Allowing the SGPC imbroglio to fester is not in national interest

Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (Photo: PTI)

The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) has a significant role to play in the religious affairs of the Sikh community and all others who follow the tenets of Sikhism and Guru Nanak. The body was formed on 1 November 1925, by an Act passed by the British Government in India with a gazette notification from the then Government of Punjab.

The SGPC was made responsible for the management of Sikh Gurdwara’s in Punjab which, at that stage included Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, the Union Territory of Chandigarh and many areas that went to Pakistan due to the partition of the country. SGPC continues to look after Gurdwara’s in the states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

The responsibilities of the SGPC include managing the finances, security,  maintenance, property, (including historical artefacts and memorabilia) and religious aspects of the Sikh community. Even though there are many Gurdwara’s of historical importance outside Punjab that are not administered by the SGPC, yet, the organisation holds a lot of significance in the overall religious affairs of the Sikhs since it  also appoints the Jathedar of the Akal Takth. It is the Church of the Sikh community.

As per the Gurdwara Act 1925, the SGPC has a General House comprising of 175 elected members and 15 nominated members, including five Jathedars of the Takht’s. Presently the number of representatives is 191. Elections are to be held every five years. The General House elects the office bearers including the President, Vice Presidents, General Secretaries and a 11-member executive body on a yearly basis.

The last elections of the General House were held in 2011 when the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) (Badal) got an absolute majority with a total of 182 members including elected and nominated; the voting electorate was – Punjab 52.69 Lakh; Haryana 3.37 Lakh; Himachal Pradesh 23000 and Chandigarh 11, 932. The 2011 election has been contested in court for non-inclusion of Sehajdhari Sikhs in the electoral rolls whose inclusion is now solicited by the process of law.  

In December 2011, the Punjab and Haryana High Court nullified the polls and restored the voting rights of the Sehajdhari Sikhs by quashing the 2003 notification of the central government that disallowed them from voting.

In February 2012, the SGPC moved the Supreme Court challenging the High Court order. In 2016, the apex court, while reinstating the 2011 SGPC house, referred to an amendment by Parliament of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, which denied voting rights to Sehajdhari Sikhs with retrospective effect from 2003. The case continues to be sub-judice. In the meantime, Haryana is demanding a separate Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. A petition for the same is pending with the Supreme Court.

The outcome of these litigations is that after 2011 no elections of the General House of the SGPC have been held, instead, a new executive committee is being put in place in November every year.

The sub-judice status of the organisation paved the way for the SAD (Badal) and particularly the Badal family to gain full control over the SGPC. The process of the annual election of office bearers is  supposed to be carried out with an unanimous verdict or voting through secret ballot.  Sadly, from 2012 onwards,  the SGPC members, who owe their allegiance to the Badal family, have been unanimously authorising the party President, Sukhbir Badal, to choose the entire team.

The end result is that SAD (Badal) and particularly its President Sukhbir Badal are frequently reported to be blatantly using the organisation for personal  and party gains.

This situation has led to a lot of heartburn in the Sikh community that is the biggest casualty and has been left rudderless. Many senior leaders of the SAD (Badal) understood that they were getting alienated within the community. They attempted to set things right by insisting upon a more representative character of the SGPC as well as SAD (Badal), when this did not happen, many of the leaders left the SAD (Badal).

Now the detractors are joining hands to end the vice-like grip that the Badal family has over the SGPC. Sikh bodies like former Jathedar of Akal Takht Bhai Ranjit Singh led Panthic Akali  Lehar (PAL), former Jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib Giani Kewal Singh led  Panthic Talmel Sangathan (PTS), Bhai Baldev Singh Wadala led Sikh Sadbhavana Dal (SSD) and Paramjit Singh Ranu led Sehajdhari Sikh Party (SSP)  are the leading the campaign. Also in the fray is the SAD (Amritsar) which has suddenly gained prominence due to the victory achieved by Simranjit Singh Mann in the Sangrur constituency by-elections.  A lot of the politics are now being played from foreign shores also.

These leaders and their organisations openly criticise the Badals and look for support to change the well entrenched system. Bhai Kewal Singh of PTS has announced his intention of contesting the elections. These organisations are loosely connected with each other but they do have a common objective  of bringing in the required autonomy followed by transparency in functioning, 

The long hiatus in the election process has come with another set of problems. As things stand, the organisation does not even have full representation. Some members have died, while the two – Sucha Singh Langah and Sharanjit Singh have resigned. The House presently consists of 165 members in addition to 15 co-opted members.

On 30 November 2021, Harjinder Singh Dhami, earlier honorary chief secretary of the organisation was elected as its president for the one-year term; his term is coming to an end in November this year, and there are many voices demanding  elections of the General House before the next President is elected.

Even if elections of the General House are not held the presidential and office bearer elections will witness stiff opposition with a lot of flak being exchanged in the media, however, the SAD (Badals) is expected to prevail. 

In the meantime, the registration of voters for the general house elections is underway under the scrutiny of the Chief Commissioner of Gurdwara Elections, Justice SS Saron. The chief commissioner has sent requisition for the necessary update of the electoral rolls by the field staff under various deputy commissioners. The process involves registration with the Patwari/designated person and then creation of a preliminary and final roll that stays relevant for five years. The election is held with prescribed democratic norms like filing of nomination, notification of symbols; notification of election agents, polling stations, etc. The chief commissioner has also stated that certain long standing demands like reduction of age of eligible candidates from 21 to 18 are under consideration.

The chief commissioner, however, clearly stated that elections will be held only when the central government gives the order and also in consideration of the many court cases presently underway. He has also admitted that his office lacks infrastructure and wherewithal to perform its duties since it has remained closed since 2011.  Overall, from his statements it seems that the environment in terms of administration and judicial oversight would make holding of general elections in the near term a big challenge. 

As things stand, there is a visible disconnect of the current SGPC dispensation with the Sikh Panth. Chaos prevails in the house proceedings of the SGPC due to the sharp rifts. There is an overwhelming perception that the office bearers are functioning only on their personal and vested interests. The SGPC also lost face by granting pardon to the Sirsa Dera chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim who is now imprisoned for life in rape and murder cases.  

The end result is that the Sikh Church is under severe stress and unable to fulfil its mandate  especially propagation of Sikh tenets; many are deviating from the faith and veering towards Christianity.

It can be said with reasonable assurance that  SAD will face stiff opposition in all future elections and selection processes that are held for the SGPC. The opposition is likely to join hands at the last minute to defeat the Badal family.

The government of India can play a big role in creating an environment where free and fair general election of the SGPC can be conducted. The first step would be to bid for expeditious decisions on the pending court cases; simultaneously the chief commissioner of election needs to be fully empowered to get the registration and electoral rolls in place, additions and modification can be made once the courts decide the pending cases.

Allowing the SGPC imbroglio to fester is a big risk not only for the Sikhs but also the Punjabi community in general since it holds a lot of faith in the Sikh Gurus and tenets. The grip that the Badal family has on both SAD (Badal) and the SGPC is definitely not in favour of the Sikh community and Sikh Church.  A weakened Sikh Church in Punjab where the Sikh tenets are followed by all communities with equal fervour can have acute socio-political, economic and security implications in view of the border state status of Punjab and the enemy forces always on the look out to exploit chinks in the Punjabi armour.  It is therefore hoped that the SGPC imbroglio will find an early resolution and all efforts will be made to usher transparency, commitment and efficiency in the functioning of this very important body.

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