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The gurdwaras are the source and measure of Sikh power and prestige. The Sikh opponents’ endeavour has been to control or destroy these to break their resistance. The Mughals, Abdali, the British and even the Indian Government have attempted to do it. Darbar Sahib and Akal Takht have been their main targets.
Whenever Darbar Sahib was occupied or desecrated, the Sikhs in their wave of resentment and anger did not rest till they restored it to its original glory. Late Bhai Vir Singh once remarked that the Sikhs’ sacrifices to maintain the sanctity of Darbar Sahib during the 18th century alone had been so vast that the heads of the martyrs could not be accommodated in the pavement of its periphery (parkarma).
After Guru Hargobind Sahib’s migration to Kiratpur Sahib in about 1630, no successive Guru stayed in Amritsar. Baba Prithi Chand’s followers occupied Darbar Sahib and denied entry to even Guru Tegh Bahadur. From that time, masands and mahants started occupying gurdwaras in addition to benevolent nirmalas and udasi sadhus. The Sikh misl chiefs and Maharaja Ranjit Singh granted liberal funds and lands for the maintenance of the gurdwaras. The British Government in order to keep the Sikhs away from their source of power and inspiration, made the DC of Amritsar the custodian of the Darbar Sahib complex, who exercised his control through a loyal agent known as sarbrah. They also backed the corrupt mahants of important gurdwaras such as Nanakana Sahib.
The Sikhs in order to gain control of their gurdwaras fought a relentless non-violent agitation against the Government and the mahants for nearly five years (1920-1925), involving great sufferings, hardships and casualties. The keys of the Darbar Sahib complex were handed over to the Sikh representatives in 1922 and after the Nanakana Sahib tragedy, the Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925 came into being. It was for the first time in India that the British Government was humbled. This was a big victory for the Sikhs to assume control of their gurdwaras. No other community in the country has such a legislation.
The Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925 passed by the Legislative Assembly of the then British Punjab accepted that the Sikh gurdwaras are the heritage of the Sikhs and would be managed and controlled by them. The most important stipulation in regard to the elections are :
a) Election by votes. All Sikhs over 21 years of age, as defined therein, are eligible to vote. There is no sex discrimination, Sikh women are equally entitled to be electors and candidates.
b) It is the Government’s responsibility to conduct the elections and it is responsible for the composition and functioning of the Tribunal and the Judicial Commission.
The Act was extended to the areas of the former Sikh princely states in 1959. The states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Chandigarh are covered by this Act.
Authorising every Sikh as a voter was an improvement over the political system, where many restrictions and qualifications were specified at that time. In the 1946 general elections, before the Partition of India, only 12-13% of the adults were entitled to vote.
After this enactment, all the other gurdwaras and Sikh institutions followed the same voting system to elect their governing body members.
The ill-effects of elections by votes have been amply demonstrated in the 1995 D.G.M.C. elections in Delhi and the S.G.P.C. elections of 1996 wherein millions of Rupees were spent by the contesting parties / individuals, and liquor was freely distributed. This is besides the acrimonious fights and undesirable behaviour, which took place in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib during the election period.
The worst demonstration of election by votes is being witnessed in gurdwaras in the West, particularly in U.K. and Canada, where firearms have been used inviting police intervention and ending up in court cases. In some places, separate gurdwaras have been established where issues could not be resolved. In Calgary (Canada) alone, there are now five big gurdwaras. The same factionalism is practised in India.
In the non-historic gurdwaras and institutions, the existing governing bodies have framed their rules to perpetuate their hold. Whereas for the S.G.P.C. elections every Sikh adult can vote, these institutions and gurdwaras have limited their electoral college to certain numbers and to members, who subscribe to a laid down admission / annual fee. No proper elections have been held in most of the gurdwaras, institutions and foundations during the last 20 years.
Practically and legally, the gurdwaras are under the control of the S.G.P.C., but the majority of its members are not radiating the true spirit of Sikhism. The S.G.P.C. secretariat is functioning like any other Government department with scant concern for efficiency, morality and public interest.
Election by votes breeds factionalism and nepotism, and is against the tenets and ethos of Sikhism. Sikhism enjoins that the working members (panches) should be chosen by consensus (parwan). It is only such persons, who can be good leaders — “Panch parwan panch pardhan”. Guru Gobind Singh brought this aspect into focus when in 1699, he selected Panj Piaras at the point of his sword stressing the importance of self-sacrificing and devoted persons. Before his demise in 1708, he entrusted the Sikhs to the care of Guru Granth Sahib — Panth Khalsa. The empirical control of the Panth Khalsa was vested in the institution of Panj Piaras.
When Guru Gobind Singh despatched Baba Banda Singh Bahadur to Punjab to punish the tyrants and to establish rule of law, Panj Piaras with Baba Vinod Singh were ordered to accompany the Baba for his guidance.
In the 18th century, particularly during the misl period, Panj Piaras were selected by voice vote during the Sarbat Khalsa meeting held at Amritsar once in a year on Diwali / Vaisakhi day. Every adult Sikh, high or low, had equal say. The decisions taken by the Panj Piaras were binding on all the Sikhs, irrespective of their status. It was most unfortunate, and proved ruinous, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1805, abolished the Sarbat Khalsa meetings along with the institution of Panj Piaras.
The S.G.P.C. is plagued with two problems. The first is that due to election by votes, it is not attracting the right type of persons. The membership is considered as a stepping stone towards political power; there is no check to prevent the entry of non-Sikhs as voters and candidates, and the elections are no different from the political elections, where money and muscle power is freely used.
The second important drawback is the Government control in holding elections and in the composition of the Tribunal and the Judicial Commission. During the last 30 years, elections were held in 1965, 1979 and 1996 after a gap of 14 and 17 years. The Government has been ordering elections at their will to gain political advantage and to suit their requirement. The Sikhs are being held as captives and they can do nothing about it except grumble.
Sikhism is a nirala panth. Its identity, ethos and code of conduct differ from other religions. A deep sense of independence prevails amongst Sikhs and every Sikh considers himself a Sardar. It is only the spiritual leadership provided by unanimously selected Panj Piaras that can work with them. The concept of Panj Piaras is ingrained in Sikhism. It is to be revived from the village / gurdwara level to the apex body of the S.G.P.C.
The method of selection of Panj Piaras, as practised in the 18th century Sarbat Khalsa meetings will not work due to global dispersion of Sikhs. An expert body of eminent scholars, theologians and lawyers should be constituted to recommend a new constitution for the S.G.P.C. Once this is finalised, the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 should be abrogated.
The Akal Takht should be kept out of the control of the S.G.P.C. and formed into a separate independent authority to look after the global Sikh interests. The position of the Takht Jathedars vis-a-vis Panj Piaras needs consideration.