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
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
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.