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The SGPC needs reforms to redeem itself

The apex Sikh religious body can’t ignore clamour for consensus, transparency in appointing high priests and ensuring their independence

analysis Updated: Apr 28, 2017 10:36 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Parkash Singh Badal as chief minister, is credited for building an array of Sikh memorials, but his legacy stands accused of diminishing the Sikh institutions
Parkash Singh Badal as chief minister, is credited for building an array of Sikh memorials, but his legacy stands accused of diminishing the Sikh institutions (Sikander Singh Chopra/Hindustan Times)

Politics comes naturally to Sikh religious affairs. But the unceremonious removal of the acting jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib – one of the five high priests – fits into the pattern of the hire and fire policy religiously practised by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) at the bidding of its political bosses. It has raised fresh questions on the erosion in the autonomy, or whatever is left of it, of the apex Sikh religious body that has growingly come to be seen as a subservient extension counter of the Shiromani Akali Dal.

An outspoken Giani Gurmukh Singh earned the SGPC’s wrath for his carps and charges against his fellow clergymen over the politically stage-managed pardon to the ‘godman’ of Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda who was ostracised for his alleged blasphemous act in 2007.

Things came to a head last week when Giani defiantly distanced himself from the Akal Takht jathedar’s move on handing down religious punishment to political leaders, mostly Akalis, for seeking the controversial dera’s support in the recent assembly elections.

He apparently crossed the “red lines” when he openly accused former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal of “forcing” the Sikh clergy to accept the dera chief’s written apology in 2015. On political cue, the SGPC swiftly cracked the whip against the renegade jathedar lest he emerge a rallying figure for dissenters on the religious turf.

The action against Giani underscores the continuing ferment in the Sikh clergy and also puts the spotlight on the politicisation of the SGPC, the root cause of disquiet in the Sikh community and scholars.

Religion and politics overlap in the Panthic matrix but undercurrents of the dera deal backlash refuse to die down even after the Sikhs vented their ire against the Akalis in the assembly polls.

Notwithstanding the pretensions of “aloofness” from the SGPC and the Akal Takht, it’s an open secret that the Badals, when in power, had orchestrated an Akal Takht-stamped apology to dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim without the latter presenting himself before the Sikh clergymen as mandated by the Sikh maryada.

The political move backfired on the religious front in the ways the Akalis had scarcely imagined. It sparked a wave of Sikh anger, triggered an unprecedented revolt in the clergy, and even led to the appointment of parallel jathedars by fundamentalists. A beleaguered Akal Takht jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh managed to cling on and was forced to rescind the pardon edict, but not without a serious dent to the exalted position he holds.

But the most disastrous consequence for the Akalis was a chain of desecrations of Guru Granth Sahib since 2015 – a corollary of the dubious dera deal that lent credence to charge against the Akalis for brazenly misusing both the SGPC and high priests for political ends. The proof of political machinations, if any was needed at all, was evident in the dera’s unequivocal support to the Akalis, a poll-eve gambit engineered by Sukhbir that, however, failed to save them from the worst-ever drubbing.

Badal, as chief minister, is credited for building an array of Sikh memorials, but his legacy stands accused of diminishing the Sikh institutions. “The Akalis have totally politicised the SGPC and turned Sikh priests into hand maidens,” says Gupreet Singh of Kendri Sri Guru Singh Sabha, echoing the sentiments of independent Sikh scholars and bodies.

Others such as Kanwarpal Singh of Dal Khalsa point to a disconcerting reversal of roles: “The SGPC was established as a guiding light for the Akali Dal, but it is now subservient to political masters.”

Ruing that the SGPC’s politically motivated actions have lowered the Akal Takht’s aura, scholar Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian calls for involving the Sikh community beyond Punjab, including the diaspora, on larger Panthic issues.

Undeniably, the SGPC, though flush with a Rs 1,100-crore budget, is running short on credibility. Under question is its opaque functioning and arbitrary decision-making on the appointment of Sikh clergymen and their politically influenced ‘hukamnamas’ (edicts). Before Gurmukh Singh’s ouster, his predecessor Balwant Singh Nandgarh was sacked in 2015 after he protested the amendments to the Akal Takht-approved Nanakshahi calendar at the behest of Sikh deras aligned with the Akalis.

In recent times, the SGPC has taken to temporary appointments of clergy as acting jathedars and that too from the lower priestly class that being on its pay-roll is deemed more pliable. Such is the crisis of credibility that it has been finding it hard to get credible and pious faces for elevation as head priests.

Axing of another head priest is unlikely to stem the rot. The depoliticisation of the SGPC may be asking for too much. But, the ‘mini Parliament of Sikhs’ can hardly ignore the growing clamour for reforms and transparency in the appointment of high priests and ensuring their independence. That’s the least the SGPC can do to redeem itself and the faith of the faithful.