Guru Granth – Guru Panth
Doctrine & Experiences
Guru Panth Model - 1708-1849
Our analysis so far shows that the broad contours of the manner in which the Guru Panth functioned during the transitional phase, Misl period and under Sikh rule can be summed up as below:
– We have termed the period of Banda Bahadur as the Transitional Phase. The Guru had advised Banda to act in consultation with and on the advice of five Sikhs that he had assigned to accompany him. His position was above these five councilors who must have been heard by Banda though there is no evidence to conclude that the five consulted as a group or resolved their internal dissent before proffering advice. When Binod Singh did not agree with Banda, he allowed Binod Singh to leave with his companions. As such the model is not akin to the concept of panj pyaras as the leading elders of the community or the group. This period is also complicated by the role of Mata Sundari and the Akal Takht, at her behest, in directing the Sikh affairs.
– During the Misl period, sarbat khalsa meets; inclusive of non-Khalsa Sikhs, with full consensus of all participating deciding issues by adopting gurmattas became the mode. As Misls grew decision-making was assumed by a conclave of Misaldars, representing Misls and therefore collectively, the larger community of Sikhs. The issues discussed were mainly of political nature though matters of religious concern were also discussed. A more restricted regional or local representative group similarly decided regional or local issues by adopting gurmattas. In all these deliberations Akal Takht was not involved except that earlier on Bhai Mani Singh convened the sarbat khalsa and in 1806 Akali Phoola Singh imposed religious punishment on Ranjit Singh for having disobeyed a gutrmatta. Ranjit Singh restricted the use of gurmattas to religious issues and took other decisions in consultation with his council of ministers.
– There is also no evidence that panj pyara system had any relevance in gurmatta system of the sarbat khalsa nor those decisions taken by Bhai Mani Singh or Akali Phoola Singh as caretakers of Akal Takht were products of collective deliberation by a group of panj pyaras.
Nirankari and Kuka Namdhari Movements
During the early British period, there were signs that Sikhs were getting concerned that their praxis had been distorted by return to Hindu practices that had been decried by the Gurus among Sikhs. In the absence of a collective body akin to sarbat khalsa to address their concerns initiatives to bring restore purity to Sikh practices came from individuals that gave birth to two reform movements known as Nirankari and Namdhari movements.
Baba Dayal Das who was born in 1783 in Peshawar started the Nirankari movement. He discountenanced Brahmanical superstitions associated with birth and death and preached avoidance of intoxicants, abstinence from meat, bowing only before Guru Granth Sahib and worshipping only Nirankar the formless Lord. On his death in 1855 his son Darbara Singh succeeded him. He propagated anand marriage by the couple circumambulating the Granth sahib. Nirankaris claim that the Singh Sabha later adopted this maryada.1
The founder of the Namdharis was Baba Balak Singh, born in 1799 in the northwest province of Pakistan. He enjoined upon his followers to celebrate anand marriage, not to consume meat or intoxicants and do naam simran. Ram Singh, his successor launched the Kuka Movement in 1857. He was opposed idol worship, preached living an austere life and vigorously promoted amrit parchar. He was against adultery, stealing, caste system and purdah. Kukas were also against cow slaughter that had been allowed post control of Punjab passing into the East India Company’s hand.
In spite of the non-violence and non co-operation methods commended by Ram Singh, his followers did not always heed his advice. In 1871 Kukas attacked slaughterhouses at Amritsar and murdered four butchers, freed the cows and fled away. Four Kukas were sentenced to death in this case. A similar incident took place in Raikot a few weeks later with similar consequences.
In 1872 a group of the Kukas gathered at Bhaini for the Maghi festival decided to attack Malerkotla. Ram Singh informed civil authorities of the impending attack and 68 of the attackers were captured. 66 were blown up after tying them to cannons. Ram Singh with eleven of his followers was deported to Rangoon where he died in 1885.2
Both the Nirankaris and Namdharis espoused reform of Sikhi and did help to bring some distortions that had crept into Sikh praxis to be seriously noticed by the community and other emerging activists among Sikhs.
The Kukas also challenged the British authority, albeit in a foolhardy way and accidently demonstrated that given their penchant to act independently in small groups it could be a pretty hazardous challenge to lead Sikhs in a protest mode.
Both the movements developed some following but could not attract the kind of support among the community to claim leadership of the panth. They have continued to survive as sects. Akal Takht has now excluded Kukas from mainstream Sikhs for their continuing to treat their spiritual leaders as Guru.
Singh Sabha Movement
Singh Sabha was formed in 1873 at Amritsar and aimed at restoration of pristine purity of Sikhism, its propagation through religious books, magazines and papers and promotion of education among Sikhs. Even though Singh Sabha intended to pursue a positive program to strengthen Sikhism, the underlying struggle the movement faced was to emerge as the legitimate spokespersn for the community.
Sanatan Sikhs, the Bedi group of Amritsar Singh Sabha adopted education and moderate reforms and were more accepting of diverse tradition though defended that Sikhs were not Hindus. They succeeded in Khlsa College being built and excommunicated Gurmukh Singh in 1887.
Gurmukh Singh founded the Lahore Singh Sabha in 1879. They adopted the Tat Khalsa approach of primacy for amritdharis and keshdharis in public life and eliminating popular cults. This group was able to dominate the new print culture and mobilize public opinion.
The British helped Sikhs by giving jagirs, estates to gurdwaras, army recruitment etc but did not trust Sikhs too. They did not want the control over resources of Amritsar into the hands of any one group. Sikhs were seen as high spirited and excitable.
While Sikh chiefs and Sardars dominated Amritsar Singh Sabha, the Lahore Singh Sabha members were drawn from the Sikhs of all classes. Gurmukh Singh campaigned hard and Singh Sabhas affiliated to Singh Sabha Lahore came up all over the province. Most of the Sabha membership consisted of amritdharis though the composition varied from location to location. The Sabhas worked out of Gurdwaras but where a Gurdwara management did not co-operate, they constructed their own Gurdwaras with their own appointed liturgical staff.
The Singh Sabha movement succeeded in making a deep transformational impact on Sikh identity and institutional structures. It became the nucleus of the movement to distinguish Sikhi from Hinduism and has been considered to have ‘marked a turning point in Sikh history — the main motivation — was search for Sikh identity and self-assertion — new powers of regeneration came into effect and Sikhism was reclaimed from a state of utter ossification and inertia.’3
The organizational metamorphosis continued. In 1880 a General Sabha was set up supra to the Amritsar and Lahore Singh Sabhas. It was renamed as Khalsa Diwan in 1883 that went through splits and changes. In 1902 Chief Khalsa Diwan [CKD] was set up.
CKD gradually emerged as the lead group building new institutions and demonstrating concrete results – in parchar, promotion of Punjabi, launching schools and effective use of print media. But they could not bring the community to agree on social issues and even Anand Marriage Act only provided legal legitimacy for such marriages. The issue of reht maryada could not be resolved because of insistence by the Panch Khalsa Diwan that it was only amritdharis who were Sikhs. The definition of a Sikh stayed fluid but inclusive.
CKD also wanted to remain on the right side of the British authority. This hindered their ability to represent Sikhs politically. The growing Sikh resentment at the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and the British support of control of Gurdwaras by mahants eroded influence of CKD and SGPC with Akali Dal emerged as the leaders.
There were signs that the future institutions for political governance would be rooted in democratic principles. All the emerging Sikh organizations had one common strand in that their managing committees consisted of amritdhari or keshdhari Sikhs and they were switching to majority priciple as their preferred decision process.4 Sikhs chose to restrict leadership to those fitting the identity they were promoting and were also quick to adopt modern organization modes ahead of other faith groups for internal institutions and leadership structures in preference to the consensus methodology that had succeeded so well with sarbat khalsa, misaldar and gurmatta model. Proud of their sense of individual freedom, maverick past, and scant respect for temporal authority the surrogate of Guru Panth was setting itself up for new and different challenges.
Akali Movement and SGPC
With such reformist zeal pervading it was only a matter of time that Sikh attention turned to the state of their major Gurdwaras. During the eighteenth century when the Khalsa was driven from their homes to seek safety in remote hills and deserts, the hereditory mahants took care of their places of worship. Later during the Sikh rule many of these Gurdwaras received large endowments. The mahants in time began to consider these as their personal properties and using the receipts for their private use. In some cases there were complaints of immorality against them.
Sikhs launched the Akali Movement or Gurdwara Reform Movement [1920-25] to rid the Gurdwaras of control by Mahants. During the movement the motions of sarbat khalsa were gone through and a committee to manage the shrines and Akali Dal as their political arm was created using hukamnamas. The struggle stayed totally non-violent in spite of loss of several lives and sacrifices and eventually succeeded and legislation giving Sikhs the control of identified Gurdwaras in the then Punjab became operative on 1 November 1925. This legislation was known as The Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925.
The Act provided for a central body, later designated by Sikhs as Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee [SGPC] for their management. Members of the Committee have to be amritdhari Sikhs and are elected by Sikhs through adult franchise. The definition of a Sikh in the original Act was inclusive.5 This gave the elected body a semblance of being representive of all Sikhs but legalized the leadership control in the hands of Khalsa.
Normal term of the SGPC is five years but it continues in office till a new Committee is elected. Head priests of the Darbar Sahib and of the Takhts are ex-officio members of the SGPC. The day-to-day management is the responsibility of an executive consisting of the president, two vice presidents, a general secretary, and between 5 to 11 members, all to be elected from amongst the committee members. The tenure of the executive is one year.
The Act contains detailed provisions regarding the finances of the S.G.P.C. and provides for a judicial commission of three members to be appointed by the [State] Government to resolve any disputes relating to any act of the present or past members, working of the Committee and complaints of malfeasance or misfeasance. Historical gurdwaras within Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the UT Chandigarh, being portions of erstwhile Punjab and now part of the Indian Union, come under the jurisdiction of SGPC.
SGPC runs a number of schools and colleges, manages agricultural farms on gurdwara lands, sponsors publication of works on Sikh religion and history, and helps victims of political repression and of natural calamities. It maintains liaison with Sikh organizations in other Indian states and abroad and takes up matters of Sikh interests or grievances with the government.
This success and the passing of the control of major Gurdwaras into the hands of a central Sikh body were received with great enthusiasm in the community. The SGPC got down to cleaning up the internal management of Gurdwaras, religious practices and rituals. The organized effort at amrit parchar led to increase in the numbers of amritdhari Sikhs. Close relationship with Akali Dal often blurred the lines between the two entities but managed to provide Sikhs some semblance of leadership during the pre-independence period. In the overall Sikhs seemed apathetically content to leave management of their religious and political affairs to the co-mingled leadership of SGPC and Akali Dal.
Sikh Rahit Maryada and Guru Panth
It was during this period that the SGPC promulgated a consensus Sikh Rahit Maryada [SRM] also known as Sikh Code of Conduct and Ceremonies in 1945. A group finalized the document after painstaking work and extended consultations within Panth. The SRM seems primarily intended to bring some uniformity in Sikh ritual practices, observances and worship services but also provides in a limited way, an answer to the vexing question of what is Guru Panth and how it is to function.
The SRM says ‘The Guru Panth [Panth’s status of Guruhood] means the whole body of committed baptized Sikhs [tiar bar tiar singh]. This body was fostered by all the ten Gurus and the tenth Guru gave it its final shape and invested it with Guruhood.’ Guru Panth is part of the corporate Sikh entity, the Panth.
As to an indicator to the Guru Panth’s working, the SRM provides that ‘A Gurmatta can be adopted only by a select primary Panthic group or a representative gathering of the Panth.’ The original Punjabi text makes it clear that this authority is vested only to Guru Panth and not Panth as seems conveyed by the English translation. [Article XXVI, b]
The SRM also restricts gurmatta only to subjects ‘that affect the fundamental principles of Sikh religion and for their upholding, such as the questions affecting the maintenance of the status of the Gurus or the Guru Granth Sahib or the inviolability of Guru Granth Sahib, ambrosial baptism, Sikh discipline and way of life, the identity and structural framework of the Panth.’ In other words a select or representative group from the Guru Panth only can decide matters of serious religious import through adoption of a gurmatta. [Article XXVI, a]
The Article [Section a] enjoins that ordinary issues whether religious, educational, social or political are excluded from the gurmatta procedure and can be dealt with by a Matta. The distinction suggests that the subject of gurmatta must deserve overall Panthic obligation whereas the subject of matta may not have such significance. In other words the issues have only local, regional or sectarian significance.
The system for imposing any chastisement on an erring Sikh envisages recourse to panj pyaras. The SRM says: Any Sikh who has committed any default in the observance of the Sikh discipline should approach the nearby Sikh congregation and make a confession of his lapse standing before the congregation. The congregation should then, in the holy presence of Guru Granth Sahib, elect from among themselves five beloved ones who should ponder over the suppliant’s fault and propose the chastisement (punishment) for it. [Article XXV] Appeal against the local decision can be made to Akal Takht. [Article XXVII]
Based on the above, the SRM model of Guru Panth may be summed up as below:
– Panth is the collective corporate body of all Sikhs
– Guru Panth is the collective of Committed amritdhari Sikhs
– Matters of serious religious import can only be considered and resolved by a select or representive group from within Guru Panth by adopting gurmatta
– Ordinary religious issues and political, social or educational issues need not be decided by Gurmatta
– Local exercise of punitive religious authority is vested with panj pyaras elected for the purpose by the congregation. Appeal against local decisions can be made to Akal Takht.
This was the first document that clearly set Guru Panth as the select group of committed amritdharis as collective religious authority over the Panth. The Sikh mood in the period preceding Indian independence did not seem to be critically inclined on the subject – that is if the process of formulation of the SRM received even their any passing attention.
Akal Takht in Play
In practice the convention of panj pyaras came to be extended to the five Sikh takhts as identified in the SRM [Article V, p] to act as the apex religious authority representive of Guru Panth. Of these Akal Takht has always had broad acceptance within the Panth as the prime seat of religious authority. This is also reinforced by its recognition as the Appelate Authority over decisions at the local level. Akal Takht therefore has come to play the convening role for consideration of matters to be placed before the group for its consideration and decision.
The above position was reiterated and ratified by the five high priests in a meeting at the Akal Takht secretariat in Oct 2003 where they resolved that issues that had far-reaching implications at international level and those pertaining to the Panth could only be decided after deliberation by the five Jathedars at Akal Takht. Jathedar of Takht Patna Sahib Giani Iqbal Singh recognised the supremacy of the Akal Takht. Jathedars of the other four Takhts were empowered to take decisions on religious, social and cultural issues at the local level. They also agreed that if a Jathedar were unable to attend a meeting then the Jathedar of Akal Takht would be empowered to ask any priest from the Golden Temple to replace the absentee. Jathedar of Akal Takht Joginder Singh Vedanti, Jathedar of Takht Damdama Sahib Balwant Singh Nandgarh, Jathedar of Takht Kesgarh Sahib Giani Tarlochan Singh and senior granthi of Darbar Sahib Gurbachan Singh attended the meeting. Jathedar of Takht Hazoor Sahib and Giani Puran Singh, head granthi of Golden Temple, were absent from the meeting.6
SRM and Gurdwara Acts do not provide much insight into how the management of local Gurdwaras should be structured and operated. Most of the Gurdwaras both in India and in other countries have adopted the electoral model mode to pick their management bodies with majority opinion as the preferred mode for decision-making within the committees. This approach seems a hybrid between the Singh Sabha practice and the Acts relating to the SGPC and DSGMC. It so happens that the Akal Takht got drawn into a dispute at a Gurdwara in the US and in the process ended up approving a constitutional model for the Gurdwara. Important provisions in the constitution of Singh Sabha Gurdwara [SSG], Fairfax, Virginia approved by Akal Takht [revised July 4, 2004] are as given below:7
– An Aadesh (Order) from the Akal Takhat shall be final and binding upon the SSG management and its members and no court or governmental authority shall have jurisdiction and power to consider, change, amend or delete any part of the said Aadesh so long as it does not conflict with U.S. laws. Any Aadesh pertaining to Sarbat Khalsa or SSG issued by the Akal Takht shall automatically become an addendum to SSG By-laws without requiring a formal amendment [Article IV]
– A person applying for the SSG membership shall declare in writing that he/she accepts Akal Takht, as the highest religious and temporal authority of Sikhs.The Panj Payaras shall be Amritdhari Sikhs. All members of Management Committee shall be Amritdhari if available, otherwise Puran Keshadhari Sikhs. They and Panj Pyaras must remember by heart Japji Sahib, Chaupai, Rehras Sahib, and Kirtan Sohila [Article V]
– Any dispute of any nature among SSG members — shall be resolved, either by the Panj Payaras or a Sikh tribunal appointed by the Akal Takht, in accordance with Sikh tenets. The decision of the Panj Payaras or the Sikh tribunal shall be binding. Appeal against the Panj Payaras’ or the Sikh tribunal’s decision can only be made to the Akal Takht. The decision of the Akal Takht shall be final and binding with no further appeal or judicial intervention unless the decision is contrary to United States laws [Article VII]
– SSG Constitution shall not be amended unless subsequently approved by the Akal Takht. No proposed amendment of the Constitution and the Bylaws shall be considered if it contradicts the teachings of the Ten Sikh Gurus as contained in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Akal Takht Sikh Rehat Maryada, or any Aadesh issued by the Akal Takht [Article VIII]
The bye-laws provide for the following:
– Bylaws shall not contradict the SSG Constitution, teachings of the Gurus as contained in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Akal Takht Sikh Rehat Maryada, or any Aadesh issued by the Akal Takht. If such a contradiction exists, the contradicting portions of the Bylaws shall automatically become null and void [Article I]
– A Sikh per Akal Takht Rahit Maryada is a person who solemnly affirms to be a Sikh, believes in the One God, Ten Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib, and has no other religion. Amritdhari Sikh is a Sikh who has taken Khande-ka-Amrit or Khande-ki-Pahul, prepared and administered according to the tenets of the Sikh religion and rites at the hands of the Panj Pyaras [Article II]
– The Panj Payaras shall be active members and Amritdhari Sikhs selected by the General Body, only when needed, to resolve a dispute and their term shall expire when the dispute is resolved. If there are more than five nominations, the selection shall be made by drawing five names randomly in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. There shall be no voting. All Panj Payaras shall have an equal status, must be present to make a decision and their decision must be unanimous [Article VI]
– Likewise there shall be no voting for selection of the Management Committee or the SSG Council. If more than one nominee for a particular office is eligible the selection shall be made by drawing a name randomly in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib [Article VIII, IX]
– All decisions in the General Body meeting, the Management Committee meeting, or any other SSG meeting shall be taken by a majority consensus of the members present and voting, unless specified differently. All voting shall be open voting by show of hands. The Panj Payaras shall determine consensus eligibility [Article X]
In brief the Panthic way for management of a community Gurdwara as approved by Akal Takht envisages:
– Members affirm to be Sikhs and accept Akal Takht as the supreme Sikh authority
– Office bearers should be amritdharis, if available or else kesdharis – selected by consensus or draw of lots
– Management decisions to be taken by majority show of hands, open ballot format
– Disputes resolved by local Amritdhari panj pyaras or Akal Takht appointed Sikh Tribunal. Appellate authority Akal Takht. Legal recourse only if any applicable Country laws violated
Akal Takht - SRM - SGPC Model - A Construction
The authority structure of Guru Panth is a hybrid in which SGPC, Akal Takht, the other Takhts and the Gurdwara congregation play controlling roles in a variable and arbitrary manner. Based on our narrative, the outline of a possible structure of Guru Panth can be summed up as under:
– A person who affirms to be a Sikh is a Sikh. Panth is the corporate body of all Sikhs. A Sikh has Panthic obligations but is eligible representational opportunity only if kesdhari or amritdhari
– Guru Panth is the collective of committed amritdhari Sikhs and only Guru Panth can resolve matters that affect the core Sikh tenets. In practice Jathedars of five Takhts constitute the standing representative apex committee who play decision-making role on behalf of Guru Panth. All core issues as well as other important matters are presented to the apex body for resolution. Core issues are decided by adoption of a gurmatta that may be issued as a hukamnama from Akal Takht. In case of ordinary religious issues or political, cultural and educational matters the decision is by adoption of a matta. Since the body acts in the manner of panj pyaras their decisions must be consensus based and unanimous. An advisory committee of the SGPC may initially screen the issues.
– Akal Takht convenes the meetings of the apex body and if any Takht Jathedar is unable to attend, Jathedar Akal Takht can substitute a granthi from Darbar Sahib in his place. Akal takht is the supreme religious authority and their decisions can only be litigated if there is conflict with applicable laws of the land.
– Other Takhts can take decisions on religious, cultural and political matters at the local level – possibly equivalent of issues that can be resolved through a matta
– At the local level, members of a Gurdwara must affirm to be Sikhs and accept Akal Takht as supreme Sikh authority. Office bearers should be selected by consensus or draw of lots and should be amritdharis, if available. Management decisions are taken per majority view by show of hands or open ballot. Disputes are resolved by Amritdhari panj pyaras or Akal Takht appointed Sikh Tribunal. Appeal can be made to Akal Takht. Legal recourse is allowed only if any applicable laws are violated.
Possibilities of systemic solution notwithstanding, tensions within the panth abound even on casual observance. Most of these tensions are rooted in the lack of basic agreement on definition of a Sikh, shared understanding about Panthic authority or the manner in which the Guru Panth is to function. The result has been that all authority centers – SGPC, Akal Takht, other Takhts and Akalis – have been jostling to consolidate their hold and extend their control over the Panth. Growing awareness among Sikh masses, increasing coverage by the media, political influences and not-quiet-any-more academia and intelligentia have only brought the internal dissonance into sharper focus.
Three of these takhts viz Akal Takht, Takht Kesgarh Sahib and Takht Damdama Sahib, fall within the jurisdiction of SGPC. Jathedar of Akal Takht is appointed by the SGPC and thus the SGPC has ended up with overwhelming ability to influence the decisions by the apex body. In fact the generally shared view by lay Sikhs is that the Jathedar of Akal Takht takes direction from the SGPC top brass. This has not helped because due to close association of SGPC with Akalis the Sikh political tensions have been working back into the Committee’s functioning and SGPC has become a surrogate for Akalis. Besides this the Committee’s electoral system has got corrupted with malpractices that have infested the mainstream political electoral process. The result has been a steep decline in public image of the Committee among Sikhs and its effectiveness.
Further in 1971 the Government acceded to a demand for legislation for a management committee for the Gurdwaras in Delhi. Progressively this committee [DSGMC] came to be politically influenced by rival political interests to Akali Dal. This has diminished the importance of SGPC and both the institutions are now susceptible to open, even brazen political maneouvring.
Sikh institutions came under tremendous stress following Operation Bluestar, when the militants as well as the Central Indian Government alternated at exploiting the weakened Sikh leadership. Buta Singh organised a so called Sarbat Khalsa convention at Amritsar on August 11, 1984 where mostly non-Sikh migrant workers were brought in as audience to endorse the reconstruction of Akal Takht under the aegis of the Central Government.
In another Sarbat Khalsa convention held on September 2, 1984 at Gurdwara Baba Deep Singh Shaheed, Singh Sahibaan served an ultimatum that if the Golden Temple complex was not restored to them by September 30th, they would send jatha on 2nd of October to secure liberation of the complex. The Complex was handed over on September 29.
AISSF activists and militant organisations held another ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ at Akal Takht on January 26, 1986 incensed at the non-transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab as per the Rajiv-Longowal accord. At this convention they resolved to disband the SGPC, dismiss the Akal Takht Jathedar and demolish the Akal Takht structure repaired at the behest of the Central Government. A Panthic committee comprising five members was formed to look after religious affairs of Sikhs and Rode was named as the Jathedar of Akal Takht. Since he was in jail, Gurdev Singh Kaunke was named as acting Jathedar in Rode’s absence.
A Sarbat khalsa held on January 26, 1987, approved an earlier resolution of April 29 for Khalistan and also the recent appointments of the high priests. The five head priests [all newly appointed] decided to dissolve all the Akali Dal factions to form a single united party and sought the resignation of the office-bearers of all the factions. Barnala refused to comply on the ground that the party constitution did not provide for dissolution of the party. As a result he was dismissed from the primary membership of the Akali party. In place of the dissolved party, the priests declared on February 5, 1987, the formation of a unified Shiromani Akali Dal with Simranjit Singh Mann as its president.
As if these occurances were not distracting enough, Akal Takht, in its appellate role, has been drawn into all manner of controversial issues ranging from political, educational, maryada related and even group disputes in Gurdwaras by local sangats and other groups pursuing their pet positions. Its traditional role of summoning Sikhs who were considered to have committed egregious breach of the Panthic way of life and imposing sanctions after due process has also not been free of controversy. One Jathedar would issue an edict and his successor would cancel that. So many edicts were issued that they lost their sanctity and force. One such edict ex-communicating Joginder Singh, Editor Spokesman, was challenged in the High Court. Jathedars also have been getting into the middle of ambitions of politicians and mutual recriminations to the detriment of the dignity of the institution of Akal Takht and panj pyaras.8
Thus extensive abuse of institutions so well respected by the Sikhs has intensified both confusion and resentment among Sikhs. There has been considerable debate on the need for coming up with an authority structure that can play the role of Guru Panth. Whilst a number of ideas have been thrown up there have been two initiatives that were intended to provide leadership as the surrogate Guru Panth. A third approach has been to try and address the most pressing problems inhibiting smooth functioning of the Sikh institutions through a comprehensive All India Gurdwara Act. We will briefly look at each one of these three approaches now.
World Sikh Council
In the wake of weakening of the institutions of Akal Takht and the SGPC, the need for an umbrella organization that could be the spokesperson for Sikhs around the world gained urgency. At a meeting of the Vishav Sikh Sammelan held in September 1995 at Amritsar a resolution was passed to set up World Sikh Council under the auspices of Akal Takht.
Manjit Singh, Acting Jathedar Akal Takht, formed the World Sikh Council in early 1996 but the manner of his initial nomination of members to the Council drew criticism. Many Sikhs felt that each country/region should have its own representative Council that could cater to needs and interests of the Sikhs belonging to that country/region while working with the World body and that the Council should be representative of Sikh organizations that accept the Sikh Rehat Maryada and supremacy of Akal Takht.
At the January 1997 meeting of the World Sikh Council, Bhai Ranjit Singh Jathedar Akal Takht felt that to make it more representative its Constitution needed to be changed. Later a three member Committee to revise the Constitution was appointed who submitted their draft to Bhai Ranjit Singh, Jathedar Akal Takht in August 1997.
The revised Constitution stipulated that:
– That Jathedar Akal Takht will be the Patron and will play an effective role.
– It will have a two-tier structure: Executive Committee and General Body. The Patron will nominate President of the Council.
– Membership will be criteria-based and institutional rather than individual, so that the WSC can represent the Panth globally. Gurdwaras and organizations that are exclusively engaged in promoting Sikh interests can become members.
– Respective Regional Councils [4 out of 8 Regional Councils being in foreign countries] will screen membership applicants.
Jathedar Akal Takht appointed Justice Kuldip Singh, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court and a member of constitution drafting committee as the President of the Council on December 21, 1997. He also appointed a five member Executive Committee that had four of its members, including Secretary General and Finance Member, from India and a US based Sikh. The Committee held its first meeting on April 8, 1998 at Chandigarh when it approved certain programmes including:
– Sarbat Ka Bhalla Trust – societal human rights, environmental, public health, discrimination, poverty issues
– Vidya Parupkar Trust - to promote full literacy in Punjab, research studies in Sikh Religion, institutions of higher learning and research in various disciplines.
– Press and Media Trust - to set up a press of international repute and publish daily newspaper, magazines and journals; reach the Sikhs abroad through television/ internet / radio and make film serials on Sikh history for global television viewing
– Immediate Projects to be Undertaken included Guru Gobind Singh Vidya Kendra as part of 300th Centenary celebration of the of the Birth of Khalsa in April, 1999 to impart religious education and train Sikh youth to serve as sevadars, ragis and preachers. Also to promote hundred percent literacy through gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions. The Regional Councils of World Sikh Council shall establish large number of literacy centres.9
A special session of prominent Sikh leaders and Akali jathedars held at Jammu adopted a resolution urging the Punjab and Central Governments to accord recognition to the World Sikh Council.10 WSC did not succeed in demonstrating the credentials to represent the global Sikh Panth or to act as Guru Panth in its short active life nor did its projects point to clear vision of Guru Panth and complexities inherent in it’s functioning. The regional wings of the Council, as seen from the case of WSC-AR, chose to restrict their activities to advocacy, education and societal well being projects. Their relationship with member organisations is at best, one of facilitator for better resource utilization and no more.
International Sikh Confederation (ISC)
Their basic premise driving the creation of ISC was that the doctrine Guru Granth - Guru Panth demanded the setting up of a central body without which Panth could not discharge its responsibilities or exercise its authority. ISC was expected to reflect the status of Guru Panth, co-ordinate activities of various Sikh organizations, help resolve and work towards settlement of all philosophical and other issues affecting the Panth as a whole and deal with problems of existing or potential schisms in the Panth.
A General meeting of Primary members of ISC adopted the constitution on April 9, 2006 and set up an interin Executive Committee. A conclave organised in November 2006 was of the view that with no central organisation representing Sikhs scattered across the world, the need for an apex body to discuss and develop strategies to resolve issues of concern was real and urgent. The motive behind creating such a body was not to replace any organisation such as SGPC or any Panthic political organisation.
Leadership of SGPC and Akali Dal did not endorse setting up such a body. The veteran leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra had remarked that the SGPC’s experience of a similar initiative earlier with such an organization was not successful [reference to World Sikh Council].
The framers of ISC constitution took cognizance of Sikh heritage of Guru Granth Sahib, Akal Takht, Gurmattas and independent Takhts and also looked at the structure of similar organizations like the World Sikh Council in preparing their Constitution. The following provisions are relevant to our enquiry:
– Only Sikh Gurdwaras, Sikh organizations and eminent Sikhs can be members of ISC. All members of the ISC will constitute the General Body — The General Body will meet as and when necessary, but not less than once in four years.
– The GC shall consist of 200 members to be drawn from various constituencies and shall meet at least once yearly — Takht Jathedar Sahiban will be Permanent Invitees to the GC. Elections to the GC shall be by consensus, however if this is not achieved, elections will be held by secret ballot.
– Members of the EC shall be Amritdhari Sikhs with education equivalent to a degree from a recognized university and will have tenure of four years. Executive Committee will consist of 12 Institutional Representatives, 8 Individuals and 5 Heads of Advisory Councils making a Total 25. Members of EC and should be amritdhari Sikhs.
– A Presidium of Five EC members elected / nominated by the GC will chair meetings of the GC and EC collectively, supervise the day-to-day functioning of the CEO and Secretariat. Chairmanship within the Presidium will be rotated monthly.
– Any controversial issues referred to the EC or taken up shall be discussed by the EC —However all sensitive issues will be placed before the GC for ratification.
– The ISC will set up Regional Committees in each major region of the world, consisting of one or more countries. Regional Offices of the ISC will be opened in various states of the Indian Union keeping in view the membership of the region. Each region will enjoy decentralized powers so as to function efficiently within the overall constitution of the ISC.
– The Central GC/ Central EC will approve all policy decisions. Zones / Regions may recommend changes where warranted to the HQ ISC for consideration.
Dr Kharak Singh11 infers that there is increasing realization among the Sikh community that formation of ISC is the right step towards fulfillment of the doctrine of Guru Granth-Guru Granth. The confedration’s priority projects include:
– Standard English translation of SGGS as an English version of gurbani
– Education fund to promote school education and opportunity for higher education for Sikhs
– A 24-hour TV channel promoting Sikhism
– Resolve academic controversies
– Encourage research and publications on Sikhs and Sikhism
– Persuade deras to propogate ideals of mainstream Sikhism
– Encourage sporting activities among Sikhs.
Looking back one would find significant correspondence between ISC projects and those identified by the WSC earlier. These projects certainly are important for the Panth but it cannot be deduced from adoption of such programs that the sponsoring or coordinating of these is the key role of Guru Panth or that these will subserve the universal teachings and concern for the sarbat that the Gurus persuaded Sikhs to guide their living or that these in sum are refelective of controversies that have caused ineffectiveness of Sikh institutions.
Another notable observation is that the membership of ISC includes WSC-AR indicating that the WSC had in fact gone into an inactive mode by the time ISC was formed. In its turn, ISC has kept a low key and creation of the confederation thus far has barely been noticed. I have not talked to any in their leadership role but going by newsreports the causes and activities espoused by them that attracted media interest seem to be negligible. A quick survey only brought up the following two.
ISC president Lt General (retd) Kartar Singh Gill urged the Union government, especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to take up the turban issue with the French president during his visit to India. He also suggested that the Akal Takht should try and take up this matter with Sarkozy.12
Recently post the sad demise of Dr Kharak Singh, his successor, noted economist Dr S.S. Johl, called for a united effort from all Sikhs to strengthen Sikh religion and assured that the ICS would coordinate and guide giving dispassionate views on issues relating to Sikhism.13 So far it does not sound like leading as Guru Panth.
All India Gurdwara Act
To put this subject in its context we may trace a little bit of its history. It is recorded that even at the time when the Gurdwara Reform Movement was in progress and the British were not having much success with being able to negotiate a deal with the Akalis, the new Governor of Punjab tried some deft moves at dividing the Sikhs and ‘encouraged the officially sponsored Sudhar committees to unite in promoting a Gurdwara Bill — at this critical juncture – Madan Mohan Malviya and Mohammed Ali Jinnah came to the rescue of Akalis – Malviya tried –drafting a bill – in consultation with Akali leadership’ that if not allowed to be moved in the State legislature would be introduced at the Center ‘on the ground that there were also Sikh shrines outside the Punjab and hence there was need for an all-India legislation on the subject.’14
In 1954 one Amar Singh Sahgal from MP introduced a private bill but it died. During the Janta Government period, Badal appointed an advisory committee under Harbans Singh, retired CJ, to prepare a draft bill. After approval by the SGPC, the State Government sent the draft in 1979 to the Center. Again the Janta Government fell and nothing happened.
After Rajiv-Longowal accord the Center sent a copy of the 1979 draft bill to all states in 1986 for comments and review. The Barnala government rejected the same and appointed a new committee to draft the proposed legislation vide notification no. 498 dated August 18, 1986 with Dr Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia, president of Guru Gobind Singh Foundation as its member secretary. The new committee prepared a draft, got it approved in a seminar held at GNDU, but in the meantime the Barnala government was dismissed and the draft did not go any further. It is understood that Law Ministry too had prepared a draft bill based on the 1979 draft and 1925 Act in the meanwhile.
In 1997, the 1986 draft was sent by the Center to Harbans Singh, then Gurdwara Election Commissioner [GEC]. A seminar on Gurdwara Legislation held on 18th October 1997 at IOSS resolved that a Committee comprising of five members be constituted with Chief Justice Harbans Singh (Retd.) as Chairman to prepare a draft for the required Gurdwara Legislation. Copies of the draft Act prepared by Harbans Singh, said to be a hybrid of the 1979 and 1986 versions, were forwarded to SGPC and WSC before it was submitted to the Center in 1999. The draft suggests:
– A central religious committee consisting Jathedars of five Takhts, Head Granthi of Darbar Sahib, President of SGPC, President of the World Sikh Council and one amritdhari Sikh each to be nominated by SGPC and the World Sikh Council. The Jathedar of Akal Takht will be the President of that religious body.
– The selection of Jathedars will be made by a selection committee to be appointed by the SGPC in consultation with the central religious body. He will be sworn into office by the president SGPC. Jathedars will not be removed from office except when an incumbent becomes of unsound mind, found guilty of violation of the rehat maryada or commits act unbecoming of the office held by him.
– Any person to be appointed Jathedar has to be amritdhari and must be a graduate of an Indian university or possess an equivalent educational qualification·
– The Government will make the rules for management of Gurdwaras.15
A seminar was held by WSC on 5-6 Dec 1999 on the subject. PTI reported that the WSC, Akhand Kirtani Jatha International, Sikh Missionary College and several others criticised the draft and took exception to certain amendments and the manner in which it had been done. WSC’s regional chairman Kulbir Singh Kaura said in statement that GEC had no right to propose any amendments and that the draft notification, if passed, would pave the way for interference by the centre in Sikh shrines management.
In another seminar held at the IOSS on 22 Jan 2000, the keynote speaker, Gurtej Singh, traced the history of three drafts of 1979, 1986 and 1999 and said that so far the proposed drafts have been meticulously kept secret from Sikhs with the result that except for the Seminar held by the WSC in December 1999 and the present Seminar, Sikhs have had no occasion to seriously debat whether they want All India Act or not.16
In his defence Justice Harbans Singh issued a rejoinder stating ‘A copy of this Bill was sent by the Home Ministry to me as Chief Commissioner, Gurdwara Elections, in December 1997, for my comments. Discussions on the subject matter were held with various Sikh organisations, with minor modifications, deemed necessary in view of the discussions aforementioned, the draft 1999 Bill was prepared and sent to the Home Ministry on August 14. Thus, the 1999 draft Bill was neither a suo motu product of this writer’s efforts nor a replay of his non-existing 1986 draft.’17
It would be seen that some of the proposed amendments that we have noted are relevant to our discussion and add to the range of variables that will have to be thrown in the mix if this quest is to be able to bring any success. My own sense is that legislated measures are not likely to help us and we should carefully evaluate any option in the light of our experience with the 1925 and 1971 Acts before moving ahead with it. At the same the dynamics of how the subject has been handled over the last many decades only highlights the difficulties inherent in piloting such initiative in the contemporary setting.
The debate on the All India Gurdwara Act is likely to reopen because the governor of Punjab has set up a committee to review and recommend changes in the 1999 draft with Parkash Singh Badal as its president.18
Summing up the Travels and Travails of Guru Panth
It would seem that the Guru Panth seems to have been along a zigzag path. The tasks that awaited Sikhs were challenging. Guru Gobind Singh had already dispatched Banda on a mission to restore some semblance of order, justice and security for the harassed people in Punjab. The Khalsa had learnt the values of freedom and the sacrifices that it entails. In a dangerous and divided world they understood that while each one of them must be able to exercise judgement and decide, the best decisions would come if made collectively and the panj pyara model reinforced their conviction in this regard. They missed the guidance that came from the Guru. It made their job easier. Now the Guru was gone and he had left them a lot of freedom to organize unhindered by masands or any other institutional frame that would bind them down. The Guru gave them the Granth as their eternal Guru and the parting advisory of collective leadership.
This was a challenge and like all challenges it threw up opportunities to innovate. Sikhs started the practice of sarbat khalsa at Akal Takht, adopting gurmattas in the presence of Guru Granth by consensus and following through on decisions taken. The subjects of the gurmattas were mainly the issues that reflected most seriously on their ability to survive and thus had a dominant political and military component. With consolidation of the Sikh rule, the mix of problems changed and Ranjit Singh maneouvered to limit the decisions by Akal Takht Gurmattas to matters of religious import only.
The Reform movements of the 19th century initially were individual initiatives, motivated by impulses to cleanse some religious practices considered UnSikh. These initiatives did not succeed in catching the fancy of Sikh masses. The Singh Sabha movement generated broader community involvement but did not revive sarbat khalsa or adption of gurmattas by consensus. They opted instead for decision-making by a committee on the basis of majority opinion.
The 20th century Gurdwara reform played out in the midst of growing struggle for India’s freedom. The non-violent character of the movement and the restructuring of institutions along modern democratic models won great admiration from political elite but ended up altering the dynamics of Sikh institutions in a very significant way and set the Panth on a new uncharted course.
Sikhs had pinned a lot of hope on the SGPC to be able to provide effective leadership to the Panth. These hopes have not been realized – at least not to the extent it was expected. The circumstances also have changed and with the amritdhari Sikhs stuck at 15% or so and the keshdhari base rapidly eroding, the democratic, electoral model as structured, has been losing credibility as representative of Sikhs at apex and local levels. The quality of demonstrated leadership has only reinforced doubts about inadequacies of the process.
A critical view expressed is that ‘Sikhs generally take comfort in the belief that Guru Gobind Singh gave a boost to democratic ideals when he vested authority jointly in the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth. However, in the absence of personal leadership, the Guru Panth has struggled to evolve satisfactory authority structures in response to Guru Gobind Singh’s desire for Sikhs to be a self-led community. Over the years, while the authority of the Guru Granth has flourished, that of the Guru Panth has been factionalized —- Sikh organizations often fail to realize that their claims to represent all Sikhs require equal citizenship for all Sikhs and not an institutionalized form of discrimination.’19
It is not all negative though. A view commending of SGPC as democratic states that ‘in course of time the SGPC became the ‘authoritative voice’ of the Sikhs. As a democratic institution it has always represented the majority opinion. As such, it has laid the claim to represent the authority of ‘Guru Panth’ although it has been frequently challenged by Sikhs living outside the Punjab.’20
Akal Takht also has drawn greater muscle from SGPC. At the same time Jathedar of Akal Takht being an SGPC appointee has at times appeared to be acting under the influence of Akali Dal. Sikhs respect Akal Takht as an institution but have been bewildered by actions of the Jathedars of Akal Takht and other Takhts. Their continuous and open infights have not helped the institution of five takhts to be effective apex Sikh religious authority. This has been further aggravated by Hukamnamas being rescinded by successor Jathedars or being ignored in many cases. Blatant interference by Akali Dal and summary dismissals of the Jathedars by SGPC has not helped either.
A crude display of the politicization of Akal Takht was witnessed recently when Jathedar Vedanti was sacked [Aug 2008] and Gurbachan Singh installed in his place. This was seen as repetition of similar past instances like sacking of Prof. Manjit Singh to pave the way for Bhai Ranjit Singh who in turn was removed to install Giani Puran Singh replaced soon enough by Vedanti. Vedanti was appointed Jathedar of Akal Takht in March 2000 and has told media that his resignation was obtained by two loyalists of Badal who came to his residence with no other option but to quit.21
The infighting betwixt the Takhts is vividly seen right at this moment when “Guru-Ta-Gaddi Divas” has run into controversy over the date of the auspicious day. Going by the Nanakshahi calendar the anniversary falls on October 20. Takht Hazoor Sahib, Takht Patna Sahib, Damdami Taksal, Sant Samaj and certain Nihang factions are against the Nanakshahi calendar and the Takht Hazoor Sahib hosting the celebrations wants to go by the traditional Bikrami calendar and hold it on October 30. The Akal Takht, SGPC and DSGMC are for celebrations on October 20. There will thus be celebrations on different dates at Amritsar and Nanded.22
The SRM can be interpreted to provide a model for working the Guru Panth. This model is at variance with the 18th century practice in that it limits gurmatta only to such issues that may fundamentally affect Sikhi as a religion and additionally the decisions are to be taken by a representative group that in practice means the committee of the Jathedars of the five Takhts. SRM does not provide clues as to how the authority is to work. It has not caused much distress because the SRM is more cited than understood or followed in any case. Disputes routinely end up in local courts and are adjudicated per to prevailing laws.
The combined failure of the SGPC, SRM and the Takhts to find a workable institutional model to guide and lead the Panth created a vacuum. A number of Sikhs have given vent to their frustration with the state of affairs and an anthology documenting proceedings of a conference in 1998 includes at least three papers that have discussed these issues23 with several more being presented in conferences and published in journals. Initiatives like the World Sikh Council and the International Sikh Confederation that sought to represent global Sikhs too have not been able to find a model that works.
As I complete this paper we are getting closer to the date of celebration of Gur ta Gaddi Divas. We had invited a few interfaith leaders from Central Pennsylvania to Gurdwara a week earlier as a prelude to celebrations later in the month. This was their first visit to a Gurdwara and when we had a meeting of the Greater Harrisburg Inter-religious Forum a couple of days later, Mike Sand, one of those who had come to the Gurdwara gave a very warm account of welcome he felt and the sense of piety he sensed among the devotees in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib.
The reverence that Sikhs show to their living Guru seems more than expression of piety; it is an intense display of awe and respect almost bordering on compulsively ritualistic. In the last few days another incident that attracted media attention brings home idolatrous in us in a vivid manner. An Air India flight from London to New Delhi was used to carry 500 unuseable copies of the SGGS placed on 300 seats with 32 sevadars occupying the remaining seats. Gurudwara Mai Pago in Karol Bagh Delhi collected the copies from across the UK over a period of eight months and spent about # 80,000 to transport these for their final disposal at Gurudwara Khushalpur near Ponta Sahib in Uttarakhand.24
This and several other similar ritualistic practices have come into currency with the not so explicit yet clear enough lead from the SGPC, more to extend their control globally over printing and distribution of SGGS. This was done in the name of irreverence that the private printers and distributors had shown in their businesses. In several places, more actively in Mumbai and parts of England Maryada Brigades have come up who have not even refrained from use of force for compliance of their code of rituals in handling of the Granth.
So even as on one hand such ritualistic practices are becoming more onerous, the Internet has thrown up an alternate that in fact makes all the rituals redundant and is handy when traveling or staying away from home on a short visit for daily prayerful reading. There are many other things happening where such heightened ritualistic practices cannot be and are not being adhered to. There is so much of printed material in books and in papers presented at conferences with verses quoted from the SGGS that finds its way into the garbage.
As we go forward such struggles between orthodoxy and pragmatic transformation in the manner of being respectful to SGGS will continue but is not likely reduce Sikh respect or acceptance of SGGS as their Guru. We are in fact witnessing that more open discussion in the relatively anonymous Internet domain is veering the skeptics and even renegades to more moderate positions regarding acceptance of the Guru’s teachings.
Turning to Guru Panth the skepticism about the state of Sikh institutions has been voiced also by those other than Sikhs. McLeod says ‘Guru Panth was a doctrine particularly suited to the circumstances of the eighteenth century — under Ranjit Singh the practice of eliciting corporate decisions from the Panth was discarded. The doctrine is still maintained today — however, seldom invoked.’25 His view is that in the present context sarbat khalsa means ‘a representative body of Sikhs summoned by the Jathedar of Akal Takht acting on instructions from the SGPC, for an important matter concerning the Panth.’26
Such cynicism apart, focused as we are at the controversies surrounding SRM, SGPC and Akal Takht we seem less concerned about what is happening at the gurdwaras where problems keep revisiting every now and then. We had talked earlier about the incidents at the Sikh Foundation of Virginia leading to intervention by Akal Takht. The place is again in the news as we write because the current management committee has dismissed Giani Kuldeep Singh over failure to agree about his contract and the sangat is again split with accusations flying between the parties and showdown likely.
For the sake of the Panth as well as Guru Panth the need to attend to problems that infest our local Gurdwara sangats is urgent. This is the level where all our differences play out in the raw. It is given that differences are bound to arise in any collective setting but the finesse of an organization consists in being able to negotiate through what is divisive and find a common ground. Gurus encouraged sangats to be self-reliant and institution of panj pyaras reinforces the ability of sangats to manage their affairs effectively on their own. The sangats must not only set their own rules for management and take their positions on issues of local concern but all involved – granthies, management and sangat – must also learn how to co-opt together to make the gurdwara operate effectively with least conflict. Experience has shown that excessive regulation including from any central authority does not really help.
As regards the apex tier of religious authority, tradition strongly supports this authority to be built around the institution of Akal Takht. Tradition also supports that the manner in which the system functions can evolve and change. If this premise is accepted, using the concepts of sarbat khalsa, gurmatta, panj pyaras, rehat and consensus, ways to create such an authority can be found.
There are however some additional factors like those mentioned below would have to be considered and resolved:
– Institutions that co-ordinate management of group of Gurdwaras should only aim to be facilitators and must not try to assume supra roles at playing the Guru Panth. The only link that needs to be clearly defined in the model is the one that connects the sangat and the apex body - other linkages can be open; activated as needed or decided by the concerned organizational leaderships.
– Those who provide liturgical services are an important part of our religious life. In most cases they have taken to it as a profession and do it for living. This group is not small. In fact in proportionate terms it is likely to be significantly larger than in other faiths because of their extensive use of volunteers to support performance of liturgical services. This group is in touch with the sangat, knows how to communicate with them and has a good sense of what devotees are seeking – the language barrier apart. Quite a few of them have a great deal of understanding and knowledge of Gurbani, Sikhi as well as its popular myths. Yet this group seems to receive recognition and their voice is heard only when they come in as sant samaj, taksals, babas or dera wallas. They are rarely helped or encouraged to seek higher education and little thought is spared for the poor wages or social isolation within the community that they suffer from. Any model that does not integrate this group into the institutional structure is not likely to succeed.
– The place of intelligentia and scholars within the paradigm of any renewal also is to be thought about. This group has had extensive input in choice of structural changes, decision processes and electoral options since the Singh Sabha days and has continued to wield considerable influence over all levels of our organizations through the media, the Internet and in advisory capacities. They have a role and a way must be found to get their input as long as their zeal for radical change or for popular culture is carefully attenuated.
The problem is pretty daunting but doable. An empathetically hopeful note is struck by a scholar of the Sikh reform period saying that ‘Underlying new initiatives and discussions is the realization that authority in Sikhism comes not from institutions — but instead, from within Sikhs themselves. In essence Sikhs do not need external forces defining their faith and practice, the Guru Granth Sahib combined with common sense application of ideas will suffice — experience of the last century [20th] — points to the pitfalls of over defining — that cause confrontation and schism.’ Sikh religious authority, tradition and power dynamics [politics] needs to be rethought and reinvented back to what the Gurus did for over two centuries to make Sikhi ‘prosper as the newest and most vital of the world’s religions.’27
This perhaps is the key. We have to be inclusive and we must keep in mind the heritage that the Gurus left us. Let us renew our institutions - not try and implant untested models over them. Gurus gave us the freedom to evolve and renew our authority structure by not leaving a prescriptive regime for us to revere and live by. The good thing is that we have the entire wherewithal available to renew and rejuvinate the buoyant spirit of Guru Panth once again. Let us get to work. It is time. Remember it is tercentenary calling us not only to celebrate but also to make the Panth strong and well guided for the coming centuries.
1 See Dr Man Singh Nirankari in The Singh Sabha and other Socio-Religious Movements in the Punjab, ed. Ganda Singh, Patiala, 1997
2 Ibid, Bhagat Singh on Kuka Movement, pp. 156-57
3 Harbans Singh, The Heritage of Sikhs, Manohar, 1999, p. 203
4 For a detailed treatment of constitutional structures see Gurdarshan Singh, in Ganda Singh ibid pp. 45-59
5 Akali Dal had issued a flier during early stages of gurdwara movement commending acceptance of a broad definition of Sikh including sehjdharis ‘political’ reasons – p. 203, Sikhism & History, ibid
6 Tribune, October 9, 2000.
7 Jathedar Akal Takht Manjit Singh was involved in the process that led to this constitution being written. The dispute goes back to early 90’s and arose out of struggle for power between two warring groups at the Sikh Foundation of Virginia Gurdwara. The contesting parties brought up the issues of maryada, SGPC and Akal Takht to the fore during litigation hearings by the commissioner. Granthi at the Gurdwara raised the issue with Jathedar Manjit Singh who got involved and asked for the case to be withdrawn and settled per Panthic mores. The Foundation did not accept his intervention under the plea that it was constituted under local laws. After protracted hearings in 1994 the court decided that the gurdwaras were congregational and thus the authority vested in the congregation as per the byelaws adopted by them. The trustees thus won back control of the Foundation but the rival party set up a Singh Sabha Gurdwara and wrote a constitution that was approved by Jathedar Manjit Singh as a model that would resolve conflict in a panthic manner and avoid recourse to courts. For further reading see Barrier in Sikh Identity and Sikhism & History, World Sikh News, 1993-4. The SSG were modest in their comment when sending me their constitution ‘this constitution has been approved by Sri Akal Takhat and since it is new concept every one at Singh Sabha Gurdwara is getting used to it right now.’
8 Some examples include the criticism leveled at the actions and edicts of Jasbir Singh Rode, Darshan Singh and Manjit Singh during their tenures as Jathedars; excommunication of President of SGPC by Puran Singh on Nanak Shahi calender; inter-Takht mud slinging etc extensively documented in the media.
9 Chandigarh, June 10, 1998 — Tribune News item on report on activities of the Council by Brig. (Retd) Gurdip Singh, Secretary General, World Sikh Council,
10 Tribune, September 6, 1998
11 Abstract of Sikh Studies, April-June, 2006, pp. 1-4
12 Tribune, January 22, 2008
13 Tribune, September 9, 2008
14 Mohinder Singh, The Akali Movement, NIPS, 1997, p. 134-35
15 The preceding account is based on PPS Gill reporting in Tribune dated September 2, 1998; Gurcharan Singh Lamba’s writing on the bill posted at Sikhnet on Jan 25, 2000; Tribune reports on Sep 15, 1999 etc
16 IOSS News
17 IOSS News, Jan 2000
18 WSN, Aug 8, 2007
19 Puneet Singh Lamba, Sikh Times
20 Pashaura Singh in Sikhism & History, Oxford, 2004, p. 97
21 Tribune report, August 11, 2008
22 Ajay Bhardwaj writing in Tribune, Oct 10, 2008
23 Khalsa & the Twenyfirst Century, Ed. Kharak Singh, Chandigarh, 1999
24 Reporting by PTI
25 Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, Oxford, 2002, p.97-8
26 Ibid, p. 189
27 N G Barrier in Sikhism & History, Oxford, 2002 p. 222.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All