades to force political status quo on Punjab.

THE REAL ISSUE

The big question in Punjab politics isn't whether a non-Sikh can become CM. The main question is that in the past 24 years, why has the CM's position been restricted to two individuals — SAD's Parkash Singh Badal and Congress' Captain Amarinder Singh?

Their rule has covered 90 percent of the period that has passed in Punjab after the end of the period of violent conflict

And despite some differences between Badal and Captain, the success of both these leaders lie in their ability to keep the following entities happy: the central government, security establishment (both central and state), big industry, big farmers (mostly Sikh) and traders (mostly Hindu). That both Badal and Captain are from an Akali background also helped keep a section of the Sikh religious establishment happy as well.

Like many post-conflict societies, 'stability' in Punjab basically involved close convergence of state and elite interests and the creation of a patron-client network headed by these elites.

So when a few Congress leaders who otherwise complain of Hindus being underrepresented, cite that "there must be a Sikh CM" to block a Hindu like Sunil Jakhar, it doesn't mean they genuinely believe that there should be a Sikh CM.

It just means that they want to dictate what kind of Sikh becomes CM, one who can preserve an order that's working to their advantage.

It is this 'system' or 'order' that's the big issue in Punjab politics and not whether a Hindu can become CM or not.

However, this 'order' has been facing a few disruptions in the recent past. But to know more about that, wait for our next piece on this issue tomorrow morning.

Also Read: Charanjit Channi To Be Punjab's First Dalit CM: Why Congress Chose Him Over Rest

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