SIKH INSTITUTIONS DURING THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Before casting a look at the state of Sikh institutions during the twentieth century, it is necessary to point out that in Sikhism we have some institutions which can be characterised as basic to the doctrine. Such institutions have played vital role in the development of Sikhism and preservation of the distinct identity of the Sikhs. The institution of the Guru, Dharamsal and the Langar were central to the Sikh system in the initial stages. With the physical manifestation of the Guru coming to an end after the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, the institution of Guru transformed into the twin principles of Guru Granth and Guru Panth. But the ten Gurus continued to enjoy a unique position as preceptors of the faith. With a specific maryada (code of service) coming into being, the Gurdwara took the place of Dharamsal. The institution of Langar continues to be the manifestation of the doctrine of equality as enshrined in the Sikh gospel, with the place of Pangat sometimes coming under stress, due to controversy regarding serving of Langar on tables and chairs that has refused to die down since 1935 A.D. The important role that the Sangat was assigned right from the time of Guru Nanak, made it precursor of the institution of Guru Panth or the Khalsa Panth. The institution of the Guru had also to face rough times. The emergence of dissenters such as Sri Chand, Datu, Dasu, Prithi Chand, Dhirmal, Mihirban and many an imposter after Guru Gobind Singh threw challenge to the position of the Guru which according to the Sikh doctrine got immersed into the Shabad after the Granth was proclaimed as Guru Granth by Guru Gobind Singh himself. During the 19th Century, many of the lineal descendants of the Gurus began to claim holy status among the Sikhs thus posing a fresh threat to the institutions of the Guru, langar and principle of equality. It was the powerful Singh Sabha movement that emerged in early twentieth century which faced this onslaught and defined clearly the institutions of the Guru, Guru Granth and Guru Panth. It will not be out of place to mention here that Professor Gurmukh Singh confronted Baba Khem Singh Bedi within the precincts of the holy Harimandar (Golden Temple) and did not allow him to sit on a Gaddi in the Parikrima. The case of Kartar Singh Bedi that surfaced during the Gurudwara Reform Movement also needs a passing reference. The powerful Singh Sabha renaissance brought into focus the institutions of the Guru and the Sangat and denigrated the Maryada that was replete with the Brahminical rituals. The Gurdwara Reform Movement, a natural corollary of the Singh Sabha sought to establish the Gurdwara as the central religio-social institution of the Sikh religious system and assert the supremacy of the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth. The emphasis on Akal was implied therein - hence the use of the word Akalis for the volunteers dedicated to the cause of the movement. The impact of these movements in the first quarter of the 20th century diluted the schismatic growth within the Panth. The udasi priestly class got branded as renegades. The Nirmala tradition of exegesis of Gurbani based on Vedantic principles was effectively challenged by powerful scholars like Giani Dit Singh who were themselves trained in the traditional schools of religious learning. The emergence of Bhai Vir Singh and the renascent literature produced by him contributed handsomely to the strengthening of basic doctrinal institutions of Sikh faith and restore pristine glory attached to them.
The emergence of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee as Central body for the management of Gurdwaras or worship places of the Sikhs marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Sikh institutions. The Sikh leaders at the helm deliberated among themselves for its establishment for quite sometime. Through this organisation, they sought to revive the traditional Sikh value system, which had since become extinct. That is why emphasis was laid on democratic principles, distinct position of Harimandar Sahib (Golden Temple), the institutional importance of the Akal Takhat and three other Takhats and code of conduct (Rehat Maryada) especially for the members of the S.G.P.C. The birth of the S.G.P.C. was looked upon as re-incarnation of some of the institutions and practices like the Gurumata, evolved during the crucial eighteenth century period of Sikh history. Initially this institution was served by men of faith and dedication like Baba Kharak Singh and Master Tara Singh. During that period, the income of the Gurdwaras was meagre, the buildings were in a dilapidated state and the maintenance was poor. Still they managed affairs with missionary zeal having skeleton staff and austere administrative machinery at their disposal. They found that the missionary organisation had come to a grinding halt but the enthusiasm generated by the Singh Sabha and Gurdwara Reform movements could be channelised to revive the missionary activity. For this purpose a Sikh missionary college was started to train, Ragis, Dhadis, Parcharaks, Granthis, Kathakars etc. It also constituted a move to push the missionary education out of the purview of traditional deras (seminaries) of Udasis -Nirmalas or other such type holy orders. In the early stages this missionary college served well and some eminent scholars; orators and exponents of Sikhism came out of its portals. But before long emphasis on democratic element in the S.G.P.C. administration began to dilute the religious zeal and commitment to the ideal of service to the Panth. The division between the so-called moderators and the hard-liners that surfaced at the time of the passage of the Sikh Gurdwara Act in 1925 soon tended to influence the political formations. The group and political affiliations got precedence over commitment to the cause of the Panth and this state led to a journey downhill for the Gurdwara administration. Consequently, the S.G.P.C. began to be looked upon as a vestige of Sikh political tidings. Thereafter the famous Nagoke-Giani feud with Master Tara Singh engaged in a tight-rope walk in between; began to take its toll. These group rivalries with causes embedded elsewhere in the political parties got accentuated after C.E. 1947. Service to the panth Sikh value system got a back seat. Twice the Panthic stalwarts with impeccable credentials were humbled by pygmies or political novices. The S.G.P.C. began to be looked upon by the political stalwarts as repository of the power of patronage. Consequently, the administrative structure has expanded to an extent where the element of service to religion has come to a nought. The S.G.P.C. hierarchy can no longer be said to be immune to the prevalent corruption elsewhere. This is not to present a dismal picture of the situation but to examine critically the fate of an institutional experiment made by the Sikhs for management of holy places of their faith wherein service to humanity remains central to the doctrine. Shall it face the fate of Masand system ? A question that has to be answered before it is too late.
It is interesting that the democratic structure of the S.G.P.C. and its working was never looked upon to be operating within the realm of piety. This conditioning gave birth to what has now come to be known as Kar Sewa tradition. Initially, the local Gurdwara Committees undertook the task of repairing or raising new buildings of the Gurdwaras themselves. But soon they found themselves vulnerable and divested of the confidence of the Sangat. In the process some professedly holy Sants came forward to undertake the task. The politically oriented bosses of the S.G.P.C. gave in. Despite this, it has to be conceded that in the early stage the Kar Sewa remained in the hands of people like Sant Gurmukh Singh who were truly dedicated persons. But gradually this tradition has also degenerated and has led to mush-room growth of regional deras which are posing a challenge to the very spiritual ideals of Sikhism obliterating the reforms introduced by the Singh Sabha in early part of 20th century. Their preaching and observances in the deras are not farther from the practices of those very mahants who made place for this elected institution. It is high-time we closely scrutinise the failings and successes of the SGPC to stem the rot that has set in.
Another institution that warrants serious attention at the moment is the Sikh Educational Conference. This was organised by visionaries like Tarlochan Singh Barristor, Bhai Jodh Singh and Babu Gulab Singh (Gujranwala) under the aegis of Chief Khalsa Diwan. ( The conference set before itself the aim of spread of education among the Sikhs. The first conference was held at Gujranwala in 1908. It was a regular feature wherein the Sikhs of all hues participated. This created awareness among the Sikhs about spread of education and consequently a large number of Khalsa schools were established in Punjab and elsewhere within a short span of forty years. After 1947, many of these schools/ colleges were resurrected. Many more schools and colleges were established on the eve of Quincentenary Celebrations of Guru Nanak’s Birth. But the role of Sikh Educational Conference remained marginal. The present state of Sikh Education is dismal. The Sikh character of managements and the over-all Sikh complexion of the institutions has been diluted. Repeated attempts to organise some Co-ordination Platform have not yielded results. The decline of this conference has left the Sikh institutions directionless. A fresh look re-activation and re-organisation of this conference in accordance with the needs of the time is urgently called for.
The rise and decline of the Akal Takht during the 20th century is perhaps the most-painful story to tell. The Akal Takhat was raised by Guru Hargobind to emphasise the fact that Akal -the Almighty Lord remained the supreme sovereign as also the importance of religio-social conduct of the adherents of the faith. After Guru Gobind Singh when Guru Granth and Guru Panth were vested with the Sikh authority in unison, Akal Takhat came to be looked upon as central diet of the Sikhs. During the eighteenth century, the authority was wielded by the Sikhs in congregation and a leading figure was named as Jathedar for the occasion. As soon as the Sikh Misls carne into power, their leaders began to ignore the dictates of the Akal Takhat so much so that they could not agree to fight jointly against Zaman Shah in the late eighteenth century. Maharaja Ranjit Singh allowed Gurumata to get into disuse. But the stalwart, Akali Phoola Singh kept the prestige of the Akal Takhat into focus. In fact he along with Baba Sahib Singh Bedi and Hari Singh continued to represent dissent in the Lahore Darbar. Akali Phoola Singh summoned Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the Akal Takhat and did not hesitate to pronounce Tankha. In the early twentieth century, Akal Takht had Pujaris as custodians (and no Jathedar) who were often called upon by the British officers to clarify the Sikh Rehat such as the usage of Kara, Kachehra and size of the Kirpan carried on person by the Sikhs or rolling up of the beard etc. etc. This kept the importance of Akal Takht into focus. When the S.G.P.C. was formed, under the Sikh Gurdwara Act, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht was designated as Head Minister along with the Head Granthi of Darbar Sahib and Jathedars of other three Takhts. To my mind this was the beginning of the existence a duly recognised priestly class among the Sikhs. A feeling became current among the Sikhs that these head ministers’ should enjoy some status like the Church fathers in Christianity. Some eminent persons like Sant Teja Singh did act as Jathedars of Akal Takhat but that was before the Gurdwara Act was passed. The Gurdwara Act made them (Head Ministers} the employees of the S.G.P.C. But with the lapse of time the S.G.P.C. bosses, after giving them some privilege began to invoke their authority in the name of the panth to resolve political problems to their liking. ( We have instances where the Akal Takhts authority was misused both before and after the Gurdwara Act was passed. In fact the coming into being of priestly hierarchy in Sikhism has diluted the moral authority of the Jathedar. It needs to be examined how far it is possible to uphold the authority of the Akal Takhat in modern times in the changed socio-religious milieu.
The state of Sikh institutions as describe above brings us to the point where the wise of the community have to seriously think of defining the parameters for governance of our ecclesiastical and secular affairs.