The true rulers are connected with the Truth.
The earth-owners are not rulers for they suffer in other love.
Is it worth praising, perishable, momentous reality?
Perfection-oriented realizes and becomes the One who is eternal.”
– The Fifth Sovereign, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1088
The Akal Takhat Sahib is the Sikh world’s oldest political throne. Instituted by the Sixth Sovereign and carved by his two entrusted emissaries, “Timeless Throne” emerged as a parallel to the Delhi and Lahore Darbars. It was an implementation of Guru Nanak Sahib’s (the first Sovereign) vision to champion people’s rights over imperial rights with the sword-wisdom. It is also, by many measures, its most successful universally recognized authority.
Earlier this year, as the Akalis (literally “of the timeless” they were originally the activists, now the ruling chieftains) gathered in Goa or Panjab to deliberate, the Sikh world was in turmoil as accentuated by recent events invoked by the film Sadda Haq. The Akal Takhat Jathedar however, has a shortage of crisis-management tools at his disposal. Rather he spends his time neither offering needed leadership to Sikhs, nor addressing Sikh causes with the needed vigor. This is partly because he is the wrong man for the job (yes, it has been reduced to that). What’s needed is an apt leader who is not appointed by the current ruling political party of the Indian Panjab state. The problems tearing the Sikhs apart worldwide require sweeping structural reform of the sort that only a great independent leader can deliver.
Guru Sahibs laid the foundations for the success of just such a leader. Their institution building established the revolutionary principle that being a Sikh leader is more than a job, in the same way that being the servant of the community demands that you have all your wits about you. It also gives the leader more freedom to choose the team: they can select a younger Kaur (female Sikh) knowing that a limited term is an option, or an older Singh (male Sikh) knowing the he will not feel obliged to die a political death.
While the last few Jathedars have characteristically fumbled a good idea by not resigning while in office—essentially showing the world what activists already know: that the real boss is Chief Minister of Panjab. To my eyes though, Bandi Chor Divas 545 (popularly Divali) is pregnant with possibilities. The next Jathedar needs to be equally radical in reconsidering everything from the Akal Takhat’s core mission to its worldwide domain.
The most pressing task ahead is to free Akal Takhat from the Panjab and Indian politics. This is partly a theological issue: the Sikhs would attract very different adherents and activists if the only decision makers on exhibit were not universally old, male, and Panjabi. But since the faith is not growing and leaders are staunchly traditionalists, the next Jathedar will probably be Akalite (spell checker suggested alkaline, may be that is better for it neutralizes acid or as Sirdar Kapur Singh had composed a quatrain calling them Kali, i.e., temporary). Still, he could learn from the Sikh Diaspora about how to manage the mission and create a vibrant workforce.
Imperative to unyoking politics from the process is to punish the errant Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) employees rather than protecting them or shuffling them about. The best institutions are quick to proactively “displace” wrongdoers. Treat reputation as the most precious asset by drawing up clear rules on ethical behavior, insisting SGPC staff adhere to them, and conducting aggressive public-relations campaigns. Institutions that have been caught lapsing devote a lot of effort to telling their staff, followers and the world what they are doing to fix their problems. Keep looking ahead. Institutions hold council meetings of senior leaders to review their strategies every year! Prepare to call the Sarbat Khalsa to deliberate on economic and political challenges to put Degh-Tegh-Fatih (literally Economy-Politics-Victory) in motion in Panjab and beyond.
The Akal Takhat’s core competence lies in providing guidance, both spiritual and political. Yet it devotes its energy to running an Indian operation dictated by the Akali politics. It is time to address taxation without representation! How can Diasporic Sikhs be asked to follow the dictates from the Akal Takhat without having any meaningful say in who becomes the officer of such a pristine institution? “Takhat is where the Guru is” needs to be the call heard round the world in 2013.
The case for appointing non-clergy Jathedar is strong, but SGPC needs to go much further. The Akal Takhat (not SGPC) must start opening up “embassies” in America, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Kenya. And these nascent institutions must spearhead much of the new-Misls strategy. The least the Sikh Commonwealth can do is to move the Akal Takhat from under the hegemony of Shiromani Akali Dal. The Akal Takhat must likewise move some its offices, such as financial and development oversight, to Misls outside India for greater accountability and transparency. This would not only allow the Akal Takhat to plug into new ideas from the Diaspora; it would also help to dilute the introverted, back-biting, scandal-plagued and generally dysfunctional culture of India.
The Sikhs cannot take their success in the global world for granted. We are under pressure from the forces of Hindutva (Hindu nation) and modernity. BJP-Congress continue to show their sympathy and criminality concurrently as witnessed last week during 1984 commemorations. Richard Dawkins remains a god for all non-religious or anti-religious sentiments, though not completely unfounded for most seemingly religious folks don’t make sense. The Diaspora Sikhs are responding by organizing camps, retreats, conferences, leadership trainings in gurduaras, online, and community spaces—strengthening their connections, their commitments and their sense of responsibility and commonality. They allow their presenters to speak in the languages that are best suited—what use is a message that is not understood? The Akal Takhat needs to embrace the healthy disruption caused by new ideas which are evolving in the emerging world, if it is not to be destroyed by emerging world rivals. The next Akal Takhat Jathedar, likewise, needs to understand that he is not just the Jathedar of the Akalis, he is Jathedar of all Sikhs spread globally.
“Game of Thrones” is a television fantasy broadcast on HBO viewed by 14 million every week. The show follows the warring aspirations of powerful families, who essentially forget the citizens they are tasked to lead and the world at large in their tempestuous quest for the throne. The drama is replete with violence and nudity. Jathedar Akal Takhat is reality where ruling elite forget who put them there, ignore the priceless duties of their post, and turn their backs on the community growing, changing, and shaping the face of the Sikh globe. It is a reality that is forced on 27 million sponsored by one political party, a drama that is both tortuous and profane. It’s time one of these shows was cancelled.
The Sikhs rejected en-masse Jathedars like Arur Singh for their sycophancy to the state. The Sikh psyche salutes Jathedars like Gurdev Singh Kaunke even though the state refuses to prosecute his extra judicial killings. On this Bandi Chor Divas (Freedom day), let’s light the lamp to free ourselves from political-spiritual fortifications. After all, Divali for us was about freedom, from internal and external prisons. It is time to revive the Miri-Piri vision of Guru Harigobind Sahib for the “Panth’s top leader” as the custodian of the “Throne of Timeless,” and restore to the position the honor, the dignity, and the responsibility that Guru Sahibs made so elegantly clear.
Harinder Singh (@1Force) is the co-founder and CEO of the Sikh Research Institute (www.SikhRI.org).