A Review of All India Sikh Gurdwara Legislation
by Professor Ranbir Singh Sandhu, formerly at the Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
The following is a paper given on December 5-6, 1999, before the World Sikh Council seminar organized by World Sikh Council and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.
I note that I am the only speaker at this Seminar who is not from India. As such I shall endeavor, as best as I can, to represent the interests and concerns of Sikhs living in other countries. I note that views/suggestions were sought and received from Dr. Ujagar Singh Bawa of Maryland and Sardar Kuldip Singh of New York. I am not aware of the actual suggestions that were received.
Because of my belated involvement in the analysis of the legislation process, I have not been able to discuss the issues with other Sikhs living abroad. Therefore, the views that I am going to present are based upon a general awareness of our shared concerns rather than formal deliberations.
I have looked at the draft and appreciate the work that its authors have put in. It will take me some time to go through its every detail. However, it is easy to see that the document is deficient in several respects and nowhere near ready for implementation. Before I comment further on the draft, it is necessary to list the reasons why we need a change in the existing set-up and why it might be necessary to develop new systems for proper management of Sikh religious affairs.
Nearly seventy-five years ago, the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee was created as a representative body of Sikhs to take over management of historical gurdwaras. At that time, most of the historical gurdwaras were located in the then province of Punjab and were the most conspicuous places of congregation and worship. Created for management of gurdwaras, the SGPC has been looked upon as a ‘Parliament’ of the Sikh Panth. In the absence of alternative sources, Sikhs around the world have come to expect it to provide religious leadership, publish authentic religious literature, defend religious freedom and, in general, take care of all issues pertaining to the Sikh faith. The expectation is that any future organizational set up should continue to serve these interests.
Since that time, the role of the SGPC, the political configuration of the subcontinent and of the Indian State, and the demographics of the Sikh population have undergone significant change.
With political parties competing for election to the SGPC, this body has been politicized. Political parties have issued directives to their adherents in the Committee to vote in certain ways in order to further the political interests of the party. This has made Panthic authorities subservient to political leadership in the state of Punjab. An example is the removal of the Jathedar, Siri Akal Takhat Sahib, earlier this year.
The present system centralizes resources and creates a bureaucracy involving a large number of employees under central control. This concentration of power has led to corruption and to bitter struggles for achieving positions of control and authority within the SGPC.
After partition of Punjab in 1947, many historical gurdwaras were left in Pakistan. A large number of Sikh refugees from Pakistan settled in Delhi and elsewhere in India. After the 1947 partition, Punjab has gone through repeated partitions into smaller territorial units.
I received a phone call from Sardar Kuldeep Sigh, Chairperson, World Sikh Council America Region, on the 16th November. He told me about this seminar. I thank Dr. Sukhjeet Kaur Gill of Chandigarh for providing me a copy of the Draft of The Sikh Gurdwara Bill, 1999 on the 27th. I also thank Justice Kuldeep Singh for inviting me to attend the seminar and speak here today.
The number of gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions has increased dramatically to meet the needs of the growing community. Most of the new gurdwaras are ‘congregational’ although some are ‘historical’ as well.
A significant development is the migration of Sikhs to other countries. The Sikh religion today is an international faith. There are several hundred gurdwaras outside India and the number is rapidly growing. In the United States of America, there were only two gurdwaras in the 1960’s. We now have over one hundred. In any new set-up that we might try to develop, these considerations must be given due weight.
In representing Sikhs living outside India, I like to emphasize our several concerns and problems. We are deeply concerned with all matters relating to the proper upkeep and management of our historical gurdwaras. We are concerned about preservation of our distinct identity and our glorious socio-cultural heritage. We are concerned about the socio-economic well-being of our community.
Sikhs living abroad have many problems. These include not only matters of employment and economic advancement but, even more importantly, religious education for our children, education of the ‘host’ communities in which we typically are small minorities, promotion of interfaith understanding and reduction of prejudice, and correction of misrepresentation of our faith, our religious practices, and our history.
Perhaps the most important development has been the growth of religious chauvinism in the majority community in India. This had expressed itself most virulently in operation ‘Bluestar’, in operation ‘Woodrose’, in massacres of November 1984, and in ‘disappearances’ and ‘encounters’ resulting in the death of tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs. The result is the general feeling of insecurity that pervades the Sikh community today. Textbooks in schools (for example: The Story of Civilization, Volume 2, textbook for class X) eulogizes the reformist role of the Arya Samaj but overlooks the contributions of the Sikh faith to society. We know how the Arya Samaj created the Hindu-Sikh divide in Punjab and, with support from the central government, blamed the Sikhs for it. The book cited makes no mention of the Babbar Akali movement and the Ghadar movement. It fails to mention that most of the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were ordinary Sikh villagers who had come to Amritsar to celebrate Vaisaakhi with no knowledge of the political situation. Police harassment of devout Sikhs continues till today. A friend told me the other day that when he started to sport a flowing beard he got a visit from the police. He was taken to the police station and questioned about ‘extremists’ visiting his home.
With this background, let us see if the Draft Bill addresses these issues properly. In revisiting our organizational structures, we need to learn from our experience so that we can eliminate features that have been found to be detrimental. I believe the Draft Bill we are considering today does not do so.
The Draft Bill is ill-conceived, inadequate, and essentially counterproductive.
The Bill is ill-conceived in that it is an extension of the existing system with modifications to extend its scope to the whole of India. It retains the electoral system currently in place for Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, the Union Territory of Chandigarh, and Delhi. It retains the potential for corruption and politicization. It ignores several of the clauses of the Sikh Rehit Maryada and introduces ideas at variance with the Rehit.
The Bill is ill-conceived in that it involves the Indian government in the enactment and implementation of a process applicable to institutions of the Sikh religion. None of the religions of the world, to my best knowledge, has the management and control of its religious institutions legislated by the political set-up of any country. No religion has lists of its adherents prepared and maintained by appointees of any government. Please recall that voter lists were used to identify Sikh homes in Delhi during the November 1984 massacres. Even in countries which have a ‘state religion’, the governments do not make rules for appointment of preachers or for election/selection/appointment of functionaries at their places of worship.
Furthermore, the Bill is inadequate in that it totally ignores the gurdwaras outside India as well as the sentiments, concerns, and interests of Sikhs living there. It could be argued that an Act of the Indian government can apply only within its jurisdiction and, therefore, must only cover Sikhs and Sikh institutions in India. However, this is precisely the reason why any set-up that we Sikhs design for ourselves must not involve the government of India or, for that matter, of any other country in the world. Any new set-up must transcend national boundaries. It must be international in scope and character and it must be designed to effectively address the aspirations and interests of all Sikhs wherever they might be.
The Bill is counterproductive because instead of bringing Sikhs together, it is divisive. Sikhs and Sikh institutions in India, firmly under control of the Indian government and its legislative, executive and judicial branches, would be in a position of subservience. Sikhs living abroad may be forced to develop systems of their own based upon free association, regardless of national boundaries and unfettered by government interference. Decisions and acts of each of the two groups may or may not be acceptable to the other.
1. The Bill contains features that are in violation of the Sikh Rehit Maryada.
2. The Bill does not address several of the concerns which are of primary importance to Sikhs.
3. The Bill does not give, and cannot give, any consideration to Sikhs and Sikh interests and institutions outside India.
4. The Bill retains some of the detrimental features of the present system.
5. The Bill vests ultimate authority in the Indian government and its various branches. Sikhs have suffered for over fifty years under a government which, controlled by the majority religious community, has been constantly hostile to Sikh interests, has patronized the extremist elements in the Arya Samaj, has engaged in disinformation and smear campaigns against the Sikhs and declared ‘amritdharis’ to be arsonists and murderers, patronized so-called ‘moderate’ Sikhs who violate the norms of their faith, and has failed to punish the perpetrators of massacres, gang-rapes, and torture of innocent Sikhs.
I believe that seeking enactment of laws to regulate management of matters relating to our faith is an admission of our moral and social bankruptcy, and of our inability to govern our own institutions. It is an abject surrender of responsibility and religious sovereignty. I recommend that:
1. The Draft Bill be withdrawn.
2. We must set up a mechanism for all Sikhs around the world to work together on the development of an organizational system appropriate to our special needs without involving any agency of any government.