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This Seminar on Sikh Gurdwaras Legislation is being held at a very appropriate time, when the question of necessary amendments to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, and proposal for preparing a final revised draft of an All India Sikh Gurdwaras Bill are under active consideration.
2. Background of Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925 : It was an historical occasion for the Sikh Community when the Act of 1925 was passed. You all know that the British Government was very allergic to the idea of transfer of management of gurdwaras to a representative body of the Sikhs. With the holocaust at Nanakana Sahib where nearly 200 Sikhs were butchered by the paid servants of the mahant, the question of getting the Sikh gurdwaras free from the clutches of the mahants, who regarded these institutions and the properties attached thereto as their personal property, became a matter of life and death for the entire Sikh community. An effort was made by the Government by getting an Act passed by the Punjab Council to entrust the management of some gurdwaras to a committee having two representatives of the Sikhs, two nominees of the Government, and presided over by the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar. This was not acceptable to the Sikhs and the Act was never enforced, and it became a dead legislation. Reluctance of the Government (even after it came round to enacting Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925) to entrust the management of gurdwaras to the S.G.P.C., the existing representative body of the Sikhs, is clear from the fact that in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, the representative body under the Act is mentioned as the ‘Board,’ though as a compromise it was provided that the Board elected under the Act in its first general meeting may adopt any name it may deem fit and, as was expected, the name of S.G.P.C. was adopted. In the Act, however, throughout the word ‘Board’ is mentioned.
3. Effect of the Punjab Re-Organisation Act, 1966, and the Election of S.G.P.C. held in 1978/79 : As a result of the re-organisation of the Punjab, Haryana State and the Union Territory of Chandigarh were carved out of the area originally in the State of Punjab, and area of Kangra and Una districts and all hill stations including Shimla, Kasauli and Dalhousie were attached to Himachal Pradesh. One consequence of this re-organisation was that the elections of the Board, i.e., Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, could not be conducted by the election department of Punjab through its Commissioner Gurdwara Elections, as it used to be done prior to the re-organisation. As provided under section 72 of the Punjab Re-organisation Act, 1966, S.G.P.C. was one of those statutory bodies which became an inter-State statutory body and, as such, subject to the control of the Central Government, which could make necessary amendments in the Act for carrying out the objects of the Act. No action was taken for holding an election of S.G.P.C. for nearly 14 years and it was only in 1978 when Janata Government was in saddle at the Centre and Akali Government in Punjab that elections could be conducted under the supervision and control of Chief Commissioner Gurdwara Elections appointed by the Central Government under a new section 47 A added for this purpose.
4. The Office of Chief Commissioner, Gurdwara Elections, which was created only till the election of the S.G.P.C. was over, ceased to exist after the completion of election in 1979. No election took place for nearly 17 years thereafter.
5. Background of Election to S.G.P.C. held on 13th October, 1996 : Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who had continued to be elected as President of the S.G.P.C. throughout this intervening period except for a short while, moved a writ petition No. 3835/93 on 7-4-1993 in the High Court seeking the Court’s directions to the Central Government to hold general elections of the S.G.P.C. at the earliest. On the basis of the statement made by the Central Government that it would hold the elections within one year, directions were issued accordingly by the High Court on 21-02-1994. The Central Government took nearly ten months to appoint the Chief Commissioner Gurdwara Elections for the purpose of conducting and supervising the election. The Chief Commissioner took charge on 17-12-1994. As this left very little time for completing the elections as directed by the High Court, a move was made by the Central Government for extension of time, vide civil miscellaneous application No. 1907/95 in writ petition No. 3835/95, on 24-4-1995.
6. Meanwhile, the Punjab Government, which was to provide accommodation and other infrastructure for making the office of the Chief Commissioner fully functional, dragged its feet, and a private accommodation in Sector 8, (Chandigarh) was provided only in June, 1995 and after purchase of furniture, typewriters and other necessary equipment and appointment of staff, the office became functional. However, before the allotment of office accommodation, time was not lost, because the office continued functioning to the extent possible at my own residential house, using my own typewriter and other equipment to carry out and complete the initial work of collecting information relating to the 1991 Census about the Sikh population and its number in different districts.
7. Under the Act, in the undivided Punjab, there were 120 constituencies, each of which returned one member, except the 20 constituencies selected by the Central Government in consultation with the S.G.P.C. as double member constituencies, each returning one member belonging to the scheduled castes and the other of the general category. The result of re-organisation was that many of the existing constituencies became inter-State, part of the constituency falling in one State and part in the other. It was felt that this was not a satisfactory arrangement and it was also found that existing constituencies did not equally reflect the Sikh population therein. It was desired by the S.G.P.C. as well as by other Sikh bodies that de-limitation of constituencies be made afresh, making the Census figures of 1991 the basis. This was obviously not only a difficult task, but also a time-consuming exercise, particularly because the figures of Sikh population were available only up to the level of the tehsils and districts as these existed in 1991 and not for the Patwar Circles and villages therein. Many new districts had been carved out since 1991 and the process had continued till 1995-96.
8. The Hon’ble Bench of the High Court, which was seized of the miscellaneous application for extension of time made by the Central Government referred to above, was anxious, and rightly so, that the elections having been delayed for 17 years, should be completed at the earliest, even without fresh de-limitation. The Secretary of the Chief Commissioner Gurdwara Elections appeared before the Bench on receipt of a notice on 12-09-1995 and gave an undertaking that the elections would be completed within 12 months of the Notification for enrolment, fixed for 09-10-1995 by the Court.
9. Notification issued gave 45 days for the intending voters to file the prescribed declarations before the Patwari concerned in the rural areas and the officials appointed by the municipal committees, small town committees, etc., in the urban areas. There being floods in Haryana during 1995 and otherwise, too, due to a complete lack of interest shown by the prospective voters, time had to be extended more than once till the end of March, 1996.
As the enrolment of the voters took a very long time, that period was simultaneously utilized by me and my Secretary Ch. Manmohan Singh, who had considerable experience in this line, for fresh delimitation in consultation with the S.G.P.C. as required under the law. The constituencies were finalised without seeking any extra time.
First step in this process was to distribute the number of constituencies amongst the States of Punjab, Haryana, H.P. and U.T. Average Sikh population for each of the 120 constituencies came to nearly 1 lakh 16 thousands. On the basis of population as reflected in 1991 Census, one seat was allotted to the Union Territory, Chandigarh. The area transferred from Punjab to H.P. had comparatively very small Sikh population. However, with a view to giving representation to Himachal Pradesh, one seat was allotted to it, irrespective of its Sikh population figure. Haryana was entitled to 8 seats and the Punjab to the remaining 110 seats. This distribution was approved by the S.G.P.C. and Sardar Kartar Singh Takkar, as representative of Sikh population in Haryana. It was, thus, ensured that there would be no inter-State constituency. It was further decided that there would be no inter-district constituency in Punjab, and in the districts of Kurukshetra, Hissar and Sirsa in Haryana, which had sufficient Sikh population to be entitled to one or more constituencies. Due to the paucity of population in Haryana, four constituencies had to be carved out of a number of districts and the solitary constituency in Himachal had to be formed out of a number of districts. It was a matter of great satisfaction that the constituencies, particularly those carved out in Punjab with full consultation of a sub-committee of the S.G.P.C., were found satisfactory and were well-received.
10. On 31-8-1995, the Central Government by its notification No. S.O.S. 600 and 601 (E) amended Section 44(2) of the Act creating 30 more double-member constituencies, each returning one woman and one general member. Programme of elections was notified on 4th September, 1996, this being the first date when nominations could be filed, and Sunday, 13th October, 1996, was fixed for poll. This notification gave effect to the amendment made by the Central Government referred to above and total number of members to be elected increased from 140 to 170.
11. Election took place smoothly and without any untoward incident. As provided under the Rules, counting took place at each polling station at the end of the day’s polling and statements in the prescribed form indicating the valid votes polled for each of the candidates at the polling stations were forwarded to the Returning Officer, who consolidated these and declared the results. These results were received in the office of the Chief Commissioner, and notification regarding all the constituencies, giving details of the persons elected, was issued on 23-10-1996. The elected members and the ex-officio members, being the Jathedars of four Takhts and the Head Priest of Darbar Sahib, met at Amritsar on 18-11-1996, the date fixed by the Central Government, and co-opted 15 members, out of which 5 were from Punjab and the remaining from other parts of India. On intimation being given of this co-option, notification No. S.O. 806(E) was issued by the Central Government on 21-11-1996, declaring that the Board (S.G.P.C.) has been “duly constituted”. Five years tenure of the newly constituted S.G.P.C. begins from the date of this notification.
12. The first general meeting of the S.G.P.C. was held on 20-12-1996 as directed by the Central Government, in which the President and other office-bearers of the S.G.P.C. and members of the executive were elected and the S.G.P.C. started its normal functioning.
13. I have given, rather in detail, the background and procedure of the aforesaid election, which took place 17/18 years after the previous election in 1978-79, which, incidently, was also supervised by me as Chief Commissioner. This has been done to enable this learned gathering to have an idea of the whole procedure with a view to enable you to make suggestions.
14. Amendments suggested in the Act : During this election process, newly elected S.G.P.C., the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and some other Sikh bodies made a number of suggestions for amendments in the Act. In fact, it has been realised that all the provisions of the Act need a thorough scrutiny to eliminate the dead wood and introduce amendments to make the working of the Act more suitable, effective and beneficial to the gurdwaras and the Sikh community.
15. Great stress was laid, even prior to the preparation of Roll of voters, that only a keshadhari Sikh should have a right of vote. Under the 1925 Act, as it exists now, a keshadhari as well as a sehajdhari has a right to be enrolled as a voter, and even to stand for election. The suggestion put forward was that the definition of ‘Sikh’ in the Punjab Act should be the same as in the Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act. In Delhi Act, “Sikh means a person who professes the Sikh religion, believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth and the ten Gurus only and keeps unshorn hair.” This suggestion has the support not only of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), but also of the Chief Khalsa Dewan and a number of other Sikh Institutions in and outside Punjab. During the present election and also during the election of 1978-79, there were large number of complaints that in the garb of sehajdharis, many non-Sikhs got themselves enrolled as voters. General consensus seems to be that only keshadhari Sikhs should be qualified to become voters. However, a genuine sehajdhari answering the qualification laid down in the Act, of being a person, who apart from believing in the ten Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib, “......performs all ceremonies according to Sikh rites; does not take kutha meat and does not use tobacco in any form and does not take alcoholic drinks....” may be qualified to be nominated or co-opted. Obviously, in such cases of nomination, only a genuine sehajdhari would be selected and there is no danger of a person having no faith in Sikhism or its tenets to get selected.
16. With regard to the question of Damdama Sahib (Talwandi Sabo) being notified as the fifth Takht of the Sikhs and its Jathedar being also made ex-officio member of the S.G.P.C., there is a complete unanimity.
17. Another matter on which there may be some difference of opinion is the question whether the age of the voter be reduced from present age of 21 to 18, which is prevalent for the purpose of election to the Parliament, the Assemblies and the Panchayats.
18. President of the S.G.P.C. is elected every year. It is generally felt that this period is much too short and the President should be elected for at least two and half years, i.e., for half the term of five years of the S.G.P.C. There is also a suggestion that no person should be appointed as President for more than two successive terms.
19. Regarding reservation for women, it is being felt that the method of designating some constituencies as “double member” constituencies should be dispensed with. In elections to Assembly and Lok Sabah some constituencies are also reserved for scheduled castes candidates and there is no double member constituency. Apart from this, it is felt that a House of 190 members, i.e., 170 elected, 15 co-opted and 5 being ex-officio, (this number may be 6, if the amendment regarding Damdama Sahib (Talwandi Sabo) is accepted and the Jathedar of this fifth Takht is also included). One constructive suggestion is that all 120 constituencies should be single member constituencies (and it may be stated that all the constituencies are based on the same number of Sikh population), out of which 20 may be reserved for women and 20 for the scheduled castes, and these constituencies may be rotated after every one or two consecutive elections.
20. As mentioned above, under the Act and the Rules thereunder, a person who is desirous of being enrolled as a voter, is to fill in and deliver to Patwari or other authorised person, a form containing declaration to the effect that he does not trim or shave his hair, does not take kutha or use tobacco in any form and does not take alcohol. In practice, general public, even if qualified, is not interested in taking so much trouble, and it is only the prospective candidates or their party workers, who obtain the signatures of persons in their respective constituencies, and deliver the same to the Patwari or other authorised person, as the case may be. This procedure is different from the method of preparation of rolls for voters for the Assembly / Parliament elections, where an enumerator goes to every house and notes the names and other relevant particulars of persons residing there, who, on the date specified by the Election Commission of India, have attained the qualifying age. It has been strongly stressed by several parties that the same procedure may be adopted while preparing Gurdwara Election Rolls. For obvious reasons, it does not seem possible, because, besides the question of having attained certain age, he has to have other qualifying conditions. However, any suggestions for simplifying the procedure would not only be most welcome but also desirable.
21. Another allied matter which may also be considered is whether the qualification of “not using alcoholic drinks” should be insisted upon for voters, though it may be desirable and necessary for a person standing for membership of the religious body like S.G.P.C. It has been said that even with regard to a number of the elected members, it cannot be said with certainty that they do not use alcoholic drinks. In any case, it has been felt that for voters, taking of alcoholic drinks should not be put at the same level as taking kutha meat or using tobacco or trimming beard which are “Bajjar Kurahits.”
These matters, amongst others, would require serious consideration by this eminent gathering.
The second important matter for your consideration is the Draft of All India Sikh Gurdwaras Bill. I understand that the brochure, giving the background and the main features of the earlier effort made in 1977, has already been published in the Abstracts of Sikh Studies (p. 39), and you must be familiar with the same. Five copies of that draft along with the objects and reasons and notes on the clauses and some annexures were sent to late Sardar Atma Singh, then Minister for Development, Punjab, on 8-2-79 for forwarding the same to the Central Government. No action was, however, taken because of the fall of the Janata Government. Later on, after the Rajiv Longowal accord, a copy of the draft was circulated to all the States to elicit their views on the matter. Punjab Government under the Chief Ministership of Shri S.S. Barnala, instead of supporting the draft, which was prepared after full deliberations and consultations with the Government and the S.G.P.C., created a committee under Sardar Natha Singh Dalam, Minister for Public Relations with Dr Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia as Convener. A paper prepared by Dr Jasbir Singh was considered by the Review Committee and a copy of this paper was sent on 6-6-86 for comments, amongst others, to Sardar Kabul Singh, then President, S.G.P.C. and late Sardar Ajit Singh Sarhadi, former Advocate General Punjab, for their comments. Sardar Kabul Singh desired that provision should be made to enable the Central Board to have supervision with regard to Maryada over gurdwaras both registered and un-registered. Mr. Sarhadi stressed that the Punjab Government has un-necessarily delayed the desired action of the Central Government by taking up the question of revising the draft, instead of simply supporting the same, as Punjab Government and the S.G.P.C., had been fully consulted and associated with the draft at all stages and that minor adjustments could be made in due course of its enactment.
A revised draft was finally prepared and sent to the Government of Punjab and a copy of the same sent to me on 26th October, 1986, for information, though I was not associated with the deliberations of the Review Committee at any stage. A note dated 8-10-1986 by Dr Jasbir Singh and other members of the Review Committee, attached to the revised draft, gives the main features in which the new draft either differed from or amended the earlier draft.
The majority of these points like definition of ‘Sikh’; the significance of takhts and status of jathedars; matter regarding gurdwara properties; elections to be held as scheduled; provision of Sikh Gurdwara Service Commission and reservation for backward classes, are not controversial matters and the differences are only of details between the original draft and the revised draft.
However, whether the registration of gurdwaras other than the historical ones in states other than Punjab and Delhi, should be made mandatory, so as to have supervisory control of the Central Board over all of them regarding Reht Maryada, etc., as has been done in the original draft, or, whether it should be left to the option of the management of the gurdwaras concerned, as is provided in the revised draft, is an important question of basic approach and would require serious deliberations. One view is that all gurdwaras should be covered just as all Waqfs Institutions are governed by the Waqf Act and all Hindu religious and charitable endowments are governed under the Acts on the subject in force in different States. Under the revised draft, option is given to non-historical gurdwaras to get themselves registered with the State Board concerned or not. In both, the original and the revised draft, it has been made clear that the management of non-historical gurdwaras would continue as it was before registration and the State Board will, in no way, interfere in their management or working, except to ensure that the fundamental Maryada of the Sikhs, namely, where there is parkash of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, there would not be worship of any other individual or any other object or any other religious book, is adhered to. As has been stressed by Sardar Kabul Singh, then President of S.G.P.C. in his note to the Review Committee, Central Board should have power to ensure that the Reht Maryada is followed by all gurdwaras, which can only be achieved if all Sikh gurdwaras are registered.
It may be mentioned here that the main features of the original draft were discussed at length with the representatives of the Sewa Panthi Sampradaya at my residence in the presence of late Sant Nischal Singh Ji Maharaj of Yamuna Nagar, who was then President of the Sampradaya. He fully agreed that in view of the provision of non-interference by the Board in the affairs of registered non-historical gurdwaras, there could be no objection to these institutions being registered under the Act, particularly, because one member out of the Sikh Sampradayas is to be co-opted on the Central Board. In view of the above, the proposed exemption of three of the Sikh Sampradayas, viz., Nirmala Mahamandal, Udasi Mahamandal and Sewa Panthi Sampradaya seems to be un-necessary and may be unconstitutional, being contrary to the spirit of equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
The next point which I would like to deal with is Point No. 9 of the aforesaid note which says, “A separate appellate authority over the Gurdwaras Tribunal has been envisaged in the revised draft so as to ensure that the Gurdwaras litigation does not drag on.... in the ordinary appellate forums.” It is provided both in the original and the revised drafts that disputes arising out of the working of the Act would be decided by a single Member of the Tribunal and an appeal would, from such order, lie to a Bench of two or more Judges of the Tribunal presided over by a member, who is or has been a Judge of the High Court. The very idea of providing the decision of such a Bench on appeal as final was to avoid long drawn process of appeals which takes place in the court of the Tribunal provided under the Punjab Act of 1925. The object of creating that Tribunal was also to shorten litigation. However, it takes a petition before the Tribunal 12 years or more to get finally decided because of stay orders being granted by the High Court and then there is a first appeal to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court by Special Leave. Though, barring of the jurisdiction of the Civil Courts would not take away the extra-ordinary writ jurisdiction of the High Court or that of the Supreme Court, yet, if in addition to that, a separate appellate Court is provided, as has been done in the revised draft, that may be defeating the very object of providing Tribunal and hearing of only one appeal by a Bench of the same Tribunal. This again is a matter for serious consideration.
The only other point of considerable importance is regarding the extent of the supervision that is sought to be exercised by the Central Board, which of course would have representation from all the Boards and also some nominated members of the intelligentsia, and thus, the Central Board would be a representative body. At the same time, in the original as well as in the revised draft, a federal structure is envisaged in which State Boards would manage the historical gurdwaras in their respective States, without undue interference from the Central Board, except in some important matters. To the provision that the Central Board may make regulations about the “Sikh Maryada” to be followed by all the Boards and the gurdwaras under the Act, there may not be any serious objection. However, if the interference by the Central Board is extended to other matters, that may not be to the liking of the Boards other than that of Punjab. The desire of the Review Committee in extending the supervision of the Central Board seems to be for creating “an integrated federal system.” This has been done by making provisions to affect that —
(i) The Administrative Officer of each State Board shall be appointed by the Central Board. This may be taken as interference in the working of the State Boards and its independence in managing its affairs.
(ii) Sikh Gurdwara Service Commission,” which is to be appointed by the Central Board shall also serve as Sikh Gurdwara Service Commission for all the States. However, the desire of each Board may be to appoint its own Sikh Gurdwara Service Commission.
(iii) State Boards and Regional Boards have been authorised to take decision regarding their merger with other State Boards or Regional Boards or to separate from their own Regional Board and form a separate State Board or merge with any other Regional Board. However, in the revised draft, this has been made subject to the “approval” of the Central Board. It is felt that it may be enough to convey such decisions to the Central Board by way of information rather than seek “approval.”
The revised draft also contains two new provisions. First that the Central Board shall appoint two representatives to each of the State Boards (see clause 47). This is likely to be resented by the State Boards.
Secondly the Central Board, in the original as well as the revised draft, have to manage directly only the five takhts and Sri Harimandar Sahib, Amritsar. In the revised draft, however, it has been provided that the Central Board may decide to add to this list any Gurdwara(s) to be managed directly by the Central Board. This again is likely to be resented by the Boards, as this is not subject to the consent of or even consultation with the Board(s) concerned.
These are some of the important points on which a general discussion and a policy decision seems to be desirable by this august body. I feel that for the discussion of these and other allied matters, it may be helpful to have a sub-committee with some members from States other than Punjab, to enable us to have an idea of the respective viewpoints of different States.
Thanking you all for your gracious attention and also the Institute for this wonderful opportunity and I beg your leave with :
Waheguru ji ka Khalsa; Waheguru ji ki Fateh.
As my Merchant-Friend ! arrives the Lord’s writ,
Man, along with consequences of his deeds, departs.
A grain’s delay Yama’s minions permit not, my Merchant-
Friend, who in their strong grip hold thee.
As arrives the writ, in bonds the living being they march —
Egoists in this state ever are miserable.
Those that the holy Preceptor, perfectly-endowed,
At the Divine Portal feel blessed.
In this age is our body the field of our actions —
Man reaps what he sows.
Saith Nanak : At the Divine Court in splendour shine
In perpetual transmigration are egoists whirled.
— Guru Granth Sahib, p. 78