Last week, the Lok Sabha passed the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2016, paving the way for a ban on Sehajdharis — Sikhs who do not wear the symbols of their religion, like unshorn hair — from voting or contesting in elections to shrine trusts in three states and one Union Territory in north India.
Mumbai’s largest Sikh representative body, the Guru Singh Sabha, already has rules banning Sikhs with shorn hair from becoming its members or contesting elections. Anyone can pray at the 100-odd gurdwaras in the city, but membership to the trusts is restricted to Keshdharis – men with unshorn hair.
The debate whether clean-shaven Sikhs should be excluded from elections to the community’s religious trusts is an old one. In 2003, the Union government tried to amend a 1925 law to disallow Sehajdharis from administration rights to religious trusts, but this amendment was quashed eight years later by the Punjab and Haryana high court after the Sehajdharis filed a petition. The Rajya Sabha has already passed the bill, which now needs the President’s nod to become a law.
Sikhs classify themselves according to the degrees with which they practice and wear symbols of their faith. A Patit, for instance, is one born in a Sikh family, but who does not practice the religion in its entirety. The term also includes those who were once baptised but have now abandoned the religious code. Those who wear the five symbols of their faith, including a dagger and steel bangle, but are not baptised, are called ‘Sabat Surat’ (complete by appearance) and Keshdhari is a similar term. The highest classification is Amritdharis – also called Khalsas – who not only wear the symbols but are also baptised in a rite called Amrit Sanchar. The new rules say that Sabat Surat Sikhs can vote, but Sehajdharis and Patits cannot; Amritdharis can vote as well as contest the polls. The law will only be applicable to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the powerful body which controls all major Sikh shrines, including the Golden Temple, in the northern states. Elections to the SGPC are as keenly and bitterly contested as state and national polls. Mumbai’s gurdwaras, on the other hand, are managed by public trusts. “Unlike trusts in the north, which are governed under laws specifically enacted for gurdwaras, temples in Mumbai are public trusts and we can make our own rules,” said Kulwant Singh, vice-president of the Guru Singh Sabha, while explaining how they already have rules banning non-Keshdharis from holding posts in community trusts.
It is estimated that a third of the country’s 20 million (2011 census) Sikhs are Sehajdharis, and many members of the community think it is unfair to deny co-religionists their place in administrative bodies just because they dress differently. “Though they may not wear the external symbols of their religion, Sehajdharis are among the most devout,” said Puran Singh Banga, a Chembur resident.
But others disagreed that everyone should be treated equally. “Believing is one thing, and following all the rules of the religion is another. You are part of a religious community only if you follow the rules,” said Ajit Singh, former principal of Mumbai’s Khalsa College.
As the younger generation shifts from traditional jobs in agriculture to services, there is worry that a tradition is dying. Concerned with the increasing number of Sikh youngsters abandoning the community’s traditional attire, there have been attempts to stop the trend. “Unlike in western countries, like Canada, where a lot of Sikhs wear a turban and grow a beard because they are Sikhs by conviction, young people in India are discarding the turban,” said Kulwant Singh.
To promote the unshaven look, Mumbai hosts an annual ‘Mr Singh’ competition, where participants have to sport the traditional Sikh look. The message at the contest is that the ‘no razor’ look, too, can be glamourous. The event is scheduled in November.