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 ‚ÄĒ almost¬†as if there is no religion involved. What¬†the campaign will showcase is development¬†‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôt 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 ‚ÄĒ¬†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. ‚ÄúI 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 ‚ÄĒ this is the¬†religious centre of the Sikh community.¬†We have to make it the best in¬†the world‚ÄĚ.
The Punjab government accordingly¬†conceived a plan one year back¬†which has been implemented on¬†the ground within the span of eight¬†months. ‚ÄúWe 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‚Äôs 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¬†‚Äėkirtan‚Äô. Similarly, huge LED screens¬†have given the area a completely¬†different look. ‚ÄúIt feels more participative,‚ÄĚ
says Grover. Adding a museum¬†in the basement of the plaza will also¬†give visitors a complete understanding¬†of Sikh history and religion. ‚ÄúGatka¬†(martial art) shows are also slated for¬†the evening, giving visitors a complete¬†cultural experience‚ÄĚ, 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. ‚ÄúFrom being¬†a petty market which had little returns¬†we are witnessing a demand for lease¬†and higher rents,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äės 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 anticipation.
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‚Äôs people is priceless.¬†Vision and heritage are usually clich√©s, but the state¬†government has combined them thoughtfully to create a¬†legacy showcase Punjabis can be proud of.