What started off as a controversy over the live coverage of gurbani (hymns sung by Sikh clerics inside the Golden Temple at Amritsar) has turned into a raging slugfest between the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to establish control over Punjab’s panthic (Sikh) turf.
On June 26, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann labelled the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex governing body of all the Sikh gurdwaras in India and abroad, as a “stooge in the hands of its masters”. (The SGPC is headed by Harjinder Singh Dhami of the SAD.) Mann’s aspersion, which came after his government approved an amendment to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925, evoked sharp criticism from the opposition parties, including the Congress and the BJP.
According to experts, the Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill passed on June 20 apparently aims to end PTC’s monopoly over telecast and broadcast of gurbani. (PTC is a television channel linked to SAD leader Sukhbir Singh Badal.) But the move is being seen as interference in Sikh religious matters. The term of an 11-year contract between the SGPC and PTC expires on July 24, 2023.
Significance of gurbani
The live streaming of gurbani from the Golden Temple to millions of screens is of immense religious and political significance in the Sikh-majority State. Ashutosh Kumar, head of the political science department at Panjab University, said that the SGPC currently acts as a frontal organisation of the SAD. He added: “The SGPC, the Akal Takht, and SAD are the three pillars of Sikh politics. Since the death of Gurcharan Singh Tohra in 2004, the SGPC and the Akal Takht have lost their autonomy. SAD considers itself as the sole custodian of the political as well as material interests of the Sikhs.”
Not long ago, there were sharp exchanges between Chief Minister Mann and Akal Takht jathedar (head) Giani Harpreet Singh during a crackdown on pro-Khalistan radical preacher Amritpal Singh, who is currently lodged in Dibrugarh Central Jail.
Since the SAD is on the back foot after its poor performance in the 2022 State Assembly election, the AAP government’s recent move could be an attempt to strengthen its hold on the panthic constituency, which is anti-Congress, Kumar said.
Amendment of Act
The proposed amendment, which has introduced Section 125A in the existing 1925 Act, stipulates that the SGPC should propagate the “teachings of the Gurus uninterrupted (without any on-screen advertisements, commercials, or distortion) live feed of gurbani from the Golden Temple, Amritsar, every day available free of cost to all media houses, platforms, channels or whoever wishes to broadcast it”.
The SGPC has threatened to start a protest movement if the government goes ahead with the amendment.
Speaking in the State Legislative Assembly, Mann said the Bill aimed at freeing the gurbani from “the undue control of a particular family”. His remarks are being seen against the backdrop of growing acrimony between Mann and Sukhbir Badal, who has been making snide remarks against Mann from public platforms, mocking his alleged alcohol addiction.
Reacting to the Bill, Badal said on Twitter: “If the duty of relaying gurbani with sacredness and the functioning of gurdwaras is to be handed over to the government, then why did the Akali Dal undertake countless sacrifices to free the gurdwara of ‘masands’ in the first place?”
In early Sikh religion, “masands” (Sikh preachers) were appointed by the Sikh Gurus to preach religion and collect donations from the community members.
Arguing that the government move was aimed at usurping the SGPC’s authority over gurdwaras, Badal said: “This is the first step towards governments taking over the functioning of the Guru’s abode.”
The Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, which set up the SGPC to manage Sikh temples, has been amended in the past too, but the latest move is being seen as “unconstitutional” and an “infringement” on Sikh religious affairs.
Parambans Singh Romana, national spokesman of SAD, said: “It is the second time that a government has tried to amend the Act without the consent of the SGPC.” He added that in 1959, the Government of India reached an agreement with the Sikh community that no amendment would be made without the SGPC’s consent.
The Supreme Court ruling in 2014 in the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara (Management) Act acknowledged the State’s authority to pass legislation regarding gurdwaras, underscoring the devolution of religious affairs to the Sikh community, as it endorsed the principle that the control of religious affairs should rest with the community.
H.S. Phoolka, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and former leader of the opposition in Punjab, said: “The Supreme Court judgment fully empowers the Punjab Assembly to pass its own Gurdwara Act on the same lines as the present Act. But precedence must be given to the Nehru-Master Tara Singh pact.”
Phoolka also urged the State government to rescind the amendment, saying it would open the gates for government interference in Sikh religious institutions such as Harmandir Sahib and Akal Takht.
A report submitted by the Kendri Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Chandigarh, at the Akal Takht last year, claimed that the PTC channel had grown to nearly Rs.1,000 crore from modest beginnings with a capital of less than Rs.3 crore. The channel was launched in 2006 and its fortunes improved rapidly after it got the 11-year exclusive global live-streaming contract in 2012. The channel had promised to pay the SGPC Rs.1 crore every year, with an annual increase of 10 per cent. It reportedly paid Rs.2 crore last year.
On Mann’s claim that PTC had been earning crores of rupees through advertisements, Parambans Singh Romana said: “For AAP and Bhagwant Mann, gurbani is an excuse. The real target is the SGPC.”
Incidentally, former SGPC president Bibi Jagir Kaur claimed to have advised Sukhbir Singh Badal last year to donate the PTC channel to the SGPC as it was “tarnishing” the party’s political image.
But despite growing criticism, the SGPC stands defiant. It has indicated that it plans to launch a YouTube channel for the live telecast of gurbani from the Golden Temple after July 23, the day its agreement with PTC ends.
Harjinder Singh Dhami, the SGPC chief, has taken up the matter with Governor Banwarilal Purohit, and plans to meet Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi over the proposed amendment. According to political observers, the meeting would offer a bargaining chip to the BJP as it is reportedly in seat-sharing talks with the SAD, its former ally in Punjab, for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.