Sikh society at crossroads, much to do, lot to undo!
Wikipedia describes 'intelligentsia' as: a status- class of educated people engaged in the complex mental labors that critique, guide, and lead in shaping the culture and politics of their society. (Intelligentsia are people in society, who concern themselves with ideas and new developments, as in art or politics, and who, especially in writing, suggest new plans; (source- Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.)
Historically, the political role of the intelligentsia (the production of culture and ideology) varies between being either a progressive influence or a regressive influence upon the development of their societies. As a status- class, intelligentsia includes artists, teachers, academics, writers and journalists. The intelligentsia status-class arose in the late 18th century, in Russian-controlled Poland, during 1772–95.
Among the intelligentsia are 'intellectuals'. It was Bronislaw Trentowski, a Polish intellectual, who coined this term in the 19th century, describing ones who could be the cultural leaders of Poland, then under the authoritarian régime of Russian Tsarist autocracy from the late 18th-century to the early 20th century. (The intellectuals work and live by using mind, and who are interested in activities using their mind, and who are interested in activities which include thinking and understanding rather than feeling and doing; source- Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.)
Searching for this much information was necessitated by the choice of the topic of the two-day seminar (December 1-2, 2018) the Institute of Sikh Studies had thought of. Understanding the term 'intelligentsia' became all the more imperative, since the deliberations were to be on and about the 'Sikh intelligentsia', its role in the 'present day crisis-ridden Sikh society' (religio-political/socio-economic); its contribution (or otherwise) to resolution of the multidimensional crises; and its place in the ever evolving Sikh society. In this respect, the initiative of the Institute of Sikh Studies to delineate on this subject offered a lot of cud to chew.
The word Sikh means seeker of truth/student/learner. A precise definition of Sikh, however, remains elusive, despite the SGPC: Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee- published Rehat Maryada (Sikh-way of life: code of conduct). And, for the Akalis, any Sikh not part of their political outfit - SAD: Shiromani Akal Dal- is not a 'Sikh'!
Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest organized religion-23 million (some estimates put the figure at 25 million) followers/faithful. The other four are: Christianity- 2.1 billion, Islam- 1.3 billion, Hinduism- 900 million, Buddhism- 376 million (Source: Wikipedia).
Sikhism stands for the equality of women and men and denounces any discrimination pertaining to gender, race, caste, creed, religion, or color. Does it hold true today? Just look at Punjab's rural society's isms and schism, the caste and class conflicts, existence of separate community inns and religious places, socio-economic disparities and inequalities; and the way people flock to Deras, Babas, Mahants, Sants and self-appointment god-men! These 'institutions', if one may use the word, thrive only because of political or government patronage in every regime! This political 'obeisance' is a vote-bank compulsion, an electoral greed.
And, today the word - 'Sikh' - has become synonymous with the word -'Punjab'. This connotation is problematic in several ways. What is denied to Punjab is perceived to be denied to the Sikhs, and vice-versa. Can we ignore the role of the 'Punjabi' intelligentsia in crisis-ridden 'Punjab' society, which, nevertheless, has predominance (almost) of the Sikhs? And, the visible political party, SAD, in its several manifestations across time, claims to 'represent' all Sikhs - the 'Panth' - and hold sway over religion and politics. Yet, as a political strategy, it broadened its constituency- base when it coined the phrase: 'Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiat' in its Moga convention.
Reverting to the seminar theme, it can be said without hesitation, and inhibition, that if the Sikh society is 'crisis-ridden', let us first look inwards, and introspect. A major part of the blame for the crises must be apportioned to our self, and SAD. It is easy to blame someone else for Sikhs' internal religio-political/socio-economic strife, and multiple fault-lines, fissures, frictions, factions and fractions that crisis-cross the Punjabi/Sikh society.
Before proceeding, a word about when, why and how did the 'crises' erupt in the Sikh society? Are these a byproduct of the Sikh demands/grievance that SAD has been hawking for decades? The inherent/inbuilt intricacies of demands/grievances and crises must be understood in proper perspective. And, where do we draw the starting-line for these 'crises'- some identifiable, some imagined?
One need not go into the detailed dated-history. Some attribute the crisis to a time (post-1947) when Congress did not want to hand-over control of a border state to Akalis; some to a time when Punjabi Hindus recorded Hindi as their mother-tongue in the first census in 1950s; some to the mid-1960s when Akalis launched agitation for Punjabi-suba, and Punjab was trifurcated; some to the time in mid-1970s when Akalis opposed the national Emergency, or the Sikh-Nirankari clash in Amritsar, or passage of the controversial Anandpur Sahib resolution, some to time in the mid-1980s when Akalis started Kapoori morcha (opposing construction of Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal) that transformed into a Dharam Yudh Morcha, and Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale emerged on the religio-political scene, and subsequently moved into the Golden Temple Complex etc. Add to this, unfolding of events in the recent times when series of sacrilege incidents took place in September 2015. Rest, as we say, is history.
Even as the debate continues, Akalis claim and boast of articulating Sikhs' collective will, aspirations, frustrations and ambitions: political, religious, social and economic. Therefore, the moot question before the Sikh intelligentsia to find a plausible answer to is: having raised the demands/grievances, across decades, with what achievements the Akalis finally ended up their prolonged agitations? And, what is Punjab's/Sikhs' gain?
Several key actors in the Congress and SAD, who were involved in precipitating the situation time and again, and participated in parleys, have departed from this world. Some are still around. Yet, we still do not have any authentic accounts of talks and deliberations held behind the closed doors either in the pre- or post- Operation Bluestar period. Any which way one may think, one fails to understand or get answers to questions as to why the Centre/Congress played games, and remained ambivalent on decision-making with regards to the demands/grievances? Or why Akali leadership dithered and wavered on these, and ignored with impunity sane voices of some intellectuals, who did put across their views at different platforms, cautioning Akali leadership against trusting Centre/Congress?
Opinions vary within and outside the Sikh society/leadership on perceptions and interpretations of the events (a string of Morchas), as these unfolded, across decades, culminating in the Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple in 1984, and the cascading effect the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had on the Sikh society: remember anti-Sikh riots across the country and unending trials with no one punished, so far! Indisputably, the demands/grievances raised by the Akalis spun out of hand and gun-culture (militancy/ terrorism) took centre-stage. Akalis cowered. As a state, as people, as a community, what have we achieved? Precious innocent lives have been lost. Economy has been shattered.
And, this debate gives the Akali leadership an excuse to harp on a perceived sense of persecution, as also repeatedly raise the slogan: 'Panth is in peril'. And, 'Panth is in peril' only when Akalis lose control over levers of political power, and are in wilderness. That leaves them with ample time to rekindle the contentious/emotive issues to arouse electoral passions, and create hurdles in the way of the ruling party. It is then Akalis desperately try to cling to the apron-strings of religion through SGPC, and its two wings -the Akal Takht and the High Priests. It treats these as their pocket borough.
These institutions are 'caged parrots' of a coterie (read a venal family), who also controls businesses: entertainment, hospitality, resorts, transport etc. The mix of politics and business is a trigger for corruption and a heady brew with politicians/businessmen stepping into each other's shoes! This nexus has cast a dark shadow, as much over Punjab's political economy, as over the Sikh religious institutions, SGPC, the Akal Takht- temporal and spiritual seat - and the High Priests. There is complete opacity in their functions. There is no transparency in the appointment/removal of the High Priests, who for the SGPC are simply 'employees'; and the SGPC is ever ready and willing to importune before its political masters.
Things have come to such a pass that on several occasions voices have been raised against the Akal Takht's decisions and edicts, questioning whether these were taken independent of internal, external and extraneous influences or the High Priests had succumbed to political pressures. Or were the edicts issued on merit and in fairness. Much to the consternation of the ordinary Sikhs, all this has made a mockery of the Akal Takht. Is it not ridiculous that in one instance SGPC had to issue advertisements to appeal to the Sikhs to abide by a particular Akal Takht edict, which was later withdrawn when it impinged upon the credibility of select Akali leaders? How did the intelligentsia act/react during those sordid times?
We are all familiar, in ways more than one, how across time, sovereignty of the Akal Takht/High Priests have become questionable. Have these two lost their requisite or desired independence and autonomy? This independence is not like plasticine that politicians can mould in any which way, the way they have been doing all these decades. Is it not yet a moment for the Sikh intelligentsia to rise to the occasion and ensure a select Akali political leadership did not further denigrate these institutions? This is the moment of catharsis, of correction, of change.
Reverting to demands/grievances, one does not exactly understand what the Akalis wanted and demanded from the Centre/Congress, given their ambivalence, oscillating/vacillating stand, and why the Centre/Congress dithered/delayed accepting/rejecting the charter of demands/grievances? Akalis have also been wavering on the charter, first drawing up a list, then adding more, later deleting some, after an interval adding some more, and so on. There seems to be lack of consistency in their approach on this. One need not list/repeat the demands/grievances. These are well known; and remain unmet.
This view, ambivalence of the Akalis, is also reflected in Khushwant Singh's book: History of the Sikhs, Volume 2: 1839-1988; chapter, The Anandpur Sahib resolution (1973) and other Akali demands; page 342. Similar views have been expressed by former President Pranab Mukherjee in his biography: The Turbulent Years: 1980-96 on Operation Bluestar and Akali demands. Is there any document, wherein, the Akali leaders or the Sikh intelligentsia contradicted/corrected/commented on the writings of these two authors?
Across decades, particularly post-Independence, political rivalry among the Punjab Congress leaders has been as well pronounced and visible, as divisions/factionalism have been discernible among the Akalis, who act pretentions and agitated.
New Delhi is invariably accused of playing a 'cunning fox' when dealing with Punjab demands/grievances: ranging from demarcation of boundaries at the time of reorganization of the state in 1966 to not framing the All-India Sikh Gurdwara Act (or Akalis never wanted it?) to not taking SGPC elections and notification of results seriously (usually Akalis also keep quiet) to not implementing the Punjab Accord after Operation Bluestar in 1984 etc. Akali leadership has not learnt any lessons from the past such unsavoury happenings that scalded the State, while the leaders continued to engage in internecine wars for control of religio-political institutions. For them key demands/grievances can wait endlessly. These are of secondary importance to them.
Akalis are like amoeba, which perpetually keeps splitting and reuniting. How vexatious the Akali/Sikh leadership has been on various issues, when it came to decision-making or preparing/projecting so-called Panthic agenda or grievances, is in public knowledge. In this backdrop, the Sikh intelligentsia needs to think what role it then played or did not play or could have played, what role can it now play and how to salvage the spirit of Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiat, as also state's political economy.
Also, there is no follow-up by the intelligentsia on the issues that it itself raised in the past; say, for example, when the World Sikh Sammelan was held in Amritsar in 1995. On that occasion, a cross-section of scholars (intellectuals) participated on a whole range of issues- politics to religion, socio-economic to political economy, caste, creed and communal divide to Dera-culture to education, health delivery systems to agriculture, industrial revival et al. What happened to all those resolutions? Let us not forget Punjab is again caught in a vortex of crises, as much due to failure of any follow-up with the Akali leadership, as also failure of the successive Akali/Congress governments to ponder over what the intelligentsia offered whenever called upon to, and maintain constant connect with the people. Status quo continues.
May it be the Akali/Congress government, Punjab continues to lack good, effective, efficient governance; corruption is rampant; police is criminalized, bureaucracy is politicized; politics has become a family fiefdom; youth are adrift due to drug menace/unemployment; poverty-stricken, loan-bearing farmers are committing suicide; civil society is missing or dormant; and there is complete trust deficit and loss of credibility. How wise has Punjab become after all the trauma, tribulations and suffering it has been through in the past over three decades? Have Akalis become wiser? What about the Congress? My belief is none has become any wiser. There are no winners; all are losers.
Intelligentsia has not been entirely silent or indifferent. Freethinkers among them and political analysts, social scientists and economists have remained busy studying the past for better present and bright future. Their reports and recommendations on reforming religio-political systems; reinventing education, health delivery systems; economic revival, resuscitating financial/farm sectors, rejuvenating rural development; innovative, out- of-the- box ways to create employment avenues, particularly, off-farm for the village youth; good governance reforms, and ending financial profligacy remain unread and unattended. Can the intelligentsia help to ride out these crises?
Punjab is stuck in the quicksand of its own making, and has adopted itself to dysfunctional systems that seem to work only for self, pelf and power of select political parties/politicians, across the spectrum. Hopes that we, the people, would leave behind the churn of the past unfortunate decades of history are dissipating; while ad hoc palliatives may not be enough to confront the economy of the new challenges. This applies equally to reforming/freeing SGPC, the Akal Takht/the High Priests from self-serving Akali politicians. We do not want Punjab to become theatre of the absurd in either sphere: socio-economic or religio-political.
Punjab has a long way to go, so has the intelligentsia. Suffice to say, as a consequence of what is past, Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiat have received a severe body blow, as have polity and political economy, development and growth in this sensitive border state. Aftershocks are still being felt! Punjab is not out of the woods, not yet! Physical and psychological wounds that have been inflicted on the body, soul and psyche of Punjab, both by design and accident, have only coagulated, not healed.
Punjab continues to live and walk on the razor's edge, sharpened as it is by multiple and multidisciplinary problems that require coordinated efforts to be resolved. If terrorism/militancy decades chocked Punjab, so did competitive politics and religion, laced with acerbic insinuations, innuendoes, allegations and conspiracies; the polity has abandoned its indispensible equilibrium in Punjab. Punjab has lost religio-political sagacity. We have been through unhappy times. We continue to live in unhappy times!
Dispassionately analyzing the eruption of 'crises', one is reminded of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: in any free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty; all are responsible. This is so true of Punjab with its traumatic past, and faces an uncertain future. (Abraham was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosopher of the 20th century.) In fact, what has happened in Punjab, particularly since mid-1970s and 1980s, and what one sees now, makes one believe that the state has been subjected to ordered disorder - to paraphrase the title of Laurent Gayer's book, the complete title of which is: Karachi: Ordered disorder and the struggle for the city; published in 2014. (Gayer is a Research Fellow at SciencesPo, Centre De Researchers Internationales.)
The unsavoury series of sacrilege incidents, police firing and deaths in September 2015, shook the faithful. Those unsolved/unresolved incidents have caused religio-political tremors/upheavals that still reverberate with the Panthic organizations entrenched in Bargari. This is another sign of competitive politics and religion. If the media reports are to be believed that the Panthic organizations in Bargari are working on morphing into a 'political party', Punjab's bowl of troubles, trauma will spillover, further aggravating the situation, which may eventually end up in fresh acrimony impinging on peace and tranquility so essential for a state's political economy to development, and communal harmony.
Akalis have always tried to make us (the Sikh society) believe that Punjab has suffered because of 'discrimination' at the hands of the Centre/Congress; and to absolve themselves. This is not true. They are hiding their incompetence and ambivalence. This is corroborated in Paramjit S. Judge's and Manjit Kaur's research paper: Politics of Sikh Identity: understanding religious exclusion in the Sociological Bulletin, December 2010, when they write: Caught between political pragmatism and extremist threat, SAD, which controls both political power in the state and the religious affairs through SGPC, has continued to take ambivalent position.
In the Akali vocabulary, why is the word 'discrimination' reserved only for the Centre/Congress, when things did not/do not work out in accordance with their demands/grievances, and 'wishes'? Are Akalis so dumb that they easily repeatedly get honey-trapped in the Machiavellian ways of the Centre/Congress, and also blame them for creating divisions, rifts and confusion in their leadership? Why do they succumb to extraneous influences, if they are so familiar with the ways of the Centre/Congress?
Why has Akali leadership not used this term-discrimination- since 2014? In fact, since then the religio-political leadership has failed to respond to or react to the happenings and developments that have shaken the rationalists, countrywide, who find fellow humans at the receiving end: victims of what all that Sikhism stands for, including freedom of speech, expression and thought that has been openly and repeatedly stifled, smeared and murdered; height of intolerance to other's opinion!
Who can forget the manner in which academics, authors, writers, film- makers, artists and thinkers were silenced and killed in 2015; and government honors/awards were returned? The Akalis have maintained a stoic silence. They even remained silent when other minority communities were/are targeted and lynched! Yet, they claim to represent a 'minority' community. The basic postulates of Sikhism, message of the Sikh Gurus seems to have been lost on the Sikhs' religio-political leaders. Akalis are dyed in 'saffron', and politically paralysed. (The only time Akalis emerged on the national scene was when they opposed the imposition of the Emergency.)
For a long time, the Sikh society has been taken for a ride. Even an artificial rural-urban divide was created, widened and deepened across time. In the process, Akalis parceled rural vote-bank to itself, and urban vote-bank to its permanent piggy-back rider: BJP: Bhartiya Janata Party. In this political game, the Sikh society has been hit, almost dismembered. This unfortunate development has roots in the Operation Bluestar, since when in a systematic manner the Centre/Congress (include fragments/protégés of fractured Akali Dal(s) and its leaders, who were then in jails) began to work for their own religio-political space, denigrating the Sikh institutions, particularly, the SGPC, the Akal Takht/the High Priests. All was to retain power. There were/are any number of power-brokers, power-seekers and power-wielders on the prowl at any point of time.
Could the intelligentsia have played a role then to check-mate the ignominy the Sikh institutions/society faced, and uphold what the Sikh Gurus and scriptures taught us? Their message is simple and cogent: universal brotherhood, peace and wellbeing of all. This should have been propagated in simple/cogent manner. Here is a young scientific religion - Sikhism - that has been allowed to be influenced and mesmerized by in-house/extraneous forces, state/non-state actors. The key questions are: who will and how to spring-clean the religio-political mess, as also the State and its instrumentalities for a progressive Punjab? And, why is no other religion under the Media lenses? The answer to the second question is simple: the Sikh religio-political leaders have persistently failed to lead the Panth during cyclic crises, and Sikh society was abandoned like an orphaned child!
Collectively, we, the intellectuals/intelligentsia, have neither bothered nor felt the need to go deep into the background or multiple factors responsible for the present day 'crisis-ridden Sikh society' or played the desired role. Exceptions are there. Certainly, some academics, scholars have individually produced 'research' papers and written/spoken on various aspects of the crises. Yet, why no one has, so far, demanded complete disclosure of what transpired behind the closed-doors between the Centre/Congress and the Akalis all through the decades prior to and post operation Bluestar, under the Right to Information Act, 2005? (There was a mini-storm when the UK government de-classified some documents pertaining to the British support/suggestions New Delhi sought for conducting the Operation Bluestar.)
There is a need to achieve a consensus on several key issues, some contentious; concepts, practices, rituals, scriptures, which have time and again caused pain, created fear-psychosis among principle communities, threatened peace, led to divisions within the Sikh society/community, and ridicule of their institutions. Unfortunately, while accepting and practicing religion and politics as one entity, the Sikh political leadership has politicized the religion rather that drawing strength/sustenance from it. For the Sikh/Akali leadership, religion is only a means to achieve political ends. This interplay of the two, and exploitation of the emotions/sentiments of the common Sikhs, has been responsible for the undoing of both. The religio-political leaders must stop raking up controversies just to maintain their stranglehold on the levers of power.
Like the Institute of Sikh Studies there must be such other institutions elsewhere too, both at home and abroad. The need is for their coordinated, synchronized net-working, and move forward in lock-step taking the intellectuals along, their allegiance to different ideologies and political masters, if any, notwithstanding. Sad, as it may sound, the fact is that across time and despite severe setbacks to the Sikh Panth in the past, some Sikh institutions and individuals enjoying different political patronage have worked in isolation, and continue to work that way. Thus, these have remained insulated or quarantined from hard realities. Ego hassles have been a major stumbling block in ensuring cooperation/coordination between them, while conflict, contradiction and avoidable confrontation have dominated, and continue to dominate the Sikh institutions/intellectuals/ Sikh psyche.
And, the ones who were/are wont to or were/are keen on something being done to vest in the Sikh institutions dignity, independence, autonomy have failed to change the 'mindset' of the Akali leadership, so far. Institutions /intelligentsia have to act in symphony to reframe their role and shed their idiosyncrasies and political affiliations. This is required to end the prevailing culture of treating SGPC, the Akal Takht/ the High Priests as proxies and protégés of a select band of Akalis. This existing trend is fraught with dangers. It is time for reforms in the Sikh/Punjabi society with institutions/intellectuals playing an active role. All - the Sikh society/ institutions/intellectuals/intelligentsia - are at cross-roads!
There are instances when individuals tried to inculcate a change in the religio-political set-up through reforms, consolidation, coordination and cooperation without dismantling the existing Sikh institutions. I give just three examples here. One such person was late Col Gurdip Singh, who gave the idea of a World Sikh Parliament. The other individual is Dr Devinder Singh Chahal in Canada, who has set up Institute of Understanding Sikhism. Its publication: Understanding Sikhism –the research journal is widely read and accepted. His work is almost on the same lines as that of the Institute of Sikh Studies. The third is co-founder of the Institute of Sikh Studies, Dr Kharak Singh.
Col Gurdip Singh, Dr Chahal and Dr Kharak Singh often shared their concerns with this writer. There was a common denominator in the trios' thoughts: concern over large scale misinterpretation of Sikh doctrines, misinterpretation of Gurbani and the lack of understanding of the message of the Gurus, its import on history and its contribution towards the development of mankind. Their working was non-political and voluntary, aimed at dedicating their time and energy to correct interpretation of Gurbani and Sikh philosophy, as also propagation of Sikh religion and culture, as introduce governance reform. Most of what they wanted to achieve could not be because their genuine, well-intentioned moves were stonewalled by the wily Akali leadership, and indifferent successive governments. In fact, select Akali leaders have parceled various religio-political institutions between themselves for decades, and believe fervently their hold would last forever. Thus, they show little or no interest in what is said and suggested. It harms their political/business interests and weakens their religious scaffoldings.
Undoubtedly, there is deep anguish in the Sikh society that feels hapless, hopeless and helpless at the turn of events, and how politics has cast a dark shadow over religion/religious institutions. Also, why and how 'private' institutions- Deras, Babas, Sants, Mahants etc. continue to thrive? Thus, the persistent failure of the SGPC, as a repository of the Sikh ethos/aspirations, as also custodian of the Sikh Rehat Maryada, cannot be overlooked; it has failed to discharge its responsibilities, as ordained in the Act.
For too long, the Akali old war-horses and their close relatives or protégés, had within the party hierarchy become immune and intolerant of any disagreements, dissent, and expected unquestioned loyalty. Even the most well-thought, well-intentioned constructive criticism was viewed with suspicion; and construed as rebellion against the leader(s). Those expressing independent views were looked upon with disdain and were genuinely insulated and kept at a distance. Rambunctious elements close to the handful of senior Akali leaders effectively silenced those who wished to express independent or different view on issues. (There are now whispers in the air of discordant notes in the Akali folds.) As a society, Sikhs have a lot to do, much to undo.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2019, All