Picture shows the president of the Haryana Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee being greeted by elated members after the announcement of a separate Gurudwara body formation for the State. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
The HinduPicture shows the president of the Haryana Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee being greeted by elated members after the announcement of a separate Gurudwara body formation for the State. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

The move to create a separate management committee for Sikh shrines in Haryana has raised serious concerns about the politicisation of the Sikh clergy

The Congress government’s move in Haryana to have a Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) of its own in order to manage Sikh shrines in the State, has stirred the volatile Sikh religious pot. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab is crying foul at the move, even as the Congress is determined to break the hegemony of the SAD-controlled SGPC of Punjab on Sikh institutions. After weeks of acrimonious statements from both sides, the Haryana Assembly passed the Haryana Sikh Gurdwaras (Management) Bill, 2014, setting the stage for a confrontation between the two parties.

In 1996, SAD shed its Sikh religious moorings to become a secular democratic party with the aim of working for all communities. In practice, the party continues with its ‘gurudwara politics’ through the elected house of the SGPC, which is dominated by SAD members.

The devaluation of Sikhdom’s apex institutions like the Akal Takht and the Amritsar-based SGPC due to their politicisation has irked Sikhs so much in recent years that few tears are now being shed for the attack that the SGPC is facing from the Congress-backed Sikhs of Haryana. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal tried to dramatically describe it as, “the third assault on Sikhs by the Congress after Operation Bluestar and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots”, but save the Om Prakash Chautala-led Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and a half-hearted Bharatiya Janata Party, no one across the socio-political spectrum is supporting him. As Dr. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, a noted Sikh scholar and author of the SGPC’s white paper on Operation Bluestar, told The Hindu, “The Sikh religion today has become subordinate to politics.”

Obvious motives

The motives of the Haryana government are all too obvious. With the Assembly elections looming in October, Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, whose stock among non-Jats is at an all-time low thanks to his pro Jat policies, is on a mission to woo all communities. He promised a Haryana SGPC in his first tenure in the 2005 election manifesto, and in 2007 he constituted a panel under Finance minister H.S. Chattha to explore its feasibility. The Chattha panel claims to have received more than two lakh affidavits from Sikhs in Haryana in support of a separate Haryana SGPC, and last week Mr. Hooda announced its formation. This was followed by the passing of the Bill that seeks to constitute a separate SGPC for Haryana.

Haryana claims that a separate statutory body to manage its own gurudwaras flows from Section 72 of the Punjab State Reorganisation Act 1966 that provides for separate statutory bodies in successor States of erstwhile joint Punjab. Legal opinion is currently divided on this and a final interpretation of the Act could well reach the courts. Mr. Badal has described Haryana’s move as “illegal and unconstitutional” because the SGPC is constituted under the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, a Central law. Many in SAD were hoping that with the pro-Badal National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, Haryana’s legislation will be blocked when it is sent to the President for assent. But Haryana has taken the stand that it is competent to enact the law on its own and the Bill requires only the approval of the State Governor.

But why do Haryanvi Sikhs want a separate body to manage their shrines, almost five decades after Punjab was split into three States? The main grouse is that SGPC takes collections (estimated to be about Rs. 170 crore) from Haryana gurudwaras but does not spend it in the State. Further, Randeep Singh Surjewala, Congress spokesperson and Haryana minister, says, “Haryana’s Sikhs are not given employment or representation in SGPC-run religious and educational institutions in the State.” Giving an example of the hegemony of the Badal family over SGPC, he points out, “The SGPC-owned Miri Piri Institute of Medical Sciences and Research in Shahabad was taken over by a Trust, which has Mr. Badal as its head.”

SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar denies most of the charges and counters them by accusing the Haryana government of creating hurdles for SGPC projects in the State.

But the Congress is more irked by the manner in which the SAD leadership uses Haryana’s gurudwaras as platforms to help the INLD to win Sikh votes. Last year, the Congress lost control of the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee (DSGMC) when SAD ousted a Congress-supported group in the elections. The new body of the DSGMC campaigned aggressively for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. Mr. Hooda is clearly determined to prevent the SGPC from doing the same in favour of the INLD in Haryana, and backed the demand of Haryana’s Sikhs to break away from the SGPC’s hold. He has the support of Punjab Congress leaders who would also like to see diluted the control of SAD on Sikh religious institutions.

The SAD is virtually isolated in its stand as the Aam Aadmi Party, some radical organisations like the Dal Khalsa in Punjab, and some overseas Sikh organisations are also in favour of a separate Haryana SGPC. The SAD’s requests to Home Minister Rajnath Singh to prevent Haryana from enacting its law have not yielded anything substantial, which is why hours before the Bill was passed Mr. Makkar formed a sub-committee to manage Haryana’s gurdwaras.

Some serious concerns

But beyond the politics of wooing the Sikh vote bank, the controversy has raised more serious concerns about the politicisation of the Sikh clergy and its “misuse” by SAD for political ends. The Akal Takht has already taken a beating for intervening in a political fight. When Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh from the Akal Takht invited Sikh leaders of Haryana to discuss the issue some days ago, they did not go. Many saw this as a disrespect of the Akal Takht. But worse was to come. A committee appointed by him that went to reason with Sikh leaders of Haryana at Kurukshetra was given a mouthful. Dr. Dhillon says, “Mr. Badal controls all the important appointments in the SGPC and the Akal Takht. When vested political interests come into play, then such things are bound to happen.”

Gurpreet Singh of United Sikhs, a Sikh socio-cultural organisation, says: “The image of the religion is certainly dented by all this and the SGPC needs to introspect on why Haryana’s Sikhs want to control their gurdwaras. Vast numbers of Sikhs are said to be deserting the faith, because the guardians of the faith are busy doing politics instead of protecting its basic tenets. Interestingly, Mr Hooda did not go ahead with the HSGPC during the ten-year UPA rule because its Sikh Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, did not approve of it. With Mr. Singh out of power and a high stakes election on the horizon, Mr. Hooda has the Sikh vote on his radar.

Mr. Badal has warned that Haryana’s move could disrupt peace and harmony, but this is not the last word on this contentious issue.

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