The clergy vs the SGPC

Published : Feb 05, 2000 00:00 IST

War breaks out in the Sikh politico-religious establishment, with almost all Akali factions supporting the SGPC and the entire religious establishment backing Puran Singh, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht.


WAR has broken out again for control of the Sikh faith. The central characters in this are the predictable ones. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president Jagir Kaur is pitted against Puran Singh, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highes t seat of Sikh religious authority. Earlier battles have seen the several Akali factions wage war through their proxies in the theocratic establishment. This time, however, the rules of engagement are altogether different. Priests and politicians stand s undered, with almost all the Akali factions backing the SGPC and the entire religious establishment supporting Puran Singh.

The bitterness of the fight was evident on January 25, when, with the backing of a wide spectrum of religious figures, Puran Singh excommunicated Jagir Kaur from the Sikh faith. While the Akal Takht has for long used excommunication to intimidate suppose d heretics or coerce dissidents, this is the first time in the institution's history that the head of the powerful SGPC has been subjected to such punishment.

As in the past, an arcane religious dispute forms the issue around which a war is waged. More than two years ago, the SGPC revived a century-old debate on a new Sikh calendar. The Bikrami calendar, shared by both Sikhs and North Indian Hindus, is inaccur ate by some 20 minutes each year. The Baisakhi festival, commemorating the founding of the Khalsa sect by Guru Gobind Singh, fell on April 10 in 1799. Last year, it was celebrated on April 14. Theologians concerned with the millennial implications of the 20-minute error pointed out that 13,000 years from now, Baisakhi would be celebrated in October. Under the Bikrami regime, saints' birthdays sometimes fell twice in the same year, and in some years they never came at all.

Some others were, however, less than enthused by this proposed break with tradition. Punjab's highly orthodox Sant Samaj, a coalition of powerful religious leaders, protested against the decision. Proposals sponsored by the SGPC for a new calendar, the S ant Samaj argued, would subvert well-established traditions. People who sympathised with the Sant Samaj position argued that most religions based their calendars on the movements of the moon, and not that of the sun. The then Akal Takht Jathedar, Ranjit Singh, evidently agreed. The SGPC's plan to implement the Nanakshahi regime were put on hold. However, vigorous debate on the issue continued both inside and outside the theocratic establishment.

Through most of 1999, the Sikh political and religious establishment had other things to worry about. By early last year, Ranjit Singh had entered into a frontal engagement with Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) establi shment. Egged on by SAD dissident and the then SGPC President, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Ranjit Singh attacked official plans for the celebration of the tercentennial of the Khalsa. The revolt led to the sacking of both Ranjit Singh and Tohra and their repl acement by Puran Singh and Jagir Kaur. Tohra responded by campaigning against SAD candidates in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. His campaign was at least in part responsible for the party's decimation.

In the wake of the SAD's humiliation in the Lok Sabha elections, Puran Singh proceeded to raise his own banner of revolt. On October 9, 1999 he joined a gathering organised by far-Right leaders such as Simranjit Singh Mann, Member of Parliament from Sang rur, to commemorate the deaths of General A.S. Vaidya's assassins Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhdev Singh Sukha. On the ocassion, Puran Singh described the two assassins as martyrs who were "the pride of the community". If this left anything to the imagi nation, Puran Singh forged on. "Bhindranwale," he asserted, was a "true follower of Sikhism, who fought bravely to defend the Golden Temple." Although Jagir Kaur and Badal were strengthened by the SAD's victory in the SGPC elections in November, the grou nd for renewed hostilities with the priesthood had been laid.

Matters came to a head in December, when the Punjab Government announced a holiday to mark Guru Nanak's birthday. The official holiday, based on the SGPC's Nanakshahi calendar-based recommendations, was scheduled for January 5. The priesthood was outrage d and insisted that the birth anniversary be celebrated on January 14, in keeping with the tradition. On December 23, Puran Singh summoned to the Golden Temple the head priests of the five most important shrines to discuss the issue. As members of the ri val factions shouted each other down outside, the Akal Takht finally issued its decision. A seven-member committee was set up to decide the issue, and Puran Singh asked all factions to abide by the Bikrami dates until it issued its verdict.

Events did not go quite according to plan. Although Badal backed down and announced a state holiday on the Bikrami date of Guru Nanak's birthday as well, the SGPC insisted on commemorating the event on the Nanakshahi date. Meanwhile, the seven-member com mittee split down the middle. A new calendar following the lines of the Bikrami regime was issued, following which three committee members, led by the Nanakshahi calendar's architect Pal Singh Purewal, resigned in protest. Jathedar Puran Singh rejected t he resignations, but the controversy refused to die down. The SAD centrists around Badal let it be known that they intended to force the issue. Rumours were rife that Puran Singh would meet the fate of his predecessor.

On January 24, Puran Singh told his aides at the Golden Temple that he was driving down to the Huzoor Sahib shrine at Nanded in Maharashtra. The next afternoon, some newspaper offices received a fax message sent from a public facility in Guna, Madhya Pra desh, informing them that Jagir Kaur had been excommunicated. The excommunication order, signed by Puran Singh, said that Kaur was "excommunicated from the Sikh Panth for repeatedly and brazenly violating the writ of the Akal Takht". Puran Singh's note s harply attacked the SGPC president for "repeatedly ignoring and attempting to supersede the Akal Takht's position on the new Nanakshahi Calendar". This, he said, was evident in Jagir Kaur's decision to honour Purewal with a ceremonial siropa (scar f).

Puran Singh's order had clear political overtones. It directed that an SGPC executive committee meeting scheduled for January 27 be cancelled, and demanded that all its 15 members appear in person before the Akal Takht on February 2. The meeting is belie ved to have been called to build a consensus on deposing Puran Singh, and if that was indeed the case, the Jathedar had succeeded in ensuring his own survival. Badal, however, has denied that he has any plans to force a confrontation, and has appealed to both the Jathedar and the SGPC President to avoid furthering the fracas. It is unclear if Badal's appeal means that the SGPC executive will honour the Akal Takht summons, but tradition suggests defiance is improbable.

Jagir Kaur, however, seems determined to fight till the end. At a press conference, she asserted that "hukumnamas (edicts) cannot be pronounced from the rear seat of a car". She said, "I have not received any copy of the hukumnama", and add ed that she was "saddened" by what she described as "a violation of Sikh values and traditions". The hukumnama, she continued, could have been the outcome of the Jathedar being poorly advised by religious "renegades". Jagir Kaur pointedly referred to the fact that "the SGPC is entirely competent to dismiss the Jathedar". Although plans to call a special SGPC meeting to discuss the events have been deferred, it seems clear that Kaur is unwilling to allow the Jathedar to have his way.

WHY are festival dates so important to both priests and politicians? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Bikrami calendar represents one of the few elements of Punjab's composite culture to have survived the processes of communal polarisation se t in place by the Akali and the Hindu-revivalist Arya Samaj movements. Important Sikh and Hindu festivals often coincide. Deepavali, for example, is celebrated by Sikhs as Bandi Chhor Diwas, marking the day when the sixth Guru, Hargobind Singh, secured t he release of people incarcerated in the Gwalior jail. The festival of Hola Mohalla always follows the Hindu festival of Holi, and Baisakhi, which represents the coming of spring, is celebrated by both Hindus and Sikhs.

Should the Nanakshahi calendar become universally accepted, many of these traditions would be fractured. Indeed, some religious figures, such as preacher Kashmira Singh have suggested that persons who promote the Nanakshahi regime in fact seek to disrupt Punjab's composite cultural traditions. But for politicians of the Sikh Right, the rejection of the Bikrami calendar would be an important step in defining and sharpening boundaries of identity. This desire to demarcate Sikh identity rigidly has been a central component of Akali politics from the 1930s, one driven at least in part by Hindu revivalism which sought to subsume the faith. Purewal has argued that the new calendar would be a central component of Sikh identity, mirroring the Muslim Hijri and the Hindu Bikrami regimes.

It is unsurprising, then, that Sikh communal politicians ranging from Badal to Tohra and Mann have supported efforts to put the Nanakshahi calendar in place. Akali politics is premised, in key senses, on the notion that the Sikh identity is so wholly dis tinct from that of the world around it that a separate political space is also imperative. Politicians like Badal and Tohra get little support from Punjab's Hindus, and their electoral survival is premised on ensuring that Sikh voters see the SAD faction s as their sole representative.

For the priests of the Sant Samaj, preserving secularism is not a major issue; ensuring control of the terms and content of religious identity is. Should the SGPC and the SAD succeed in pushing through the Nanakshahi calendar, the supremacy of these inst itutions over the religious leadership would be reinforced. While the Akal Takht Jathedar is technically a mere employee of the SGPC, and the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1928 makes no reference to his powers, successive occupants of the seat have engaged in co nfrontations with politicians. Similarly, organisations like the Sant Samaj have worked to ensure that their religious concerns remain at the centre of the SAD's political agenda.

Who, then, will win this war? History and the institutional influence of the SGPC and the SAD suggest that the priests are fighting a losing battle. But in the meanwhile the bitterness and confusion generated by decades of factional feuds in the Sikh rel igious establishment have had enormous costs for both the community and Punjab at large. The root of the problem lies in the inability of the SAD and other Akali factions to transcend the belief that the realms of faith and politics are inseparable. Iron ically, the SAD's recent electoral reverses illustrate the fact that most ordinary people feel that concerns of faith should stay inside gurdwaras. Both priests and politicians could discover in the not-too-distant future that their flock has moved on.

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