Cleaning the Augean Stables
Whenever a sense of decency and decorum inhibits one from stating the obvious and laying bare the stark, ugly reality or rot especially in a religio-social and cultural organization which touches the deepest core in the hearts of the largest numbers in a community, it is always better to make use of an ancient myth, a fable or a parable to state the unstated. The profound nuggets of wisdom contained in some of these ancient tales, despite their surfacial simplicity and simple story-telling streak, convey a deep allegorical message which is almost universal and eternally relevant despite their localized and regional framework. Before we undertake to state the obvious and lay bare the systemic malady which is eating into the vitals of the highest and biggest organization/ Institution of our community (The Sikhs), let us first unfold and elaborate the ancient Greek myth of the “Augean Stables” and the inherent and urgent need for cleaning these stables by a heroic personage and the mightiest Greek Hero Hercules. These Augean stables belonged to ancient Greek king Augeas who claimed to have a divine descent from a Greek God and goddess. His spacious stables having cattle in excess of three thousand represented his wealth and prestige which was beyond challenge by ordinary mortals. Another fact about these stables was that these stables have not been cleaned and cleared out of the dung that had been deposited inside these at least for thirty years either because this task of cleaning these stables was deemed to be impossible or had been deliberately discouraged and put off by their owner. This myth partly concludes with Hercules cleaning these stables through the use of his divine powers by making the two rivers under his control to flow through these stables through a crack / hole in one of the walls of these stables. But he undertook this unprecedented heroic task after he had been mandated to perform this task as one of his twelve Labours. The task of cleaning these stables constituted his fifth labour. The stated purpose of exploiting and elaborating this analogy of the myth of Augean stables from the Greek mythology is to draw public attention to a similar rot and stink at present embedded in the twin fields of political governance of Punjab and management of Sikh religious institutions especially the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) due to the stranglehold of similar dynastic rulers who have been managing rather mismanaging these twin institutions for almost a similar period of thirty years.
Since we are living in the modern age of twenty first century and the third millennium, there is hardly any scope for the emergence of any Herculean figures vested with supernatural powers who may be capable of wiping out the unbearable stentch and stink of corruption in these two fields. But since the inevitable truth behind every myth including the myth of Augean stables is always universal and eternal, the process of cleaning is a continuous natural process in one or the other form. Since Vox Populi Vox Die (voice of people is voice of God), it seems to have already manifested in the recently concluded legislative state elections in Punjab. So silent, strong and clear has been the mandate of the people, that it seems to have completely wiped out the highly entrenched dynastic political parties from power and their fiefdoms akin to the mythical Augean stables. In one single fell stroke, the massive public assertion through the exercise of casting their secret ballot has completely dismantled the two dynastic political dispensations reducing one to one fourth of its existing strength and almost entirely wiping out the other. This Herculean task has been accomplished by a group of grassroots representatives chosen by the masses who have been systematically exploited for decades by the Greek king Augeas like dynasts. No wonder, the biggest heads have rolled including all the biggest heads belonging to the same family. But continuing with the analogy of the ancient Greek myth of cleaning the Augean stables by Hercules in his fifth Labour out of his mandated twelve labours, only the political stable has been cleaned in the present Punjab/ Sikh scenario. A comparatively more murky, more stinking and more viciously ridden with dynastic egoistic stranglehold Augean stable in the Sikh religious field still remains to be cleaned. Now when the bigger political stable has been cleaned, a ray of hope has emerged among the Sikh masses about the similar possibility of ridding the supreme Sikh institution the SGPC of the serious fault lines which have emerged in it due to the longest spell of dynastic strangle hold of a single family.
Before praying for divine intervention and before calling upon the enlightened Sikh intelligentsia and the devout Sikh masses in Punjab, India and diaspora for a similar spring cleaning, it would be beneficial to pinpoint and highlight the major glaring acts of mismanagement and dynastic overlordism. In this regard, nothing more trust worthy and reliable and documentary evidence exists than the one recorded in the 2020 publication, “Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee Dee Vartman Stithi” written by late S Harcharan Singh just before his sudden and untimely demise. A man of spotless integrity, excellent professional competence in management of corporate finance and being a dedicated Gursikh, he happened to be the Chief secretary of SGPC for little less than two years under his three year contractual assignment conferred upon him by the dynastic overlord. Ironically, he was not able to complete his three year tenure mainly because he was not allowed to bring out the much needed structural and financial reforms by the same persons who had appointed him to accomplish this task. Luckily, we have the first hand, honest, dispassionate and most reliable documentary evidence of the serious, structural, administrative and calculated manmade faultlines recorded by an insider and a man at the helm of administrative side of SGPC. In this small 160 pages book written in chaste Punjabi without any personal prejudice and hurt feelings, he has brought out the major fault lines in this august Sikh monolith as a result of the complete dominance and exercise of personal whims of the politically dominant father – son duo at the helm of both political and religious Sikh organizations for the last few decades. As a result, the disastrous effect of these faultlines consists of complete politicization of this purely religious body with all the attendant maladies of politics like the installation of puppets, dummy SGPC presidents, holding SGPC elections at irregular intervals in connivance with the central union government; flagrant acts of favoritism; nepotism; by passing and rejection of merit while making selections of highly unscrupulous, incompetent persons to the crucial, managerial positions in violation of the stipulated rules and regulations in the SGPC constitution; grave errors and discrepancies in financial transactions committed during grant of big contracts for projects and lease of Gurdwara lands and other properties to their cronies involving crores of rupees.
To elaborate these fault lines further, foremost among these is the nearly total politicization of all the major organs of this religious body. Some degree of politicization and its attendant malpractices were bound to creep in this body, since the Sikhs themselves had demanded and succeeded in getting the constitution of this body based on the process of democratic elections made through the passage of a legislative Act in 1925. The colossal magnitude of hereditary Gurdwara Mahants’s moral and material corruption, the excessive brutality of the British authorities on the agitating Sikhs and overwhelming support of the entire Indian nation to the Sikh agitation seems to have clouded their sense of judgement at that moment. But that politics would completely takeover every organ of this purely religious and sacred organization and make it a handmaiden of one or two individuals for acquiring and consolidating their political power for this august Sikh body was beyond every body’s expectations. Now that the inevitable has happened, the search for solutions must start. Since no other better system of governance of such a big organization with a huge annual budget other than the existing system of democratic elections is available, it is better to plug the holes and rectify the discrepancies within this existing frame work. Some of the author’s suggestions like debarring the dual membership of elected SGPC members (incidentally, majority of presidents of the SGPC in the recent past have been political persons); tightening the eligibility criteria for Sikh voters on the basis of Sikh religious Rahat Maryada tenets and building a massive moral public pressure on both the voters and candidates to be genuine Sikhs; reducing the strength of elected members and making majority of members from the pool of selected/ elected representatives by the registered Singh Sabhas; electing the president and the executive Committee by this jointly constituted house are worth deliberation and experimenting with; though some of the Singh Sabhas are as faction-ridden and politicized as the present SGPC house.
At the root of this stinking rot is the degeneration and dilution in Sikh character, more so among the Sikh political leaders. At the heart of this pervasive darkness is the vacuum in Sikh spiritual and political leadership. This book and its author, besides making an impartial and professional analysis of various structural and administrative loopholes which are nothing but corollaries and by-products of the deeply entrenched and highly selfish political leadership, is the timely, genuine mouthpiece and spokesman of the badly bruised collective Sikh psyche of the entire Sikh Panth. Its dispassionate analysis and account is the desperate cry of the entire Sikh Panth to cleanse this supreme Sikh institution of the sleaze and rot of the size and volume of Greek Augean stables.
It is would be proper to further catalogue some of the other consequential structural and administrative faultiness. At the top of this pyramid is the politically appointed President of the SGPC who is immune from even the inbuilt checks and balances in the system. During the tenure of the book’s author, he being the Chief Executive, it was his bounden duty to scrutinize every file and put up notes pointing to the anomalies especially in matters of granting huge financial contracts and giving constructive suggestions during the tenure of the incumbent president S Avtar Singh Makkar. But this president ordered that the files relating to construction of buildings, establishment, personnel and vigilance enquiries need not be routed through the Chief Secretary and put up directly before the President and the Executive Committee (Chapter 3, p. 40). One of the managers of the bigger Sikh shrines has been alleged to be paying quarterly ransom money to the son of this President and this manager being rewarded with the managership of a still bigger Sikh shrine as reward (Chapter 6, p. 51). The author has pointed to several other shady deals in matters of purchase of property, agricultural land in the name of Gurdwaras and grant of rents and leases of thousands of acres of Gurdwara agricultural lands involving thousands of crores of money without following the mandatory procedures. The author holds SGPC presidents between the tenures of S.Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Prof Kirpal Singh Badungar as the guiltiest persons for the worst degradation of SGPC management during whose tenures the maximum appointments of most undesirable persons to the highest posts of Gurdwaras and Takht Jathedars were made.
The next in the line of the major corruption heads are the political appointees as managers of majority of the major Sikh shrines who have near autonomous powers to purchase rations for Gurdwara langars and other day to day requirements. During one of his checking of bills of purchase of one Gurdwara by him as Chief Executive, it was found that bulk purchases were made on fake bills of a non-existent firm and the store keeper of that Gurdwara had become a millionaire and real estate dealer on the basis of such shady deals (Chapter 6, p. 53). This is more or less the State of all the big shrines in matters of Gurdwara managers and their financial transactions. To cover up their well-thought out acts of omission and commission, these managers put up the most lavish shows of hospitality while serving the president and members of the executive committee during their occasional meetings at different shrines (Chapter 6, 53). A devout Sikh reader is shocked at the impunity with which these highly placed officials misutilize the sacred Gurdwara funds without any qualms of conscience.
The next big head of misappropriation of Gurdwara funds and maladministration is the recruitment of staff at various levels without proper assessment of vacancies and desirable or mandatory qualifications. Appointments are made on the basis of SGPC members’ mutually agreed quotas and considerations of favoritism and nepotism. As a result, out of the nine additional secretaries and fourteen deputy secretaries serving during his tenure, only four were graduates and the rest had only senior secondary level education (Chapter 4, p. 43). Similarly, out of the fifty two SGPC schools and thirty eight colleges, majority of these institutions were found to be running at a deficit budget. Not only the quality of education and results of these institutions were comparatively poorer and lower than that of their surrounding institutions, there were serious anomalies in the recruitment and deployment of staff, especially in the case of non-teaching staff (Chapter 10, p. 72-74). Besides these, the author of this book had repeatedly pointed serious flaws in the SGPC budget making process and made very sensible professional suggestions to bring about some modicum of accuracy and accountability in the budget making process, but none of his suggestions were accepted reiterating the continuance of the status quoist system.
In addition to these constitutional, structural and administrative and financial aberrations, the author has touched upon the ambivalent relationship between SGPC and Jathedar Sri Akal Takht, The arbitrary appointment of pliable Jathedars, the unbecoming role of one of them in the grant of pardon to the Sirsa Dera Chief, the demand for setting up of a Haryana SGPC and Sahajdhari Sikhs, the controversial role of some of the karsewa wale Sikh babas and the highly politicized and BJP dominated DSGMC and influence of Sant Samaj in crucial matters like abandoning the implementation of the scientifically designed accurate Nanakshahi Calednar already approved by the SGPC and Sri Akal Takht. All these distortions have now been further corroborated by some members of the SGPC themselves in the press, “The Tribune”, March 27, 2022, page 1 which endorses the veracity of these allegations.
To set right these Augean stables like distortion in this august Sikh institution, it needs determined, concerted efforts of enlightened Sikhs, some genuinely spiritual Sikh saints, selfless Sikh social activists and Sikh institutions like the leading lights of the earlier Sikh Gurdwara reforms, like Prof Gurmukh Singh, Giani Dit Singh, Bishan Singh Samundari, Sardar Sardul Singh Kaveeshar and building a powerful, moral pressure and choose dedicated office bearers of the executive. The recent newspaper reports of the efforts of some of the disgruntled, equally discredited earlier wielders of power in Gurdwara management like the Sarna Brothers in collaboration with a few genuine Sikh intellectuals, does not evoke much hope. This spring cleaning and overhauling movement should be raised and implemented by men of integrity, professional competence, free from any ambition to wield power. This is the most opportune time to bring about this transformation. It is almost certain that with the numerical strength of Sikh community being very small, no deserving Sikh child and needy Sikh student can remain bereft of free quality education and no needy Sikh citizen without quality health care if the massive Gurdwara funds are pooled and utilized in a systematic way.
Propagation of Sikh religion through the establishment of a single central Sikh Parchar training Institution with the employment of competent, qualified Sikh faculty and employment of modern electronic tools and preparing a well-trained cadre of fully qualified recognized diploma, degree holders and doctoral degrees from an affiliating University and employing them as preachers-cum-Granthis-caretakers-incharges at a respectable uniform salary of school/ college./ university lecturers at the village, city, State, National levels and international interfaith foras – should be the top priority of this august Sikh body. We had provided a detailed blue-print for setting up of such an institution in our editorial of January-April 2022 issue of our journal Abstracts of Sikh Studies and also made a written representation to the Jathedar, Sri Akal Takht, along with Punjabi translation of this write-up. As uniformly trained cadre of such Sikh preachers/ employed all over the globe can not only propagate Sikhism on sound lines but can also combat the vilification against Sikhism being carried on by several anti-Sikh forces in India and abroad.