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Sunday
, December 9, 2001
Lead Article

The SGPC and its politics

The SGPC has been used as a stepping stone by vested interests to put themselves in the limelight. It is time that the SGPC paid attention to improvement of the Sikh constituency’s social sector, with the help of qualified professionals and fulfilled Sikh aspirations. A code of conduct for its own operational efficiency, efficacy and transparent functioning is also required to prevent its own exploitation by ''personalities'' or from being corroded from within by its own men, says P.P.S. Gill The SGPC and its politics

THE four alphabets—S. G. P. C.—that stand for Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee are far more pluralistic in meaning and character than their innocuous appearance. These alphabets, inextricably embedded in the Sikh psyche, connote and convey the command and authority of an organisation that is perceived to be repository of the aspirations of the Sikhs.

 


The SGPC has been variously defined and described. It is the only democratically-elected representative body of the Sikhs. It is often called the mini-Parliament of the Sikhs. The SGPC was founded in 1920 as a registered body called Management Board that was declared illegal before the enactment of the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925. After the passing of the Act, at the very first meeting, the Board named it SGPC.

The SGPC has never been out of the news, at any time. It acquired a new status and was the focus of attention in the wake of the Operation Bluestar in Amritsar (1984), where it has its headquarters inside the Golden Temple Complex. It is again in the news now when Kirpal Singh Badungar was elected President of the SGPC on November 27.

Parkash Singh Badal
Parkash Singh Badal

Kirpal Singh Badungar
Kirpal Singh Badungar

Gurcharan Singh Tohra
Gurcharan Singh Tohra

Bibi Jagir Kaur & Jagdev Singh Talwandi
Bibi Jagir Kaur & Jagdev Singh Talwandi

Puran Singh Josh
Puran Singh Josh

Photos by Rajiv Sharma

That Badungar has become the SGPC President is not important. He had to become the chief since he is a close aide of Parkash Singh Badal, who doubles up as Chief Minister and President of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). What is important is that a ''nominated'' person, proposed by the political arm (SAD) of the SGPC was accepted by the democratically-elected members who obeyed the diktat, as critics would put it. Is it a reflection on the ''representative'' character of the SGPC, created for the ''management and administration'' of the gurdwaras and to keep a tab on ''religious affairs'' of the Sikhs? Is it an indication that the system has developed a snag? Is it a sign that the SGPC is ageing without having matured? Or is it that the SAD often takes the SGPC for a ride?The answers are both yes and no.

It is important to remember that what happened in the SGPC's Teja Singh Samundari Hall on November 27 is nether new nor did it happen for the first time. It is not that there will be no replay in future or that ''election'' was not held in the similar way in the past with the ''man-on-the-spot'' (read President, SAD) naming a candidate of his choice. Gurcharan Singh Tohra did the same. So did Surjit Singh Barnala. At times there were contests, while at other times the ''election'' was either unanimous or unopposed. It all depended upon the state of the SAD— whether it was fractured, faction-ridden or united.

There exists a symbiotic relation between the SGPC and the SAD, the two dominant panthic entities, whose roles have been complimentary or contradictory, depending upon the ''personalities'' in control at a given point of time. How are these two bodies—the SGPC and the SAD— rated by the Sikhs keeping in view their exalted status? The opinions on their respective ratings, roles and functions, over the decades, varies. These organisations have invited both bouquets and brickbats. In critical times, did these organisations measure up to the expectations of their constituents? Or did the constituents remain doubly unblessed and betrayed due to their performance? Is SGPCan abject adjunct of the SAD or is it vice-versa?

All similar and related questions need to be answered objectively by the Sikhs (as also by the Akali leadership) themselves. They first tie themselves up in knots and then expect ''divine intervention'' to untie their knots. These Panthic institutions have always remained under the scrutiny of doves and hawks among the Sikhs.

A student of Sikh studies, Brig. Gurdip Singh (Retd.), believes in the concept of a ''Global Sikh Senate,'' given the wide reach of the Sikh diaspora. He is a votary of ''enlarging'' the scope of the SGPC and ''reforming'' it. In the context of the run up to the SGPC elections on November 27, he says, '' The constitutive structure of the SAD makes it a singularly regional party. It has imbibed virtuous influences of the SGPC for community welfare which constituted its sacred and the moral mandate intrinsic to its existence''.

Unlike other regional parties, the SAD can be subjected to political civility through injunctions from the SGPC institution(s) having the character of jus coigens: that is, overriding principles which cannot be set aside. Therefore, the SGPC and the SAD cannot have separate orbits. Hence, the conduct of the SAD has to be worthy of the highest Sikh traditions with inhibitory exhortations from the SGPC.

Paradoxically, when the SAD is in political power, it over-shadows the SGPC. Therefore, if the SAD, while in power, has weakened the SGPC, it will have to render the cost of its misdeeds, which in turn, will erode the power of both and diminish their effectiveness.

Does it mean there persists an air of uncertainty (and fear) that after the next Assembly poll the ruling SAD may not retain power? And, as such, the SGPC will become more powerful? And, hence, the need to have a ''nominated'' President of the SGPC in Kirpal Singh Badungar? Is he, therefore, expected to owe allegiance to his mentors in the post-election period?

Any attempt to analyse or study the genesis of the Sikh institutions—the SGPC, the SAD, the Sikh clergy (represented by the Jathedars of the Takhts), and the like—is a stupendous task, involving divergent causes and effects. More than the plus points, it is their incapacities and incapabilities that emerge.

There have been several occasions when the Panthic institutions showed signs of weakness and surrendered when extraneous factors and characters aided and abetted by vested power-brokers (through militancy, emotional or religious machination, political manipulations) tried to wreck these institutions from within. This eroded their credibility, command and authority. Yet these have survived and need to be sustained albeit with drastic reforms. It is surprising that the ageing Sikh leadership is neither willing to quit nor stand up to the new challenges and crises that the Sikhs face. These crises are in terms of the Sikh identity, the Sikh definition and pertain to even political, religious (concept of ex-communication through hukamnamas: religious edicts), socio-economic and cultural issues. One wonders where the second line of leadership is?

Basically, there is nothing wrong with the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, that legitimised the existence of the SGPC. The objectives are laudable. The institution has not failed. It is the men at the helm of its affairs, at different times, who have failed eroding the credibility of the institution. Corruption, nepotism, financial irregularities, misuse of its facilities and funds for vested interests have all ended up in loss of credibility. It is these powerful lobbies and interest-groups that have, time and again, stalled enactment of the All India Gurdwara Act.

This is not so much the failure of the SGPC as is politicisation of all its functions and functionaries. Be it the choice, appointment and dismissal of the Takht Jathedars, the allocation of funds for charitable and educational institutions or contracting out residential and commercial properties, leasing out agricultural land and orchards or entrusting kar sewa or procurement of materials— name any one, reportedly, it smacks of corruption and sleaze.

It is high time that it is decided whether the head priests, Jathedars, are to remain puppets in the hands of the vested interests or whether they should have a fixed tenure and be treated like other ordinary ''employees." There is also a need to restore autonomous status and respect for the seat of temporal and spiritual authority— the Akal Takht—which has often been used for settling scores or for self-aggrandisation. The debate on the concepts of Guru Granth, Guru Panth and priesthood has also to be concluded.

There is an allegation that the SGPC has failed in ''social engineering'' to work for the uplift of the Sikhs. This should have happened despite the available statutory and legal frame-work, howsoever obsolete, and when the SGPC is flush with money, is strange. In fact, no reforms have been attempted to galvanise the institution to meet new challenges of the twenty first century.

Is it not shocking that a President, like Bibi Jagir Kaur, got mired in an unsavoury controversy following the mysterious death of her teenage daughter and is facing criminal charges at present? Or that one after the other, Akal Takht Jathedars (late Giani Kirpal Singh, Bhai Ranjit Singh, Giani Puran Singh, to name a few) got embroiled in controversies? Or the behaviour of Jagdev Singh Talwandi, who was not re-nominated for the post of the President of the SGPC, of tearing the ballot paper and alleging Badungar was a follower of Baba Bhaniara and openly criticising the Jathedars on Divali says it all. Another member of the SGPC, Puran Singh Josh, too tore away his ballot protesting against nomination of Badungar. What does this indicate?

Though the overall decline of the Sikh institutions began soon after 1947, it reached ground zero in 1984. The subsequent events have left an indelible imprint on the Sikh psyche. Rather than learning lessons from history to work in harmony, the leaders—guilt-laden and soiled by past events—have withered enough and are unable to re-energise and muster purposeful responses.

Teja Singh Samundari Hall
Teja Singh Samundari Hall

The presence of deras, sants, mahants and babas has further complicated the religio-political scene. The controversy involving Baba Piara Singh Bhaniara, his Bhavsagar Samundar Granth, and a bee-line of politicians and bureaucrats to his dera, the incidents of sacrilege—burning of Sikhs' holy book, allegedly by the followers of the Baba Bhaniara after his granth was torched in Ludhiana—is still smouldering. How should the SGPC and the SAD have reacted and managed damage control? These are just some of the instances that prove how helpless the Sikh institutions have been rendered and moral values eroded.

It is always a hazard to make a guess aqbout the next move of the Akalis. It is fraught with dangers, especially given their unpredictability and sensibilities to emotionalise issues concerning men and matters. But what, perhaps, pleases them most are morchas, celebrations and elections.

Infighting and internecine wars in the Akali politics is more of a habit. A culture. The latest pertains to the parting of ways between Parkash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra. It dates back to 1998 when Tohra went his way, resulting in parallel celebrations of the KhalsaTercentenary in 1999. There is no meeting ground, yet, between the two leaders (despite a courtesy call on Badal by Tohra in Sri Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi). The two have time and again joined hands, parted and come together yet again. With loud whispers on unity afloat, both sides speak of ''principles'' and ''pre-conditions'' for unity. These are born out of their usual ego hassles and obstinate postures over non-issues or trivial matters. These have now come in the way of unity, as these had often in the past. Even the call from Akal Takht for unity has already been forgotten.

Is there an alternative to these institutions, particularly, the SGPC?Can the SGPC be expected to perform in a transparent, corruption-free and apolitical environment because its every action and reaction has a bearing on the religious heads and issues that need to be resolved? The import is more severe outside Punjab.

Therefore, Kharak Singh, a Sikh scholar, suggests setting-up of an ''apex body'' with the SGPCplaying an active role. That body should be the real, representative organisation of the Sikhs given their world-wide sweep. He talks of the ''failure'' of man-made Sikh institutions and stresses on the need to protect the institutions ''inherited'' from the Gurus. These are relevant for all times and have played an abiding role in the growth and development of the Panth.

The issue of saving the Sikh (Panthic) institutions was debated by the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, recently. A resolution was adopted suggesting an ''apex body.'' In fact, as mentioned elsewhere, the common refrain among the Sikhs, at present, is that the Panth is passing through critical times (when was it not?) and is afflicted with numerous problems—lack of unity, the hurt Sikh psyche, the mushrooming deras and the difficulties faced by the Sikh diaspora etc.

It goes without saying that the Sikh scholars or intellectuals or whatever nomenclature one may use for them, (in whichever ''personality-oriented'' camp they may be divided into), have also much to answer for the persistent, perennial Panthic crises. Because they have always occupied a backseat and left Panthic affairs to a dominant class of illiterate males with low levels of religious proficiency. This has always suited the politicians and helped them to ''rule over'' and mould them as the occasion arises. In fact, even equal representation to women has been denied in the SGPC and the SAD. Bibi Jagir Kaur could have tilted the balance in favour of the women. But she too failed. Thus, a golden opportunity was lost to bring more women,who were educated and articulate, into Sikh religio-political orbit.

In this vicious circle of elections and celebrations, appointments and dismissals, assimilations and eliminations, the real issues have been ignored and forgotten. Many suggestions have been made to introduce reforms. It is no secret that for the Sikhs, religion and politics are inseparable. Rather than drawing strength and sustenance from the teachings of the Gurus and the spirit of welfare inherent in the religion itself, religious institutions, religious men and matters have all been politicised.

The bane of the Sikh Panth is that consensus and conclusions has always eluded them, even though they swear by the concept of ''collective'' leadership and decision-making. What to speak of unity, there is even no unanimity among institutions and individuals on many issues, several of them highly contentious.

Therefore, as Brig. Gurdip Singh suggests, the futuristic perceptions of the Sikh polity, which also seeks global participation of community members in societal activities, must produce a smooth resolution of interface of religion with politics in the state/country and harmony with emerging international trends.

Why has the Sikh leadership all these decades failed to establish any national-level institutions to promote either the Punjabi language or comprehensive Sikh studies? The statutory and legal provisions have not been exploited to improve house-keeping of the SGPC and its related functions. Rather, the SGPC has been used as a stepping stone by vested interests to put them in the limelight It is time that the SGPC paid attention to improvement of the Sikh constituency’s social sector, with the help of qualified professionals and fulfil Sikh aspirations. A code of conduct for its own operational efficiency, efficacy and transparent functioning is also required to prevent its own exploitation by ''personalities'' or corrosion from within by its own men.

Religion has profound influence on the human beings seeking salvation.They make handsome donations and offerings. This is no hindrance for them. Therefore, given the funds available with religious institutions, a lot more purposeful social development can be done in the spirit of sarbat da bhala.

"Ego has no place in Sikhism"
Varinder Walia

BREAKING the tradition of appointing stalwarts, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal chose Prof Kirpal Singh Badungar, Officer on Special Duty to chief minister, as president of the SGPC which raised many eye-brows in the Sikh circles. The leaders of the rival Akali factions alleged that with the appointment of Prof Badungar to the coveted post, Badal fulfilled his long-cherished dream to acquire full control over all the Sikh Institutions. The SGPC, known as ‘mini-Parliament of Sikhs’ is the appointing and removing authority of the Sikh high priests. This is an old adage that the party which controls the SGPC has supremacy in the political arena too.

Prof. Badungar is perhaps the first president who landed himself in the web of controversy immediately after his nomination was declared on November 27. His predecessor, Jagdev Singh Talwandi, who is also chairman of the disciplinary action committee of the ruling party, raised a banner of revolt in protest against the selection of Prof Badungar. Though Badungar was ‘bailed out’ by the Sikh high priests from the charges of visiting the dera of excommunicated Baba Piara Singh Bhaniara, yet by tearing his ballot paper during the SGPC’s General House, Talwandi provided a much- needed handle to the rival Akali factions to beat the ruling party.

Without naming Talwandi and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Prof Badungar said that many Akali stalwarts could not digest that an Akali worker, who had a "humble political background" had been elected for the plum post. Badungar, a co-opted member, took over the reins when the SGPC is knee-deep in controversies. After Operation Bluestar, Sikh institutions witnessed a direct confrontation between the SGPC and Sikh clergy. Many jathedars were removed by the SGPC since then. At the time when some ‘panthic’ leaders have been describing the present set of high priests as sarkari jathedars, Badungar declared that he would ensure that the prestige of Sikh clergy and Takhts was restored at all costs. He has also assured that henceforth he won’t let the Akal Takht be used for political ends. The maryada (Sikh tradition) which stood violated many a time in the past would be restored at all levels. "Ishall ensure that the age-old Sikh institutions work in utmost harmony henceforth. Without naming his predecessor, Prof Badungar said that "ego or dictatorship has no place in Sikhism and no witchunting of employees would be allowed."

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