Debarring Sehajdharis from polls will strengthen Akali hold on SGPC
With the passing of the Sikh Gurudwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has managed to have its way and get Sehajdhari Sikhs debarred from voting in the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) elections. Clearly, the SAD has cleverly utilised its alliance with the BJP, which has a majority in the Lok Sabha.
Both the Congress and the Sehajdhari Sikh Party (SSP) have described the move as an attempt to divide the minority community with the latter making it clear that it will take the legal course on the issue. The Bill had been passed in the Rajya Sabha last month. Observers say that this will strengthen the Akali stranglehold over SGPC in a year when Punjab goes to polls.
Who are Sehajdhari Sikhs?
A Sehajdhari is a person who believes in tenets of Sikhism but is not initiated. Under the All India Gurudwara Act of 1925, there were no voting rights for the Sehajdharis in the SGPC polls. The SGPC is an organisation responsible for the upkeep of gurudwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh along with the Union Territory of Chandigarh. It also administers Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar and its representatives are elected in an open conclaves held at Harmandir Sahib in which all Sikhs may participate.
In 1959 the Punjab legislative council gave voting rights to the Sehajdharis and the creation of Haryana made it an inter-state body for which amendment in the act had to be made through parliamentary procedures.
In the 1990s there was a clamour to debar Sehajdharis from voting on the grounds that the right was being misused by them. There were several resolutions passed and it was the Atal Behari Vajpaee led NDA government that agreed to its ally SAD's demand. The Sehajdharis were barred from voting in the SGPC polls through a home ministry notification.
This notification was challenged by the Sehajdhari Sikh Federation and was reportedly quashed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2011. The SGPC then approached the Supreme Court on the issue where the appeal is pending adjudication.
Meanwhile the SGPC polls, held every five years, were also put on hold. The court made an interim arrangement for running the affairs of the SGPC by appointing the then executive committee as caretaker on an agreed order of all the parties concerned including the state government and the SGPC. The SAD controls the SGPC with Avtar Singh Makkar as the president.
After the Narendra Modi led government came to power, the SAD was pressing upon the BJP to bring an amendment in the Gurudwara Act to debar Sehajdharis fearing that it might loose control over the SGPC.
Senior SSP leader Paramjeet Singh Ranu told Catch, "It is a very unfortunate development. The saddest part is that all the secular parties just looked on as this most communal bill was passed, particularly in the Rajya Sabha where the BJP is not in a majority. The Parliament has justified the accusation of rising intolerance in India. It is a condemnable deed that will further divide the Sikh minority community."
He said that the decision to debar Sehajdharis would result in social strife as a member of a family who has been initiated into Sikhism will vote while those in the same family who are yet to be initiated, will not.
When asked why the government took a reverse route to get the Bill passed and saw to it that it first crossed the Rajya Sabha hurdle, Ranu said, "There was a tacit understanding on the issue in which former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh and senior Congress leader MS Gill were party. The Bill was opposed only by Congress leaders from Punjab and not from elsewhere."
Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh has termed the amendment to the SGPC Act as most unfortunate, regressive and retrograde.
"This will simply mean slamming your door on hundreds and thousands of Sikhs and dividing the community," he said, equating the move to the Akali demand for Punjabi Suba which ended up fragmenting Punjab.
"Like for narrow sectarian and partisan interests, they slashed Punjab into pieces so that they could form the government on their own, they have now repeated the formula to retain their control over the SGPC by virtually throwing out a majority of Sikhs and virtually dividing the community," he underlined.
Amarinder said that every Sikh, who believes in the tenets of Sikhism, must have the right to vote in SGPC elections. "It is an irony that the very democratic legislative procedure has been misused to disenfranchise a large section of the society from exercising their democratic right to vote," he observed.
Maintaining that the SAD government was using religion for political gains, Bhagwant Mann of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) reportedly said in Lok Sabha, "Their seats are diminishing and so they are trying to misuse it".
However, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has accused the Congress and AAP of ganging up to fulfill the age-old dream of the anti-Sikh forces to gain control over the religious affairs of the Sikh community against the mandate of the Sikh masses.
"Everyone can see how these parties are trying to grab control over the most sacred Sikh shrines and convert them into the mouth-pieces of the anti-Sikh forces, exactly as the British had done before the Gurudwara Sudhar Lehar," he said.
Badal has termed the passage of the Sikh Gurudwara (Amendment) Bill as 'historic' and thanked all those who supported the Sikh cause. "This has undone a historic distortion in the Sikh religious affairs and in the management of the Sikh shrines. This will remove all unnecessary confusion on the issue".
He said that the SAD's insistence on the management of Sikh shrines only by the ideologically pure is purely for the purpose of management of Sikh religious affairs as per Sikh norms.
"Other than this, the Sikh Gurus, the Gurbani and Sikh religious beliefs preach no distinction between people professing different faiths. Everyone, regardless of his religious beliefs, is welcome in any Sikh Gurudwara which traditionally has four doors. The issue of purity in thought and practice is a matter that pertains to the maintenance of purity in our religious places," he said.
Edited by Aditya Menon
More in Catch: