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Almost every Sikh is aware of the existence of the Gurdwaras Act in Punjab. There are not many, however, who have read it. Fewer still are the people who know that there is some kind of legislation in other states as well, that regulates the functioning of gurdwaras in their respective jurisdictions. The prevailing lack of awareness can be judged from the fact that a number of scholars, when requested to contribute papers on the subject, failed to respond positively on the plea that they hardly knew anything about gurdwara legislation. Copies of the Gurdwaras Act (1925) which runs into nearly 200 pages are not easily available. So, on our request, the S.G.P.C. mimeographed about 100 copies of selected parts of the Act, which were supplied to interested scholars.
The widespread mismanagement and rampant corruption in most of the Sikh shrines under mahants, enjoying the patronage of the British Government, attracted a mass agitation of Sikhs which lasted for 5 years from 1920 to 1925. Repressive measures of the Government, involving / leading to martyrdom of hundreds of Sikhs and incarceration and torture of tens of thousands, failed to suppress the movement. In the process, a glorious chapter was added to the history of the Sikh nation. The Government had to yield and the control of all historic gurdwaras in the then Punjab state was transferred to a representative body of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, under the Gurdwaras Act, 1925.
It was soon discovered that the Act, as originally passed, suffered from some deficiencies, particularly those relating to the definition of a Sikh, a gurdwara and its properties. Principal Surjit Singh Gandhi, in his paper has dealt with these weaknesses in detail as also with the efforts made in 1930 to correct them. The various Committees constituted to run the programmes lacked statutory status. Also, the powers of the Gurdwara Judicial Commission were not adequately defined, nor were the qualifications of its members precisely laid. These weaknesses were removed through the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Act, 1930, piloted by Sardar Ujjal Singh. It may be pointed out that practically all prominent Hindu members of the Punjab Legislative Council, like Gokal Chand Narang, Mukand Lal Puri, Pt Nanak Chand and Kesho Ram Sikhri, opposed the amendment on the plea that it would adversely affect the interests of some sects like Udasis, considered to be Hindus. However, the bill was passed, and as a result a Sikh was defined as follows :
“If any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed, respectively, to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the local Government may prescribe the following declaration :
‘I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh;
that I believe in Guru Granth Sahib;
that I believe in the ten Gurus; and
that I have no other religion.’”
Other improvements were :
“ a) Clause 3 stated that even those places, which were not used as gurdwara could be considered as gurdwara, while in the original, only those places could be considered as gurdwara which were being presently used.”
“ b) Clause 7 considered the committee of management of gurdwaras or gurdwara under its management as a corporate body and enabled it to sue or be sued in its corporate name. It was also awarded perpetual succession and a common seal.”
Initially, the S.G.P.C. controlled only Akal Takht Sahib and Keshgarh Sahib. All the Gurdwara Committees under Section 85 were independent. Financial resources of the S.G.P.C. were, thus, extremely meagre. Through amendments made in 1944-45 and 1956, these gurdwaras came under the direct management of the S.G.P.C., besides reservation of seats for Scheduled Caste Sikhs. This substantially improved its financial position. In 1956, an amendment enhanced the powers of the Dharam Parchar Committee as also its budget allocation.
Before December 1986, the S.G.P.C. had under its control 12 gurdwaras under Section 85, besides nearly 350 gurdwaras under Section 87. The Barnala Government through an ordinance dissolved another 140 local Committees with an annual income of over Rs. 25,000/- each, and transferred the gurdwaras to direct management of the S.G.P.C., which added to its revenue.
After independence, contrary to expectations, the Government started interfering in gurdwara affairs more and more. On March 3, 1949, when Sikhs wanted to hold a prayer at Sri Akal Takht in connection with the Protest Day, police entered the Takht premises to prevent them. On the 4th July, 1955, again, during the peaceful agitation for Punjabi Suba, the police entered the Akal Takht and the Golden Temple Complex, used tear gas, resorted to firing in the premises, and arrested the Akal Takht Jathedar (Bhai Achhar Singh) with many others.
Since Sikh protest against this high-handedness went unheeded, Master Tara Singh declared on April 7, 1959, his intention to undertake a fast unto death from 16th April, 1959, at New Delhi. Jawahar Lal Nehru invited Master Tara Singh to tea on 12th April, 1959. This resulted in the Nehru-Tara Singh Pact, the text of which is reproduced below :
“At the request of the Prime Minister, Master Tara Singh came to see him at his house, this afternoon. As a result of their talk, the following statement was agreed upon :
1. It is common ground among all concerned that there should be no Government interference in religious affairs. Nevertheless, complaints have arisen of such interference in the past in regard to gurdwara management and amendments made in the Gurdwara Act.
2. Some machinery should be devised to ensure the implementation of the policy of non-interference in gurdwara management and to consider any complaints of such interference. It is suggested that a committee should be constituted for this purpose. This committee will consist of two persons nominated by the Punjab Government and two persons nominated by Master Tara Singh, President of the Shiromani Akali Dal. This committee will consider allegations of interference and will suggest remedial action, wherever possible. Where there is disagreement among the members of the committee, the matter may be referred to the Governor of Punjab.
3. Any amendments in the Gurdwaras Act should only be undertaken after obtaining the approval of the General Committee of the S.G.P.C. A convention may be established that such approval may be by two third majority of the S.G.P.C.
4. The General Elections for the S.G.P.C. should be held as early as feasible.
5. If any difficulty arises in the implementation of the above proposals, Jawahar Lal Nehru will be glad to help.”
The fate of this Pact was no different from that of earlier assurances given to Sikhs. The Pact was never implemented and the Committee, envisaged to hear complaints of Government interference in Sikh religious affairs, was never constituted.
In 1966, Punjab was reorganised, so that Haryana State and Union Territory of Chandigarh were carved out of it. Besides, Kangra and Una districts as well as all hill stations including Shimla, Kasauli and Dalhousie were attached to Himachal Pradesh. As a result, S.G.P.C. elections could no longer be conducted by the Punjab Election Commissioner, since S.G.P.C. became an inter-state statutory body subject to control of the Central Government. The required amendment was never made by the Congress Government at the Centre. It was only in 1979, under the Janata Government, that this could be done and S.G.P.C. election held.
In 1980, Congress again returned to power to pursue its earlier policies. The interference turned into naked aggression when the Indian army invaded the Golden Temple Complex, using tanks, bombs and gas, and destroying the Akal Takht, damaging the Sikh sanctum sanctorum Harimandar Sahib, setting fire to the Sikh Reference Library, Museum and several other buildings, besides killing thousands of innocent pilgrims. In fact, the Golden Temple Complex and several other major historic gurdwaras were treated as enemy territory. Such an excessively practical demonstration of ‘non-interference’ in religious affairs is possible only in ‘secular’ India under Congress.
The last election to the S.G.P.C. was held in 1996, full 17 years after the previous election, against the 5 years period provided in the Act. This makes it abundantly clear that responsibility assumed by the Government enjoys a very low priority, if at all.
Salient Features of the Gurdwaras Act, 1925
Under the Gurdwaras Act, as amended from time to time, management and control of all major historic gurdwaras has been entrusted to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Elections to this Committee are required to be held every five years. Since jurisdiction of S.G.P.C. extends over three states and a Union Territory, the elections have to be held by the Central Government. Originally, the number of constituencies was 120. Later, 20 of these were made double member constituencies for representation of the Scheduled Castes. At the time of the last election held in 1996, 30 additional seats were provided for women, so that elected members now add up to 170, out of which 8 are from Haryana, one each from Himachal Pardesh and U.T. Chandigarh, and the rest from Punjab. Besides, there are 15 co-opted members, (five from Punjab and ten from outside). Jathedars of the Takhts are ex-officio members, although they do not exercise voting rights.
Some of the problems encountered in the working of the Act are mentioned below :
1. Elections depend upon the pleasure of the Government of India. Last elections were held after 17 years against the statutory requirement of 5 years.
2. The onus for registration rests on the voters themselves, unlike the elections to the Parliament or the State Legislatures in which case it is the responsibility of the Government to prepare the electoral rolls through a house-to-house survey. A large part of the eligible Sikh population, therefore, does not exercise the right to vote.
3. The Act is no guarantee against State interference, which assumed proportions of naked aggression in 1984.
4. The process of elections is cumbersome and expensive, and does not really attract desirable candidates. Everybody can become a voter. In practice, even non-Sikhs and non-believers can do so under the garb of sahajdhari Sikhs. Political parties openly fight the election to this purely religious body, although some of them make loud claims to secularism, and are known to be anti-religious.
5. Election to S.G.P.C. is used as a stepping stone for other political ambitions. All kinds of corrupt practices are rampant. Resort to official pressure, nepotism, bribe, distribution of alcohol, etc., is widespread.
6. The S.G.P.C., with a membership of about 190 is excessively large, particularly when members have hardly anything to do. They attend no more than two single day sessions in a year, once to elect the President and the Executive Committee and another time to pass a small budget of a few crore Rupees.
7. The term of the President is only one year which is inadequate for any meaningful reform in management.
In view of these and several other problems, need for amendment of the Gurdwaras Act has been keenly felt. But the efforts in this direction during the last two decades have been half-hearted, and have, therefore, borne no fruit. The S.G.P.C. itself has not shown much enthusiasm.
Gurdwaras enjoy a pivotal position in the life of Sikhs, and can play a major role in nation-building activities, apart from spiritual upliftment of an individual. To realise this potential, the need for reforms in the Act has increasingly been felt during the last few years. In order, therefore, to draw the attention of the Panth to this problem and to articulate the feelings on the issue as also to evolve specific recommendations, the Institute organised a seminar on the subject on the 18th October, 1997 at Chandigarh, which was inaugurated by the President, S.G.P.C., Sardar Gurcharan Singh Tohra. The Keynote address was presented by Justice Harbans Singh (Retd), who is the present Chief Election Commissioner Gurdwara Elections, followed by 12 papers by eminent authorities on Law and Sikh religion, in the presence of a distinguished and keenly interested audience.
Justice Harbans Singh, who has been closely associated with gurdwara elections and the move for amendment of the Gurdwaras Act, recommended that the following definition of a Sikh, as given in the Delhi Gurdwara Management Committee Act, be adopted :
“Sikh means a person who professes the Sikh religion, believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Gurus only and keeps unshorn hair.”
He recommended inter alia,
i. Damdama Sahib be added to the existing list of 4 Takhts;
ii. President’s term be raised to 2½ years;
iii. Voting age be reduced to 18 years.
iv. No President may serve for more than two terms.
v. Double member constituencies be dispensed with.
He stressed the need for an All India Gurdwaras Act to control all historic shrines with provision for registration of other gurdwaras also, which may not be mandatory. He also favoured a separate appellate authority to stop endless litigation.
Dr Balwant Singh Dhillon traced the history of the gurdwara, and said that the institution was started by Guru Nanak himself as ‘dharamsal’, largely for spiritual congregations, prayers and discussions. As the institution evolved, a langar, serai (rest house), schools, hospitals, sarovars, etc., became additional features, and provided opportunities of selfless service or seva to the followers. He concludes :
“Besides celebration of congregational worship, the dharamsala has also been the favoured place for public assembly, where historically Sikhs have gathered to debate religious as well as temporal issues concerning the community. Primarily, it was a fountain-head of Sikh spirituality which motivated them to cherish higher values. Everyone in need of sympathy and help turned to it, since it was believed that the prayer performed by the sangat at the dharamsala could heal the sick souls. Its role has been instrumental to evolve and preserve the Sikh identity and has contributed a lot to its transmission to the successive generations of Sikhs. While suggesting any amendment to the present Gurdwaras Act, we have to keep in mind the very purpose for which the institution has been established. Secondly, to find an effective role for the gurdwara in the scenario developing the world over, we have to draw heavily on the historical experience, especially the role of the dharamsala in the history of the early Sikhs. No doubt the gurdwara has always occupied a pivotal place in the religious life of the Sikhs, but it has enormous potential to contribute to the social, cultural, educational, political and economic well-being of the Sikh Panth, which must be tapped.”
Nanak Singh Nishter deplores the waste of funds on buildings and their decorations on a lavish scale, on payment to professionals participating in Kirtan Darbars, and monopolisation of gurdwara management by a few clever individuals leading to litigation and violence. He advocates preprogramming for uplift of individual members of the Sikh society. He points out that while other communities have adopted the good features of Sikhism and introduced langar, serais, etc., we are neglecting these institutions. Gurdwaras should undertake projects for welfare of the community as a whole, besides teaching of Gurmukhi and Gurbani.
Sardar Har Iqbal Singh Sara’s paper refers to Christian organisations, and makes a number of valuable suggestions to improve management of gurdwaras. He underlines the need for creation of trusts of a permanent nature, not susceptible to unsettling and unpredictable changes consequent to the administration, through a society or incorporation, and a succession of directors. The paper concludes with the following call :
“In this perspective, it is high time for Western Sikhs to reanalyse the role and effect of Sikh gurdwara management. It is quite obvious that Sikhs, here and elsewhere, have to back away from the internecine turmoil and friction that so characterise our gurdwara elections. The competition for the impact of theological centres, be those Christian churches, or Sikh gurdwaras, makes such review of our gurdwara system almost mandatory.”
Dr Gurmit Singh expresses his concern over Bluestar-like operations, and, drawing upon the Nehru-Tara Singh Pact and High Court judgements, feels that the Punjab Government is itself competent to enact legislation to protect some gurdwaras situated in Punjab, because of their special nature and status. This, he feels, should be done in case of the Golden Temple, Akal Takht, etc., immediately, since it might take a long time for an All India Gurdwara Act at the Government of India level to materialise.
Brig (Retd) Gurdip Singh observed that at the root of the Punjab problem were the Hindu majoritarian attitudes and subtle Congress machination to subvert Sikhs superiorities with ulterior designs to liquidate Sikh identity. Referring to the crucial issue of electing members for the S.G.P.C., he pointed out that nomination of candidates becomes subjective to the dictates of political parties, mainly the Shiromani Akal Dal. These captive candidates remain prisoners of the political hierarchy. Thus, they are not Sikhs imbued with sewa, because while serving the interests of their political masters, they relegate the very cause of their genesis. Another serious defect in the present legislation, pointed out by him, is that dissolution of S.G.P.C. invites management by D.C., Amritsar. For Patna Sahib, it is the local S.D.M. Among other points stressed by him are :
a) S.G.P.C. should not only extend its territorial coverage to the entire country, but also coordinate with Sikh organisations outside India through the World Sikh Council.
b) S.G.P.C. should extract itself from the political arena and devote itself to a management regime which may be a global model for all gurdwaras.
c) S.G.P.C. should concentrate on generating consciousness to inculcate Sikh way of life from the absolute base of gurdwaras.
d) The number of elected members of the S.G.P.C. should be reduced to 1/4 or 1/3 of the present strength.
Dr Sangat Singh recalls the history of gurdwara legislation in Delhi, and the developments that led to the formation of the 7-member Khalsa Gurdwara Committee, Delhi, in 1914. With the enactment of the Gurdwaras Act, 1925, the Delhi gurdwaras also came under the S.G.P.C., and stayed as such until 1971, when Nirlep Kaur with the help of some toughs from Haryana / Punjab physically seized the Delhi gurdwaras with the blessings of the local police. The Akali agitation under Sant Fateh Singh to liberate the Delhi gurdwaras led to the enactment of the Delhi Gurdwaras Management Act in 1971, when the Delhi gurdwaras were placed under a different statute. The first elections to the D.G.M.C. were held in 1975.
Brig (Retd) Hardit Singh laments the system of elections currently followed for the S.G.P.C. Election by votes breeds factionalism and nepotism, and is against the tenets and ethos of Sikhism. He favours selection by consensus of such persons as satisfy the standards of panch parwan panch pardhan.
Dr Sher Singh Sher recalls the glory of Sikh sacrifices in defence of their sacred shrines in the past. He laments that this spirit is lacking among the present leaders and managements of gurdwaras. The fights over control of golak are seldom inspired by genuine desire for sewa. He calls for a sincere commitment to the spirit enshrined in the Harimandar Sahib at Amritsar.
Dr Harnam Singh Shan pointed out that gurdwaras represent an inseparable link between Gurbani and sangat. For a Sikh, a gurdwara is not only a place for service or sewa, but it is the very source of his life and inspiration. He makes the following specific points :
a) Tendency to build sectarian gurdwaras should be discouraged.
b) Names of historic gurdwaras, e.g., Sis Ganj, should not be used for other gurdwaras.
c) Granthis should be adequately trained and well-versed in Gurbani, Sikh history and philosophy.
d) There should be proper coordination among local gurdwaras.
e) Term of office-bearers of gurdwara management should not exceed two years.
Principal Labh Singh classifies gurdwaras into 5 categories :
1. Gurdwaras built by the Gurus themselves
2. Gurdwaras associated with the lives of the Gurus
3. Gurdwaras in memory of martyrs and prominent Sikhs in history
4. Local gurdwaras built by sangat
Besides, there are a number of shrines left in Pakistan, which form a category apart. Gurdwaras raised recently in other foreign countries are increasingly becoming important, and have their own special features. All these categories demand separate consideration. Any programme of reform, therefore, must keep in view their special requirements and role. He traces the history of the S.G.P.C. which started with meagre resources in 1925. He surveys the various amendments in the original Gurdwaras Act, which have raised this organisation to its present status of influence and authority over all major gurdwaras and their financial resources.
He also refers to the unsuccessful effort made for an All India Gurdwaras Act. Personally, Principal Labh Singh feels that the proposed bill will only increase Central Government influence and interference in gurdwaras. He, however, concedes one advantage, viz., the possibility of introducing one uniform Rahet Maryada in all gurdwaras.
Principal Harbhajan Singh, as a result of his lifetime association with S.G.P.C., observes that expectations from this organisation have not been realised. Weaknesses in the set-up are obvious. Due to adoption of the unfortunate system of so-called democratic elections, control of gurdwaras passed into hands of unscrupulous politicians, and gurdwaras have become centres of factionalism and internecine struggle. He recalls that efforts to improve the management had been made earlier also. He mentions his own initiative in this direction during the lifetime of Master Tara Singh, which failed. The salient provisions of his proposals, which are still relevant, were :
a) President should be elected by an electoral college of Sikh intellectuals of known integrity, well-versed in Gurmat. He should be at least a university graduate. Term of office should be four years. He should not be a member of any political party.
b) He may nominate an Executive Committee of 11-21 members who strictly observe the Sikh Rahit Maryada.
c) A Gurdwara Service Board should be constituted for recruitment of granthis, etc., on the basis of prescribed qualifications.
d) A three-member Gurdwara Commission should be set up to ensure corruption-free administration.
e) S.G.P.C. constitution should be followed as a model for all gurdwaras.
Principal Harbhajan Singh conceded the special position of Jathedar Akal Takht. He advocated extreme caution, however, in taking a decision on this issue since authority in the hands of an undeserving individual could be misused, creating problems for and harm to the Panth. It is necessary, therefore, to prescribe qualifications for selection of Jathedars of all Takhts, as well as head granthis of Darbar Sahib. He also referred to various sects like Vanjaras, Nirmalas, Real Nirankaris, Nanak Panthis, sahjdharis, Sindis, etc., and wanted such provisions in the Gurdwaras Act as would enable all followers of Guru Nanak to play an active role in affairs of the Panth, including management of gurdwaras.
The participants listened to the speakers with rapt attention and took keen interest in the discussion that followed their papers. Some of the points emphasised were :
1. All India Gurdwaras Act was desirable. Care needs to be taken that it does not promote interference by the Central or State governments. Rather, government interference should be eliminated altogether.
2. Size of the S.G.P.C. is too large at present. It should be substantially reduced, preferably to a total membership of 51.
3. No political party should fight S.G.P.C. elections.
4. Elections should be held regularly after 4-5 years. The present term of only one year for President should be raised to 2-2½ years, so that in each term, there may be 2 Presidents.
5. Voters should be keshdharis only.
6. Sahjdhari and other special interests may be accommodated through co-option which may be provided in the Act.
7. Representation of women as well as Scheduled Castes is essential. This may be ensured through reservations or convention.
8. The present system of elections based on universal adult franchise is unsuitable for gurdwara elections, since it leads to corruption, mismanagement and election of unscrupulous elements to power, and closes the door to really deserving candidates. The present system should be replaced with an electoral college of all registered gurdwaras managements, Singh Sabhas, and other registered Sikh organisations.
9. Overseas Sikhs must find adequate representation on the S.G.P.C. through nomination or co-option.
10. Some minimum qualifications should be prescribed for members of the S.G.P.C. as well as its senior employees.
11. Akal Takht and other Takhts enjoy a special status, which should be recognised in the Act. Their functions, authority, mode of appointment of the Jathedars of these Takhts, qualifications of the incumbents, term of office, mode of functioning, etc., should be clearly defined.
12. Provision should be made for Advisory Committees to facilitate decision of the S.G.P.C. as well as the Akal Takht.
13. A permanent Election Commission should be set up to ensure regular and timely elections.
After discussion, a resolution was unanimously passed to constitute a Committee to draft suitable legislation, keeping the above and other views expressed in the papers in mind, as early as possible. The text of the resolution is reproduced below :
“For a very long time, Sikhs have been clamouring for updated legislation for the management of Sikh Gurdwaras. Government of India had agreed to bring forth the requisite enactment, but so far updated law has not been framed. Having considered this issue and its various implications discussed in various papers and speeches in the Seminar on Gurdwara Legislation held on October 18, 1997, at Chandigarh, it is hereby resolved that a Committee comprising of five members be constituted with Chief Justice Harbans Singh (Retd) as Chairman and with Dr Kashmir Singh, Deptt. of Law, G.N.D.U, Amritsar; Ms Kiranjot Kaur, (S.G.P.C.); Dr Gurmit Singh, Advocate; Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian and Sardar Nanak Singh Nishter, Advocate as members to prepare a draft for the required Gurdwara Legislation.
“This gathering also calls upon the Government of India, the Government of Punjab and the S.G.P.C. to take necessary steps to enact updated law for the management of the Sikh gurdwaras.”
Innumerable are God’s qualities,
Endless their count.
Innumerable His doings, His bounty.
Endless what He sees, hears;
Inscrutable His purpose.
Endless the forms created by Him —
Invisible their limit.
Many yearn His extent to know,
Yet it ever eludes them.
None knows His limit —
The more expressed, the farther it beggars description.
He is the Supreme Master :
Exalted His station : supreme above all is His Name.
Only one as exalted as Himself might know His extent.
To Him alone is His extent known :
Saith Nanak : Devotion to Him is a blessing coming through His glance of grace.
— Guru Granth Sahib, p. 5