Institutional Failures in Punjab
Dr Gurmit Singh*
Before we discuss the subject it is necessary to understand its meaning and scope. By the word ‘Institution’ here in this discussion we mean an association or organisation which is working for the promotion of a public cause relating to the welfare of a group or section of people.
By the word ‘failure’ we mean, to neglect or leave unperformed or to fall short of in attainment.
The word ‘Punjab’ and ‘Sikhs’ are interchangeable because about 99% of the Sikhs wherever they may be living today, had their ancestry from Punjab. Even the Constituent Assembly of India on 27th August 1947 while postponing the question of minority rights had substituted the word ‘East Punjab’ for the word Sikhs in the title of the resolution with respect to safeguards for the Sikhs.
Therefore, while discussing the subject, I have confined my discussion to failure of the Sikh Institutions in Punjab. After 1984 there has been a lot of intellectual activity amongst the Sikhs and a large number of organisations have cropped up but I have confined my discussion to the role of only a few premier institutions and pointed out their failure in the recent past only.
The organisations I have discussed are :-
1. World Sikh Council :- An organisation which claims to represent the Sikhs all over the world.
2. Punjab Government :- A government which can claim to be Sikh government because Punjab is the only territorial unit situated on an International border where Sikhs are in majority.
3. SGPC :- A Parliament of the Sikhs selected by democratic process by majority of the Sikhs in Punjab. It enjoys statutory recognition.
4. Shiromani Akal Dal :- The only political party of the Sikhs with a panthic programme.
I have discussed the subject briefly because the failures of these institutions are so large that volumes can be written about each of them.
World Sikh Council
The biggest institutional failure of Sikhs in Punjab in the recent days has been on the part of the Sikh Organisations like ‘World Sikh Council’ to join the International mainstream in condemning international terrorism and to take active steps in support of International Alliance against terrorism. During days of militancy in Punjab certain anti-Sikh forces had maligned the Sikhs all over the world by depicting them as terrorists and the present crusade against terrorism offers a golden opportunity to the Sikhs to wash that dirty malicious image and tell the world that Sikhs are humanists ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of welfare of the humanity.
The fact that crusade against terrorism has been initiated from Afghanistan, gives us a God sent opportunity to play an active role in the conflict with a legal and historical justification for so doing. There is “Tripartite Treaty of 1838”, between Shah Shooja-ool-Moolk of Afghanistan, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the British Government which still subsists because British had revoked their obligations only under the bilateral treaties with princes and not their obligations under the International Treaties with Sovereign States like Afghanistan and Punjab which were then Sovereign independent countries and not princely states. Constitution of India recognised ‘Punjab’ as representative for the Sikh people when the Constituent Assembly of India in 1947 while discussing special safeguards for the Sikhs in the Constitution of India substituted the word ‘Punjab’ for the word ‘Sikhs’.
Article 14th of the aforesaid Treaty provides that, “the friends and enemies of the three high powers i.e. the British and Sikh Government and Shah Shooja-ool-Moolk, shall be the friends and enemies of all.” Since British Government has joined actively the war against Taliban, the Sikhs as a people are under a sacred obligation to join the crusade against terrorism. World Sikh Council should motivate Sikh ex-servicemen who served under British to recruit themselves as soldiers of the International Alliance to fight against terrorist Talibans. This will provide a locus standi to Sikhs as a people to claim representation in a body to negotiate final settlement of Afghan problem. Article 18th of the aforesaid Tripartite Treaty provides that the Ruler of Afghanisthan, his heirs and successors bind themselves to refrain from entering negotiations with any Foreign State, without the knowledge and consent of the British and Sikh Governments. Since ex-ruler of Afghanisthan Zahir Shah is being asked to come back to form a future government in Afghanisthan, any negotiations at the International level must involve the Sikh people. It is noteworthy that in the treaty the word Sikh Governments have been repeatedly used.
The concluding para of the aforesaid Treaty declares that the Treaty shall be considered binding for ever which implies that it is still valid. British as a friendly party to the treaty should invoke its provisions to involve the Sikhs as a people.
Punjab Government has failed to protect the rights of Punjabi farmers by its failure to internationalise the SYL Canal issue under the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty 1960, which covers the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi rivers. Under the treaty any question that arises between the parties concerning the breach of that Treaty has to be referred to the Permanent Indus Commission constituted under the articles of that treaty. Under Entry 17 of the State list in the Constitution of India, canals and water supplies is a State Subject. Since Sutlej falls in ‘Indus Basin’, its waters cannot be diverted to Ganga basin by linking it through SYL Canal. Treaty governs the construction of artificial drainage and in any negotiations or decision of dispute, involvement of Indus Commission is necessary.
The biggest failure on the part of the SGPC has been its omission to assume the role of Parliament of the Sikhs. On 12th April 1959, an official Communique was issued by the Prime Minister Secretariate containing the terms of the Nehru-Tara Singh Pact, clause 3 of which reads :
“Any amendments in the Gurdwaras Act should only be undertaken after obtaining the approval of the General Committee of the SGPC. A convention may be established that such approval may be by two third majority of the SGPC.”
Government of India has repeatedly violated the above clause of this Pact and today a stage has been reached that a Secretary of the Government can amend the Gurdwara Act, a central legislation, by issuing a Gazette Notification. Section 72 Sub-Section (1) of the Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966 read with Sub-Section (3) thereof, SGPC was hence onward to function and operate subject to such directions as may from time to time be issued by the Central Government. This amounted to direct control of Gurdwaras by the government but no voice was raised by the SGPC against this provision. This encouraged the Government at New Delhi to issue Notification no S.O. 600 (E) dated 30th August 1996 (F.No. 11033/1/95-IS(D-1), to manipulate and interfere in the elections to the SGPC. Through aforesaid notification signed by Mr. Shiv Basent Jt. Secretary Ministry of Home Affairs New Delhi, by amending Section 43, number of constituencies, was increased from 140 to 170 and by amending Section 44, thirty constituencies were converted into plural constituencies, each of two members of whom one shall be a woman. Vide notification no. S.O. 601(E) dated 30th August, 1996[F. No. 11033/1/95.I.S. (D.I)], five seats out of thirty seats reserved for women were reserved for Schedule Caste Women. This has set a sad precedent enabling Government of India to amend a legislation through sheer Gazette Notification against which SGPC must react and through a resolution of the general house declare that any amendment in the Gurdwara Act made without its prior approval will not be acceptable to the Sikhs so that it becomes an electoral issue for the coming Gurdwara elections.
Akali Dal (All Factions)
Akali Dal which claims to be the sole political wing of Sikh people failed to safeguard the Sikh interests not only at the time of transfer of power in 1947 but also thereafter. On 27th August 1947, the Constituent Assembly of India had passed a resolution that the question of minority rights in Eastern Punjab will be considered separately but subsequently minorities subcommittee recommended that no special safeguards will be provided to the Sikhs. Akal Dal should have made it a public issue and mobilised Sikh masses to muster their support for rejection of the Constitution by the Sikhs as a people. Sikh representative Sardar Hukam Singh and Bhupinder Singh Mann had refused to append their signatures to the Constitution of India and Sardar Hukam Singh on 21st November, 1949 declared in the Constituent Assembly :
“Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this Constitution. I wish to record an emphatic protest here. My community cannot subscribe its assent to this historic document.”
This failure was repeated in 1989 when Simranjeet Singh Mann group and its allies won 10 out of 13 seats of Parliament from Punjab with maximum number of voters. Parliament in 1989 had approved the Hindi version of the Constitution of India. Sikh M.P.’s could have reiterated their rejection of the Constitution and it would have strengthened the Sikh case but no heed was paid to this suggestion.
Another institutional failure on the part of Akali Dal has been its failure to moblise public support on the constitutional issues. Draft Declaration of Sir Stafford Cripps dated 30th March 1942 had stated that His Majesty’s Government undertake to accept and implement forthwith the Constitution that will be framed subject to the right of any province of British India that is not prepared to accept the new Constitution, to retain its present Constitutional position, provision being made for its subsequent accession if it so decides. With such non-acceding Provinces, should they so desire, His Majesty’s Government will be prepared to agree upon a new constitution, giving them the same full status as Indian Union, arrived at by a procedure analogus to that here laid down.
Sikhs having rejected the Constitution, Akali Dal should have sought legal advice from experts on international law w.r.t. constitutional status of the Sikhs in India. Field Marshall Viscount Wavell, Viceroy and Governor General of India upto 23rd March 1947, had on 6th March 1947 written to Sir E. Jenkins, Governor of Punjab upto 15th August 1947, that Punjab will be divided into two provinces, one predominantly Muslim and one predominantly Non-Muslim. The later province would not have the option of opting out of Group 'B' (India) until the end of ten years i.e. it could not join group 'A' immediately.
Akali Dal should wake upto its Constitutional responsibilities and immediately form a panel of lawyers to improve the constitutional position of Sikhs as a people.
The greatest failure, however, has been on the part of the Sikh people who have failed to throw up a leadership which can stand the test of time. Reason for this is the ‘Sikh Psyche’. Sikhs are proud and jealous people who recognise superiority of none other than God. Any knowledgeable person is discarded by them as an egoist and agent of the Government.
Another important factor has been the economic factor. Majority of the Sikhs, nay almost all the Sikhs except a few, come from middle class. In a democratic system like India, either an indigent person or a multi millionaire can hope to be elected to a public office. Most of the educated Sikhs who came from middle class families kept themselves aloof from active politics and the leadership that propped up lacked expertise and acumen to understand the developing situations. However, the situation is changing rapidly today. Events in Afghanisthan and Kashmir during the past two decades have conferred a new strategic importance to the State of Punjab and aroused the interest for the International Community in Sikh history and people. It is for the Sikh institutions to promote intellectual activity and encourage ‘think tanks’ and involve them in Sikh affairs. We can hope that soon we will be able to bury our past failures and look forward to a successful bright future.