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Gur Panth Parkash

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

 

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On Gurdwara Legislation

Dr Kharak Singh

Almost every Sikh is aware of the existence of the Gurdwaras Act in Punjab. There are not many, however, who have read it. Fewer still are the people who know that there is some kind of legislation in other states as well, that regulates the functioning of gurdwaras in their respective jurisdictions. The prevailing lack of awareness can be judged from the fact that a number of scholars, when requested to contribute papers on the subject, failed to respond positively on the plea that they hardly knew anything about gurdwara legislation. Copies of the Gurdwaras Act (1925) which runs into nearly 200 pages are not easily available. So, on our request, the SGPC mimeographed about 100 copies of selected parts of the Act, which were supplied to interested scholars.

History
The widespread mismanagement and rampant corruption in most of the Sikh shrines under mahants, enjoying the patronage of the British Government, attracted a mass agitation of Sikhs which lasted for 5 years from 1920 to 1925. Repressive measures of the Government, involving/leading to martyrdom of hundreds of Sikhs and incarceration and torture of tens of thousands, failed to suppress the movement. In the process, a glorious chapter was added to the history of the Sikh nation. The Government had to yield and the control of all historic gurdwaras in the then Punjab state was transferred to a representative body of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, under the Gurdwaras Act, 1925.

It was soon discovered that the Act, as originally passed, suffered from some deficiencies, particularly those relating to the definition of a Sikh, a gurdwara and its properties. Principal Surjit Singh Gandhi, in his paper has dealt with these weaknesses in detail as also with the efforts made in 1930 to correct them. The various Committees constituted to run the programmes lacked statutory status. Also, the powers of the Gurdwara Judicial Commission were not adequately defined, nor were the qualifications of its members precisely laid. These weaknesses were removed through the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Act, 1930, piloted by Sardar Ujjal Singh. It may be pointed out that practically all prominent Hindu members of the Punjab Legislative Council, like Gokal Chand Narang, Mukand Lal Puri, Pt Nanak Chand and Kesho Ram Sikhri opposed the amendment on the plea that it would adversely affect the interests of some sects like Udasis, considered to be Hindus. However, the bill was passed and, as a result, a Sikh was defined as follows:
      
“If any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed, respectively, to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the local Government may prescribe the following declaration:
                ‘I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh;
                that I believe in Guru Granth Sahib;
                that I believe in the ten Gurus; and
                that I have no other religion.’ ”

Other improvements were:

“a) Clause 3 stated that even those places, which were not used as gurdwara could be considered as gurdwara, while in the original, only those places could be considered as gurdwara which were being presently used.”

“b) Clause 7 considered the committee of management of gurdwaras or gurdwara under its management as a corporate body and enabled it to sue or be sued in its corporate name. It was also awarded perpetual succession and a common seal.”

Initially, the SGPC controlled only Akal Takht Sahib and Keshgarh Sahib. All the Gurdwara Committees under Section 85 were independent. Financial resources of the SGPC were, thus, extremely meagre. Through amendments made in 1944-45 and 1956, these gurdwaras came under the direct management of the SGPC, besides reservation of seats for Scheduled Caste Sikhs. This substantially improved its financial position. In 1956, an amendment enhanced the powers of the Dharam Parchar Committee as also its budget allocation.

Before December 1986, the SGPC had under its control 12 gurdwaras under Section 85, besides nearly 350 gurdwaras under Section 87. The Barnala Government through an ordinance dissolved another 140 local Committees with an annual income of over Rs 25,000/- each, and transferred the gurdwaras to direct management of the SGPC, which added to its revenue.

After independence, contrary to expectations, the Government started interfering in gurdwara affairs more and more. On March 3, 1949, when Sikhs wanted to hold a prayer at Sri Akal Takht in connection with the Protest Day, police entered the Takht premises to prevent them. On the 4th July, 1955, again, during the peaceful agitation for Punjabi Suba, the police entered the Akal Takht and the Golden Temple Complex, used tear gas, resorted to firing in the premises, and arrested the Akal Takht Jathedar (Bhai Achhar Singh) with many others.

Since Sikh protest against this high-handedness went unheeded, Master Tara Singh declared on April 7, 1959, his intention to undertake a fast unto death from 16th April, 1959, at New Delhi. Jawahar Lal Nehru invited Master Tara Singh to tea on 12th April, 1959. This resulted in the Nehru-Tara Singh Pact, the text of which is reproduced below:

“At the request of the Prime Minister, Master Tara Singh came to see him at his house, this afternoon. As a result of their talk, the following statement was agreed upon:

   1. It is common ground among all concerned that there should be no Government interference in religious affairs. Nevertheless, complaints have arisen of such interference in the past in regard to gurdwara management and amendments made in the Gurdwaras Act.

   2. Some machinery should be devised to ensure the implementation of the policy of non-interference in gurdwara management and to consider any complaints of such interference. It is suggested that a committee should be constituted for this purpose. This committee will consist of two persons nominated by the Punjab Government and two persons nominated by Master Tara Singh, President of the Shiromani Akali Dal. This committee will consider allegations of interference and will suggest remedial action, wherever possible. Where there is disagreement among the members of the committee, the matter may be referred to the Governor of Punjab.

   3. Any amendments in the Gurdwaras Act should only be undertaken after obtaining the approval of the General Committee of the SGPC. A convention may be established that such approval may be by two-third majority of the SGPC.

   4. The General Elections for the SGPC should be held as early as feasible.

   5. If any difficulty arises in the implementation of the above proposals, Jawahar Lal Nehru will be glad to help.”

The fate of this Pact was no different from that of earlier assurances given to Sikhs. The Pact was never implemented and the Committee, envisaged to hear complaints of Government interference in Sikh religious affairs, was never constituted.

In 1966, Punjab was reorganised, so that Haryana State and Union Territory of Chandigarh were carved out of it. Besides, Kangra and Una districts as well as all hill stations including Shimla, Kasauli and Dalhousie were attached to Himachal Pradesh. As a result, SGPC elections could no longer be conducted by the Punjab Election Commissioner, since SGPC became an inter-state statutory body, subject to control of the Central Government. The required amendment was never made by the Congress Government at the Centre. It was only in 1979, under the Janata Government, that this could be done and SGPC election held.

In 1980, Congress again returned to power to pursue its earlier policies. The interference turned into naked aggression, when, in June 1984, the Indian army invaded the Golden Temple Complex, using tanks, bombs and gas, and destroying the Akal Takht, damaging the Sikh sanctum sanctorum Harimandar Sahib, setting fire to the Sikh Reference Library, Museum and several other buildings, besides killing thousands of innocent pilgrims. In fact, the Golden Temple Complex and several other major historic gurdwaras were treated as enemy territory. Such an excessively practical demonstration of ‘non-interference’ in religious affairs is possible only in ‘secular’ India under Congress.

The last election to the SGPC was held in 1996, full 17 years after the previous election, against the 5-year period provided in the Act and subsequently in 2004 and (2011). This makes it abundantly clear that responsibility assumed by the Government enjoys a very low priority,
if at all.

Salient Features of the Gurdwaras Act, 1925
Under the Gurdwaras Act, as amended from time to time, management and control of all major historic gurdwaras has been entrusted to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Elections to this Committee are required to be held every five years. Since jurisdiction of SGPC extends over three states and a Union Territory, the elections have to be held by the Central Government. Originally, the number of constituencies was 120. Later, 20 of these were made double-member constituencies for representation of the Scheduled Castes. At the time of the last election held in 1996, 30 additional seats were provided for women, so that elected members now add up to 170, out of which 8 are from Haryana, one each from Himachal Pardesh and UT Chandigarh, and the rest from Punjab. Besides, there are 15 co-opted members (five from Punjab and ten from outside). Jathedars of the Takhts are ex-officio members, although they do not exercise voting rights.

Problems
Some of the problems encountered in the working of the Act are mentioned 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 case 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 under the garb of sahjdhari 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.

In view of these and several other problems, need for amendment of the Gurdwaras Act has been keenly felt. But the efforts in this direction during the last two decades have been half-hearted, and have, therefore, borne no fruit. The SGPC itself has not shown much enthusiasm.

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