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Since 1st March, 1999
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Row over Baghdad gurdwara

New Delhi, April 29: The existence of an ancient, historic gurdwara in Baghdad has sparked a political controversy with the Congress and the Akali Dal (Mann) ranged against the BJP and the Akali Dal (Badal).

The question doesn’t appear to be whether such a gurdwara exists in Baghdad or if the lone Sikh shrine in Iraq was razed early this month in the US-led war.

With all the focus on who will repair the gurdwara and how, the matter cropped up in the Lok Sabha during zero hour today.

National Commission for Minorities chairman Tarlochan Singh, a Sikh, said at a function here on Sunday: “Iraq has no gurdwara and it is surprising that requests have been made with the US for the assessment of damage it has suffered during the US-led war against Baghdad.”

According to him, as no gurdwara exists, “no question of details of its damage” arises.

The Congress, the Akali Dal(M) and historians, however, have rubbished his claim. Taking strong exception to Tarlochan’s statement, Akali Dal(M) leader Simranjit Singh Mann said he would petition President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam against the commission chairman.

“Tarlochan Singh is holding a constitutional authority. How can he say no gurdwara existed' As far as the Akali Dal (Badal) is concerned, we will fight them politically,” Mann said.

“That fellow (Tarlochan) is talking the language of the BJP. Because the Congress is taking up the issue of reconstruction of the gurdwara, the BJP is opposing it,” he said.

The BJP had accused Congress chief Sonia Gandhi of lending a religious twist to the issue by writing to Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh.

Sonia had written that a “historic gurdwara in Baghdad” suffered “damages as a result of the recent war in Iraq”. So the Punjab government “should take the initiative to carry out the necessary repairs and reconstruction of this ancient sacred monument”.

Amarinder then wrote to the US embassy, seeking to send a team to assess damage. He said his proposal was “under consideration”.

BJP spokesperson V.K. Malhotra objected to Sonia’s letter, saying it was not an “internal domestic affair”. “If Gandhi was concerned or worried about the gurdwara, she should have written to the government of India.”

Charging Sonia with adding a “religious twist”, he said the Centre was the proper authority to take up the issue.

According to Mann, Congress’s Chandigarh MP Pawan Kumar Bansal has visited the Sikh shrine. Bhai Gurudev, an expert in Sikh history, tradition and scriptures, has written about the gurdwara and about Guru Nanak’s visit to the shrine, he said.

Mann said he had drawn the Centre’s attention to the damage to the gurdwara, but nothing was done.

Though Arab countries do not allow gurdwaras, Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Bangladesh have allowed Sikh shrines to be built in their territory.

Raising the issue in the Lok Sabha today, Congress’ Jagmeet Singh Brar claimed the holy gurdwara was visited by Guru Nanak. The Centre and those concerned should help repair it, he said.

“We are surprised that one BJP spokesman and somebody from the minorities commission (has been) saying that the gurdwara did not exist in Baghdad. Even the US administration has admitted that there was a gurdwara,” Brar said, to vocal support from Mann and several other members.

BJP’s Vinay Katiyar said he agreed with Brar, “but I am surprised that Brar is politicising the whole issue”. Whatever needs to be done to restore the shrine will be done, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh chief said.

Amarinder today offered to “go there (Baghdad gurdwara) as a Sikh and perform karseva (voluntary labour)” for its restoration.

He took a dig at the BJP for criticising his letter sent to the US ambassador directly, not through the external affairs ministry. “I have a right to write to the US ambassador on the gurdwara issue, being a Sikh and a chief minister,” he said.

Punjab’s proposed team, to be led by former envoy to Iraq R. S. Kalha, would include experts from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

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