It’s not often that the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) removes its jathedars from the sewa of a takht. Playing victim of politics now, Balwant Singh Nandgarh, former jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib, was among the high priests of the five Sikh Takhts who attained the highest chair via the political route.
But what made 72-year-old Nandgarh, an otherwise dyed-in-the-wool Akali, a thorn in the flesh of the SGPC and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)? Was it Nandgarh’s growing political ambitions in the home turf of the ruling Badal family or the SAD’s fear that he would become a rallying point for the radicals? Those watching the situation with keen interest say it was both, and much more.
Unlike the other jathedars, Nandgarh did not step in line easily. He is seen as impetuous and strong-headed. In Akali politics, there is no space for those who are uncompromising. His supporters feel he was used by the Akalis when someone was needed to take a strong stand on an issue and now he has been thrown out when he turned to direct his daggers against those whose support the Akalis’ need.
Nandgarh flirted with a radical ideology if not an outright communal one. His rant against the RSS, alleging that the SAD and SGPC were following the Sangh’s agenda, put the SAD in a spot vis-a-vis the BJP. Recently, he revealed that he had advised the SAD to snap ties with the BJP some eight years ago.
The last straw
His dismissal by the SGPC on the Nanakshahi calendar issue had the support of the Sant Samaj, which is seen as slowly but surely gaining influence on the SGPC and the SAD led by the Badals. The Sant Samaj, which proposed the reversal to the Bikrami calendar, was repeatedly criticised by Nandgarh as running parallel Sikh institutions and promoting sects within Sikhism.
Nandgarh was not disliked as much by the SGPC as was projected. He was diplomatic enough to honour SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar during the latter’s visit to Damdama Sahib in October 2014 despite a heated exchange.
As jathedar, Nandgarh’s conduct was impeccable. He was entitled to Rs 14,000 as honorary allowance from the SGPC; however, he never claimed a single rupee. Around 16 acres at his native village was his source of income. Left to himself, the SGPC chief would have continued to accept him as a defiant voice within the SGPC. His removal is being seen as the victory of the Sant Samaj over the SGPC.
The 72-year-old Nandgarh is the grandson of Mitt Singh, who was among the travellers of the Komagata Maru ship and was sent to the Multan jail by the British. Mitt Singh had also participated in the Akali movement to free the gurdwaras in the 1920s.
Nandgarh started his political career as an active worker of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and switched to the SAD (Badal) to contest the SGPC elections in 1995. He won as a member from Balluana constituency in Bathinda. It was his political work for the party and good relations with the Badal family that led to his elevation as jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib.
Opposed the dera
He formed Ek Noor Khalsa Fauj after Dera Sacha Sauda came into contention with the Akal Takht. He opposed the dera tooth and nail. Nandgarh, however, went easy on the dera before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in which Harsimrat Badal was elected MP from Bathinda for the first time. He received flak from Sikh bodies for giving in to political influence.
Yet at one plane, Nandgarh epitomised the resistance of Sikh religious leaders to bow to political wishes and with his removal, the supremacy of the SAD on the SGPC stands established once again. However, his removal, unlike that of Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, Giani Pooran Singh and Giani Manjit Singh, was couched in a “democratic process” of getting the SGPC members to pass resolutions against him.
His removal also raises a larger question of the manner in which jathedars are appointed and removed by the SGPC, a process largely driven by whims and fancies. It brings to the fore the debate among Sikh circles on the need to have a transparent and well-structured method for the appointment of jathedars and their removal.