‘Gurdwara Act’ invites Indian State’s Interference in Sikh Religion

Jaspal Singh Sidhu | July 23, 2014 11:21 PM
Jaspal Singh Sidhu

By Jaspal Sidhu

The Sikh intelligentsia has rarely raised a finger at a popular narrative that “the Sikhs have earned the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 after numerous sacrifices and a protracted struggle”.

Under the Act, a Sikh shrines management body—SGPC—was created which manages Sikh affairs. The SGPC is elected through universal adult suffrage among the Sikhs. Created and sustained by vested interests, the narrative is, often, goes hyperbolic that ‘the SGPC is mini-parliament of the Sikhs’.

    And now, when the RSS-supported Modi regime is at the helms of the Indian state with strong propensity to strengthen Hindu religion based majoritarian nationalism, how far could the Sikh minority religion escape the overwhelmingly assimilative impact of the Sangh Privar? 

   Theoretical and empirical analysis of the nine-decade long existence and working of the SGPC belies what the narrative has been asserting all along. From theoretical angle, the modern States, particularly those who choose their political governance through the process of universal adult suffrage tend to secularize the religion. And, it is the known fact that the secularization is a historical process that has reduced, even replaced to a larger extent, the social and cultural significance of the religion. Invariably, modern states have attempted to restrict and confine the religious influences within the religious places.

    Could the Sikh religion escape the secularization impact when the modern Indian state, professing to be a secular one, solely reserves the authority to announce and conduct the election of the SGPC?  Could the management body, running the affairs of the Sikh religious community, escape the political stamp of the power-that-be reigning New Delhi?

    And now, when the RSS-supported Modi regime is at the helms of the Indian state with strong propensity to strengthen Hindu religion based majoritarian nationalism, how far could the Sikh minority religion escape the overwhelmingly assimilative impact of the Sangh Privar?  

    In fact, the creation of the SGPC in 1925 was sheer anachronism and was a shrewd trapping of the Sikhs by the colonial British rulers. The Sikh community was the first to be subjected to the universal adult suffrage for electing its religious body in the sub-continent by the British colonial masters. There prevailed a partial electoral system at that period, which was later gradually converted to a universal one, particularly at the eve of ‘transfer of power’ by the British in the late 1940s. How far, the Gurdwara Act of 1925 and election system for the SGPC helped the British in blunting the edge of the Sikh rebellion  is a matter of debate, but it certainly provided a platform for developing an understanding between the Akali Dal and Congress which made the  Sikhs to throw their lot with India.

    Moreover, unlike other important religions --- Islam, Christianity and Hinduism so on --- the Sikh religion, that too a minority religion everywhere, is a singular faith whose religious-affairs-controlling body is elected at the behest of a professedly secular Indian state. Practically, the Indian state has been patronizing the majority’s religious ethos and way of life. Almost all religions of the world have developed some or the other system and process of choosing their religious bodies themselves. Ironically, the Sikhs are oblivious of the fact that they have themselves invited the interference of the OTHERS in their religious affairs and handed over their religious reins to OTHERS, yet they are proud of the present dispensation.

Because of this prevailing anomaly and inconsistency, the election to the Sikh religious bodies — SGPC, the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) particularly — is being contested on the pattern of  mundane political elections to the assembly or parliament. So, all inducements and corrupt practices of the political system --- ranging from distributing booze to the greasing of palms --- have become the order of the day in the Gurdwara elections. The candidates in these elections are fielded by the political parties and political groupings.

    The Sikh body thrown by such non-religious election system, invariably, must be dominated by a political party and political personae. And, such dispensation must have a PLIABLE Jathedar (head of Sikh spiritual affairs) at the Akal Takht to meet political requirements of the politicians . And well-entrenched Sikh shrines bodies would rush to the court for the retention of their control. That is why incidences of corruption prevailing in the SGPC and DSGMC put even a rotten public sector organization to shame.

       Against the above given background the presently raging political conflict between the Akali Dal ruling Punjab and Congress-controlled government of Haryana over the creation of a separate ‘Sikh management body’ in Haryana should be viewed. The new body, the Haryana Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee ( HSGPC) set up through an enactment of a legislation by the Haryana assembly, has also been named after the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), headquartered at Golden Temple, Amrtisar which was created by the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925 ( Punjab Act 8 of 1925).

The Akali Dal, traditionally controlling the Amritsar-based SGPC since its creation, sees the coming up of the Haryana Sikh body as slicing away its control over Sikh shrines located in Haryana state. It has raised an uproar and giving the issue an emotive tilt saying that “Congress has been attempting to divide the Sikhs  … undermining the Sikhs’ collective strength…’s an interference in Sikh religious affairs”. Obviously, Punjab’s Akali Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is attempting to kick up religio-political frenzy among the Sikhs by saying that it was the second attack on the Sikhs after the Army attack on the Golden Temple (Operation Blue Star) in June 1984 and they would launch an agitation (morcha) to get the new Sikh body in Haryana nullified. Badal has been resorting to all sorts of bullying tactics. He forced his ally NDA government at New Delhi to send a missive to the Haryana government suggesting revoking of the ‘controversial legislative act’. He has also dispatched a contingent of SGPC Task Force (armed security guard employees) to retain occupation of main Sikh shrines in Haryana.

       On other hand, the leaders of 1.5 million Sikh community in Haryana, campaigning for getting due share of the shrine management for more than a decade are hell-bent to retain a new separate body. While both rival Sikh platforms have actively been mobilizing their respective support among the Sikhs — now a global community, the unity-seeking idealists and pacifists are viewing these internecine conflicts as impending threat to ‘brotherly bloodshed’ and, thereby, further weakening of the Sikh minority. But the creation of the new body and attempts to stall it, all are offshoots of electoral politics and vote-bank considerations as rhetoric of both sides that follows.

     But the question is: how could the internecine conflict be resolved till the present election system to the Sikh religious bodies is in place? How an ordinary Sikh could have the same degree of commitment and faith to the Sikh religion as that of a baptized Sikh (Amritdhari)? 

Why not the present election system that involves government interference should be changed into a ‘selection system’ allowing truly religious Sikhs to choose ‘ religious people’ (not stark politicians) to run Sikh affairs?

All this may be indigestible to the Sikhs overwhelmed by the powerful narrative that ‘the SGPC is a democratic entity’. But it should be kept in mind that ‘religious faith’ and ‘politics shorn of faith’ are not compatible to each other. And the Sikhs seem to carrying a strong incompatibility and a visible contradiction. The SGPC declares that “Sikhs are a separate nation’  and at the same time it suffers no compunction in allowing supremacy of another NATION --- the Indian nation in conducting its elections.

Just ponder over.


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