Losing the Way

The Akali Dal no longer exists, and it may be necessary to reinvent it

Shiromani Akali Dal’s president Simranjit Singh Mann (centre) speaks to the media on the thirtieth anniversary of Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on 6 June 2014. NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
26 June, 2022

Simranjit Singh Mann’s astounding victory over the Aam Aadmi Party candidate in the Sangrur Parliamentary bypoll, coming on the heel of the AAP’s victory in the state election months ago, is representative of the turmoil underway in Punjab. The virtual disappearance of the mainstream Akali Dal has opened up a huge space in the politics of the Sikh majority in the state and Mann, a maverick radical Sikh politician who has always been on the extreme right of the spectrum of splinter Akali groups, marks only the beginning of a period in which various new alternatives will emerge to fill this vacuum.

Based in Punjab as a reporter, over twenty years ago, I found that, while reporting on elections in rural areas, it paid to take the litany of complaints voters had against the local Akali candidate with a pinch of salt. This was especially true of the Jutt Sikhs, who owned much of the land and provided much of the resources—from money and muscle to madira—that make for a successful campaign in Punjab. After the vote, the most vocal critics of the candidate would tell me, “Vote te panth nu paya”—I have voted for my religious sect, meaning Sikhism, hence the Akali Dal.

Today, in Punjab the easy identification of the panth with a party no longer exists, even as the Bharatiya Janata Party—representing the fledgling Hindutva panth—rules the country. 

The Akali Dal was born a century ago, out of the non-violent Gurdwara Reform Movement that wrested control of gurdwaras from the British-affiliated Udasi mahants. It led to the establishment of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to manage all historic Sikh shrines. The party went on to play a prominent role in the independence struggle and initially had close links with the Congress. In fact, many prominent Akalis, including Parkash Singh Badal, began their career with the Congress, while the most prominent Congress chief minister of Punjab, Partap Singh Kairon, began his career with the Akalis.