Taking advantage of its alliance with the BJP, the Akali Dal has set the ball rolling to debar Sehajdhari Sikhs from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee elections.
The Rajya Sabha has passed the Sikh Gurdwara Amendment Bill which was approved by the Narendra Modi regime last week. The bill is seen as an Akali attempt to strengthen their hold on the SGPC ahead of the assembly election early next year.
Sehajdharis are believed to be ‘gradual adopters’ of Sikhism. Sehajdhari, broadly, is a person who believes in the tenets of Sikhism but is not initiated into the religion, a concept that is apparently unique to Sikhism. The term comes from the word ‘Sehaj’, which means slow; Sehajdhari, thus, describes “a slow adopter of the faith”.
Originally, under the All India Gurdwara Act of 1925, the Sehajdharis could not vote in SGPC elections. Only in 1959 did the Punjab Legislative Council grant them the voting rights.
The SGPC is responsible for the upkeep of gurdwaras in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh as well as Chandigarh Union Territory. Crucially, it administers Amritsar’s Harmandir Sahib, the holiest of the Sikhism’s places of worship.
The SGPC is elected in open conclaves held at Harmandir Sahib in which all Sikhs may participate.
The clamour to debar the Sehajdharis from SGPC polls began in the 90s, on the ground that they were “misusing” this right. The demand, however, didn’t get much traction until the first NDA regime led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee took power and agreed to it. It wasn’t long before the Sehajdharis were stripped of their voting rights through a notification issued by the home ministry.
According to political observers, the BJP supported the Akalis’ demand because the Sangh Parivar was worried that a growing number of Hindus were organising Prakash Utsav of Sikh Gurus in their homes and might formally embrace Sikhism.
A contested right
The Sehajdhari Sikh Federation moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which quashed the notification in 2011. The SGPC challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court, where the appeal is pending adjudication.
In the interim, the court put the five-yearly SGPC polls on hold, and tasked the last-elected executive committee to run the SGPC. The order was agreed to by all parties concerned, including the state government and the SGPC.
With Avtar Singh Makkar, reportedly an Akali supporter, as the president of the committee, this arrangement effectively gave control of the SPGC to the ruling party.
But fearing loss of control in fresh elections, the SAD has been pressing the Modi government to amend the Gurdwara Act to debar the Sehajdharis from voting. The party has got its wish.
It is the historic day when Shiromani Akali Dal under the most dynamic leadership of Sardar Parkash Singh Badal has settled the issue (1/3)
— Harsimrat Kaur Badal (@officeofhkbadal) March 12, 2016
Senior SAD leader and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal said by passing the amendment with retrospective effect from October 2003, the Rajya Sabha has corrected a “historical wrong”.
She further described it as a victory for the SAD, which has been “steadfast in its resolve not to let outsiders vote by proxy” in SGPC elections “through the ‘Sehajdhari’ route”.
“The SAD and its MPs have succeeded in correcting a historical wrong by convincing the Upper House to pass this amendment unanimously and also sent out a signal to those conspiring to weaken the community that their designs will not be allowed to succeed.”
Divide & rule?
The Sehajdhari Sikh Party, on the other hand, is enraged. The party’s senior leader Paramjeet Singh Ranu described the bill as “an attempt by the fascist forces to divide a minority community into a sub-minority”.
“The most unfortunate part is that barring Captain Amarinder Singh and Ravneet Singh Bittu no one has even raised this issue. The Congress and other parties kept mum in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP is in a minority. The government on its part reversed the protocol by first getting the bill cleared in the Rajya Sabha rather than in the Lower House,” he told media.
Pointing out that the bill will go to the President for his assent, Ranu said, “We’ll seek time from the President. We had apprised him of our concerns earlier as well.”
Ranu claimed the Akalis want to disenfranchise the Sehajdharis because they are facing “heavy anti-incumbency” in Punjab and fear loosing control of the SGPC – which has a parallel budget to that of the government – that too just ahead of the assembly election.
Debarring & disenfranchising the Sehajdhari Sikhs from their voting rights in the SGPC elections will simply divide the sikh community
— Capt.Amarinder Singh (@capt_amarinder) March 17, 2016
“It was they who had approached the Supreme Court after the judgment of the high court. Couldn’t they have waited for the Supreme Court judgment instead of trying this backdoor method?” he asked.
Ranu warned that debarring the Sehajdharis from the SGPC elections would result in social strife for it would mean that “one member of a family who has been initiated into Sikhism would be allowed to vote while others of the same family who haven’t been initiated yet wouldn’t be”.
After the President clears the amendment, sources said, the Supreme Court would be asked to defreeze the SGPC polls – which the SAD expects to win if the Sehajdharis are not allowed to vote.
Amarinder, the Punjab Congress chief, joined Ranu in attacking the Modi regime. “This is the most regressive and retrograde move by the Government of India at the behest of the Akalis, who just to retain their hold on the SGPC have divided the community.”
“It’s an irony that the very democratic legislative procedure was misused to disenfranchise a large section of the society,” he said, adding that he hoped the courts would strike down the amendment.
Whatever the courts decide is bound to have far-reaching ramifications for Punjab’s polity.