Listen to this article:
Jalandhar: A recent statement from the Sri Akal Takth Sahib’s acting chief, Giani Harpreet Singh, and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) on ‘Bandi Singhs’ (Sikh prisoners) has not only brought the spotlight back on this issue, but on other politically emotive ones that they have been raising for some time now – the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL), bans on Punjabi songs of resistance and licenced weapons for Sikh youths, to name a few.
On July 23, the Akal Takth issued an order directing the SGPC to install boards in gurdwaras giving information on Bandi Singhs who were arrested during the militancy period in Punjab. Bandi Singhs were charged under law, but have been languishing in jails despite the completion of their sentences in various cases.
For some time now, a marked shift has been witnessed in the approaches of the Akal Takth – the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs – and the SGPC on sensitive issues pertaining to Sikhs and Punjab. Many people have termed this shift as an attempt to save the Shiromani Akal Dal (SAD) from further decimation.
Other key issues which the Akal Takth and the SGPC have raised in unison in the recent past include the SYL row; bans on Punjabi songs and some social media accounts for putting up photos of Sikh separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale on Punjab Roadways buses; the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab; Gaini Harpreet asking Sikhs to have more children; describing the SAD’s loss in assembly elections as being harmful for the Sikh community; and many more.
Even the call to contest the recently held Sangrur bypoll on the issue of Bandi Singhs was given by Giani Harpreet. However, the Akalis lost the bypoll miserably, with party candidate Kamaldeep Kaur Rajoana coming in at a distant fifth to the winner, SAD-Amritsar candidate Simranjit Singh Mann.
Experts on Sikh affairs have called the change in the Akal Takth and SGPC’s approach on ‘panthic’ (Sikh religious affairs), political and social issues a desperate attempt to save the SAD, which has been witnessing a steep downfall in popularity since 2017.
The SGPC and the SAD came into existence within one month of each other in 1920, following the Gurdwara Reform Movement and other historical agitations.
This article explores the perspectives of various stakeholders in the matter and what they make of the SGPC and Akal Takth’s recent change in stance.
Sikh scholars’ perspectives
Commenting on the changing face of Sikh politics in Punjab, Amarjit Singh, Director of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Study Centre, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, said that given the current political situation in Punjab, the present developments were a desperate attempt by the SGPC and the Akal Takth to help re-establish the SAD.
“This is the outcome of losing credibility, which once lost is difficult to regain,” Amarjit Singh said. “Ironically, the remedies for the SAD’s past mistakes lie somewhere else. Though efforts are being made by the SGPC, the Akal Takth and SAD by raising the issue of Sikh prisoners, SYL, transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, ban on some songs, it is not yielding any results.”
The historian emphasised that until the SAD apologises for its mistakes before the Akal Takth, they won’t be able to regain the trust of the Sikh community. “Before the SGPC, it is the SAD which will have to improve itself. The SGPC’s functioning will automatically fall in place,” he added.
On the SGPC’s mistakes, he said, “In 2015, the SGPC first gave a pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in the 2007 blasphemy case and then spent Rs 90 lakh on issuing advertisements to save its skin. Later, under pressure from the Sikh community, it withdrew the pardon. All this happened under the SAD government’s rule.”
Amarjit said that ironically, the SGPC also lost its credibility because of the SAD. “The only time the SGPC and SAD’s politics were separated in real sense was while Gurcharan Singh Tohra remained the president of the SGPC for a record 27 years. After Tohra, the SGPC never got an independent president. Even Giani Harpreet appears one-sided at times,” he said.
On the SGPC, Akal Takth and SAD’s changed stand on Sikh issues, Amarjit said that the entire system is interlinked and the perception among the public is that the Badal family was still calling the shots.
“It has been 11 years and no SGPC elections have taken place. Unless SGPC polls are held and a new group emerges, one cannot expect a change,” he said.
Notably, the issue of corruption and nepotism in the SGPC has been in the public discourse, forcing many members to either raise their voices or switch over to other parties for action.
SGPC members’ perspectives
Interestingly, those who have been vocal against the SAD’s politics include SGPC members, like general secretary Karnail Singh Panjoli and senior member Kiranjot Kaur.
Recently, Panjoli had asked the SAD leadership to tender their resignations before Akal Takth, following the party’s humiliating defeat in the Sangrur bypoll. On the other hand, Kiranjot Kaur, in a social media post had claimed that SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal was reluctant to step down from the party’s leadership.
Talking to The Wire, Karnail Singh Panjoli said, “Yes, the SGPC committed some mistakes in performing its religious duties in the past, which cost it dearly. But now the SGPC was going in the right direction. The changes that people are witnessing these days in the SGPC and Akal Takth’s stand was exactly as per agenda. After all, SGPC and the SAD complement each other.”
However, on the Akal Takth and SGPC’s changed response, he said, “It is wrong to assume that the SGPC was taking such decisions after SAD’s repeated defeats.”
“Both the SGPC and the SAD reflect the concept of ‘Miri-Piri’ (‘Miri’ means temporal power and ‘Piri’ means spiritual power) in Sikhism, where practically, the SAD was the symbol of Sikh politics and SGPC was leading in Sikh religious issues. There is nothing wrong if either of the two give suggestions on sensitive matters,” he said.
Contrary to this, Bibi Jagir Kaur, the first woman president of the SGPC and ex-SAD MLA, blamed social media for the negative campaign against the Sikh institutions. “There were some shortcomings, which became the reason for our downfall,” she said.
Defending the SGPC and Akal Takth, Bibi Jagir Kaur said, “SAD leadership emerged from the SGPC and the two cannot be separated. If Akal Takth, SGPC and SAD will be strong, the Sikh community will remain stronger. It is SGPC’s duty to help revive SAD. There is nothing wrong if the two are on the same page as the SAD in terms of Sikh religious, social and political issues.”
Senior journalists’ perspectives
Amritsar-based senior journalist Jasbir Singh Patti, who has been following the SGPC’s functioning for a long time, said that the blatant ‘politicisation’ of the SGPC and the way the SAD forgot its commitment to ‘panth’ (path) and ‘granth’ (Guru Granth Sahib teachings) is what brought about its downfall.
Jasbir Singh said that the SGPC, Akal Takth and SAD’s changed approach has got nothing to do with the decimation of the Akalis, or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government coming to Punjab. “Even during the previous congress government, the SAD, SGPC and the Akal Takth’s approach towards Sikh issues was in sync with each other,” he said.
“However, the only difference was that the SAD was calling the shots then. Even the Akal Takth was not free from the clutches of the Badal family. Giani Harpreet was also totally dependent on the SGPC for his organisation,” he added.
The journalist also said that corruption within the SGPC, the ‘political’ appointment of SGPC members from the SAD, the sacrilege issue, Behbal Kalan killings, 328 missing ‘saroops’ (physical copies of Guru Granth Sahib), giving pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, are some of the issues which alienated Sikhs from these institutions.
He warned that if things kept going like this, the trio will witness an even greater downfall in the coming days. “Even the speech of Giani Harpreet after the SAD’s debacle in the recent assembly elections, where he had stated that the rout of the Akali Dal was dangerous for Sikhs, was outrightly partisan,” Jasbir Singh said.
It is pertinent to mention here that the last SGPC elections were held in 2011. Various Sikh bodies over the past decade have been accusing the SGPC of corruption and politicisation, and the Union government of not conducting the apex gurdwara body polls.
Talking about issues like SYL, bans on Punjabi songs, Sikh prisoners and whether these were being raised on the directions of the SAD or the SGPC, senior journalist and former AAP MLA, Kanwar Sandhu said, “While all these issues were important, getting into political discourse would further put both the Akal Takth and the SGPC into trouble. This could have dangerous ramifications.”
On the Sikh prisoners issue, Sandhu said, “It is high time they should be released. If police personnel could be released from the jail after five, ten or 15 years, then there is no reason why the Sikh prisoners who have completed their jail terms 25-30 years ago should be kept behind bars.”
He, however, said that this issue should be raised by political parties, human rights organisations or lawyers. “Raising such issues makes both the Akal Takth and SGPC appear partisan and deviating from their core duty of spreading religious teachings.”
Sandhu added that since the SAD was already low on credibility, when the Akal Takth and SGPC also talk about issues like the SYL, transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, Sikh prisoners and so on, it is bound to put a question mark on their credibility, too.
“SAD never raised its voice on these issues, when they were in power or when they shared power with the Union government,” he added.
Daljit Ami, director of the Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Punjabi University, Patiala, said that the members of the trio share a complex relationship of “convenience and control” with each other.
“When one among them becomes powerful, it tries to control the other two. The trio operates within this complexity. This has been the structure of Sikh politics in Punjab. It gives them the flexibility to control Sikh sentiments,” he said.
Ami pointed out how power tussles between ex-SGPC president Jagdev Singh Talwandi and erstwhile SAD president Parkash Singh Badal dominated the political scene in Punjab. “They had a fight among them over who was stronger. Basically, when in power, the SAD leads the SGPC and the Akal Takth; when not, the SGPC takes charge. Depending on the structure, either of the three asserts itself over the others,” he said.
Ami emphasised that since the SAD, SGPC and the Akal Takth are democratic bodies, they manage to cover up this complex relationship. “Whenever anybody in the trio is in trouble, they stand together. The SAD has been facing some serious charges of corruption and nepotism for over a decade, but the SGPC and the Akal Takth have maintained a hushed tone on them,” he said.
The flexibility with which the SGPC and the SAD function, Ami said, reflects their demographic profile too. “Like at present, the SAD is not in power and the SGPC is addressing the Sikh community. But when the Akalis come to power, they try to address the Punjabis. This gives the SAD a chance to recast its politics,” he added.
However, Ami said that as the SAD has lost its credibility, the political messaging of the SGPC and the Akal Takth has also come under the scanner.
“They claim to represent the Sikhs but have failed to speak up on the serious issue of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib, the Behbal Kalan firing, drugs and corruption. That’s why they are now drifting towards the ‘non-quantifiable emotional issues’ of Sikhs. Wherever the trio feels that its inefficiency might come into contest, they end up supporting each other,” Ami said.
Sikh seminary leader’s perspective
Amritsar-based former spokesperson of Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal, Sarchand Singh, who recently joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lamented that whatever the SGPC and the Akal Takth are doing today, had they done it 20 years ago, things would have been different.
“All those Sikh religious issues which SAD avoided conveniently from 2007-2017 for the sake of power, have taken a toll on them. Now they are banking on the SGPC and the Akal Takth to save them, but Punjab’s political scene has changed,” he said.
Further, taking a dig at the SAD’s attempts to gain public support in the name of Sikh prisoners, Sarchand said, “If they had the public support, they would not have lost the Sangrur by-poll. Till date, both the SGPC and the Akal Takth are functioning on the directions of the Badal family. Now, they are trying to save the SAD.”