In the wake of the central government’s decision to enact into law three controversial ordinances regarding the procurement and sale of agricultural produce, the Shiromani Akali Dal quit the National Democratic Alliance led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The SAD president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, announced the decision on 26 September, and tweeted that the splitting of ties was also a result of the BJP’s “continued insensitivity to Punjabi and #Sikh issues.” Badal has since criticised the functioning of the NDA and the sidelining of regional partners. I interviewed Badal on 29 September about the party’s exit from the NDA and its relationship with the BJP. He was unable to answer why the alliance remained intact despite the BJP’s numerous controversial, ill-considered and anti-minority policies. As he struggled for explanations, Badal often contradicted his previous statements, and revealed his reluctance to take an open stand against the BJP’s majoritarianism.
For instance, on the topic of the BJP’s abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and the amendments to Article 370 of the Constitution, Badal denied supporting the decision. The denial was absurd, given that the video of Badal’s endorsement of the decision in the Lok Sabha was broadcast live on 6 August. “I stand in support of the bill presented by Honourable Home Minister scrapping Article 370 and 35A,” Badal began. Pertinently, the SAD has passed at least four different resolutions in the past supporting greater autonomy for the states. But in the Lok Sabha, the SAD president echoed the BJP’s rhetoric about conversions by the Mughals, the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Badal went on to claim that the reading down of Article 370 would empower minority communities. He remarked at the end of his speech, “I congratulate the prime minister and the home minister for such a bold decision.” Yet, during our telephonic interview, Badal claimed, “We never welcomed the decision in the Parliament, we participated in the debate.”
In early September, after the union cabinet approved a bill to make Hindi and Dogra the official languages of the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Badal opposed the exclusion of Punjabi. He wrote a letter to Manoj Sinha, Jammu and Kashmir’s lieutenant governor, about the issue. “The exclusion of Punjabi as an official language in Jammu and Kashmir is bound to be seen as an anti-minority and is certain to be seen as an anti-Sikh step of the J-K administration,” Badal wrote. But the pro-Sikh party did not deem it reason enough to quit the alliance.
In fact, when I directly asked whether he believed that the BJP was anti-minority or anti-Sikhs, Badal said, “I think it is not the right time to answer that question.” In his tweet announcing the split from the NDA, Badal had emphasised the BJP’s religious insensitivity to Sikh issues. In our interview, he said that the BJP should realise the importance of their allies, adding that “they don’t know how to keep their allies together.”
But Badal’s concerns for the protection of minorities did not appear to stretch far. On the topic of the highly divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which was passed by Parliament last year and led to mass demonstrations across the country condemning it for threatening the citizenship of Muslims, Badal was evasive. The SAD had supported the legislation and helped pave the path for its enactment. During our interview, Badal argued that the Akali Dal had always fought for the citizenship of the Sikhs from Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Seventy-eight thousand people are there,” Badal said. “But at the same time, I mentioned in the Parliament that the Muslims should be included.” Yet, Badal’s support for the bill was not conditional on the inclusion of Muslims.