Explained: The Controversy Around a Bill to Amend the Sikh Gurdwaras Act

The amendment, which will allow the free broadcast of Gurbani, has become a major bone contention between the Bhagwant Singh Mann government, the Badal family-owned television channel PTC and the SGPC.

Jalandhar: An amendment that will allow the free broadcast of Gurbani – the reading of hymns from the Sikh holy text Sri Guru Granth Sahib – has become a major bone of contention between the Bhagwant Singh Mann-led Punjab government, the Badal family-owned television channel PTC and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex body to manage gurdwaras in the country.

On June 20, the Punjab legislative assembly passed the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2023. While the SGPC has reacted strongly to the development, the silence of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has been conspicuous.

At the centre of the controversy is the introduction of clause 125-A in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925 which stipulates that the SGPC should propagate the “teachings of the Gurus uninterrupted (without any on-screen advertisements, commercials or distortion) live feed of Gurbani from the Golden Temple, Amritsar every day available free of cost to all media houses, platforms, channels or whoever wishes to broadcast it”.

The SGPC sees the move as government interference in religious matters, while Mann has pitched it as a move to make the broadcast of Gurbani freely accessible. At the moment, the exclusive broadcast rights are with PTC, a private television channel in which the SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal reportedly has a stake. The Punjab chief minister has also presented the Bill as a way to break the Badal family’s monopoly on the broadcast of Gurbani.

PTC won the 11-year contract in 2012, and its term will expire on July 24, 2023. Advertisements are not run during the Gurbani broadcast – a condition the channel managers say was a deterrence to other broadcasters. However, a report by the Kendri Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Chandigarh has noted that the Gurbani telecast has brought the channel high viewership, which in turn allows it command good advertising rates for its other programmes.

Representative image of an SGPC meeting. Photo: sgpcamritsar.org

What did Mann say?

In his speech in the house, the Punjab CM said that presently, there was a “paradoxical situation” because the SGPC, under the influence of a family that controls its affairs, is giving the  intellectual property rights of telecasting the sacred Gurbani to a channel owned by the same family.

The CM had claimed that the Bill was in no way interfering with religious affairs – rather, it was a simple step to ensure that Gurbani reaches every household.

He rejected claims that the move was an attack on the ‘Panth’ (Sikh religious affairs), saying: “I wonder how this was an attack on the Panth, as I was just opposing the control of a particular channel over the telecast of Gurbani, which is totally unwarranted and unjustified. A single family has dominated the affairs of the SGPC for a long time, to which irreparable damage had been made to the Sikh Panth.”

It is pertinent to mention here that the AAP government has hinted at taking action against the Badal family-owned PTC channel and other businesses run by the family since it came to power last year.

Responding strongly to the passage of the Bill, the SGPC held a special general house meeting at Teja Singh Samundri Hall, Amritsar on June 26, 2023 to reject it. Condemning the Punjab government’s “interference” in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925 and the SGPC, house members called for strong opposition to this move.

The SGPC also passed a resolution, in which it warned the Mann government that if it did not stop this “anti-Sikh decision”, they would be forced to launch a morcha (agitation). “CM Bhagwant Mann should withdraw the Bill or get ready to face an intensified struggle,” the resolution read.

Bibi Jagir Kaur’s speech goes viral

But interestingly, during the same session, the speech by Bibi Jagir Kaur – the only female SGPC president – has gone viral for her strong criticism of the Badal family. While she criticised the AAP government for interfering in religious matters, she also slammed the family for allegedly diluting Sikh values.

While she was making sharp observations against the Badal family, her audio was muted. SGPC president Harjinder Singh Dhami even asked her not to present a resolution in the house, leading to a debate between the two on the spot. Her resolution was not accepted by the house. The live coverage of the session on all channels was disrupted too.

Raising interlinked pertinent political and religious questions, Kaur in her speech said: “The issue is not of ending the monopoly of PTC but that of those people, who give two hoots about ‘Panthic ideology’ just for the sake of one family (Badals). The SAD, while completing its 100-year-long journey, seriously affected the status of the Sikh community’s supreme bodies like the SGPC and the Akal Takht. But we remained silent and kept accepting the hukum (orders of the Badal family).”

Further, she said, “Instead of following the concept of Panj Pyaras (the five beloveds of the Guru, who were baptised) we confined ourselves to lifafa culture (a common parlance in Sikh religious matters related to announcing the name of SGPC president through an envelope, which was pre-decided by the SAD leadership). The lifafa culture hit the Sikh ideology deeply. Let us be clear, the SGPC has never accepted sarkari (government) interference in its functioning.”

She said, “If we do not speak now, future generations will never forgive us. I am ready for any sacrifice for the sake of Panth and Sikhs will never tolerate this interference.”

Speaking to The Wire, Bibi Jagir Kaur said that she had always stood for the Panth and it was in her nature that she could not bear any interference in the supreme body of the Sikhs. “Since the beginning, I have been talking about Gurbani, Gurmat and the SGPC. I remained in the SAD but supported the Panth first. So, it was but natural for me to speak vociferously in the SGPC general house meeting, where most of my suggestions invited sharp criticism”, she said.

On SAD’s absolute silence on the Punjab government’s amendments, Kaur said, “The SAD’s Panthic ideology was getting eroded. The SAD has already faced a huge political loss because of its positions on key issues. People just cannot expect the SAD to be against Panth. The SAD  started off with the Anandpur Sahib resolution, talking about federalism, but it remained silent about the dilution of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. It is shocking that the SAD leadership is silent on such a crucial matter as the amendment Bill, which, if not handled well could lead to serious repercussions in the future.”

Lashing out at Mann, Kaur said that the CM should understand that the SGPC is the supreme body of the Sikhs, flowing out of an Act of parliament. “The SGPC has its own constitution, executive body and as per agreement, nobody can interfere in its functioning. But Mann overlooked all these facts and meddled with the SGPC’s affairs,” she added.

In November last year, Kaur was expelled from the SAD for deciding to contest the 2022 SGPC elections.

Bibi Jagir Kaur. Photo: Screengrab via Twitter/@bibijagirkaur

Expert speaks

Chandigarh-based author and journalist Jagtar Singh said that Bibi Jagir Kaur’s raised three important issues: the Panthic crisis, the situation arising out of the amendment Bill and the need for an independent SGPC channel to telecast live Gurbani. “All these issues are interconnected and she spoke in this framework,” he said.

Jagtar Singh said that in 2004, the SGPC in its election manifesto had announced plans to launch its own channel for the live telecast of Gurbani but it remained on paper. “The SGPC should explain why they overlooked such an important decision. They never took it into consideration. Rather, the SGPC and the Akal Takht were trying to save the integrity of the Badals and their family-owned PTC channel, which is authorised [to provide] live coverage of Gurbani,” he added.

The author said that Mann should remember that the SGPC was a sovereign house elected by the Sikhs with its own constitution. “No other house can interfere with the SGPC’s functioning. It is for the SGPC to decide how it should function and who should run it. As far as the CM’s role is concerned, he can at the most give suggestions or hold a discussion – but interference in the SGPC’s functioning is blatantly wrong,” he added.

In his blog too, Jagtar Singh wrote that the Bill passed by the Mann government might violate the autonomy of Sikh religious affairs but added that the SGPC must launch its own channel. He said the Bill “has far reaching implications in the Sikh religio-political matrix and ultimately the political discourse in general” and the amendments question the “very autonomy of Sikh dynamics”. He said the situation could have been averted if the Badals dropped their exclusive rights to telecast the Gurbani.

The SAD’s stoic silence on these developments was shocking, Jagtar Singh said. “The SAD neither issued a single statement on this issue nor its core committee held any meeting. It is perhaps the first time that they have not even responded to such a major development. Had Sukhbir Badal given a statement on this issue, the situation would have been different,” he added.

Pal Singh Nauli, a senior journalist with BBC Punjabi, said there was a time when the decision of the ‘Panj Pyaras’ used to be the final word. “The SGPC should analyse what led to this situation. When the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (HSGPC) was formed, the SAD should have taken serious note of it and acted wisely. But they never took notice of it. Even the Mann-led AAP government’s popularity was declining because of this development. The people of Punjab have never liked interference in Sikh religious affairs. They have always spoken against it. The present government should not fiddle with these affairs,” he said.

The senior journalist said the Tara Singh-Nehru Pact of 1959 says no amendment was possible without the consent of the SGPC. “A two-thirds majority of the SGPC is mandatory for any kind of amendment in the 1925 Act. But this fact was ignored. Given the kind of resistance the Gurdwara Amendment Bill was facing, it should not get the governor’s assent. However, in case it gets the nod, the Bill will pave the way for the government to fulfil its hidden agenda in the SGPC’s functioning.”

He said, “The issue is not of PTC. It is a question of Sukhbir Badal’s leadership. People want the SAD to be revived but not with Badal as president. Bhagwant Mann would never have dared to meddle with the SGPC’s affairs if the SAD was not so weak,” he said.

The BBC journalist also targeted the SGPC for its rhetoric about launching its own channel but never actually doing so. “The SGPC should act fast before it’s too late,” he warned.

Kusum Arora is a freelance journalist.