Controversy

Sikhs vs Sikhs

Print edition : August 22, 2014

Nihangs during a protest organised by the Delhi Akali unit and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee outside Congress President Sonia Gandhi's residence in New Delhi on July 18 against the Haryana government's move. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Jagdish Singh Jhinda (centre), president of Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on July 28. Photo: PTI

Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Punjab Chief minister Prakash Singh Badal. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Shiromani Akali Dal supporters at a meeting of SGPC-controlled shrine heads from various States in Chandigarh on July 22. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Haryana constitutes a separate Sikh gurdwaras management committee, but the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab insists that the Amritsar-based SGPC is the sole administrator of Sikh shrines.

THE decision of the Congress government in Haryana to enact a law seeking to constitute an independent Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC) to manage the affairs of the gurdwaras in the State has sparked a controversy, with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Congress’ political rival in neighbouring Punjab, maintaining that Haryana has no legal authority to enact such a law.

The Bhupinder Singh Hooda government passed the Haryana Sikh Gurdwaras (Management) Bill, 2014, by way of a resolution on July 11 and got Governor Jagannath Pahadia’s assent on July 14. The Bill is now an Act. With Assembly elections scheduled in Haryana later this year, the SAD has cause for concern. Worried about the party’s prospects and control over the Sikh community in both States, the SAD leadership in Punjab opposed the move vehemently, with party supporters even taking to the streets.

The formation of a separate HSGMC (Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee), a long-pending demand of the Sikh community in Haryana, had more to it than was apparent: it involved the daily collection of money and turf issues. Haryana is home to eight historic gurdwaras. The collections from the Sikh shrines in the State are estimated at Rs.200-300 crore. As observers pointed out, gurdwaras by their very nature and Sikhism as a religion that emerged as a reaction to orthodoxies in established religions and casteism have had an appeal cutting across religious communities. Hence, the demand for a separate managing committee for the shrines located in Haryana should not be seen as a demand of the Sikh community alone. Therefore, the possessive and proprietorial approach of the SAD, which is a political entity, to gurdwaras is seen with disdain.

On July 17, the Punjab Assembly’s resolution declared the Haryana SGPC null and void. On July 18, Punjab Chief Minister and SAD chief Prakash Singh Badal and party MPs met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Ministers Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and M. Venkaiah Naidu and sought the Centre’s intervention to annul the Haryana government’s “unconstitutional” move. The SAD is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and an important constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), notwithstanding its sagging image in Punjab and poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections held in April/May. The SAD won four of the 10 seats it contested in Punjab—a tally equalled by the debutant Aam Aadmi Party. The Congress and the BJP won three and two.

The Centre, under pressure from the SAD, asked the Haryana Governor to withdraw his assent to the Bill. The Union Home Secretary shot off a letter to the Haryana Chief Secretary, on the basis of an opinion provided by the Attorney General, which essentially said that the State government was “denuded of any jurisdiction to pass any Bill in respect of which only Parliament has exclusive powers to enact a law”. The letter pointed out that a law was already in place since 1925 and that the Haryana State Legislature had no competence to pass a law on the same subject taking away the jurisdiction of the board/corporation formed on the basis of the 1925 Act. The Amritsar-based SGPC, which controls gurdwaras across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, was formed under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925.

HARYANA’S CONTENTION

The State government argued that it was fully empowered to do so under Section 72 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966, and that a subsequent ruling of the Punjab and Haryana High Court ( Kashmir Singh vs Union of India), which was upheld by the apex court in 2010, bolstered this fact. The 1925 Act, passed by the Punjab Council, states that the SGPC shall be common until the State (the Punjab State) came out with its own separate Act. This applied to the other States that were part of a unified Punjab. The Gurdwaras Act, it pointed out, was not a Central Act and that the State Assembly had the power to pass the HSG (Management) Bill, 2014, by virtue of Entry 32 in the Concurrent List and Entry 28 in the State List under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, coupled with the provisions of Section 72(3) of the Reorganisation Act. With the Punjab Reorganisation Act allowing for the creation of three separate entities, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, it followed that the assets, institutions and other territorial matters were equally divided. Delhi, it was pointed out, had a separate panel managing its shrines under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1971.

Soon after receiving the Governor’s assent, Hooda constituted a 41-member committee to manage the gurdwaras in the State. But Badal was in no mood to let go of the issue.

The BJP, despite vociferous protests by its ally, treaded cautiously. Amid all this drama, the Centre appointed Kaptan Singh Solanki as the new Governor of Haryana, raising hopes that the assent given by his predecessor would be rescinded or withdrawn. The SAD called for a world Sikh meet on July 27 (Vishal Panthic Ikath) to “fight the assault on Sikhs”.

Unrelenting SAD supporters began thronging the gurdwaras in Haryana in a bid to prevent their “takeover” under the new circumstances. There were legitimate concerns over the build-up of religious fervour as members of the same community were pitted against one another. But political observers were clear that the Akalis were training their guns on the Congress and attempting to pit the Sikhs against the rest and increasingly failing to do so as the Haryana Sikhs appeared determined to have their own SGPC.

Adding to the belligerent mood in the two States, SGPC leaders from Punjab addressed gatherings at the Nada Sahib gurdwara at Panchkula, considered to be an important gurdwara in the State. However, there were no clashes with the police or local Sikhs. Meanwhile, in a bid to defuse the tensions and to perhaps impose its moral authority on the Haryana government, the Akal Takht, one of the five seats of the Sikh religion in Amritsar, declared that the SGPC would continue to manage the affairs of the Haryana shrines, an announcement that did not go down well in Haryana. The newly appointed HSGMC president, Jagdish Singh Jhinda, said that the Akal Takht should have desisted from issuing such opinions while the SGPC chief welcomed the statement as it affirmed status quo.

POLITICAL REACTIONS

The reactions of political parties in Haryana have been interesting. The Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), an ally of the SAD, and an on-and-off partner of the NDA, has been watching the unfolding events quietly. The BJP, which won seven of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the State, is wary of taking a position that would damage its support among the Sikhs of Haryana, who have been more or less, overwhelmingly anti-Congress like their counterparts in Punjab.

The BJP’s official ally in Haryana, the Haryana Janhit Congress, was defeated in Hisar and Sirsa by the INLD backed by the SAD. But there is no doubt about increasing frustration with the SAD leadership, not only among the landed peasantry that the Akalis have seemingly represented all these years but also among the non-Jat Sikhs and other backward and Dalit communities. These backward sections are increasingly veering towards institutions such as Deras, which offer a political as well as social and spiritual alternative to gurdwaras controlled and managed by the Akali Dal. The Deras run by the Radha Swami and Sacha Sauda groups have a huge following among the non-Jat, non-landed Sikh community. There are class contradictions as well, which have resulted in growing disenchantment with the Akali leadership.

Community members feel that with the money collected from the shrines, educational and philanthropic work can be done. This will benefit not only Sikhs but members of other religious communities also as they too make offerings to gurdwaras. “There are Hindu families among Jats who still follow the practice of their eldest son becoming a Sikh,” a political analyst pointed out.

The Haryana unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) have questioned the constitutional propriety of the Union Home Secretary writing a letter to the State government and challenging the prerogative of the Haryana Assembly to make laws. Inderjit Singh, CPI(M) State secretary, said the State Assembly had jurisdiction on a par with the Punjab Assembly. He said the SGPC Act was the creation of the Punjab Assembly and had been amended from time to time. Therefore, the Home Ministry’s communication was inappropriate and should be withdrawn, he said. The Left parties cautioned people of all communities to remain vigilant against rousing of religious sentiments.

Swaran Singh Virk, former national council member of the CPI, said that in 1966, the regions dominated by Haryana Sikhs had been assured that they would be absorbed into Punjab but it never happened. Political parties in Punjab mobilised the Sikhs in Haryana on the issue of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal against the Haryana government whenever it suited them. The Badals and the Chautalas (of the INLD) are closely connected, and the SAD has exhorted the Haryana Sikhs time and again to support the INLD in the elections. But with Hooda projecting himself as the leader of the community in Haryana, this has not worked well.

Hooda had declared 10 years ago in his election manifesto that he would constitute a separate committee for the Sikh gurdwaras in Haryana. Several protests have been held in the past years demanding a separate SGPC for the State. There is a general opinion that the SGPC and the Akal Takht ought to remain independent religious institutions and that the SAD should desist from using them for political gains. It is felt that if the matter is not resolved urgently, it could turn into a serious law and order problem and prove politically advantageous for both Hooda and Badal in their respective States.

The non-Sikh communities opposed to the Akalis are expected to back Hooda, which will create another kind of polarisation. It is argued that the Punjab Congress has adopted sectarian and chauvinistic policies on issues such as sharing of river waters. A Punjab Assembly resolution, passed during the chief ministership of Captain Amarinder Singh, had abrogated all water treaties applicable to the four States of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.

Meanwhile, even as the Congress in Haryana is waiting and watching the drama unfold and hoping to benefit from the controversy in the Assembly elections, the Hooda government has been found wanting in dealing with other issues such as drought, theft of irrigation water and the inefficiency of the public distribution system, which require urgent and immediate attention. There have been stray communal incidents, too. Although the timing of the decision to form a HSGMC is politically motivated, there seems little basis to question the decision as such.

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