HT Explainer: What’s behind excluding Sehajdharis from Sikh body polls?

  • Gurpreet Singh Nibber, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Apr 27, 2016 18:10 IST
SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar — seen here in a general house meeting of the committee in Amritsar — has welcomed the Parliament nod to the exclusion of Sehajdharis from gurdwara polls, terming it a historic move. (HT photo)

With the Lok Sabha too passing the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2016, on Monday, the plan to debar Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting in gurdwara management elections in the Act’s application area — Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh — has cleared the Parliament test.

Read more: Bill to exclude Sehajdharis from gurdwara polls gets LS nod too

Only a formal nod by the President is now awaited as the Rajya Sabha had passed the bill unanimously last month.

Read more: Amarinder says SGPC Act amendment unfortunate; will divide community

This primarily covers the Amritsar-headquartered Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which controls Sikh shrines in these four states, including the Golden Temple. Other bodies such as the one in Delhi may follow suit, as per the respective procedures. But what are these definitions of ‘Sikh’, and is the issue as straightforward as it may look? Here are the answers:

Who is a Sehajdhari?

As the Punjabi word ‘sehaj’ here means ‘gradual’, Sehajdhari in Sikhism means one in the process of adopting the religion. Anyone belonging to a non-Sikh family who may not wear symbols of Sikhism (or Khalsa Panth) but believes in Sikh gurus and Guru Granth Sahib is a Sehajdhari. The definition of Sehajdhari has no sanction in Sikhism as far as its tenets concerned. This nomenclature was added to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, and they got SGPC voting rights in 1944, under British rule.

Who is an Amritdhari?

An Amritdhari Sikh is a baptised Sikh who has partaken of Amrit (holy nectar), recites the ‘path’ (prayer) every day, and keeps the five symbols of the faith — kesh (unshorn hair), kangha (comb), kada (metal bracelet/bangle), kachha/ kachehra (underpants), and kirpan (a short sword/dagger).

What are Patit Sikhs then?

A Patit Sikh is one born in a Sikh family but who does not practise Sikhism, that is, does not keep unshorn hair. It also includes those who were once baptised but not following the Rehat Maryada (Sikh religious code) any longer.

And those who follow Five Ks but aren’t baptised?

They are called Sabat Surat Sikhs (complete by appearance), and continue to have the voting rights.

Who has what rights now?

Sabat Surat Sikhs can vote; Sehajdharis cannot, nor Patits; while Amritdharis can vote as well as contest the polls. Simply put, Sikhs with shorn hair have no voting rights now. However, there is no bar on them visiting gurdwaras. Disfranchising them from the SGPC polls does not exclude them from the larger Sikh identity.

Why did SAD and SGPC want Sehajdharis out?

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) — Punjab’s ruling party in partnership with the BJP; which also controls the SGPC for years — lobbied for the exclusion. It says the bill was necessary as “only Sikhs” be involved in the management of shrines. Politically, a smaller electorate is easier to handle, while it also helps the SAD strengthen its Panthic, or politico-religious, credentials. The SGPC does not want “outsiders” in the core of the Panth. According to the Sehajdhari Sikh Party, out of the 1.75 crore Sikhs as per the 2011 census, 70 lakh are now pushed out of the religio-management.

How did it come about?

It was during the last BJP-led NDA regime, in 2003, that the Union home ministry sought to amend the Act of 1925 by way of a notification to exclude Sehajdharis. But that was quashed by the Punjab and Haryana high court on a petition by the Sehajdhari Sikh Party in 2011, saying that the amendment had to come through the legislature. Then, as the Narendra Modi-led NDA regime came in, SAD started lobbying hard.

What next, and any hitch?

The HC had quashed the 2003 notification of debarring Sehajdharis in 2011. But elections for 170 members of SGPC general house had been held just before that, by excluding the Sehajdharis as per that very notification.

The SGPC moved the Supreme Court, which gave temporary relief by freezing the elected general house. It allowed the pre-election 15-member executive body of the SGPC to remain functional. That was to be until a final call was taken by the legislature.

Now, when the bill becomes law, the home ministry will go to the SC to get that 2011 SGPC general house de-freezed, since the amendment is with effect from 2003. And that house will then pick a new SGPC executive body, including the president. As per practice, SGPC general house polls are to be held every five years while an executive chosen each year. Apart from the 170 elected members, the SGPC house has 15 nominated members (eminent Sikhs). And the five high priests are ex-officio members but without voting rights in the house.

What’s the immediate politics ahead?

With the Punjab assembly polls less than a year away, the SAD would strongly project itself now as a party of “real Sikhs”. This bill would help it strengthen its core constituency, that is, the Panthic vote-bank; especially in the wake of disquiet in the Sikh community after a series of sacrilege incidents last year. It will also allow the Akali Dal — which lords over the cash-rich SGPC — to gain a tighter control over the gurdwara management body. It can now reshuffle the SGPC executive, including president Avtar Singh Makkar.

Read more: Badal thanks Parliament, Centre for SGPC Act amendment

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