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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh

 

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ALL INDIA SIKH GURDWARAs ACT

Dr Kharak Singh

Experience with Gurdwaras Act, 1925
The act has been tried for three quarters of a century. It has been amended from time to time to remove the problems encountered, and to facilitate better management. One must admit that its performance has fallen short of expectations. At the same time, it cannot be denied that it has brought about tremendous improvement over the situation during the control of mahants. The shortcomings have more often been in the implementation, than in the enactment of the Gurdwaras Act. This is not to say that the Act is perfect. We are aware of the problems encountered in its working, some of which may be reproduced below:

   1. Elections depend upon the pleasure of the Government of India. Last elections were held after 17 years against the statutory requirement of 5 years.

   2. The onus for registration rests on the voters themselves, unlike the elections to the Parliament or the State Legislatures, in which it is the responsibility of the Government to prepare the electoral rolls through a house-to-house survey. A large part of the eligible Sikh population, therefore, does not exercise the right to vote.

   3. The Act is no guarantee against State interference, which assumed proportions of naked aggression in 1984.

   4. The process of elections is cumbersome and expensive, and does not really attract desirable candidates. Everybody can become a voter. In practice, even non-Sikhs and non-believers can do so in the garb of sehjdhari Sikhs. Political Parties openly fight the election to this purely religious body, although some of them make loud claims to secularism, and are known to be anti-religious.

   5. Election to SGPC is used as a stepping-stone for other political ambitions. All kinds of corrupt practices are rampant. Resort to official pressure, nepotism, bribe, distribution of alcohol, etc., is widespread.

   6. The SGPC, with a membership of about 190 is excessively large, particularly when members have hardly anything to do. They attend no more than two single day sessions in a year, once to elect the President and the Executive Committee and another time to pass a small budget of a few crore rupees.

7. The term of the President is only one year, which is inadequate for any meaningful reform in management.
The answer to all these problems is obviously to have a carefully drafted All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act. Merely scrapping of the existing legislation will be irrational.

The Demand for an All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act
This demand is as old as the Gurdwaras Act, 1925. Sikhs have always felt that gurdwaras out of the erstwhile Punjab territories should also be managed by the SGPC. This could be done only through legislation by the Central Government. This became imperative with the reorganisation of the Punjab State into Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Implementation of the Gurdwaras Act, 1925, became a responsibility of the Central Government. However, the Congress Government ignored its responsibility and no elections were held for 14 years (against the requirement of 5 years). It was only in 1978 under the Janata Government that elections could be conducted under the supervision and control of Chief Commissioner Gurdwara Elections appointed by the Central Government under a new section, 47A added to the Act for the purpose. After the brief Janata regime, the Congress again came into power, and again no elections were held for 18 years.

The demand has a long history. Earliest reference is found in a letter written by Sardar Mangal Singh, President of the outlawed SGPC, in 1924 to his Secretary.

Since 1926, the SGPC and SAD have made this demand for All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act countless number of times. In 1956, at the time of Regional Formula, the Government gave an assurance to consider this demand sympathetically. However, two bills introduced by Sardar Amar Singh Sehgal in the Parliament did not receive any consideration. This was given top priority in the Nehru-Tara Singh Pact. The demand is also a part of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution passed by the SGPC, as well as the Rajiv-Longowal Accord of 1985.

The draft of All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act, was prepared by Sardar Joginder Singh Rekhi in 1956. The second draft was prepared by Justice Harbans Singh in 1977, which was put in cold storage, because by the time it reached the Government of India, the Janata Government was out of power. The matter was again taken up after the Rajiv-Longowal Accord and the earlier draft of 1977 was circulated for the opinion of the State Governments. Strangely, the Punjab Government with Sardar Surjit Singh as Chief Minister, instead of endorsing the draft, formally referred it to a committee with Minister Natha Singh Dalam as Chairman. Some amendments were made in the draft and the amended draft was sent to the Cabinet, but the matter was shelved again for lack of interest on the part of the government.

As things stand today, there is no legislation governing the management of Sikh gurdwaras apart from the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, the Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1971, and the Nanded Sikh Gurdwara Sachkhand Sri Hazur Sahib Act, 1956. In other states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, the relevant Hindu Endowments Acts are applicable to Sikh gurdwaras which have to pay 5% of their gross income to the respective Endowment Commissioners. The Sikhs in these states have always resented this and have been anxious to have an All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act to ensure purely Sikh control over the gurdwaras.

As recently as 1996, the SGPC reiterated the demand through the Resolution no. 15, dated 20th December, 1996, reproduced below:

ਸਿਖ ਪੰਥ ਦੀ ਚਿਰੋਕਣੀ ਮੰਗ ਹੈ ਕਿ ਭਾਰਤ ਭਰ ਦੇ ਸਮੂਹ ਇਤਿਹਾਸਕ ਗੁਰਦੁਆਰਾ ਸਾਹਿਬਾਨ ਨੂੰ ਇਕ ਐਕਟ (ਕਾਨੂੰਨ) ਹੇਠ ਲਿਆਂਦਾ ਜਾਵੇ ਅਤੇ ਇਸ ਸੰਬੰਧੀ ਅਕਾਲੀ ਸਰਕਾਰ ਸਮੇਂ ਇਕ ਐਕਟ ਦਾ ਡਰਾਫਟ ਤਿਆਰ ਕੀਤਾ ਗਿਆ ਸੀ । ਉਸੇ ਦੀ ਮਨਸ਼ਾ ਅਨੁਸਾਰ ਆਲ ਇੰਡੀਆ ਗੁਰਦੁਆਰਾ ਐਕਟ ਬਣਾਇਆ ਜਾਵੇ ।

Role of the Institute of Sikh Studies
Given the above situation, and convinced that an All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act is the unanimous and longstanding demand of the entire Sikh community, the Institute considered it necessary to consider the issues at an academic level. To be precise, we wanted to find out the considered opinion of Sikh intellectuals on whether an All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act was needed at all? And in that case what kind of provisions should be made in it? Accordingly, a seminar was organised in October 1998, in which a large number of scholars presented excellent papers. The seminar was very well attended and participants included representatives of SGPC, the Government, as well as Sikh political parties, besides Sikh intelligentsia and general public.

The decision to hold the seminar on this subject was unanimous, and there was not a trace of dissent at that time and all members (including those who have changed their views now) gave full cooperation and support, and even managed the stage.

The proceedings and the papers read were published in the form of a book ‘On Gurdwara Legislation’ and widely distributed. The SGPC procured 500 copies for distribution among its members, MPs, MLAs and other leading Sikhs. The report was very well received. It must be noted that nobody expressed an opinion against the findings of the seminar. The points stressed by various speakers as summarised in the report were:

   1. All India Gurdwaras Act was desirable. Care needs to be taken that it does not promote interference by the Central or State government. Rather, government interference should be eliminated altogether.

   2. Size of the SGPC is too large at present. It should be substantially reduced, preferably to a total membership of 51.

   3. No political party should fight SGPC elections.

   4. Elections should be held regularly after 4-5 years. The present term of only one year for President should be raised to 2 - 2.5 years, so that in each term, there may be 2 Presidents.

   5. Voters should be keshdhari only.

   6. Sehjdhari and other special interests may be accommodated through co-option, which may be provided in the Act.

   7. Representation of women as well as Scheduled Castes is essential. This may be ensured through reservations or convention.

   8. The present system of elections based on universal adult franchise is unsuitable for gurdwara elections, since it leads to corruption, mismanagement and election of unscrupulous elements to power, and closes the door to really deserving candidates. The present system should be replaced with an Electoral College of all registered gurdwara managements, Singh Sabhas, and other registered Sikh organisations.

   9. Oversees Sikhs must find adequate representation on the SGPC through nomination or co-option.

10. Some minimum qualifications should be prescribed for members of the SGPC as well as its senior employees.

11. Akal Takht and other takhts enjoy a special status, which should be recognized in the Act. Their functions, authority, mode of appointment of the jathedars of these takhts, qualifications of the incumbents, term of office, mode of functioning, etc., should be clearly defined.

12. Provision should be made for Advisory Committees to facilitate decisions of the SGPC as well as the Akal Takht.

13. A permanent Election Commission should be set up to ensure regular and timely elections.

The Resolution
After discussion, a resolution was unanimously passed to constitute a Committee to draft suitable legislation, keeping the above and other views expressed in the papers in mind, as early as possible.

The text of the Resolution is reproduced below:
 ‘For a very long time, Sikhs have been clamouring for updated legislation for the management of Sikh Gurdwaras. Government of India had agreed to bring forth the requisite enactment, but so far updated law has not been framed. Having considered this issue and its various implications discussed in various papers and speeches in the seminar on Gurdwara Legislation held on October 18, 1998, at Chandigarh, it is hereby resolved that a Committee comprising of five members be constituted with Chief Justice Harbans Singh (retd) as Chairman and with Dr Kashmir Singh, Department of Law, GNDU, Amritsar; Ms Kiranjot Kaur, (SGPC); Dr Gurmit Singh, Advocate; Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian and Sardar Nanak Singh Nishter, Advocate, as members to prepare a draft for the required Gurdwaras Legislation.

‘This gathering also calls upon the Government of India, the Government of Punjab and the SGPC to take necessary steps to enact updated law for the management of Sikh Gurdwaras.’

Justice Harbans Singh held extensive consultations with a cross-section of the Panth in Punjab as well as outside, and submitted his own draft. The fact that he invited a couple of members of the Institute of Sikh Studies to one or two meetings in their individual capacity does not throw the responsibility for the draft on the door of the Institute of Sikh Studies. Also, in those meetings opinion was sought only on specific points. No draft was ever put for discussion or endorsement. The exercise was, in fact, conducted in response to a mandate from the SGPC and as a result of the commitment of the Government to the Sikhs to pass the Act.  Retd Chief Justice Harbans Singh was asked by the Janata Ministry in 1977 to prepare a draft of an All India Gurdwaras Act, and he took up this work in right earnest. A Committee of five members, with Chief Justice (Retd.) Harbans Singh as Chairman, was constituted at the end to prepare a final draft of the All India Gurdwara Act. Now that the Akalis are coalition partners in the Central Government, there should be no difficulty in getting this Act passed by the Parliament.

Conclusion
The Gurdwaras Act, 1925, was the result of prolonged struggle of 5 years (1920-1925), involving sacrifice of 400 lives, 2000 injured, 30,000 jailed, besides Rs 15 lakhs as fines. It was a saga of bravery and valour, regarded as a golden chapter in Sikh history. The British Government never wanted to concede the Act, just as the present government in Delhi has been putting off All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act. Saying that we do want the Act now, would reduce the Gurdwara struggle of the early twenties to a 'brave deed done in vain' and would be an insult to martyrs of the morchas and sufferings of Sikhs in the cause of the Guru. What we need is to ensure an effective control of all Gurdwaras in India eliminating government interference. For this purpose suitable amendments can be made in the draft prepared by Justice Harbans Singh. SGPC should be asked to appoint a committee for this purpose and the amended draft should be vigorously pursued. Rejecting the proposed All India Sikh Gurdwaras Act would be playing in the hands of government and would mean inconsistency of our stand on the issue. A volte-face now will be most unfortunate.

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