PM cancels Punjab visit , turns into political slugfest

Chandigarh : Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s flip-flop on visiting Punjab later this month for the inauguration of the ambitious Khalsa Heritage Centre (KHC), touted as a landmark monument of Sikhism at Anandpur Sahib, is turning out to be a political slugfest between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and the opposition Congress in the state in the run-up to the assembly elections.

The prime minister, who had last month “agreed in principle” to visit Punjab in the second half of November after being personally invited by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to inaugurate the KHC, has now communicated to the state government his inability to come “due to prior engagements”.

Badal had gone to the extent of publicly declaring that the prime minister would visit Punjab between Nov 15 and 25. But the visit has been cancelled now, leaving Badal and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) fuming.

“It is unfortunate that he has said that he is not coming. It was an honour for him, being a Sikh, to inaugurate this prestigious project. The Punjab Congress and Amarinder Singh are responsible for this cancellation,” Badal said.

Manmohan Singh’s link to Punjab is not only that he is a Sikh but also the fact that he studied and worked in Amritsar and Chandigarh. He owns a house in Punjab’s state capital Chandigarh.

Akali Dal leaders are already linking the cancellation of his visit to the “conspiracy” by Punjab Congress leaders, especially state Congress president and former chief minister Amarinder Singh.

The Congress leader had, last month, shot off a letter to the prime minister pointing out that the KHC had already been inaugurated in 2006 and his visit now would only be for a re-inauguration.

The Akalis protested against the letter, saying that Congress leaders should refrain from playing politics in this matter.

“He is the prime minister of the country and not of the Congress party,” Badal said.

Congress insiders admit that the announcement of the prime minister’s visit to Punjab for the KHC inauguration had taken them by surprise.

“This was planned so close to the assembly elections (likely to be held Feb-March next year). We are fighting politically against the Akalis and the prime minister coming for their function would have been embarrassing,” a senior Congress leader admitted.

The Akalis have now threatened to make an issue of the cancellation and turn the tables on the Congress, accusing the party of being anti-Sikh.

The SGPC, the mini-parliament of the Sikh religion, too is not happy.

“The prime minister should not be so weak that he is influenced by others so easily. He was given the honour (of inaugurating the KHC) by the Sikh community,” SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar said.

The Rs.275-crore project, announced in April 1999, was originally expected to be completed by September 2004 to coincide with the celebrations of the 400th year of the Golden Temple, but the deadline was pushed back several times.

Boston-based internationally acclaimed Israeli architect Moshe Safdie has designed the complex, which is shaped like open hands offering prayers. The monument is termed as a “wonder in the making” and something that has “no comparison in the country”.

Being built on a 100-acre site at Anadpur Sahib, the KHC is to stand at a site that is the birth place of the Khalsa Panth, the present-day Sikh religion. The second holiest Sikh shrine, Takht Keshgarh Sahib, is also located there.

It was here in 1699, on Baisakhi day, that Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, founded the Khalsa Panth and baptized the ‘Panj Piaras’ (the first five baptized Sikhs known as the loved ones of the guru).

The budget of the project has nearly doubled from its original estimates. Funds for the KHC project have come from the government, Punjab’s rich non-resident Indian (NRI) community and religious organisations.

Badal, during whose earlier tenure (1997-2002) the project was announced, had shown personal interest in setting up the heritage complex but it continued to get delayed.

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