India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
Vol. 15 :: No. 08 :: Apr. 11 - 24, 1998
A new ferment
With SGPC chief G.S. Tohra and Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh battling each other for exclusive control of Sikh religious authority and leadership of right-wing forces within and around the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, the Golden Temple has once again become the stage for revivalist adventures.
ALMOST one and a half decades after Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took control of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the shrine has once again become the stage for revivalist adventures. Although the play that is being enacted now is not as dramatic as the one in the 1980s and its actors do not carry assault rifles as props, one should not underestimate its seriousness. The key protagonists this time are Gurcharan Singh Tohra, chief of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), and Ranjit Singh, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highest seat of spiritual and temporal authority of the Sikh faith. The two men are battling each other for exclusive control of Sikh religious authority and the leadership of right-wing forces within and around the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which leads the alliance that rules Punjab.
Ranjit Singh took charge of the Akal Takht last year after the SAD, with the assistance of its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, secured the remission of the life sentence he was serving. He had been convicted for the murder of Gurbachan Singh, leader of the minority Nirankari sect, a grouping that many orthodox Sikhs believe is heretic. Over the past few months Ranjit Singh has played an increasingly activist role in the affairs of the Sikh community, seeking to extend the direct control of the Akal Takht over the affairs of gurdwaras and the rites and institutions of civil society. The effort is a thinly veiled attempt to assert the primacy of religious authority over the elected SGPC, although the Jathedar is notionally an SGPC employee. Tohra's control of the SGPC, and with it the Golden Temple, is central to the influence he wields in SAD politics.
Ranjit Singh's recent pronouncements are disquietingly reminiscent of Bhindranwale's efforts to regulate civil society within an orthodox paradigm. On March 16, the Akal Takht banned the conduct of Sikh marriages in hotels and wedding halls. The decision was made after a Phagwara-based religious leader, Rajinder Singh, petitioned the Akal Takht, stating that such weddings violated Sikh tenets. (Under orthodox Sikh ritual, marriages are normally carried out in gurdwaras.) The Akal Takht's ruling was on the ground that Sikh marriages have to be conducted at place sanctified by the presence of five raagis (hymn singers) performing rituals daily. At a press conference a week later, Ranjit Singh told journalists that he was also considering demands to restrict the number of baraatis (wedding guests) to 51 and to end the practice of dowry.
THE Akal Takht's decision is significant for the choice of areas of intervention in civil affairs by religious authority. The Akal Takht has not, for example, inveighed against the practice of caste, repugnant for the Sikh faith. For this would alienate the religious right's constituency among the rural and urban upper-caste elite. Indeed, the envisaged restrictions on weddings mirror those imposed by some terrorist groups affiliated with the Panthic Committee. Some observers argued that such restrictions were liberative, but this analysis fails to take into consideration the religious right's agenda. The purpose of banning marriages in wedding halls and hotels appears to be aimed at strengthening the controls exerted by religious power over society.
Even more disturbing are the Akal Takht's recent adventures vis-a-vis the minority sects. On March 25, Ranjit Singh ordered the representatives of the Neel Panthi group to explain why the Guru Granth Sahib was placed over the crypt of their guru, Sant Harnam Singh. (The body of the Neel Panth founder has been mummified in the sect's headquarters in Gurdaspur.) Orthodox opinion holds that this practice is derogatory to the holy Sikh scripture, but it is still not clear why the issue has surfaced now, after 18 years of apparent peace between the Neel Panthis and orthodox Sikhs. No one is entirely certain what Ranjit Singh will say on May 30, when Neel Panth representative Gurbax Singh Bhandari is due to appear before him. But the bloody consequences of the Akali-Nirankari feud bear witness to the dangers of sectarian confrontation. This controversy follows a bitter spat that followed Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's use of the term satguru (true guru) for the living guru of the Namdhari sect during an election rally at Malerkotla. The notion of a living guru is heretical to orthodox Sikhs.
Finally, the Akal Takht, under Ranjit Singh, is seeking to extend active control over gurdwaras and political bodies. Gurdwara trusts, like the religious bodies of other faiths, are prone to factional disputes that often make their way to the court. Ranjit Singh is seeking to use the Akal Takht's powers to resolve all feuds through the medium of the World Sikh Council (WSC), a body set up two years ago to regulate Sikh communal affairs by the clergy. His position is that since donations to gurdwaras are used to settle internal disputes, taking religious feuds to civil courts would amount to the misuse of funds. Rather, the heads of all sects and societies should be incorporated under the umbrella of the WSC, through which they would be directly accountable to the Akal Takht. Mohinder Singh Matharoo of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, an elected body created by law, was excommunicated for an alleged assault on a 1984 riot victim, besides malpractices.
THIS expansion of religious authority is mirrored by similar forays for political control. One of the early signs is the proceedings instituted against Gurcharan Singh Babbar, head of the New Delhi-based Babbar Akali Dal, by the Akal Takht for allegedly refusing to make over the affidavits of the 1984 riot victims that he recorded for use during the ongoing trial. While any effort to obstruct evidence that could lead to the conviction of those who organised the genocidal riots is condemnable, this task lies in the domain of the courts and civil political activity.
Tohra's early efforts to regain control of the Jathedar's office, which has in the past been a platform for his ambitions in the SAD, have been largely unsuccessful. He issued a circular demanding that the Jathedar, the head priest, other priests and the raagis account for all gifts and donations received from the public. However, this backfired after Ranjit Singh pointed out that the allegations that led to the circular did not concern him. Tohra did not contest the issue after Ranjit Singh told him that the SGPC's responsibility was confined to administering gurdwaras and did not extend to religious affairs.
Whether Tohra succeeds in asserting his authority over the Jathedar remains to be seen. What is, however, certain is that the signals emanating from the Akal Takht mirror a new ferment in the far right of Sikh politics. The mentality of these new groupings leave little doubt about their agenda. A new, glossy religious magazine, The Spokesman, which is broadly supportive of Ranjit Singh's agenda, recently carried articles about an alleged conspiracy hatched by a fertile brain of Delhi that has resulted in Hindu students in Punjab's schools and colleges persuading their Sikh classmates to take to smoking.
Elsewhere, the magazine claimed that former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral had criticised the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Amritsar because she had refused to visit the Durgiana Temple. Badal himself was criticised for violating, during his election campaign, orthodox strictures against idol worship and paying obeisance at Hindu temples.
Some people argue that the 'centrist communalism' of the SAD-BJP combine, if it can be called that, was the sole force that could contain hard-line Hindu and Sikh revanchists. As the growing stridency of the Sikh far right illustrates, it has had precisely the opposite effect. These groupings have responded to the rise of a centrist SAD by aggressively seeking to consolidate their constituency. The Punjab unit of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, no mean contributor to the polemic that laid the foundations for Punjab's decade of carnage, is for the moment quiet, bowing to the exigencies of sharing power. However, that quietness is unlikely to last long. Unless there is a genuine movement to combat communalism and unless secular voices in the State begin to be heard with clarity, the future of Punjab's peace could soon be called into question.