Sitting in his fortified Ludhiana home, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Avtar Singh Makkar is visibly shaken and helpless over the ongoing turmoil in Punjab.
In an interview to Hindustan Times special correspondent Gurpreet Singh Nibber, Makkar accepted that there was a disconnect between the SGPC and Sikhs, while blaming the civil and police administration for the current situation and asking the clergy to come up to the Sikhs’ aspirations. He categorically said that Sikhs were not opposed to pardoning the Sirsa dera chief, but it was done in a very hasty way.
HT: What is the genesis of the current problem in Punjab?
Makkar: In June, a ‘bir’ of Guru Granth Sahib was stolen from a gurdwara at Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village in Faridkot district. In September, two inflammatory handwritten notices were put up – one in the same gurdwara and another in a gurdwara managed by the SGPC at Bargari village. Last week, pages of Guru Granth Sahib were found torn at Bargari village. The issue of pardon to the Sirsa dera chief (Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh) on September 24 also contributed to the turmoil.
Q: Why did the Shiromani Akali Dal and the SGPC fail to uphold the honour of Guru Granth Sahib, the repository of the Sikh faith?
A: I am unable to comprehend why no efforts were made to locate Guru Granth Sahib for more than four months after being stolen from a gurdwara. An alert was raised by us, but I can’t comment what efforts were made at the level of the police and civil administration to deal with the situation. Badal sahib (Punjab CM) is very depressed and shaken over the incidents of sacrilege.
Q: Why was the decision to pardon the dera chief taken in a hush-hush manner?
A: I fail to understand why it was done in the most hurried way by the five head priests. Before giving pardon to the dera chief, Sikh organisations in particular and the community in general should have been taken into confidence. I think Sikhs don’t have any objection to giving pardon, but the manner in which it was given is being questioned.
Q: Why did the SGPC fail to take other Sikh organisations into confidence?
A: After the dera row and the Faridkot sacrilege, the SGPC was doing its best to placate Sikh organisations such as Sant Samaj and Nihang Singh jathebandis to bring things back to normal and had been largely successful. But the killing of two Sikhs in police firing during a protest at Behbal Kalan village on October 14 again vitiated peace. Police should have handled the situation properly. Now, on my insistence, the government has issued strict instructions that peaceful protests would not be disrupted as Sikhs are extremely hurt due to the incidents of sacrilege. I think the Takht jathedars have a bigger role in the current scenario, the SGPC’s role comes later.
Q: Do you agree that there is a disconnect between SGPC and the Sikh community?
A: At the moment, yes, Sikhs are disconnected from us as they are very upset. But before that, there was no such problem. Barring a few, people were respectful towards SGPC and we had a cohesive relationship with the Sikh sangat. Things will return to normal, but it seems to be a long process as Sikhs are much disturbed at this stage. I suggest the Akal Takht jathedar should go to the sangat and build confidence. I have no fear and would go to the Sikhs to regain their confidence.
Q: Why did the SGPC fail to gauge the pulse of pulse of the Sikh community? Why did the situation reach such a flashpoint that the entire state is witnessing protests?
A: On October 12, when torn pages of Guru Granth Sahib were found, I reached the spot and requested top officers of police and civil administration not to allow Sikh organisations from taking away the pages, but the opposite happened.
Q: It is being said that the Sirsa dera chief is not a Sikh, so the Akal Takht can’t act against him. Why then the ‘hukamnama’ of 2007 and the pardon on September 24, followed by a U-turn?
A: He (dera chief) calls himself a guru, as per (Sikh) maryada, he can’t go to the Akal Takht, though he can go to Harmandar Sahib as anyone from any religion can pay obeisance here. I want to clarify that the 2007 ‘hukamnama’ was never against him, but a call to the Sikh sangat to sever ties with him. The pardon was given to him following his apology and it was withdrawn keeping in view the Sikh sentiment.
Q: Why is there a general impression that the Akal Takht is the hegemony of the Badals?
A: No comment.
Q: Sikhs feel that the clergy has been reduced to a handmaiden of political masters. Credibility of the SGPC the parliament of Sikhs and Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, have suffered adversely.
A: As the SGPC president, I am experiencing loss of confidence of Sikhs and trying to rebuild it. Akal Takht is the supreme body of Sikhs and they can’t live without it. As per the sidhant of miri-piri, Akal Takht is the lighthouse for the Panth and the jathedars must come up to the aspirations of Sikhs.
Q: Do you feel the SGPC’s authority has been eroded, especially as its members are resigning?
A: I am in touch with everyone and trying to bring them back into the fold.
Q: What is the SGPC doing to uphold the honour of the Sikh Panth?
A: We are organising akand paaths in all gurdwaras of the state. October 21 would be observed as Pashchataap Diwas (repentance day). I appeal to Sikhs to maintain peace and harmony. I want to go to Amritsar as soon as possible, but all roads are blocked.