The Akalis are past masters at mixing religion with politics. They are set to stir up a heady concoction again in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections. However, this time it will not be an emotion-streaked religious campaign. Rather, it will be very subtle — almost as if there is no religion involved. What the campaign will showcase is development — especially that of the old city of Amritsar situated around the Sri Harmandir Sahib complex.
The move, orchestrated by Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, has all the hallmarks of the Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal. Try as you might, you can’t find any fault in it. The government has been bold enough to invite editors and newspaper heads from all over the country to see the initiative. Most gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
The initiative is not only expected to appeal to the citizens of Amritsar, the nerve centre of Sikh politics, but also the wider Sikh community globally — a majority section of which has been pillorying the SAD and holding it responsible for inaction in the incident of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib last year, besides pardon extended to Dera Sirsa chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim. With this move, political analysts say the Akalis could well wrest the initiative and come on the right side of the Sikh panth again even as they fulfill their promise of being development oriented and delivering results.
SAD had suffered a setback in the Majha region of the state, comprising Amritsar and other border districts, following incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib one year back. The effort made in the last one year is expected to completely wash out all the earlier controversial episodes and result in a feel-good factor which will help the Akalis at the hustings.
Sukhbir Badal is also following the development script while projecting this achievement but with a light touch of religion. He says the spark which triggered off this effort was a visit to Vatican City. “I felt like the Vatican City, the Darbar Sahib and its environs were also held sacred by millions. It is a most
pious place. Lakhs of people visit it daily but the area was in bad shape. There was no traffic control, the buildings were dilapidated and the cleanliness levels were not up to the mark. I decided there and then — this is the religious centre of the Sikh community. We have to make it the best in the world”.
The Punjab government accordingly conceived a plan one year back which has been implemented on the ground within the span of eight months. “We have completed the first phase of the project from Town Hall to Harmandir Sahib. This includes preserving some buildings by giving them heritage facades, lighting the streets, putting all cables underground, creating street furniture, making the main street traffic free and installing statutes of various Sikh generals to instill a feeling of pride.
The idea was sparked by Dy CM Sukhbir Badal’s visit to the Vatican City, also a pious place. In contrast, the Darbar Sahib was in bad shape. He wanted to make it the best in the world
Many agree that visiting the Darbar Sahab will be a completely new experience. Gurinder Grover, an ardent devotee, says the experience has become more enriching for devotees as well as tourists. He says many citizens of the town now sit in the huge plaza outside the temple complex and to listen to ‘kirtan’. Similarly, huge LED screens have given the area a completely different look. “It feels more participative,”
says Grover. Adding a museum in the basement of the plaza will also give visitors a complete understanding of Sikh history and religion. “Gatka (martial art) shows are also slated for the evening, giving visitors a complete cultural experience”, he adds.
There were a few downsides, though. Shopkeepers felt despondent when the area was dug up for almost a year. However, for most the wait has been worth it. Vijay Kumar Singh, who has a shop in Hall Gate, says the look of the entire market near the Town Hall has changed and wants the same to be replicated in his area also. “From being a petty market which had little returns we are witnessing a demand for lease and higher rents,” he says, adding shopkeepers have welcomed the government initiative and are proud to be a part of it.
Senior bureaucrat PS Aujla, who has executed this initiative, says a tourism development authority has been created for the holy city of Amritsar which will now maintain the area. A cess has been imposed to make this authority self sufficient.
A walk down the town hall to Shri Darbar Sahab leaves one fraught with emotions. All thought of political mileage vanishes from the mind and only pride and nostalgia for
one ‘s culture and heritage takes hold as you walk back into history, into old world charm. This is a world Punjabis will be happy leaving behind for coming generations.
The town hall with its beautiful arches and small brick structure is a sight for eyes dulled by modern concrete buildings. Surrounded by quaint similar-looking newly restored traditional facades, the shops alongside the road leading to the Golden Temple is a heart-warming sight. You come across gatka warriors, laser shows and a live band
besides seeing huge screens at intervals which telecast rituals inside the durbar precincts. Fountains and lights lend a surreal touch to the walk and enhance the sense of
The interpretation centre, like the Virasat-e-Khalsa is inimitable. With four screening centres complete with state-of-the-art 3D effects and animation, the tales of the Khalsa panth and the symbolism they reflect are not just profound and moving but awe-inspiring.
What the gate, the walkway and the interpretation centre has done for Amritsar and the state is precious but what this restoration has done for Punjab’s people is priceless. Vision and heritage are usually clichés, but the state government has combined them thoughtfully to create a legacy showcase Punjabis can be proud of.