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Strike a Balance

Birendra Kaur*

There is no doubt that we differ immensely from the Hindu ideology, but for formulating a Sikh Personal Law, we have to see how much we differ from the Constitution of India, which, for the most part, is based on the universally accepted values of Human Rights, equality of gender, etc. Rather, it is surprising how much the Indian Constitution has departed from the Hindu ideology. The Constitution, in its present form, is closer to Sikh ideology. Therefore, it would have been more appropriate to use the word ‘Sikh’ instead of ‘Hindu’ in most of the names of the Acts, and to adjust Hindus under these in separate clauses.

The Sikhs, because of the humanitarian message of the Gurus, can definitely contribute positively towards a change for the better. But let us keep in mind every citizen, nay, the whole world, while formulating laws in line with the universalism of Sikhism. Let our laws be accepted at world level, just as Human Rights are the same all over the world.

Formulation and Implementation
It would save a lot of time and effort if we only concentrate on the issues in the Constitution on which we differ and propose changes therein. If these are not complied with, it would be justification enough for a separate Sikh Personal Law. Also, it is equally important to be vigilant about how the laws already passed are interpreted and implemented.

For example, India claims secularism, which actually means ‘not concerned with religion’, in contrast to the general belief that secularism means ‘respect for all religions’. Secularism is not in line with Sikh polity, which believes that religion and politics are inseparable. But, anyway, if the Constitution treats all Indian citizens alike, there would be little to object to. People of law are the best judges of the implications of the present situation, and they alone can come up with solutions worthwhile, in line with Gurmat. But one cannot help wondering :

- How can the Constitution justify benefits and reservations to scheduled castes of Hindus, when it is not to concern itself with religion ?

- How does it assess scheduled castes, since ‘schedule’ is nothing but a list of printed matter ?

- Or is it wooing the un-touchables under this pretext ?

- Although caste system is sanctified by the Vedas, and strictly adhered to by the Hindu society, can the Constitution recognise anyone as an untouchable citizen of India ?

- And if these are the backward classes of people, then what is the criterion for differentiating the backward classes of Hindus from the backward classes of other religions ?

Further, coming to freedom and right to identity given by the Constitution to Sikhs, to whatever extent it has been, e.g., carrying of kirpan is allowed. But anyone maintaining the Khalsa uniform is looked upon as a terrorist / anti-national, and harassed and humiliated in public at will by Government officials. One may ask the Government :

- What good is the freedom on paper alone ?
- Does it define any punishment for persons guilty of harassing Sikhs /minorities ?
- Is there any machinery for its implementation ?
- Is that machinery in working order ?

The Gender Issue : Rights and Duties
An important issue, which is a characteristic and unique feature of Sikhism, is gender equality. Therefore, it must stand out to be so in a Sikh Personal Law. In spite of the Constitution giving equality to men and women alike, there was a case of a father-in-law asking his daughter-in-law to evacuate his house on the ground that she was a mere licensee and occupying the house purely on his mercy (The Tribune, 25th August, 1997). And, in the parents’ house, she is brought up believing that only her dead body should leave her husband’s house, implying thereby that she should never come back to her parents’ or brother’s house, even in distress.

Unfortunately, in practice, Sikh women’s status is no different from the women of other communities. Many are not treated equally even by parents, so what to expect from in-laws. The whole story of a boy and a girl is so different — starting from the very birth. While everyone is overjoyed at the birth of a son, an atmosphere of melancholy prevails at the birth of a daughter. This is understandable, keeping in mind the implications that follow later. After bringing up the girl and educating her, she is given away along with a dowry, which is many times beyond the parents’ capacity. This is not the end of the story. The girl’s entire family, including parents, remains subservient to the boy and his entire family for the rest of their lives. They feel, and are made to feel, as if they have committed a crime, and the boy’s family behaves as if they have done a favour by accepting her services for a lifetime plus dowry. Her parents also have to bear the expenses or give gifts (clothes and / or gold, etc.) to different relations / servants on certain occasions, such as, death of her father-in-law/ mother-in-law / husband / herself, karva chauth, birth of first child / son, etc., etc. Further, the list of duties and expectations from a wife is endless, just as is the list of rights of a husband. And if the wife earns, then that too is an added advantage to her husband alone. Her status remains unchanged.

As such, even giving her an equal share in father’s property, will, in no way, benefit her. And, for the parents, her birth has been a Total Loss. No wonder, the depression and agony of the parents following her birth !

Therefore, under the present social set-up, a wife’s entire life is spent in carrying out duties towards her husband and his family, and since, according to law, rights and duties are complementary, she cannot have duties in one house and rights in another. Her rights must, therefore, lie where her duties lie, i.e., with her in-laws. Do we not call her daughter-in-law ?

But such a situation can lead to other implications. Her very life will be in danger. Even now, there are cases of suicides and bride-burning related only to dowry. In case of a dispute, she will not be able to leave, and ask for her legal rights. She will be killed before that. And, if she should lose all rights on getting divorced, then what good are these rights ? May be, the people of law can come to the rescue and formulate suitable laws to secure rights for married women.

And, as mentioned earlier, equal status in the in-laws’ house cannot be guaranteed even if she is given an equal share of father’s property. That property could still be at her husband’s discretion. Unless we strike a balance between rights and duties for both husband and wife, no amount of wealth will improve her status. In the present scenario, no husband feels any sympathy or responsibility for his wife’s parents. If this could be ensured, then no parent will agonise over the birth of a daughter. She and her husband should be legally bound to care for her parents as well.

A part of her pay, if she earns, should also be legally her parents’, again because rights and duties are complementary. As it is, an enormous sum of money is spent in educating her, but the fruit is for the husband to reap.

Gender equality in the real sense can only be said to be achieved if we can formulate laws that will make the parents rejoice over the birth of a daughter as much as that of a son. If this can be achieved, many problems related with the gender issue — such as sex-determination tests, abortions, dowry, bride burning, etc. — will automatically vanish. Thus, identification of and working on the root-cause of the gender discrimination alone will ensure gender equality.

Role of Custom
Why do we not settle our children alike, regardless of gender ? Once a girl gets a job, she could start an independent life. Working women’s hostels are there. She does not have to leave her parents’ house only through marriage. Let the boy and his family know that they are doing no favour to her or her family by accepting her. On the contrary, they should feel obliged. Let us not make her a helpless creature. Let us give her education and a personality to overcome all odds independently.

Actually, the whole prevailing social set-up favours only the young man. He must enjoy total freedom, without any interference of any kind. Even his parents are left at the mercy of their daughter-in-law. She may or may not take care of them. Whereas, it comes naturally to her to care for her own parents; but the system does not allow it. Her parents cannot stay with her, as it interferes with the young man’s life. And the consequence of this is that all parents are desperate to beget a son, so that their daughter-in-law will care for them in old age. Even female foeticide and infanticide are practised to ensure this, not realising the long-term grave consequences the lowering of female / male ratio is going to have on the community as a whole.

The need of the hour is a change in the social value system, and a law corresponding to that. Law alone cannot bring about any social change. For, the hold of certain social customs on people is so strong that even the State cannot interfere. For example, the ceremony of chadar pani is created purely by the people; dowry is offered / demanded openly, using expressions like ‘Decent marriage ensured’, ‘Only status family need apply’, etc.; sex determination is illegal, but people will rather spend Rupees 500/- today, than Rupees 5 lakhs later; age of marriage is fixed, but child marriage is still common in some states; even sati is reported from some places to date. Hence, it is only a notion that law, which is passed, alone is effective. People’s mentality is equally important.

Some simple steps are suggested below :

- Let us not ‘give away’ our daughter in marriage, as she literally is at the time of the marriage ceremony. The handing of the man’s palla in the daughter’s hand by the father, and singing of the pious hymn, palle tainde laagi, means nothing short of a kanyadaan, and that, too, in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. The hymn, as we all know, is meant for both bride and bridegroom, and expresses their relationship with God. In the briefing or sikhiya also that follows, additional verses from Gurbani are selected and misinterpreted to deify the husband (not God) and to brainwash the wife to worship him like a bonded slave. This militates against the gender equality, forcefully preached by the Gurus.

- With marriage, let a new household be set up, which is equally responsible for the boy’s as well as the girl’s parents. The boy should be told to be equally responsible for his wife’s parents as she is for his. If such values are practised and conveyed to young minds, before they get polluted by society, the desired change can be brought about within a single generation.

- Hostels / homes for the aged should be established with some gurdwaras in every city. The community should donate liberally towards these institutions, although accommodation need not be free, except in cases of genuinely needy persons. The availability of such facilities will make parents independent of their offsprings, whether male or female. This will also cater to the needs of issueless parents, or of parents whose children are settled far from them or whose children have died. Unhappily married / divorced women should also be provided with similar facilities.

Role of Law
But, social set-up alone, too, cannot guarantee security to women. Thus, laws need to be made, but in such a manner as to bring about a change in the attitudes of people. For example, making a part of a daughter’s income legally her parents’, will enable her to help her needy parents, with the law on her side. This will also give security to parents with only daughters, and lessen the prevailing craze for male offspring.

Thus, in addition to being concerned with rights for women, stress should also be on defining duties of daughters (married / unmarried) towards their parents, and of husbands towards their in-laws. Such a move alone will bring a male and a female offspring at par.

Omission of surnames is also obligatory to equality.
If giving her rights in parents’ property leads to some practical problems among different sections of society, these could be settled through separate clauses. For, an issue of the nature of Gender Equality cannot be settled to suit any one particular section of society.

Actually, seminars should be held solely for women’s issues and surveys made to collect views from people of different backgrounds before making any final decisions affecting the fair sex.

The use of the word ‘spouse’ for both husband and wife, and ‘offspring’ for both son and daughter in the laws of Sikhs would automatically ensure equality. Otherwise, a day might come when men will have to ask for equal rights. Does not Gurbani confer equal status on men and women by referring to both as ‘bride of the Almighty’ ? What the Gurus did centuries ago, still awaits adoption in constitutions of the world. Let Sikhs take the lead.

Some Ponderables

- Benefits to backward classes should not be on basis of caste, but on the basis of economic status of the individual.
- Those involved in the management and administration of gurdwaras should be amritdharis, as the uniform prescribed by an ideology is a must for those who preach it or manage its affairs.
- Instead of expecting religious heads to keep out of politics, politicians should be expected to be more religious and committed to sarbat da bhala.
- Apostasy, in addition to forming ground for divorce, could also lead to loss of title to ancestral property.
- There should be no reservation for women, in line with gender equality. Stress should be on providing equal opportunities to women.
- Capital punishment is not desirable, as it ends all possibilities of reform in the convict.
- The use of crackers and fireworks should be banned, keeping in view the implications, such as, environmental hazards, waste of money, danger to life and property, etc.
- Burning of effigies to protest, or to celebrate the death of an enemy, should be banned, because such practices find no mention in the Guru-period.

These and many more points provide sufficient justification for a Sikh Personal Law, as they might never find mention in the Constitution of India.


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