Gurdwara Legislation and Beyond
Prof Kulwant Singh
In matters of faith, paying obeisance alone does not suffice. Since the reiteration of faith is always manifested through human gestures, it is invariably accompanied by some sort of offering. During the primitive times, these offerings were appropriated by the community designated or self-appointed priests of a deity or a place of worship. But as the number of devotees and the volume of offerings kept on increasing, all religious communities developed their own systems of management of their religious institutions. Likewise, the Sikhs evolved their own system of Gurdwara Management. So long as the devotion to the Sikh Gurus and their eternal embodiment Sri Guru Granth Sahib rested on faith remaining completely untainted by any other consideration, the Gurdwara Management remained vested in the hands of chosen devout individuals of spotless integrity and genuine humble practitioners of faith whom the sangat (congregation) elected on the basis of consensus. The Sikh Gurus themselves had been appointing the heads (Masands) of various Manjis scattered all over the country on the basis of this criterion. But as it often happens with every system, howsoever meticulous and impeccable, there appeared cracks in the Manji system as a result of the errant behavior of a few individuals at the helm of affairs. The tenth Sikh Guru was constrained to demolish this centuries-old well-established system. In the absence of an alternative system and the coincidental period of massive persecution of the Sikhs in the eighteenth century, the hereditary heads of certain splinter Sikh sects (Mahants) of Udassi and Nirmala sects took over the management of Sikh Shrines in Punjab and other part of India. Not only did they appropriate bulk of daily offerings and properties donated by the devout Sikhs to these Sikh shrines, but they also adulterated the propagation Sikh Gurus’ distinctive teachings with the vedic and Purantic and casteist mythological claptrap. The Sikhs had to wage a relentless battle for five years (1920-25) to bring about the much needed reforms in Gurdwara Management.
With the success of Gurdwara Reforms Movement of (1920-25) and the passage of subsequent Gurdwara Legislation in 1925, the services and control of hereditary unSikh like Mahants were dispensed with and a new system based on democratically elected Sikh representation based on adult Sikh franchise in the form of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee came into effect. Since the formation of SGPC in 1925 till today, a large number of Sikh Gurdwaras in Punjab, Himachal Pardesh, Chandigarh (UT) are being managed by the SGPC. Through the several amendments in the SGPC act notably in 1944-45, 1956, several distortions and loopholes have been plugged and a clear and final definition of a Sikh, Gurdwara and several related terms have been finalized. But despite this comprehensive legislation being in place, are the Sikh Gurdwaras being managed well and the main aims and objectives of this legislation and Sikh religion being fulfilled? How far have the Gurdwaras under the SGPC control contributed and succeeded in the propagation and preaching of Sikh religion ? Does the electoral system based on legislation ensure the election of Sikhs of integrity and men who observe the Sikh Code of Conduct in letter and spirit as members of the SGPC? Do these elected members and office bearers of this elected august body of the Sikhs command respect and trust of the Sikh masses ? Are the sizeable amount of Gurdwara funds collected through the voluntary offerings of devout Sikhs being properly utilized for the promotion of Sikh religion? Although there are no clear and definite answers to these questions, the general feeling among the Sikhs about this legislative system and Gurdwara Management based on this system is one of disgust and cumulative frustration. The most disgusting aspect of this system is the almost complete politicization of the election based on the legislative system of Gurdwara Management. The elections to SGPC have been vitiated by all the corrupt practices which politicians of political parties indulge in during the elections to the various legislative bodies. Barring a handful of elected SGPC members, majority of them bear the political tag of one political party or the other. They neither have commitment nor freedom to contribute to the management of Gurdwaras and service to the Sikh Panth. The simple issue of giving due representation to Sahajdhari Sikh voters has still not been sorted out and is being litigated in the apex court of the country. As a result, the present SGPC duly elected in 2011, does not have the power to manage Sikh shrines. An adhoc executive body is running the system on an adhoc basis. It is due to the highly excessive politicization of SGPC and the manipulative electoral system that a separate Gurdwara Management body DSGMC had come into being in the Union Territory of Delhi in 1971 and a similar body HSGPC has been constituted through state legislation in the state of Haryana in 2014. Separate Gurdwara Management boards exist in the some other big states of India like Maharashtra and Bihar. All these Gurdwara bodies are the products of this politicized legislative system of Sikh shrines. The proposed All India Sikh Gurdwara Act which sought to unite all the Sikhs in India and manage all the Sikh shrines in India on a uniform pattern and which has been drafted and finalized by the best legal Sikh luminaries has been abandoned because of the same political and factional considerations. Now when the Sikhs have settled all over the world and have established their Gurdwaras, even the enactment of an All India Gurdwara Act has lost its relevance. Even if this All India Gurdwara Act is enacted in near future, it is likely to suffer from all the similar earlier maladies, since its basis is also legislative and electoral.
Thus, issue before the entire Sikh Panth is whether the legislation based constitution of Gurdwara Management bodies consisting of democratically elected members is capable of bringing about the much-needed reforms in Gurdwara Management. Taking into account the existing systems of governance based on democratic principles in the majority of Indian states and the majority of the countries of the world where the Sikhs have their places of worship and also taking into account the absence of availability of any other better system of governance so far in the whole world in the modern context, can a better system of Gurdwara Management be evolved and adopted? Perhaps, no better alternative is available at this point of time. In such a scenario, one course open to the Sikhs is to make a course correction in the present legislative system by plugging all the visible loopholes and make the laws governing the election to the Gurdwara Management so stringent and foolproof and completely independent of political interference that no unscrupulous person or entity could dare to contest Gurdwara elections. Only a decade short of a century has passed since the first Gurdwara Reform which were the result of a religious renaissance called the Singh Sabha Movement which had ushered in the historical Gurdwara Reform. A new religious revival of much greater magnitude capable of adopting and incorporating the latest corporate management techniques and professional practices and restructuring the existing legislative system needs to be launched. The entire gamut of Gurdwara legislation and alternative models of Gurdwara Management needs to discussed and debated so that the necessary Gurdwara Reforms be undertaken. But reforms must be made to restore people's faith in the system.
When the Sikhs had accepted the legislative and electoral system of Gurdwara Management in 1925, they had hardly any idea about the pitfalls of this system. But some outsiders had a clear vision about its inadequacies and its far-reaching implications which could stifle and damage the spiritual religious and faith-based foundation of Gurdwaras. For instance, Sir Fazal-i-Hussain, the Law Minister in the then Punjab Ministry at that time had said that the Sikhs, by getting the Gurdwara Reforms Act in 1925 passed had committed a blunder because of which they would suffer for how long he could not imagine? Lord Molcolm Hailey, the then Governor-General of Punjab had predicted even greater suffering for the Sikhs as a consequence of the adoption of this legislative-electoral setup for Gurdwara management. The painful echo of the prophetic warning of his perceptive remark, “As the Sikhs implement and practice the provisions of this Act, they will experience raps on their knuckles similar to those suffered by a moving camel around whose neck a heavy metal bell has been loosely hung”, is clearly being felt and suffered by majority of the Sikhs. It is increasingly being felt that neither every adult Sikh voter nor every prospective Sikh candidate or an elected Sikh representative nor legislative electoral system is suitable for managing an institutional network for Gurdwaras which are citadels of the faith for the devout Sikh Sangat and their religio-spiritual aspirations. The taint of political hegemony of a dominant political faction has poisoned and vitiated the otherwise workable system. Instead of Piri (the spiritual component), Miri (the political-temporal component) of the Sikh Miri-Piri doctrine, the latter component has completely usurped the institutional management of Sikh Gurdwaras under the garb of apparently transparent democratic framework. As a result of this unholy nexus between politicians and seemingly religious representatives, the credibility and reputation of those managing the Sikh Gurdwaras as well as of the present system of Gurdwara Management is at its lowest among the Sikhs. A sense of public despair and helplessness is clearly visible among the Sikh masses. An immortal verse of Bhai Gurdas sum-up this despair and frustration:
A course correction, therefore, if not a complete overhaul, is the urgent need of the times. The possibility of alternatives like reducing the number of seats in the SGPC house, filling majority of the seats through the representatives of recognized, registered Singh Sabha Gurdwaras, or direct election of the President of the Gurdwara Management and constitution of its executive committee by the elected President with a proviso to constitute the executive in consultation with the members of the house, should be explored and deliberated upon. Gurdwara as a place of Sikh worship and as an institution as well as the permanent abode of the eternal Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib and thereby being the most sacred, most sanctified and the most haloed place must be guarded and protected from the political predators. No psychic crisis makes human life as hollow and meaningless as the crisis of faith. Let us not shake this faith and pray and work for its preservation. Faith in God and in those who manage its shrines is the bedrock of a religious community's existence. When the flock feels alienated from those who shephered the flock, it is bound to result in further estrangement and bad-blood. Those at the helm of affairs in the management of Sikh shrines must introspect and evaluate their accountability not only to their worldly masters and but more seriously to the Divine Gurus of whose sacred temples they are the custodians. Spiritual emancipation is more valuable than the temporal advancement.
ਭਾਂਡਾ ਹਛਾ ਸੋਇ ਜੋ ਤਿਸੁ ਭਾਵਸੀ ॥
ਭਾਂਡਾ ਅਤਿ ਮਲੀਣੁ ਧੋਤਾ ਹਛਾ ਨ ਹੋਇਸੀ ॥
ਗੁਰੂ ਦੁਆਰੈ ਹੋਇ ਸੋਝੀ ਪਾਇਸੀ ॥
ਏਤੁ ਦੁਆਰੈ ਧੋਇ ਹਛਾ ਹੋਇਸੀ ॥
A pot that gets Lord's approval alone is worthy,
A surfacial scrub shall not render a highly contaminated pot clean.
Surrender at Lord's enterance shall brighten its chances,
An overhaul at Lord's portal shall make it worth.
(Suhi Mohalla 1, p. 730)
Note: With inputs from late Principal Harbhajan Singh’s article Adarshak Gurdwara Prabandh, published in IOSS’s booklet “On Gurdwara Legislation” 1998, pp. 107-118.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2014, All