Vain Sikh leader scrubs floors to atone for sins

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The Independent Online
ONCE he was one of India's mightiest politicians. But for the past eight weeks, Buta Singh has been travelling wearily around the Sikh temples of northern India, sweeping floors, washing dishes and cleaning shoes. Around his neck he wears a placard that says: 'God, pardon me. I am a grave sinner'.

What distinguishes Mr Singh from the other temple workers are his companions: paramilitary bodyguards with semi-automatic rifles, who whisk him off after sundown in a bulletproof car.

Mr Singh must endure these humiliating chores until tomorrow when he will return to his fine bungalow in New Delhi and try to remove his callouses and rebuild his political career. His Sikh co- religionists excommunicated him for serving as Indira Gandhi's home minister after the infamous Operation Bluestar in 1984 when the Indian army laid siege to militants holed up in Amritsar's Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine. Over 700 people died in the temple assault, and this sacrilege led to Mrs Gandhi's assassination by her own Sikh bodyguards.

The politician claimed that for nine years, his conscience had tormented him, and on 27 December he finally threw himself before Sikh priests and begged their forgiveness. Mr Singh was not directly involved in the massacre, but he enraged Sikh holy men by ordering in government workmen hastily to patch up the damage done to the Golden Temple, blasted by the army's tank and machine-gun fire. The Sikhs wanted to repair the shrine themselves.

'I humbly accept the religious punishment to get rid of my sins,' the turbaned Mr Singh declared meekly after priests delivered the punishment. Usually, repentant Sikhs accused of 'religious misconduct' are slapped with a fine of a few hundred rupees. But not Mr Singh.

The excommunication was a personal and political curse. No Sikh was allowed to share food with Mr Singh, and priests were reluctant to officiate at his son's marriage and his mother's funeral. Sikh terrorists wanted to kill him, and his political support among the Punjabi farmers dissolved. He had turned into a liability to the ruling Congress party of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, who over the past two years has managed to bring peace to the Punjab, long wracked by Sikh militancy. Mr Rao passed him over in his cabinet selection and discarded him from the party's inner circle.

Mr Singh's many critics scoff at his late repentance. They claim that the canny former minister is trying to re-conquer his base in Punjab, even if it means dividing Sikh support for the state's Chief Minister, Beant Singh, also from the Congress party.

On top of his political wrongs, Mr Singh was also castigated for his conceit. The Sikh faith forbids its devotees to cut or tamper with their hair, and Mr Singh, 60, broke this taboo by dyeing his beard. For his vanity, the politician is forced to finish off his 56 days of demeaning labour by scrubbing the vast, white marble courtyard around the Golden Temple. The courtyard is shimmering hot this time of year, and whatever dye remains in Mr Singh's beard will probably be washed away by sweat.

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