It was the year that saw the image of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) hitting the rock bottom. Hit by a string of controversies, including pardon to Sirsa dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a blasphemy case and incidents of sacrilege of the holy book, the functioning of the ‘mini-Parliament’ of Sikhs came under blistering attack from the Sikh community. There was anger from within too as Panj Pyaras went up in arms against the gurdwara panel and its beleaguered chief Avtar Singh Makkar.
The septuagenarian leader, who looks much older than his age, may have learnt the craft to have his way while answering queries, but he knows a lot needs to be done to regain the SGPC’s lost glory.
In an interview to special correspondent Gurpreet Singh Nibber at his residence in Ludhiana on Tuesday, Makkar, who appeared muzzled and feeble, tried to answer less and hold back more, with frequent pauses and often asking in between whether he should reply on the record or off the record. Excerpts:
HT: The SGPC image took a hard hit in 2015. Not only the Sikhs in general, but also Panj Pyaras challenged the authority of the SGPC. Why? Who is responsible?
Makkar: There is no denying the fact that the SGPC’s image has suffered in the past three months. Panj Pyaras are important for the ‘Panth’ and the SGPC. However, they work under SGPC and have to follow certain service rules. They (Panj Pyaras) have accepted that their main duty is ‘amrit sanchaar’ (baptism). Some people got emotional following the incidents of desecration. In reality, it was a law and order problem. However, the entire onus was shifted on the SGPC. This had a damaging effect on us.
It is said the SGPC has become a handmaiden of the ruling Akali Dal. How can we depoliticise its functioning?
Since its inception in 1925 and the first elections in 1926, members of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have been managing the affairs of gurdwaras. With changing times, political adversaries are now seeing this arrangement with a political prism which is not the right thing.
The controversial pardon to Sirsa dera head and its subsequent revocation triggered turmoil in the state. Do you think this fiasco could have been averted?
As per the ‘Sikhi sidhant’, if anyone comes forward seeking a pardon, he can’t be denied the same. But there is a procedure to do everything. The decision to pardon the dera head was taken in haste. I feel various Sikh institutions should have been taken into confidence by the Akal Takht before granting pardon to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
What reforms do you suggest in the SGPC’s functioning? Why can’t we adopt the model of Christianity in selecting high priests and its members?
In SGPC, reforms are a continuing process. Sikhism is unique in every respect and no two religions can be compared. We have a perfect system of managing our religious affairs, including selection of head priests.
What is SGPC doing to regain its lost glory?
We are already doing a lot of welfare activities such as helping people during natural calamities even outside Punjab. We are taking strict measures to improve our functioning and ensuring better management of gurdwaras. It (image-crisis) is a temporary phase, we will bounce back. Those running down the SGPC and Sikh institutions must ask themselves, is their action justified?.
A majority of SGPC executive body members were against the appointment of the chief secretary, still he was appointed. How would his presence help the SGPC?
He is new and I am sure he will learn gradually. The functioning of the SGPC is different. It follows conventions and maryadas, which have evolved with the passage of time. SGPC employees are different from corporate organisations. If he (chief secretary) says he is a master of handling accounts, let’s see what difference can he make.
Do you think it’s time for you to give up the post?
People may say anything, but I am satisfied with my 11 years of work in the SGPC. I have done lot of improvements in the management of gurdwaras which the people can experience themselves. I am ready to move out any day, however, pendency of a case (filed by sehajdharis) and orders of the Supreme Court are holding me back.
SGPC has failed to check the number of gurdwaras being built? What ways do you suggest to channelise huge funds into welfare works instead of building structures?
I suggest those building new gurdwaras or managing the already functional ones, must focus on the quality of ‘granthis’ and preachers being hired. We need to pay them well. Sikh institutions are already doing a lot when it comes to public welfare activities.
SGPC in the past was able to appease the hardliners, but now suddenly it’s feeling alienated. Do you think the move to placate the radicals has backfired?
SGPC is an umbrella organisation for all Sikhs. However, we have never placated the radical elements. In Sikhism, those who laid down their lives protecting gurdwaras, hold an important place and we have also build memorials to remember them. We have felicitated those who tried to protect the honour of the Akal Takht. Those raising pro-Khalistan slogans at ‘Darbar Sahib’ don’t understand that they are undermining the importance of religious places.
What is your agenda for the next year to boost the SGPC’s image?
We are opening new educational institutions and would soon come out with an action plan in this regard. Our main focus is on employing educated ‘granthis’ and preachers so that when they lead the community in the near future, their role is not questioned.