In a move that has raised doubts over the the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) poll scheduled for this month, the Central government on Thursday withdrew a 2003 notification preventing Sehajdhari or non-baptised Sikhs from voting in the SGPC elections.
Around 60 lakh Sikh voters have registered for the SGPC polls, scheduled for September 18. Theoretically, an estimated 1.2 crore Sehajdhari Sikhs would become eligible to vote after Thursday.
The SGPC and other Sikh bodies have slammed the move, calling it a "conspiracy" against the community. "It is yet another attempt of the Congress to interfere in the religious affairs of Sikhs," said SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar.
The Centre's decision to withdraw the 2003 notification was conveyed by senior advocate Harbhagwan Singh, appearing for the Centre, in the Punjab and Haryana high court during resumed hearing of a bunch of three petitions seeking voting rights to Sehajdhari Sikhs in the SGPC elections and related issues.
The SGPC, an elected religious body of Sikhs for control and management of the gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, has an annual budget of Rs 400 crore and a lot of clout with Sikh masses. Currently, it is dominated by Punjab's ruling Shiromani Akali Dal.
The union ministry of home affairs (of the then BJP-led NDA government) had issued the notification for taking back the voting rights of Sehajdhari Sikhs in the SGPC elections, on October 8, 2003 following a resolution passed by the SGPC on March 30, 2002.
Harbhagwan said the Centre has withdrawn the notification since "it was issued without application of mind" by the then NDA government.
Appearing for one of the petitioners, the Sehajdhari Sikh Federation, senior advocate Ashwani Kumar Chopra had submitted that voting rights permitted to Sehajdhari Sikhs under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925 cannot be taken away by merely issuance of notification.
The matter, hanging in the high court since 2004, came up for hearing on Thursday before a full bench, comprising justices MM Kumar, Alok Singh and Gurdev Singh.
The bench held that as the notification is withdrawn, all petitions have been rendered infructuous and hence disposed of.
After the Centre's approval the Gurdwara Election Commission had issued a notification regarding the schedule and various other stages of the election process on August 8.
While the Sehajdhari Sikh Federation had sought directions to stay the election process till pendency of the case, another petitioner Hans Raj had submitted that Sehajdhari Sikhs should be allowed to cast their votes.