The General House of Shiromani Gurduara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) is meeting on 29 Nov. 2017 to elect its next President, Senior Vice President, Junior Vice President, General Secretary and 11 other executive members.
As per Sikhi, Gurduara (linguistically erroneous, but popularly Gurdwara) is a Sikh place of learning, not just worship. It is meant to be the gateway to the Guru; the wisdom that forms the Sikh paradigm. And that paradigm commences with Guru Granth Sahib where the Sabad-infused Infinite Wisdom emphatically declares: “Ruler to be enthroned must be worthy of the Throne” (1088).
Freeing Gurduaras Post 1849
After the annexation of the Sovereign Panjab in 1849, many Gurduaras with their assets were transferred as personal properties to Mahants (priests, antithetical to Sikhi) with the British India Government patronage. With the advent of the Singh Sabha movement in 1873, Sikh revivalism became the force to reckon with amidst complex shifting loyalties. In early twentieth century, many attempts to reclaim the Gurduaras back failed, including the legal venues. Then, in 1920, the Sikhs resorted to direct action under the Akali movement (also known as Gurduara Reform Movement).
Akalis, the active Sikhs who identified with “Timeless” or “Immortal,” gained the control of several key Gurduaras.
On 12 Oct. 1920, Akalis took over the control of Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib Complex (popularly Golden Temple Complex).
On 15 Nov. 1920, Sarbat Khalsa was held at Akal Takht Sahib that resolved to constitute SGPC of 175 members to manage all the Gurduaras in the Panjab as well as the globe. Its representation was district-wise in the Panjab and province-wise in India. It also had representation from Sikh princely states and Sikh bodies from America, Burma, China and Malaya (now Malaysia).
On 12 Dec. 1920, the first meeting of the SGPC was held at Akal Takht Sahib “after close scrutiny of each member and imposition of appropriate punishment upon the defaulters by the Panj Piare” (the Five Lovers who develop consensus).
On 14 Dec. 1920, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a political organization of the Sikhs was constituted as a task force of SGPC. SGPC directed SAD to send Jathas (organized Sikh bands) to free Gurduaras from the Mahants. Many Mahants surrendered, many butchered the unarmed Akali Sikh Jathas.
On 20 Feb. 1921, Mahant Naraian Das shot and burned alive 156 Sikh men, women, and children who were protesting the illegal occupation of 19,000 acres of Nankana Sahib and rape of minor girls by the Mahant. Jagmeet Singh Samundri’s 2016 film Saka Nankana captures how an everyday Panjabi Sikh prepared to free the Gurudara, including a British Sikh soldier who refuses to spy on his own people. Central Board of Film Certification gave “A” rating to the film to reduce its impact.
Next day, 2200 armed Akali Sikh Jatha under the command of Jathedar Kartar Singh Jhabbar marched into the Gurduara Nankana Sahib, freed the historical Gurudara marking the advent of Guru Nanak Sahib, and forced the Commissioner of Lahore C. M. King to arrest the Mahant and his Pashtun mercenaries.
On 6 Mar. 1921, SGPC in conjunction with other Sikh leaders passed a resolution for non-cooperation with the Indian Government. Harbans Singh Attari, Prof. Jodh Singh and Kartar Singh Jhabbar opposed it.
On 8 Mar. 1921, the Panjab Government convened a meeting of diverse Sikhs in Lahore where the Home Member told the Sikhs not to take forcible possession of Gurduaras anymore. Jathedar Jhabbar responded unless the Indian Government enacts a law for the Sikhs to take possession of Gurduaras, the Akali Sikh Jathas would continue.
On 20 Mar. 1921, the SGPC asked the Indian Government to pass a suitable legislation to secure redemption of all the Gurduaras.
After Saka Nankana Sahib, several Morchas (protests) continued the Akali movement. The major Morchas included Chabian-da-Morcha (1921-22), Guru-ka-Bagh Morcha (1922) and Jaito Morcha (1924-25); hundreds of Sikhs were killed and thousands were jailed to evict corrupt and criminal Mahants.
Legal Control Mechanism since 1925
On 7 May 1925, Sikh Gurduaras Bill was introduced in the specially convened session of the Panjab Legislative Council (PLC) at Simla.
On 7 Jul. 1925, the PLC passed it unanimously; the Hindu and the Muslim members fully supported the Bill.
On 29 Jul. 1925, the Bill became an Act after the assent of Governor General of India.
On 20 Oct. 1925, the outlawed SGPC’s Working Committee declared its acceptance of the Act while many important Akali leaders were imprisoned in Lahore jail.
On 1 Nov. 1925, the Act was enforced by a Gazette Notification of the Panjab Government.
Dr. Ganda Singh’s Some Confidential Papers of the Akali Movement outlines many significant documents that show Sir Malcom Hailey, then Governor of Panjab, created a rift between Akalis by refusing to grant general amnesty to the Akali prisoners.
An Akali faction opposed the Act’s acceptance for two reasons: withdrawal of orders declaring SGPC and SAD as ‘unlawful associations’ and demanded unconditional release of all Akali prisoners. They criticized the naming of the central managing body as ‘Board’ and not the ‘Shiromani Gurduara Parbandhak Committee’ by the Act itself. Sardul Singh Kavishar, one of the founders of the Gurduara Reform Movement, criticized the Act for the Indian Governmental interference in Gurduara affairs and it giving limited powers to the SGPC.
The objections of unwarranted Indian Government interference and non-application of the Act beyond pre-1966 Panjab are still valid when the Indian Panjab was legally borne. The contemporary reactions ranged from extreme appreciation to critical acceptance to the rejection of the Act. Even before the Act was enforced, the Akali leadership was split, the Indian Government was satisfied. The cleavage between the different Akali factions and groups continued for decades.
After 1966, SGPC election dates are fixed by the Indian Government which used to be the privilege of the Panjab Government. After the election, the Indian Government calls the meeting of the elected and designated (ex-officio) members to co-opt 15 members. After co-options, the Indian Government notifies the SGPC duly constituted. Within one month of its constitution, the Indian Government convenes the first general meeting of the SGPC in which the office-bearers and members of the Executive Committee are elected.
Since 1966, the SAD controls the SGPC, not vice versa as was originally founded in 1920.
The Forty-One Presidents
The first five SGPC presidents were before the Act, starting with Sunder Singh Majithia. The longest reign was of Gurcharan Singh Tohra for 27 years, 5 terms, 1973-2004; the longest consecutive term was for 13 years. The only female president was Jagir Kaur for 2 non-consecutive terms.
To-date, SGPC has had 41 presidents. Its 42nd president will preside over its 2017 budget of Rs. 1,106 crore ($171 million USD).
After the 1925 Act, the first president of SGPC was Baba Kharak Singh who was elected unanimously, in absentia, of Gurduara Central Board which was later re-designated as SGPC. He was elected twice, then resigned from SGPC to fight for independence and Sikh interests. He was an aristocrat who graduated from the Panjab University; Jallianvala Bagh Massacre of 1919 prompted him to become politically active. He frequented jails to free Gurduaras from the India Government and its stooges at Sikh institutions. He opposed the Nehru Committee Report which accepted the ‘Dominion Status’ for India and the Communal Award on the Panjab; and for that, he was jailed under sedition charges. In Delhi, a road named after him starts from Connaught Place and ends at Mother Teresa crescent, via Gurduara Rakab Ganj and State Emporia complex. Perhaps, this is the way forward for the next SGPC president to be ‘honorific scimitar tiger’
Teja Singh Samundri was active with Chief Khalsa Divan, founded Akali daily newspaper, and was a political activist. He was also the founding member of SGPC’s Akali faction which refused to secure conditional jail release to accept the Sikh Gurudara Act of 1925. The SAD and the Executive declared conditions imposed for the release of prisoners as wholly unnecessary, unjust and derogatory. Mehtab Singh and Giani Sher Singh along with twenty other Akali leaders accepted the conditional release. Master Tara Singh, Bhag Singh Advocate, Teja Singh Samundari, Teja Singh Akerpuri (Jathedar Akal Takht Sahib) and fifteen other Akalis did not. Teja Singh Samundri died in custody in 1926. SGPC’s offices are housed in Teja Singh Samundri Hall in Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib Complex in Sri Amritsar Jiu. Is this what the world now calls appropriation?
SGPC Presidents after 1966 were reduced to merely SAD’s internal politics, personal aggrandizement, or Indian state politics. Now, Akalis rarely talk about freedom of any kind, and they are jailed for non-political criminal activities.
The Next SAD Envelope
The SGPC general house was elected in Sep. 2011 for five years. Due to pendency of the voting rights issue in the Supreme Court (SC) of India, the elected house became defunct. The Indian Government amended the Sikh Gurdwara Act in May 2016, debarring 90% plus self-identifying Sikhs to vote in the SGPC elections. Nonetheless, election of SGPC president is being held in violation of the SC judgment and the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925. According to the SC judgment, the term of SGPC finished in Dec. 2016. Instead of calling for elections to the general house, the SGPC is electing its new president.
For last two decades, almost all SGPC members belongs to one Akali faction called SAD (Badal). And it is no secret that SGPC president is hand-picked by the SAD president and the name is sent in an envelope to be “elected.”
Current president of SGPC Kirpal Singh Badungar, who is likely to retain his post, has been playing the “Panthic” card recently. He said SGPC opposes Panjab Control of Organised Crime Act (PCOCA) by the Congress government in the Panjab state because such laws are always used against minorities. He commented: “This law will create problem for Sikhs, who are a minority. History shows that such laws, including TADA, were misused against minorities, especially Sikhs … The SGPC will write to the chief minister about it (PCOCA), will meet him, and if need be, will move the court to oppose the law.”
SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal has been holding series of meetings with SGPC members from Panjab, Chandigarh and Himachal Pardesh, including one-on-one meetings on elections and panthic concerns.
Incumbent Kirpal Singh Badungar, Avtar Singh Makkar and Jagir Kaur, both former presidents of SGPC, religio-political leader Balbir Singh Ghunas, former minister Tota Singh and former MP Sewa Singh Sekhwan are considered to be in the race for the top post.
Insiders claim SAD is interested in some religious personality who could coordinate well with the Jathedars of Takhts.
As Nov. 29 drew close, a new Panthic Front led by former General Secretary of SGPC Sukhdev Singh Bhaur was formed. 22 members of the current General House who contested the SGPC polls as the SAD candidates, but left SAD (Badal) are part of this front. They will add to the existing slim anti-SAD (Badal) presence who are either independent or owe allegiance to other SAD factions. A day before the election, SAD (Badal) president persuaded 4 of 22 renegade members to join his dominant SAD faction.
"We have decided that this 'Panthic Front' will keep an eye on the SGPC affairs. It will play its role to improve the state of affairs when dignity and credibility of the pivotal Sikh institutions has been seriously compromised for vested political interests … The front has been formed according to the sentiments expressed by different Panthic organizations and personalities as the community is concerned about the institutions of Akal Takht, other Takhts and the SGPC," claimed Bhaur.
'Anti-Badal' SGPC members may have made a dent in the executive of the SGPC when 165 members vote in upcoming elections. This could have been an opportunity to strike a blow for fair play and redefine a Sikh-brand now associated with cravenness and corruption. When will SGPC stop averting its gaze, and do the right thing?
I don’t think anyone will disagree that SGPC must not be led by sycophants dealing with drugs, alcohol, money, sex and power. But the Sikhs in Panjab, rest of India, and the Diaspora have not really reckoned with revised Akali culture prevalent among the Sikhs of all political persuasions and religious observations. It is every self-identified Sikh’s obligation to address it and revive the real Akalis, the ones who represent the political aspirations of all Sikhs. As a result, the being of Sikh Qaum (nation) and the integrity of the Sikhs are at risk.
The Sikhs in the current “Untied States of America” were vocal about supporting Bhaur’s candidacy against the establishment SAD. But the Diaspora extensions of Panjab-based movements or activists only gets busy politicking during elections, they never really support any grass roots campaign for serious SGPC reform or global governance model such as Free Akal Takht movement.
Akalis of 1920s were in sync with historical Akalis of the eighteenth century, in letter and spirit. Now, the Akalis need revival. Otherwise, only the historical Akalis will be available in books or exhibitions. Or the post Millennials will think Akali is a fictional character in the League of Legends.
One SGPC and one SAD was founded by the Sikhs, for the Sikhs, of the Sikhs under the aegis of Akal Takht Sahib. In less than 100 years, there has been multiple global Gurduara Committees and multiple SADs not owing allegiance to the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh canon) and the Guru Khalsa Panth (the Sikh collective).
Sirdar Kapur Singh, a great thinker with a deep knowledge of Sikhi, stated:
Let the Sikhs make no mistake about it that unless they wake up and delve deep into their own souls to rediscover the direction which the Guru gave them, they are facing the mortal danger of being pushed out of the main stream of History and eventual extinction. This ‘national integration’ this talk of ‘secularism’ in which politics is supposed to be freed and disassociated from religion, originate from those who have now usurped the political strings of the destiny of India. They have brazen-facedly adopted all the tactics of Tammany Hall bosses to push out decent elements out of the political life by manufacturing wholesale bogus memberships in their own organizations and engineering bogus voting at public elections. Thus they have managed to maintain a fraudulent facade of democracy, reduced politics to a filthy game which nobody wishing to keep his hands clean play and have turned public life into an arena infested by hoodlums, hooligans and other undesirable elements. Their self-interest is their only concern. People have been made to live from day to day on false hopes created by empty slogans and empty promises. The little prosperity brought about by developmental progress has been misappropriated by crooked politicians, briberous bureaucracy, unscrupulous industrialists and black-marketing businessmen. They have brought about total eclipse of moral values in all spheres of life. This dishonest and unpatriotic group are living in vulgar indulgence and ostentation. These people can be no guides, for us, the Sikhs, and the only True Guide for us is the Guru who can help us here and redeem us hereafter.
The Sikhs have been suffering from bad political action and reckless inaction. Both mislead and dispirit us.
Mark Twain quipped that one must always try to do the right thing because “it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” If only the SGPC, which long ago lost its capacity to amaze when it comes to moral probity, could tap an as-yet undiscovered ethical-Gurmat-reserve and meaningfully confront the crooked edifice that is state-controlled Sikh meddling.
In Asa-ki-Var, Guru Nanak Sahib reminds us:
“Trash is the ruler, Trash is the constituency, and trash is the whole world.”
“Trash developed the love for the trash, Creator is forgotten.”
Given the SGPC’s past, that is likely a forlorn hope, but I am more than willing and eager to be surprised by the 42nd president.
On behalf of the 30 million self-identifying Sikhs, I ask the 42nd:
Dear SGPC President,
Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa, Vahiguru ji ji fatih!
We recognize the legal and political manipulations are at work that limit your influence. But can you please do the following for assuring Panth-ki-Jit: An actionable blue-print for every Sikh’s birthright to learn Gurmat, the Guru’s Way. And can you please do the following for the 7.6 billion people for real Sarbat-da-bhala: An actionable blue-print to make the Guru Granth Sahib’s message accessible to global populations. Even your bosses shouldn’t have any real issues with both asks.
Thank you for your consideration from all of us treading a path to be the Sikhs of the Guru.
May the Sabad reign over the Panth of the Rider of the Blue Steed!
Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force