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Vicissitudes of Gurdwara Politics

Yogesh Snehi (yogeshsnehi@gmail.com) is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

The demand of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to oversee the functioning of gurdwaras represents the legitimate aspirations of the Sikhs of Haryana and more significantly, inversion against almost absolute hegemony of SAD over the management of Sikh shrines through Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

The situation over the formation of Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (HSGPC) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) dominated Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’s (SGPC) opposition to it, has entered into a confrontational stage endangering the peace and harmony in the region. Despite the enactment of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Act 2014, the SGPC has refused to vacate the gurdwaras in Haryana for HSGPC. While Gurdwara Chhevin Patshahi at Kurukshetra becomes the centre-stage for a long-drawn battle, HSGPC has taken possession of six gurdwaras in the state (Sedhuraman 2014).[1] After clashes between the supporters of SGPC and HSGPC, the Supreme Court has ordered maintenance of status-quo and postponed the next hearing for 25 August 2014. This recent controversy has its roots both in the movement for gurdwara reforms (1920s), which sought to purge Sikhism from the polluting effects of non-Sikh practices, as well as the reorganisation of Punjab province in 1966. It also raises some fundamental issues about the residue of colonialism in the 21st century India.

Historicising Gurdwara Reform

More than nine decades ago in 1921, Punjab was embroiled in a controversy over misuse of the premises of Gurdwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib (now in Pakistan) for narrow self-interests by the hereditary custodian Udasi Mahant Narain Das who was a Sehajdari Sikh (Yong 1995: 670).[2] Mahants had traditionally inherited the custodianship of most gurdwaras since pre-colonial Punjab[3] and had allegedly started behaving like sole proprietors. Gurdwara reform attempted to “liberate” these shrines from mahants and restore them to Sikh sangat (community).[4]

The brutal massacre of Akali jatha (body of Sikhs) by the Pashtun muscleman hired by the mahant transformed the movement for gurdwara reform and the politics over shrines in Punjab.[5]  Gradually, the most significant “Sikh” shrines of colonial Punjab were taken over by Akali jathas, as they staked claim over gurdwaras spread over the entire province, which were brought under the purview of swiftly enacted Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925. The Act legitimised SGPC’s control over most “Sikh” shrines.[6]

The colonial government which was earlier sceptical in heeding to the demands of the Akalis to control major gurdwaras, easily relented in the wake of criticism for Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and Mahatma Gandhi’s support for the movement. Events at Nankana further strained the relationship of the Sikhs with the colonial government. Also, the British were recovering from the aftermath of World War I and had already in place a policy for enhancing Sikh recruitment in the Indian Army to ensure their continuing loyalty to the Crown (Yong 2005).

After the setback of partition and loss of most sacred shrines to Pakistan, SGPC extended its hold over shrines in (Indian) Punjab.[7] This process continued for the entire period of the 20th century. Other than claims to both urban and rural shrines, such places of veneration identified as Deras which had association with Sikh tradition, but were nevertheless popular shrines, were also brought under the ambit of the Act of 1925. This process of takeover meant that almost all shrine spaces and elements even remotely related to perceived “non-Sikh” tradition were sought to be erased from their premises.

Punjabi Suba and “Sikh” Community

In the 1960s Akali Dal demanded a separate Punjabi Suba (province) which in addition to present districts included Ganganagar district of Rajasthan and, Karnal (including Kaithal, Kurukshetra, except Panipat), Ambala (including Panchkula and Yamunagar) and Hisar (Sirsa, Fatehabad and Thana Tohana) districts of Haryana.[8] These districts had a significant population of Sikhs as well as gurdwaras.[9] Reorganised Punjab did not include these districts. However, the control over these gurdwaras continued to be with SGPC.

In the neighbouring national capital, the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Act was enacted in 1971 which gave non-Akali Sikhs control over the gurdwaras. In the year 2013, SAD took over Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC). Effectively, SAD now has almost complete political control over most important Sikh shrines in north India.

Another significant component of these takeovers has been that dispute cases pertaining to landed property owned by most historic gurdwaras have lingered in Indian courts for decades. In a very recent clash (May 2014) between the Langar Committee of village Bhai Rupa in Rampura Phul and the task force of SGPC, the latter staked claim to 161 acres of village land and leased it for paddy cultivation. The SAD MLAs supported SGPC and rubbished the customary stakes of villagers (Jagga 2014). There have been several such occasions when community claims over religious spaces and its resources have been violently suppressed by the SGPC. This scenario has marked the struggle over shrines and its assets for around a century now.[10]

Contemporary Contexts

With this backdrop in mind, the demand for HSGPC represents the legitimate aspirations of the Sikhs of Haryana and more significantly, inversion against almost absolute hegemony of SAD over the management of Sikh shrines through SGPC. The current controversy is also linked to a larger historical process where gurdwaras assume a significant legitimising social space for the diverse community of Sikhs in India. While the exclusion of Dalits among Sikhs has found dissenting expression in the construction of “caste” gurdwaras in Punjab and abroad, the Sikhs in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan will over the years press for their own Parbandhak Committees.[11] After all gurdwaras always had the shared function of the community’s participation, and the demand of HSGPC seems like a legitimate disenchantment against almost a century old hegemony of SAD over Sikh shrines on which the Sikhs of the neighbouring states have little say.

There are other issues on which Sikhs have diverse opinions. One pertinent issue is that of Sikh identity, which has implications for elections to the SGPC. SAD and other panthic groups have been consistently opposing the inclusion of Sehajdharis (literally half-Sikhs, owing to their non-adherence to five external symbols of Khalsa identity) among voters, and the recent intervention of the Punjab and Haryana High Court has complicated the matters and has implications for SAD in gurdwara politics (Singh 2014).[12]

While the election to SGPC gets complicated over the question of “Sikh” electorate, the legitimising hold of Akalis since the 1920s and the demographic transformation of the state into a Jat-Sikh dominated region has only converted gurdwaras into political strongholds. The enactment of Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Act 2014 has further entrenched the legal battles over shrines in the region.  In this moment of crisis one hopes that the task force of SGPC does not repeat history by re-enacting the unfortunate incident of Nankana Sahib.

Notes

[1] Gurdwara Chhevin and Nauvin Paatshahi at Ghula Cheeka (Kaithal), Neem Sahib (Kaithal), Dasvin Patshahi (Pehowa), Jheevan Heri (Yamunanagar), Banni Badarpur (Ladwa) and Dodi Sahib (Taslempur). (Sedhuraman 2014)..

[2] Interestingly, it was being argued that mahants being Sehajdhari Sikhs were Hindus and not orthodox (Khalsa) Sikhs. See (Yong 1995: 663).

[3] For instance the management of the Golden Temple before Ranjit Singh rested with various Sikh misls wo claimed their share in the income of the Golden Temple (Basra 1996: 43). In 1820’s he abolished the system of collective management of the Temple and arrogated to himself the right to appoint a Temple mahant who were dominantly drawn from among Udasis (Kerr 1984: 140). Udasis were greatly renowned and revered for their asceticism and devotion to the religious tenets of Guru Nanak, yet as Sehajdhari Sikhs, they did not maintain the outward appearances of the Khalsa .(Yong 1995: 662).

[4] The Singh Sabha reformer insisted that the gurdwaras were not secular properties whose ownership could be claimed by an individual; they belonged to the congregation, and mahants were only attached to them in the service of the congregation. Yong 1995: 666-67).

[5] Despite the intervention by a prominent Udasi, Kartar Singh Bedi, an influential member if the Sikh landed gentry and a prominent religious leader in western Punjab, urging the commissioner of Lahore to give executive protection to the mahant at Janam Asthan, the colonial authorities refused to commit themselves and were not responsible for preserving the status quo of Sikh gurdwaras. (Yong 1995: 670-71).

[6] For a useful discussion on the historical and contemporary contexts of “Sikh” identity, refer Judge and Kaur (2010).

[7] By the early 1980s, the SGPC's superintendence extended to over 772 shrines and its budget for 1981-82 was Rs 6.5 crore. (Puri 1983: 115).

[8] For a useful discussion on the movement for the Punjabi-speaking state see (Narang 1997).

[9] There are roughly 52 notified gurdwaras in Haryana out of which 8 are categorised as historic shrines and placed in the first schedule. The second list constitutes of 17 shrines with revenue over Rs 20 lakh a year and the rest 27 gurdwaras are in the third list.

[10] A very recent work by Anne Murphy (2012) explores such “material” contours of Sikh past.

[11] Puri (2003) underlines that Akali struggle for liberation of Gurdwaras from 1920- 25 surprisingly did not have time for removal of untouchability. Jats composed 70 per cent of the Akalis and caste equality or removal of untouchability was contrary to their disposition for social domination and hierarchy. After the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was constituted in 1926, a number of resolutions (gurmatas) were adopted by the SGPC from 1926 to 1933, expressing “shock” and “regret” over the prevalence of discrimination against amritdhari low castes, and instructing or “praying” the upper caste Sikhs not to deny to the Sikhs of the lower castes, access to temples and wells. (p. 2697)

[12] The Tribune, Chandigarh has reported a move by the NDA government to amend the Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925 to deny voting rights to Sehajdharis in the SGPC elections. Punjab’s SAD chief minister Prakash Singh Badal had reportedly met the prime minister and home minister on this issue. (Singh 2014)

References

Jagga, Raakhi (2014): “SGPC takes possession of controversial 161 acre land in Bhai Rupa”, The Indian Express (Chandigarh), 10 June, available at http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ludhiana/sgpc-takes-possession-of-controversial-161-acre-land-in-bhai-rupa-village/, accessed on 21 August 2014.

Judge, Paramjit S and Manjit Kaur (2010): “The Politics of Sikh Identity: Understanding Religious Exclusion”, Sociological Bulletin, 59 (3): 345-66.

Narang, A S (1997): “Movement for the Punjabi-Speaking State” in Indu Banga (ed.) Five Punjabi Centuries: Polity, Economy, Society and Culture 1500-1990 (New Delhi: Manohar) 243-66.

Puri, Harish K (1983): “The Akali Agitation: An Analysis of Socio-Economic Bases of Protest”, Economic and Political Weekly, 18 (4): 113-118, available at http://www.epw.in/special-articles/akali-agitation-analysis-socio-economic-bases-protest.html, accessed on 21 August 2014.

Puri, Harish K (2003): “Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community: A Historical Perspective”, Economic and Political Weekly, 38 (26): 2693-2701, http://www.epw.in/special-articles/scheduled-castes-sikh-community.html, accessed on 21 August 2014.

Sedhuraman, R (2014): “Haryana gurdwaras: SC orders status quo”, The Tribune (Chandigarh), 8 August, available at http://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20140808/main1.htm, accessed on 21 August 2014.

Singh, Ravi S (2014): “Process to amend Gurdwara Act begins”, The Tribune (Chandigarh), 13 August, available at http://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20140813/punjab.htm#3, accessed on 21 August 2014.

Yong, Tan Tai (1995): “Assuaging the Sikhs: Government Responses to the Akali Movement, 1920-25”, Modern Asian Studies, 29 (3): 655-703.

Yong, Tan Tai (2005): The Garrison state: the military, government and society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947 (New Delhi: Sage).

 

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