Sikh Penance





Intro: Visitors to Sikh gurdwaras in India's Punjab state are encountering what would be considered as an odd activity to a foreigner. It is fundamentally religious in nature, but as is so often the case in Punjab the dividing line between the Sikh religion and politics is not easy to distinguish. VOA Correspondent Don Weaver explains in this report from New Delhi.

Text: The chief ministers of Indian states usually rule over their fiefdoms as a kind of political maharajah. They hobnob with central government leaders in state capitals and New Delhi. They accumulate the perks of their high office, such as official cars, special housing and travel accommodations and even a corps of bodyguards, armed with stenguns, in these days of terrorist scares.

Not unlike film stars, which some of them are, large crowds congregate to hear what they have to say on various issues. But there is a startling contrast in Punjab state.

A constituent seeking to confer with Punjab Chief Minister S.S. Barnala on important matters might be in for a shock. He will not be found in Chandigarh, putting in his usual long day trying to resolve the issues of budgets and the antics of student radicals and Sikh separatist guerrillas. Barnala, in all humility, quietly cleans shoes daily at Sikh gurdwaras. Visitors to Indian temples remove their shoes before entering as a mark of respect.

The Akali Party chief minister is serving out a seven-day penance as punishment ordered by Sikh chief priests for authorizing a security forces crackdown on the Golden Temple in Amritsar April 30th. Commandos led the assault against Sikh extremists, who proclaimed an independent Sikh state of Khalistan only one day before.

The five Sikh high priests ruled atonement was necessary for Barnala because the military action disturbed the religious feelings of Sikhs. The chief minister describes the discipline as religious purification. He says he is putting in the temple duty as an ordinary Sikh and not as the chief minister of Punjab. Critics say there is no difference.

Immediately after the ouster of the militants, the chief priests had hailed the chief minister's decision. They were able to set foot in the complex for the first time since last January when they and other moderate Sikh leaders were forced out by an extremist takeover.

The high priests also concurred in decisions reached at a February convention of Sikhs. They authorized Barnala to take immediate action to restore the priests and other rightful Sikh leaders to their normal positions of authority at the temple.

The military raid led to a political crisis in the Barnala administration. Nearly 30 Akali legislators broke away from the party to protest the troop operation. Barnala now heads a minority government. It rules with the support of opposition parties, including the Congress Party of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

A few days ago, the chief minister appeared before the temple priests in a sort of confessional role for chastisement. Cleaning shoes, like he did years ago as a young member of the All India Sikh Students Federation, is only part of the penance. The priests also ordered him to recite certain prayers and make a token cash offering of a few rupees.

Chief Minister Barnala can be observed at a different gurdwara every day, serving out his punishment in a subservient manner. After some prayers, he sits on a cloth on the floor, dusting the shoes and sandals of visitors, who are mostly religious pilgrims. At one temple, he dusted the shoes of several reporters covering the atonement story.

Barnala says the cleaning duty gives him joy and peace. He calls it a lesson in humility which the very essence of the Sikh religion.

The humble act of servitude by Punjab's top leader appears to have commanded some respect on the part of the Sikh masses. But it has also prompted skepticism and derision.

Former Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal is one of the dissident Sikhs trying to depose Barnala. He calls it eyewash and nothing but a stunt to get Barnala back in the good graces of Sikhs. Badal wants the chief minister to resign for the good of the Sikh community.

One well-known press commentator called Barnala's buckling under to the priests humiliating for the chief minister and his government. The newspaper Indian Express said there is something bizarre about a chief minister, surrounded by security personnel, sitting on a sack cloth, cleaning shoes. It said Barnala has another think coming if he believes that establishing his credentials as a devout Sikh will neutralize the Akali dissidents.