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Keynote Address

Gurdarshan Singh

Chairman Dr. G. S. Kalkat, Sardar Gurdev Singh, President IOSS, Bhai Ashok Singh, Secretary IOSS, Members of the IOSS, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am extremely grateful to the members of the IOSS for giving me the opportunity to deliver the key note address at the annual Seminar of the Institute. I am quite conscious of my limitations and I hardly deserve the honour which has been bestowed upon me. Perhaps this kind gesture has been shown to me due to my association with the Institute from its very inception. It makes me very nostalgic to think of two eminent scholars the late Sardar Daljeet Singh and the late Sardar Jagjit Singh under whose initiative and guidance the Institute took shape. It is heartening to note that, over the years, this august forum has done a commendable work in promoting the cause of Sikh Studies and has come to acquire a prestigious place in the academic circles in India and abroad.

The topic ‘Institutional Failure in Punjab with respect to Sikhism’ chosen for this Seminar is very timely and challenging. There is a wide spectrum of views on the subject and it would not be possible for any one person to take up this multi-dimensional topic in a single paper. However, the most important aspect of this problem relates to the failure of socio-religious leadership of the Sikhs in Pre and Post Partition period. It is mainly due to the incompetent leadership that the time honoured Sikh institutions have failed to play the desired role and confront the dangers from within and without, which are eating into the vitals of Sikhism like cancer. Socio-political turmoil witnessed in Punjab in the recent years points towards the need for a serious introspection to make amends for our failure. We just cannot afford to sit down in impotent rage and utter idle lamentations. We should venture to search for new directions and new dimensions so that we can address the pragmatic socio-political concerns and deploy what we learn, to solve the problems. Escape from the present is neither possible nor desirable.

Institutions have been the life blood of the Sikh community. Sikh religion owes its distinctive character to these institutions which have nourished and sustained the Sikhs through the centuries. Guru Nanak took great care that his creed should be well-defined and should not be confused with the beliefs and practices of other religions. He established Dharamsals (an old nomenclature for Gurdwaras) as the centres of a new society, which not only came to serve as repositories of Sikh faith but also played a significant role in maintaining the corporate life of the community and reinforcing the notion of religious collectivism. The Gurdwaras welded the Sikhs into an independent community bound together by faith in the teachings of their Gurus. Apart from spreading the gospel of the Gurus, they served as rallying centres of Sikhs, where problems concerning the welfare of the community were discussed. The establishment of the Gurdwaras was a practical step for carrying the society forward towards collective enlightenment. At these centres, the Gurus saw the fulfilment of their mission of universal love, peace, tolerance, brotherhood, the spiritual and moral regeneration of man.

The Sikh congregation which began to be known as the Sangat, met daily around the Guru, mostly for socio-religious purposes. The virtues of this participation were obligatory features of the Sikh discipline. The twin institutions of Sangat and Pangat became living examples of the ideals of unity and human equality preached by the Gurus. Through the practice of Langar, the Gurus led the path of universal brotherhood and love. In Sikhism, from the earliest days, the corporate obligation was maintenance of Langar, the responsibility for which rested on the entire Sikh community. Guru Arjan compiled the Granth Sahib and built the Harmandar, which became the focal point of Sikh faith. The Gurdwaras have always been the guardians of the Sikh way of life and the extent to which they have been free, has always had a decisive bearing on the socio-political status of the community. It was on the basis of the strength of their institutions that the Sikhs became a force to be reckoned with and came to occupy a status of ‘a state within a state’. Here it should be noted that the development of the Sikh ideal of brotherhood is intimately bound up with the history of the gradual consolidation of the Sikh Panth.

The raising of the Akal Takhat next to Harmandar Sahib by the sixth Guru was a unique idea of the spiritual and empirical unity handed down to the Sikhs by the Guru. It was from the Akal Takhat that the Sikhs conducted their long drawn political struggles against the foreign invaders. The tenth Master Guru Gobind Singh performed the epitomic act of creating the Khalsa and prescribing the role of Sant-Sipahi for his followers. The Guru laid the foundation of a grand collectivity called the Panth, which was invested with the collective leadership of the community and was to guide itself in the light of Word (Shabad) incorporated in the Guru Granth. The greatest respect began to be shown to the incorporated Word. The Guru’s injunction that “there shall be one Guru, one Word and only one interpretation,” (Guru Amar Das in Var Sorath) became the guiding principle for the entire Panth. The Sikhs were gradually becoming familiar with a kind of self government of their own at the centre of which was the Guru with his un-challenged authority, his magnificient Darbar and his control over the entire organisation of the Sangats was to them a symbol of unity and of something mystical beyond all ordinary considerations. Imbued with the ideals of discipline, dedication and self-sacrifice and institutions that gave practical shape to these ideals, the Sikh Panth began to be looked upon as a potential threat to the rulers.

The Sikh institutions flourished as long as the Sikhs followed the Guru’s injunctions. One could also come across the examples of Sikhs who represented the best in Sikhism. The Gurus had themselves set all doubts, dissensions and differences at rest by setting aside all those elements which were likely to create schisms, cults and sects. Accordingly the Udasis, the Minas, the Dhirmalias, the Ram Raias, etc. were not allowed to associate in any way with the main stream of Sikhism. It is note-worthy that the fifth Guru Arjan put the seal of his sanction on the Masand system but when the Masands started deviating from the path shown by the Guru, the tenth Master put an end to the institution of the Masands, in unequivocal terms before the creation of the Khalsa.

The growth of their institutions made the Sikhs tough and unbending under the stress and strain of the greatest suffering. The collective will of the community expressed through the Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmatta provided cohesion and unity to them. As the Sikh Panth consolidated its strength, it became more fit to play its destined role to fight the forces of tyranny and oppression and to stem the tide of invasions on the borders of the country. The Sikhs were infused with a corporate spirit and a sense of social obligation, not only towards their co-religionists but towards all those who were the victims of socio-political tyranny.

In the eighteenth century, when the Sikhs were passing through a turbulent phase and prices were fixed on their heads, they had great difficulty in preserving their institutions. The institutions of Sarbat Khalsa, the Gurmatta kept the torch of their faith burning and preserved unity and integrity in their ranks. But unfortunately when the Sikhs were literally in exile the Gurdwaras came under the control of Mahants and Udasis who were corrupt and indulged in practices that were contrary to the spirit of Sikhism. Whenever the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikhs was desecrated, there were heroes like Bhai Mehtab Singh and Baba Deep Singh, who came forward to fight the forces of vandalism and uphold the tradition of sacrifice and martyrdom.

When the Sikhs returned from exile, they organised themsleves into Misals. Again the institution of Sarbat Khalsa and Gurmatta infused a spirit of unity and cohesion in their ranks and enabled them to devote their energies for the well being of the Khalsa Panth. On the Diwali day of October 27, 1761, the Sikhs assembled at Amritsar and passed a Gurmatta to liberate Punjab from the foreign invaders and seize all their strong holds. People looked with eager eyes to the rise of a messiah, who would finally deliver them from socio-political persecution of the contemporary rulers.

The emergence of Ranjit Singh on the scene was not a freak of history rather it was a unique historical phenomenon. He was a characteristic product of the Sikh tradition, who referred to his government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa, which derived its legitimacy from Khalsa Commonwealth. Catholicity of the Sikh tradition left its visible impact on the outlook and policy of Ranjit Singh. He gave to Punjab four decades of peace, progress and prosperity, the benefits of which were equally shared by all communities.

The period following the annexation of Punjab was a time of intense trauma and turmoil for the Sikhs when their institutions were in doldrums. The British knew very well that the Sikhs derived their entire strength and vigour from their institutions. Therefore they made sure that the Sikh religious places were kept in hands that were hostile to the thesis of the Gurus and sought to divert them to the ritualistic maze of the Hinduism. D. Petrie, an Assistant Director, Criminal Intelligence, Government of India, in a confidential report on the ‘Development of Sikh Politics (1900-1911)’ wrote :

“The British adopted a very strict and rigid policy detrimental to the growth of Sikhism. After annexation, the Golden Temple Amritsar, along with 6 other Gurdwaras and the Gurdwara at Tarn Taran were practically controlled by the British authorities through a Manager of these Gurdwaras appointed by the British Government. The Waqf Act of 1861 gave the control and Management of the holy places of the Hindus and Muslims to the communities concerned but in the case of the Sikh Gurdwaras, the Act was not applied on political grounds. The properties of Sikh places of worship were transferred and given over to the Udasi Mahants and others, throughout the Punjab”.

The colonial rule had been extra vigilant about the control of the Sikh shrines, as is clear from the letter written by Lt. Governor R.E. Egerton to Lord Ripon, the Viceroy, on August 8, 1881, “I think it will be politically dangerous to allow the management of Sikh temples to fall into the hands of a Committee, emancipated from government control, and trust Your Excellency will resist to pass such orders in the case, as will enable to continue the system, which has worked successfully for more than thirty years.” (British Museum, Additional Manuscript No. 43592, Folio 300-301).

It was left to the Singh Sabha leadership to usher in a new era of socio-religious awakening among the Sikhs. The leadership helped the Sikhs to regain their strength and cohesion. They invoked the authority of the Sikh Gurus, the Sikh scripture and the Sikh tradition in support of everything they said and preached. The chief pillars of the movement like Giani Ditt Singh, Bhai Gurmukh Singh, Bhai Mayya Singh, Bhai Jawahar Singh and Bhagat Lakshman Singh were quite ordinary persons of hardly any consequence in the socio-economic or the political life of the community. There was nothing to recommend them except their devotion to the cause of the great tradition which the mass of the people understood very well. They rendered a yeoman’s service to the community by raising institutions like Singh Sabhas, Khalsa Diwans, Sikh Educational Conferences, Chief Khalsa Diwan, Khalsa College, Amritsar and scores of Sikh educational centres. The passing of the Anand Marriage Act (1909), legalising the Sikh form of marriage was another significant achievement of the Singh Sabha. All these were important steps towards the re-assertion of an independent socio-religious identity of the Sikhs.

Soon after the formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1920, the Akalis pleaded that the Sikh shrines and religious establishments be handed over to the elected body of the Sikh community. They could no longer afford to permit their religious institutions to become places of corruption and also to be used to destroy the very roots and the sap that in history had given them unbelievable strength and vigour. A strong but peaceful campaign for Gurdwara reform and control led by the Akali Dal was successful in forcing a reluctant colonical government to pass the Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Bill (1925). This also led to the formation of the SGPC to take over the management of Sikh religious places. It was the first legally constituted public body in colonial India for which the principle of universal suffrage was recognised. It was a committee elected by all adult Sikhs including women.

Under the control of the SGPC, the Sikh shrines, particularly the Darbar Sahib, continued to be the fount of Sikh power and inspiration. It was from the precincts of the Darbar Sahib that the Akali Dal waged a struggle for the liberation of the country. In this context the observations of Sardul Singh Kaveeshar, who partook in the Sikh struggle at this time are worth recording. He wrote : “A Sikh wants to fight his country’s battles from the vantage ground of his religion. Being of a religious trend of mind, he finds everything subordinate to his Dharma; politics is nothing for him but a promising child of religion. A Sikh has not yet developed that fine sense of doubtful value that divides life into water-tight compartments and makes of religion in the West something different from one’s social and political life. For the Sikh, politics and religion are one. He wants the freedom of his religion, he wants the freedom of his country, but he knows that he cannot have one without the other. If religion is safe, he is sure to get back, sooner or later the freedom of the country. In fact he regards religion as the strong post, from which one should start to get back the lost liberty, as in his opinion the religious spirit alone can keep the freedom of a country safe when once that has been won”.

It was obvious that the struggle for the country’s freedom was fought by the Sikhs on the basis and strength of their religious identity and institutions. Removal of government control over the Gurdwaras led to the emergence of the SGPC as the foremost institution of the community. Those who came at the helm of affairs of the SGPC began to be acknowledged as the leaders of the Sikh community. But a retrospective look reveals that the SGPC has not been able to provide a good recruiting ground for the political leadership of the Sikhs. The educated elite section of the community has not been successful in gaining representation in the SGPC. While the Hindus and the Muslims had the benefit of guidance of enlightened leadership from all over India, the Sikh leaders displayed a complete lack of political vision and foresight. Inspite of their parallel standing as the third political entity at the time of the country’s Independence, the Sikhs could not get a fair deal and relinquished their bargaining power as there was no leader among them of the stature of Gandhi and Jinnah, who could articulate the Sikh case and promote the political interests of the community. Here, it is noteworthy that in Punjab most Sikh movements have been mass upsurges unlike those in the rest of India, where those have generally been either among the literate classes or in the urban areas.

In free India the basic issue faced by the Sikhs has been that of preserving their distinctive socio-religious and political identity. The community feels that in the current socio-political milieu, Sikh traditions, institutions, culture, language and identity are seriously threatened. Here it is pertinent to point out that the organised modern state is much more powerful, coercive and pervasive than that of the medieval times. After the Second World War, with the withdrawal of the colonial rule, many nation states emerged on the world scene. Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in these newly created nation states are feeling more insecure and threatened than they were ever before. In the so-called secular democracies, the states imbibe the religious symbols of the majority communities. The Indian Constitution also accepts the Western Secularist-cum-Democratic model. This system in its day-to-day working sharpens the conflict between the majoritarianism and the suffering minorities. This is highly hegemonic and detrimental to the interests of the minorities. It accepts the subordination of religio-ethnic minority to the socio-cultural majority nationalism and of the citizen to the state. The dictum of the modern state mechanism and set-up is that ‘the religion salutes the flag’. For a whole life system like that of Sikhism, the calibre, vision and committment of the religio-political leadership matters more than anything to keep the community cohesive and vibrant and the institutional frame work intact. Majority community can cope with a pride of sovereignty even if its leadership is not upto the mark but minority community just cannot afford these kind of laxities.

Indian polity has failed to establish its credentials as a dispenser of justice and fair play in Punjab. The arbitrary, discriminatory and even vindictive policies which the Congress in the post-Independence period pursued in Punjab under the guise of secularism have driven the state and the Sikh community from one disaster to another. The role of the Akali Dal leadership has also been equally blameworthy. The party which had won universal acclaim during the Gurdwara Reform Movement has failed to salvage the socio-political identity of the Sikhs. Lacking in committment and sincerity of purpose, the Akali leaders have reduced their politics to a sordid game of self-interest, political expediency, internal strife, mindless opportunism and corruption. Sikh institutions have been rendered subservient, impotent and alienated. They have been deprived of their democratic character. Ridden by nepotism, corruption and factional loyalties, these institutions have suffered an unprecedented decline in the recent years. It is a matter of regret that even the horrendous attack on the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikhs and the massive anti-Sikh violence in Delhi and other places in 1984 failed to shake the Sikh leaders out of their insensitivity. Even as the traumatic events filled the 20 million Sikhs all over the world with anger and anguish, the leadership failed the Sikhs. Unmindful of the grievous hurt caused to the Sikh sentiments Harchand Singh Longowal signed the Rajiv-Longowal Accord (1985) which made no mention of the Operation Blue Star attack. Accord was also detrimental to the interests of the state. It was virtually a deed of surrender. The puppet Akali government under Surjit Singh Barnala, that came into power in 1985 helped the centre to find a way out of potentially disastrous political impasse. Barnala under the direction from New Delhi, planned and ordered a police assault, code named ‘Operation Search’ on the Darbar Sahib Complex. The game plan of the Centre was to provide legitimacy to the Operation Blue Star attack through the Sikh Chief Minister. After the Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy General Dyer too had tried to impart legitimacy to his act through the pro-British Mahants and Pujaris of the Darbar Sahib, who had presented a Saropa to him, when he paid a visit to the shrine soon after the massacre.

Centre continues to rule Punjab by proxy. The Akali-BJP alliance in the state has been used by the B.J.P. to impose its hegemonistic agenda on Punjab and to dilute or destroy all strongholds of Sikhism. R.S.S. has made inroads into the premier Sikh institutions in order to subvert Sikh culture and identity. Efforts have also been made to distort the Sikh scripture by focussing on the Dasam Granth, whose authenticity and integrity have not been established. All kinds of Sadhus, Sants and Mahants have been mobilised by the Hindutva forces, and sent to every nook and corner of rural areas to wean the Sikhs away from the teachings of the Gurus. A feeling has been growing among the Sikhs that the Akali Dal led by Parkash Singh Badal, is being manipulated by the BJP to subvert Sikh ideology. It is unfortunate that incidents of burning of Sikh scriptures are taking place under the Badal government. Badal has been accused of playing second fiddle to the B.J.P. He has given a severe jolt to the Akali Dal which is supposed to represent the aspirations of the Sikh community ever since its inception in 1920. Under Badal’s hegemonistic leadership, the Akali Dal has become a decadent and undemocratic organisation. By wresting control of the SGPC and the Akal Takhat, Badal who is the Chief Minister and the party supremo, has arrogated all the authority to himself. Autocratic and unscrupulous, he is pursuing policies and strategies to promote his own kith and kin. This is a very disturbing phenomenon which requires serious introspection by the Sikh community.

Conclusion : The Sikhs are passing through challenging times. They need to reorient and rejuvenate their institutions in the light of their ideals and past traditions. These institutions should bear the stamp of all that is the best, progresssive and dynamic in Sikhism. They should grow, develop and cope with the need of the times but without compromising on the basic principles on which they were established. The task can be accomplished by a new and well-equipped leadership who would blaze new paths of thought and action.
Decadent leadership which has caused enough damage to the ideals and institutions of the Sikhs for the last so many decades must be replaced by a vibrant, visionary, honest and committed leadership. It is noteworthy that in the post-Independence period the other parties in the country have witnessed so many changes in the socio-political leadersip whereas the Sikhs, inspite of being dynamic and enterprising, have not shown any potential to discard the incompetent and corrupt leadership with dismal performance. Hegemonistic leadership of one man has to be substituted by an apex body, which should exercise the corporate will and authority of the entire Sikh community and also give unity and coherence to their decisions. Members of this apex body should be men of impeccable credentials, enlightened and wide awake. They should be men of stature and above the lure of self-aggrandisement. All contentious issues relating to the Sikh Maryada, Langar, Calendar, identity, role of the Akal Takhat and the SGPC, etc. should be referred to this body. Its decisions should be final and binding.




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