M A I N   N E W S

Centre backtracks, says SGPC poll on
No proposal to rescind 2003 notification barring Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting
n Counsel was not authorised: Chidambaram
n Badal demands a CBI probe

Aditi Tandon/Ajay Banerjee
Tribune News Service

New Delhi/Chandigarh, Sept 2
A day after Punjab was rocked by the Union Government’s purported ‘decision’ to allow ‘Sehajdhari Sikhs’ to participate in the election for the Sikh Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee ( SGPC), communicated by its counsel to the High Court, a visibly embarrassed Union Government on Friday scurried to assure Parliament that it had no intention to withdraw the contentious notification that barred ‘Sehajdhari Sikhs’ from participating in the SGPC polls.

There was neither a proposal to withdraw the notification, issued by the NDA government in 2003, nor had the Centre authorised senior advocate Harbhagwan Singh to make any such statement, asserted a grim Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, in both Houses of Parliament.

The clarification lifted the uncertainty that hovered over the SGPC poll scheduled for September 18. The election will now be held on schedule. The Centre’s standing counsel at the Punjab and Haryana High Court, O.S. Batalvi, was sent a message to initiate necessary remedial action and the Centre is expected to move the High Court on Monday for recalling its order disposing of petitions on Thursday.

Former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, blamed for the ‘mischief’ by both the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister, declared defiantly that there was no justification for debarring 62 lakh ‘Sehajdhari Sikhs’ from the election. Experts asserted that Sehajdhari Sikhs participated in all SGPC elections till 2003, when they were disenfranchised by the NDA Government’s notification.

The high drama in the High Court on Thursday, followed by today’s anti-climax, has, however sparked off a raging debate on the issue. The Akalis pointed an accusing finger at the state Congress, contending that Harbhagwan Singh was the Advocate General in the Congress government headed by Captain Amarinder Singh. The Congress, they said, was interfering in ‘religious matters’ and sought a CBI inquiry into the flip-flop.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was present in the visitors’ gallery in the Lok Sabha when the Home Minister made his statement. A visibly upset Badal had called on BJP leader L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley , who in turn are learnt to have got in touch with the Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha Pranab Mukherjee.

While the Home Minister told Parliament that Harbhagwan Singh was not given any vakalatnama, the lawyer asserted at Chandigarh that being a senior advocate, he did not need a vakalatnama. While the Home Minister claimed that the lawyer was neither briefed nor authorised to make the contentious statement, the lawyer maintained that he had documents to prove otherwise.

The government, however, admitted that Harbhagwan Singh was yesterday appointed senior counsel for the Centre in the matter.

“The Law Ministry had written a letter dated September 1, 2011 approving his engagement in two of the three cases before the HC. A copy of the order has not yet been received in the Home Ministry and neither the home ministry nor the law ministry gave any vakalatnama to Harbhagwan Singh,” Chidambaram clarified.

Asked how a senior counsel, who had been Advocate General of Punjab, could on his own make such a claim on the Centre’s behalf, Law Minister Salman Khursheed told The Tribune that “there seemed to be some misunderstanding”.

“But what he said was totally unwarranted. Not even in our wildest imagination had we intended to say such a thing. We are sorry if the issue has caused any embarrassment to him or anyone else,” Khursheed said. Asked if Harbhagwan’s unauthorized statement on the Centre’s behalf amounted to fraud, Khursheed replied in the negative.

Home Ministry sources, however, indicated that telephone calls are being traced to find out who had called the Senior Advocate. Taken aback by the development, the Ministry is investigating whether it could be a ‘genuine error’ or a ‘deliberate mischief’ to scuttle or delay the election.

The development has again embarassed the Centre and revived questions about the government’s functioning. It has given the Congress a bad name and provided a handle to the Akalis for its tirade against the party, acknowledged despondent Congressmen.

The SGPC polls are conducted under the aegis of the Union Home Ministry. All possibilities are being explored to ascertain whether the fiasco was caused by a miscommunication ‘in the lower ranks’. If it is proved that the call to the Senior Advocate was a deliberate hoax, the government would consider registering a case, said sources.

(WIth inputs from Girja Shankar Kaura & Saurabh Malik)





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