CALENDAR ROILING SIKH AUTHORITY INTIMATIONS FROM SOME RECENT SIKH HAPPENINGS

INTRODUCTORY[1]

In our long years in the US, the announced date of a gurpurb did not really matter because we invariably celebrated them on a weekend close to the date it fell on according to the published information. We really did not worry about the calendar – C.E., Khalsa, Nanakshahi, Bikrami or any other. We went to the nearest Gurdwara most of the time and it generally involved a long ride of 75 to 150 kilometers except for a few years towards the end of our stay in CT when we were fortunate to set up a Gurdwara at Southington, a mere twenty kilometers from where we lived.  

Life in Delhi is different – we wake up in the morning to Asa di Var kirtan choki from Darbar Sahib or the streaming nitnem recital from Bangla Sahib. On gurpurbs, you see Gurdwaras lit up and throngs of devotees. The atmosphere of festivities and heightened piety is so evident – even to a casual observer.

I recall 25th May 2012. The TV transmission showed Darbar Sahib lit up in commemoration of the shahidi of the fifth Master but Bangla Sahib was on its usual week day routine. I then remembered the DSGMC Gurdwaras were to celebrate the Gurpurb on 16th June per the 2003 Nanakshahi calendar. During the day doing my little errands, I passed by a few community Gurdwaras. All quiet except at the Defence Colony Gurdwara where I saw a chhabeel with some Sikhs serving kachi lassi. I remembered that they were to celebrate the Gurpurb on Sunday, the 27th May instead of the 25th at Darbar Sahib. A friend who had gone to Bangla Sahib, witnessed the unsavory scene of the sewadars trying to prohibit a devotee from setting up a chhabeel, saying it could only be done on the 16th June.

As I took in these happenings, I remembered that I had learnt to revere this day from early childhood. I also remembered the kathakar at Amritsar explain in the morning as to why there is no mention about the shahidi of Guru Arjan in Sikh annals of the time whereas shahidi of Guru Tegh Bahadur had been documented by Guru Gobind Singh in Bachitar Natak – it was for the reason that the shahidi of Guru Arjan was for Sikhs! So the day commemorating the beginning of the saga of shahidis and sacrifices so willingly accepted by Gurus and Sikhs for survival of Sikhi had now become a tool in the spat between SGPC and DSGMC.

RECENT HISTORY

Memory going back to 2010 points to signs that almost foretell of the sharpening of conflict between Delhi and Amritsar, mostly around the calendar issue:[2]

  • Akal Takht Jathedar announced that martyrdom day of Guru Teg Bahadur be observed on December 10 instead of November 24 as the event fell within two days of birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on November 21. However DSGMC and some of the SGPC Gurdwaras observed the event on November 24, 2010. 
  • Akal Takht and the SGPC urged Sikhs to celebrate birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh on January 11 and not on January 5, 2011. DSGMC celebrated the event on the 5th January in Delhi.
  • Avtar Singh Makkar and SAD general secretary Prem Singh Chandumajra addressing a joint press conference on16 March 2011, urged Akal Takht to summon Parmjeet Singh Sarna and excommunicate him for pleading against implementation of amended nanakshahi calendar issued by Akal Takht and appealed to punish him for using word “Brahminwad against the supreme seat of power of the religion”.
  • Per the amended Nanakshahi calendar, Guru Arjan’s martyrdom anniversary fell on June 5, 2011. SGPC sponsored visa applications of 340 Sikhs who were scheduled to visit Lahore from May 28 to June 6, 2011 for the gurpurb. Pakistan government refused visas since Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, DSGMC and American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee decided to go by the 2003 Nanakshahi Calendar date, June 16, for the anniversary. Jathedar Akal Takht[3] protested saying “it is direct intervention in Sikh’s religious affairs.”

WHAT IS A CALENDAR?

A calendar is a method to categorize time into periods such as days, weeks, months, years. A solar year, lunar month and day are natural divisions of time. Most of the known religious groups have their calendars – devised to commemorate a historic moment in their beginning, develop the tradition of periodic religious celebrations and also as a mark of their identity. The Sikh problem backs into their quest for having their own calendar in the same manner as most faith groups have theirs.

The Jewish calendar is moon-based with a year of 354 to 385 days duration. The calendar is based on Jewish belief that the universe was created in 3761 BCE.

The Mayan calendar traces its inception to 3114 BCE when they believe Venus was born. It uses a complex five number format. Their anticipated end of the world is Dec 21, 2012 or 13.0.0.0.0 in their notation.

Early Christians adopted Julian calendar designed by Pagan priests under instructions from Julius Caesar circa 50 BCE adjusted so that birthday of Jesus Christ in the year 1 BCE fell on Dec 25. Since Julian calendar was long by about one day every 128 years, Pope Gregory XIII modified it keeping only century years divisible by 400 [e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400] as leap years. This is known as the Gregorian calendar. 

Islamic system uses a lunar calendar that repeats itself every 30 years. Months begin with the visible sighting of the new moon. It’s base year is 622 CE when Prophet Muhammad had to flee from Mecca to Medina.

The base year of Zoroastrian calendar is 631 CE. It had 12 months of 30 days. Over time five gatha days were added to the final month and an additional month of 30 days was added once every 120 years to make up the difference between a calendar year and solar year. Except in India, Zoroastrians now follow a new calendar with New Year fixed on Mar 21.

The Bahá’í calendar is a solar calendar, at present synchronized to the Gregorian calendar, with regular years of 365 days, and leap years of 366 days, with 21 March 1844 CE being the first day of the first year.

Vikrama [Bikrami] calendar is followed in Western and Northern India and Shalivahana or Saka calendar in South India, Maharashtra and Goa. The zero year in Vikrama calendar corresponds to 58 BCE and in the Saka calendar to 78 CE. Bikrami calendar follows solar tropical year of twelve lunar months. An extra month therefore is added every 2/3 years to bring the year in line.

CALENDAR & SIKHS

Gurbani is replete with references to the measures of time then in use as well as to the natural phenomenon of nights following days, rolling into weeks, months, changing seasons, making evident the divine principle of coming, growing, withering and renewing play out cyclically in the created world. Gurus wrote beautiful verses about these that also had pearls of wisdom for the devotees to learn and imbibe. Most Sikh festivals such as birth, installation and death of the Gurus were indicated by lunar dates termed tithi or thit. Sikhs also observe the first day of each month as sangrand festival. Baisakhi and Maghi are celebrated on sangrand day of these months.

Gurus used the terms that were then in vogue. The Sikh chronicles mostly are based on and refer to the Bikami calendar. A Sikh calendar based on the revelation of the Khalsa in 1699 with year beginning on Baisakhi and following the Bikrami system had been introduced some time back. This has recently been replaced by Nanakshahi calendar that starts in the birth year of Guru Nanak. It is a solar calendar with the year length the same as Gregorian calendar and has been developed by an Edmonton, Canada resident computer engineer, Pal Singh Purewal who also has worked diligently for its implementation. 

The SGPC formed an 11-member committee in 1999, including five scholars to look into the new solar calendar. The calendar, based on the tropical solar year, begins on Chet 1 (March 14) in birth year of Guru Nanak. The months and years were aligned with the Common Era and dates of festival days were fixed except the birthday of Guru Nanak. Akal Takht directed to await switch over till a general consensus could be reached within the community. SGPC however decided to launch the Nanakshahi calendar in December 1999. It however soon had to back-track.

Subsequently with the consent of several leading Sikh organizations the calendar was finally implemented in March 2003. In the implemented calendar Parkash Guru Nanak, Diwali and Hola Mohalla were to continue to be observed as per the Bikrami calendar and all other events as per the proposed Nanakshahi Calendar. There was broad appreciation for the switch over among the Sikhs; especially in the Diaspora.

Sant Samaj however kept pressing to maintain the established order of dates of Sangrands and Dasvin. SGPC therefore convened a meeting of the 11-member calendar committee, Sant Samaj and Damdami Taksal on Nov. 27, 2009 and sent an email to Purewal on Nov. 24, 2009 asking to attend the meeting. After the meeting, Avtar Singh Makkar sent changes demanded by Sant Samaj and Damdami Taksal to the SGPC executive committee which discussed and approved the proposed changes on January 3, 2010.

It was agreed to continue to observe the birth and death anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Dev, Gurta Gaddi Diwas of Guru Granth Sahib and sangrands as per Bikrami calendar. The changes were announced by Giani Gurbachan Singh, jathedar of Akal Takht who claimed that the amendments had been made on the recommendations of a two-member team comprising SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar and Harnam Singh Khalsa, chief of Gurmat Sidhant Parcharak, Sant Samaj on the suggestion of the 11-member committee.

On Jan. 17, 2010, the former Jathedar of Akal Takht, Joginder Singh Vedanti who had approved the calendar in 2003, in an apparent act of defiance, released the original version of Nanakshahi Calendar for the New Year.[4] Purewal held a press conference a month later on 17 Feb, 2010 showing copies of a letter that he had written to the Akal Takht Jathedar. Purewal claimed that Bikrami calendar is contrary to Gurbani while the Nanakshahi calendar has fixed dates matching Common Era calendar for all gurpurabs except Guru Nanak’s. Makkar lashed out at Purewal: “It is not his personal calendar. The changes have been made as per the sentiments of the Sikh community and all rights to bring about any change lie with Akal Takht.”

There was widespread dissatisfaction with the way the matter had been handled and the lobby supporting the 2003 version of the calendar gained support of Paramjit Singh Sarna, Manjeet Singh Calcutta, Dal Khalsa, Jathedars Vedanti and Nandgarh, World Sikh Council America Region, American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Sikh Youth of America, Dashmesh Durbar Surrey and United Khalsa Dal.

DSGMC MOVES TO LEAD

In the emerging divisive situation, DSGMC saw a possibility for providing a lead and in the process also embarrass SGPC and Badal Akali Dal and gave a call for a sarbat khalsa meet. SGPC & Akal Takht objected to the move saying that DSGMC did not have the right to convene a sarbat khalsa which could only be done by the Akal Takht. DSGMC accepted the constraint and instead named the event to be held at New Delhi on April 11, 2010 as the World Sikh Convention.

Paramjit Singh Sarna said the conference would focus on religious issues and that no political subjects would be touched. A Press Report dated Apr 12, 2010[5] said that the Convention had representatives of several Panthic bodies from India and 31 representatives from Sikh bodies in US, UK, Canada and Pakistan.

A slightly edited version of the Declaration Issued by the World Sikh Convention[6] included the following: –

  • Jathedar of Akal Takht has to be an accepted representative of all Panthic Institutions and organizations, appointed by consensus of Panthik institutions/ organizations. The Convention decided to appoint a committee to prepare the document on method of appointment, code of conduct and impeachment etc for the position of the Akal Takht Jathedar.
  • Convention unanimously resolved that couple of recently issued Akal Takht Hukamnamas do not represent aspirations of Sikhs and appealed to Akal Takht to reconsider the controversial Hukamnanas [ex-communication of Ragi Darshan Singh & practices about Dasam Granth at Hazur Sahib, Patna Sahib and Damdami Taksal] in the larger interests of the Panth.
  • The World Sikh Convention called upon the entire Sikh Community to adhere to the original Nanak Shahi Calendar adopted in 2003 and to continue to celebrate the holy/festival days in accordance with this calendar.
  •  In order to take follow up action with regard to the decisions of the World Sikh Convention it was decided to authorize the DSGMC to act as nodal agency.

AN ASSESSMENT OF THE CONVENTION[7]

I had attended, for a couple of hours each, the Delegates session of the Convention on the 10th April and the Open session on the 11th. The Delegates session was held in a Committee room in office complex of the DSGMC and the Open session in Lakhi Shah Vanjara Hall – both conducted by Harvinder Singh Sarna, under the chairmanship of Paramjit Singh Sarna, President DSGMC, his brother.

The speakers at Delegates Session made it clear that the key issues to be addressed were the excommunication of Ragi Darshan Singh, Nanakshahi Calendar, status of Dasam Granth and strengthening the functioning of Akal Takht. A brief summary of the drift of ideas expressed is as follows:

  • In recent years the Akal Takht has been led by persons who were not fit [ayog] for the position. Upto the time of appointment of Jathedar Channan Singh suggestions from various jathebandis and panthic organizations were sought and the appointee was not selected by the SGPC. That system should be revisited to move the process out of the exclusive control of SGPC to a collegiums of representatives of panthic organizations in whole of India and in the Diaspora. The candidate should be well educated, fully conversant with Sikh ethos, history, issues et al, be an exemplar and have the ability to communicate in multiplicity of languages used by the global Sikh community. His term should be limited [4/5 years] and there should be term limits. The position should be paid from a separate fund set up for the purpose.
  • The Nanakshahi calendar should be reinstated and any review should only be done by those who have the requisite scientific expertise.
  • Hukamnamas issued by the Akal Takht in recent years should be examined for review of any directions not in keeping with Gurmat.

In the overall, the impressions I was left with at the conclusion of the Convention were:

  • All in all, the event was well managed, did not attract any demonstrating groups and was conflict free.
  • While Sikhs have been critical of the way Akal Takht authority has been manipulated in the recent years, they do not seem to want a confrontational situation developing that erodes the semblance of acceptance of collective authority among Sikhs.
  • The episode suggests that the DSGMC may want to use it to weaken SGPC and move in the direction of a decentralized group of institutions constituting a multi polar apex. Such a situation could sharpen the need for a more acceptable and credible group of jathedars as the Sikh authority with Akal Takht leading. All this however is yet in the realm of uncertainty.
  • As for the incumbent Akal Takht Jathedar, he is not likely to face any imminent threat because of the voices questioning his yogita [fitness] for the job. The job description crafted for the position is not easy to fill and no process to produce persons with such potential has been institutionalized and ad hoc measures may only bring back similar problems in a different incarnation.
  • The calendar issue does not seem to arouse Sikhs as excommunications and some other more easily grasped issues might, but is an issue that will not go away till it is resolved due to its recurring reminders every year on festival occasions due to these being celebrated on different dates in Delhi and Amritsar.
  • In the run up to the Convention, significantly lay Sikhs in India were pretty calm – the Diaspora groups were pretty upset about the ex-communication of Ragi Darshan Singh and changes made to the Nanakshahi calendar.

REMINISCING GURU ARJAN

The stand-off continued unabated and ironically came to a head preceding the celebration of Shahidi Divas of Guru Arjan in 2011. His ministry was from 1581 to 1606 – a period of 25 years; the longest till then for any successor Guru. It started when he was 19, just 42 years from the passing of Guru Nanak. He was born into and grew up in guru-ghar, the youngest son of Guru-father Ramdas. Why ironic, you might ask?

Now the shahidi of Guru Arjan has come to be seen as a major turning point in Sikh history. The Guru thought of visions sublime. He ached for a world without hate – a world in which no one was excluded; where all lived in peace and harmony. His hymns give a message of universal fraternity.[8] He reiterated Sikhi as a path above the bondage of ritual beliefs and praxis – it was a quest in which believers were not Hindus nor Muslims but beings whose limbs and life belonged to AlehRaam, the one divine source of us all.[9] He proclaimed that the search for connecting with the divine was not for seeking power over men or for the gift of liberation, it had to be to seek sublime fulfillment of love for the lotus feet of Akal Purkh.[10] A seeker had to be inspired by love divine to relate to others in peace and harmony.

At the collective level, he presented two visions. He picked a dream town of Bhagat Ravidas where all could pray to their deity without fear, walk around freely and co-citizens lived and loved the fraternity.[11] In a similar though a far more definitive strain Guru wrote his mini epic poem in Sri Rag that talks of halemi raj saying – the Mehrvaan has now commanded: no one shall cause harm to anyone. All will abide in peace. Let the rule by benevolent, humble and modest– halemi raj – prevail.[12]

Guru explains– I have created dharmsal rooted in truth. I seek out Guru’s Sikhs, and bring them into it. I wash their feet, wave fan over them and bowing low, I kneel before them.[13]

The Guru had a vision far removed from the grievously corrupt and oppressive dispensations that people then endured. Yet the Guru had his detractors. Prithi Chand, his brother was aggrieved at his choice as the successor Guru by Guru Ramdas and made it into a personal vendetta against Guru Arjan. He declared himself as the rightful Guru and set up a separate sect that was called by mainstream Sikhs as minas [base, low]. It is also said that wide circulation of spurious bani hastened Guru Arjan to compile the Pothi Sahib to safeguard the authentic bani of Gurus with some selected additional compositions by other saints and holy persons. Detractors tried to cause harm to the person of the Guru and his son but he remained steadfast in his belief in divine protection.  

Towards end of Akbar’s rule influential Muslim clerics like Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi started advocating control of spread of Sikhi before it became a threat to Islam. Jahangir recorded in Tuzk i Jahangiri that ‘a Hindu named Arjan had captured many simple-hearted Hindus and even ignorant and foolish Muslims — having handed over his houses, dwelling places, and children to Murtaza Khan and having confiscated his property I ordered that he should be put to death with tortures.’

Despondent, not really – the Guru resolves the riddle: What shall I say, unto whom shall I speak, asks the Guru? He answers saying –talk to and say what you have to [of your inner turmoil] to Prabhu for all that happens is by His will. Lean thou on Him, always and every time.[14]

Ever accepting and inspired, the Guru went through the inhuman tortures with blissful fortitude – only words expressing tranquil acceptance of divine will on his silent lips.[15]

That the day memorializing his martyrdom should be picked by Sikhs for an internal contest of power was sad and ironic. That was the irony.

TUSSLE MOVES TO BATTLE FOR BALLOTS

While this episode was playing out, SGPC was moving closer to its next election, soon to be followed by the elections for the Punjab State Assembly and then the DSGMC. In all of the three elections, the underlying contest was between the Akali Dal [Badal] and the Congress supporters.

SGPC Elections

In the polls for SGPC held on 18 Sep. 2011, the Shiromani Akali Dal [Badal] and Sant Samaj combine contested all the 170 seats. A combine of SAD[Delhi], Khalsa Action Committee, SAD Panch Pardhani, SAD [Longowal] and some others named  Panthic Morcha, supported by the Congress, opposed SAD [Badal] in 52 constituencies.

Amidst the ongoing political wrangling SAD [Delhi] & DSGMC President P S Sarna called upon the Union Home Minister to make photo-identity cards mandatory for voters to ensure transparency.[16] Justice H S Brar, Gurdwara Election Commissioner, responded that issuing voter I cards was not possible because governments of Punjab and Haryana were not ready to bear the expenses.

Akali-Sant Samaj combine won 157 out of 170 seats. After the conclusion of the election, the Central Ministry of Home Affairs directed all the elected members to be present at the SGPC Headquarters in Amritsar on 5 Dec. 2011[17] for co-opting 15 co-opted members. The house to be constituted would have 191 members including six Sikh head priests. However the Punjab and Haryana High Court verdict on Sehjdhari[18] case restored their voting rights stalled further process, including constituting the house and election of the next SGPC president.

The matter is at present with the Supreme Court that has allowed the SGPC executive elected in November 2010 to manage the SGPC till further orders but has stated that the new SGPC House elected without the Sehajdhari Sikh’s participation in September 2011 could not elect office-bearers in the light of the High Court verdict.

State Elections

In the state elections held on 30 Jan. 2012 and results declared on 6 March 2012, Shiromani Akali Dal [Badal] was voted back to power winning 56 seats with its alliance partner BJP winning 12 seats, taking the combine’s tally to 68 in the 117-member Assembly.  Congress and its allies won 46 seats.

DSGMC Elections

After 1925, management of gurdwaras in Delhi was brought under the control of SGPC. An 11-member, Delhi Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, used to manage these gurdwaras. But post-Independence Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1971 was passed leading to formation of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.

Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee comprises of 46 elected members and five nominated members. The term of DSGMC is four years with the elections conducted by Directorate of Gurdwara Elections of Delhi Government. Of 10 lakh Sikhs in Delhi, 4 lakh are on Voter’s list for the DSGMC elections.   

Paramjit Singh Sarna became president of DSGMC in 1995-96 with the support of Parkash Singh Badal but split from Shiromani Akali Dal [Badal] when SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal fell out before the tercentenary celebrations of 1999. Sarnas supported Tohra for about a year but formed SAD [Delhi] in 2000. P S Sarna became DSGMC president in 2002 till 2004 and again in 2006.[19]

It was reported on 8 Feb. 2012 that the Delhi High Court stayed the poll process for DSGMC elections over preparation of fresh voters’ list as well as delimitation of constituencies.[20] The Supreme Court however directed on 17 Sep 2012 that election should be completed before December 31, 2012.[21]

The polls were held on 27 Jan 2013 and results declared on 30 Jan 2013. Badal group won a landslide victory – 37 seats to 8 by Sarna group. Sarna lost in his own constituency. The main issues dominating the election were corruption, losses in educational institutions and sale of DSGMC-owned land to the Delhi government for building parking places, leasing of hospital complex at Bala Sahib to a private hospital company, setting up of a memorial for victims of 1984 November violence and refusal to implement Akal Takht edict on Nanakshahi calendar.

Net Effect of Election Results on Sikh Institutions

We have reviewed the phenomenon of three of the recent elections where the choices made by the Sikh voters had a strong influence on the results. It is clear that the majority of Sikhs in the region have opted to trust the affairs of the religious bodies, SGPC & DSGMC, as well as the state administration of Punjab in the hands of SAD [Badal]. Limiting ourselves to Panthic affairs, the choice Sikhs preferred is unexpected but a powerful endorsement of SAD [Badal] that can be read as equally strong rejection of the SAD [Delhi].

Writing an extensive analysis of the Delhi pogrom, I had proffered that one of the unintended effect of the event seems to have been that Delhi Sikhs and DSGMC have come to occupy a greater voice in Sikh affairs and that there was a diminished centrality of Punjab politics, Akali political maneuverings and even the affairs of the SGPC and Akal Takht in Delhi and among the dispersed Sikh community elsewhere. This direction of change may in the long run weaken structure of the Sikh religious authority so assiduously cultivated by the SGPC over the years. Fortunately this prognosis of mine did not get to be put to a protracted test. The Dec 2012 elections changed the situation. The new DSGMC is likely to continue to be as powerful as its predecessor but it is not confrontational to Akal Takht.

One important dynamic of this change was identified by Times of India when they put out the report that ‘barring areas under the influence of Takht Patna Sahib, Bihar and Takht Sri Hazur Sahib, Nanded, Maharashtra, Sikhs across the nation will be observing their religious occasions as per the amended version of Nanakshahi calendar, after the exit of Sarnas from the management of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.’ Avtar Singh Makkar SGPC president also said that the election results were a ‘defeat of those who had dared to challenge the supreme authority of Akal Takht’.[22] PSGPC also was reported to be falling in line with the Akal Takht directive on the calendar after the change of DSGMC position.

Some of the existing conflicts that had been defying resolution both through discussion and through the device of hukamnama by the Akal Takht have become redundant at least for now. This should give the much needed cooling off period to all concerned to think through merits of their positions and find abiding resolution to the problems. While they do so we would ask of them to consider some of the points in the analysis that follows.

THE IRONY DISECTED

That the storm raised on the calendar issue only caused embarrassment to the Sikhs in India and Pakistan is now becoming obvious. The act of making the shahidi fall on two dates 25th and 16th three weeks apart, not because it happened twice but because our leadership in their pursuit of political points, had decided that a continuing public display of the relative strength of two differing groups was in order, no matter if it in some manners reflected poorly on us and our professed love and respect for the Guru. They made his date of martyrdom the most visible and divisive bone of contention between the feuding and egotistic religious leaders and our new breed of self appointed reformer scholars.

Those picking the 5th of June talked of Akal Takht advice whereas those picking the 16th were emphatic about allegiance to Akal Takht but maintained that the Jathedar is not Akal Takht! They claimed that the Jathedar had caved in to political pressure. Possibly yes but then the pity is that Gurus had created not a speaking Takht but an institution that had to be managed by men speaking for the Takht!

If this episode has any lesson, it is the recognition that while sant samaj could be mired in tradition and prone to promote vedantic slants and Akal Takht Jathedar could be amenable to the pressures of politicians; our new breed of cross cultural intellectuals who are plentifully present on all sides of the divide, in India as well as in the Diaspora, may also not be above promoting their own pet themes in the name of cleansing understanding of Sikh thought and praxis. Examples are plentiful and in the main they suggest a mixture of ideological struggle between orthodoxy, identity and scientific and rationality related world views trying to assert their influence over Sikh thought and praxis.

We are quite used to the edicts of Akal Takht being flouted by segments of the sangat. The problem is less with the dissent than with the choice of an issue as a test case and the mode of dissent. My sense is that we should weigh up that the choice of the method of protest does not place the memory and respect for the Gurus at stake. Given the circumstances it was expected that Pakistan would deny visa to the pilgrims, but that it was allowed to happen only shows how bad we let the situation get.  

We also need to recognize that there are sects in other faiths that have been celebrating some important festivals on separate dates due to differing historical perspectives. In such cases the development of consensus has been a drawn out process. As example, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches succeeded in developing a consensus on the date of Easter only in 1997. In our case we seem to be creating differences in the process of resolving them. If we look at it dispassionately, the calendar is only a sanitation issue, by no means a core issue and should not be used to create permanent schism.

We should all think it through carefully. Are our positions right? Are we helping to steer and position Sikhi so that it can grow, prosper, inspire our youth and help us relate to the world around us in a manner that reflects our respect for the heritage the Gurus bequeathed us? Or is our own sense of inerrancy so strong that we do not care if it seems to put the revered memory of our Gurus in the middle of our squabbles?   

LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD: ALL IN FULL FAITH

Under severe persecutory pressures, Sikhs decided to meet in the vicinity of Akal Takht in gatherings known as sarbat khalsa. We wistfully hold these as a model of our participatory decision making yet we know that any claim of their being representative of all Sikh sangats would be misplaced. In spite of whatever may be said by some, we may have to concede that we have never been more participatory in our entire history than we are presently. Things can be better but to expect that all others will follow what any one of us is proposing could be delusional.

Sikhs put the institution of sarbat khalsa to very effective use to develop consensus on very difficult and vexing issues and obtain unwavering commitment from all Sikhs to implement the decisions.[23] Although no means to enforce the gurmatta existed yet there was never an occasion when such a decision was flouted. This speaks well not only of the leaders but also of the ever present naysayers and the silent majority of lay Sikhs.

The approval by sarbat khalsa of a gurmatta giving sanctuary to Marathas however placed Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a difficult spot. He created an advisory council and on their advice decided to enter into a treaty with the English that Marathas will remove their army thirty miles+ out of Amritsar in return for the English removing encampments from Beas and promise of friendship as long as Sikhs did not entertain those inimical to the English. This saved the fight but the Maharaja was summoned by Akali Phoola Singh, then caretaker of Akal Takht and admonished for ignoring the gurmatta.[24] The lesson: if you defer the matter to Akal Takht then do not try to second guess its decision.

Presently the authority structure of Guru Panth is a hybrid in which SGPC, Akal Takht, the other Takhts and the Gurdwara congregation play roles in a variable manner guided by the SGGS, SRM, tradition and reason. The outline of a possible structure can be summed up as under: 

  • Guru Panth is the collective of committed amritdhari Sikhs and only Guru Panth can resolve matters that affect the core Sikh tenets. In practice Jathedars of five Takhts constitute the standing representative apex committee who play decision-making role on behalf of Guru Panth. All core issues as well as other important matters are presented to the apex body for resolution. Core issues are decided by adoption of a gurmatta that may be issued as a hukamnama from Akal Takht. In case of ordinary religious issues or political, cultural and educational matters the decision is by adoption of a matta. Since the body acts in the manner of panj pyaras their decisions must be consensus based and unanimous. An advisory committee of the SGPC may initially screen the issues.
  • Collective Gurdwara managing bodies like SGPC, DSGMC, WSC [AR] etc have no role in the final decision making process except incidental involvement of SGPC because of their centrality in Sikh affairs and location.

Possibilities of systemic solution notwithstanding, tensions within the panth abound even on casual observance. The result has been that all authority centers – SGPC, DGSMC, Sant Samaj, Deras, Akal Takht, other Takhts and Akalis – have been jostling to consolidate their hold and extend their control/influence over the Panth. Growing awareness among lay Sikhs, increasing media coverage, political interference and not-quiet-any-more intelligentsia and academia have brought the internal dissonance into sharper focus.

The fact is that three of the takhts viz Akal Takht, Takht Kesgarh Sahib and Takht Damdama Sahib, fall within the jurisdiction of SGPC. Jathedar of Akal Takht is appointed by the SGPC and thus the SGPC has an overwhelming ability to influence the decisions by the apex body. In fact the generally shared view by lay Sikhs is that the Jathedar of Akal Takht takes direction from the SGPC top brass. This has not helped because due to close association of SGPC with Akalis the Sikh political tensions have been working back into the Committee’s functioning and SGPC has become a surrogate for Akalis. DSGMC had also come to be influenced by rival political interests to Akali Dal. Both the institutions therefore had become susceptible to open, even brazen political maneuverings.

As if these were not distracting enough, Akal Takht, in its appellate role, had been drawn into all manner of controversial issues ranging from political, educational, maryada related and even group disputes in Gurdwaras by local sangats and others pursuing their pet positions. Its traditional role of summoning Sikhs who were considered to have committed egregious breach of the Panthic way of life and imposing sanctions after due process had also not been free of controversy.

Thus extensive abuse of institutions so well respected by the Sikhs has intensified both the confusion and resentment among Sikhs. There has been open defiance of Akal Takht edicts    like never before in Sikh experience. Akal Takht was not merely criticized but its directives were actively opposed from being implemented. 

The stalemate would have continued to diminish Sikh institutions in the eyes of Sikhs and also to offer opportunities to potential Sikh baiters to embarrass Sikhs. Akal Takht could not do a thing. Nor could the embattled SGPC enmeshed with its own multiple problems figure a way out. Sikhs do think about the goings-on in Amritsar and even if they are not happy with an incumbent’s decisions, they are not likely to countenance attack on an institution that was put in place by the sixth Master. DSGMC elections provided an opening.

I have always held that religious issues cannot be decided by a show of hands. Righteous position and majority view can be two different things. But I do feel thankful that majority in this case seemed to have a touch of divine intervention in the face of hapless position that we had pushed ourselves into.

May be we should not worry as lay Sikhs – the problem may rightly belong to the Guru who created the Sikhs. After all Gurbani can be construed to suggest such a conclusion – so karta chinta karai jin upaya jug[25] – let the one who created the world worry about it! And believe me Akal Purkh does so.

Now don’t laugh – it can happen! Wahiguru can do anything – keera thaap dehai patshahi laskar karai swah[26] – anoint a worm as the king or reduce an army to ashes. Lucky us – Guru is always there to take care of us!

ooooooo0ooooooo

Nirmal Singh

New Delhi

28 April, 2013


[1] Literally intimations mean a slight or indirect pointing to something – in our case it may turn out to be a bit more. Please read patiently on.

[2] Culled from CONTROVERSARIES: YEARENDER SGPC & AKAL TAKHT – a 2010 summary of events of importance [Perneet Singh/TNS http://www.tribunei ndia.com/ 2010/20101224/ punjab.htm# 6

[3] Yudhvir Rana, TNN | May 30, 2011

[4] Tribune Report dated 18 Jan, 2010.

[5] Punjab Newsline Network, Monday, 12 April 2010: http://www.punjabnewsline.com/content/view/24996/38/

[6] Posted on Gurmat Learning Zone [GLZ] by H S Bhanwer on 4/13/10.

[7] This is a condensed version of a note I had posted on the GLZ immediately after the Convention.

[8]na ko bairee neh bigana sagal sang ham ko ban aaee – Kanra M V, p 1299

[9]na ham hindu n musalaman aleh raam kae pindd pran – Bhairo M V, p. 1136.

[10]raaj neh chahoon mukat neh chahoon mun preet charan kamla re – Devgandhari M V, p. 534.

[11]be-gam pura sehr kau nau – Gauri Ravidas, p. 345

[12]hun hukam hoa mihrvan da. pai koay na kisai ranjandaa. sabh sukhalee vutheea ih hoa halaymee raj jio – Srirag M V, p. 74

[13]mai badhee sach dharam sal hai. gursikha lahda bhal kai. pair dhova pakha fayrda tis niv niv laga paey jio – ibid

[14]kiaa keheeai kis aakh sunaaeeai j kehanaa s prabh jee paas sabh kishh keethaa teraa varathai sadhaa sadhaa teree aas – Asa M V, p. 382

[15]tera bhana meetha laagey, har naam padarath nanak mangey – Asa M V, p. 394. 

[16] News Report, Ludhiana, 2 Sep. 2011.

[17] Naveen S Grewal, TNS, reporting from Chandigarh, 22 Nov, 2011.

[18] Sehajdhari Sikh Federation was formed on 13 April 2001 after SGPC passed resolutions to disfranchise the voting right of Sehajdhari Sikhs in SGPC elections. The Fedration turned into a political party named Sehajdhari Shiromani Akali Dal on November 4, 2001 and filed an application with the Election Commission of India for getting registered as a Political Party. The Election Commission directed that words ‘Shiromani’ and ‘Akali’ should be changed from the title. National Council of the Organisation registered Sehajdhari Sikh Federation as a Political Party [Wikipaedia, Sehjdgari Sikh Federation]. For more information go to their website at http://sehajdharisikh.in/ – the site seems to have been set up in Nov. 2011 and has posted three articles – one written by Dr Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia [2003], and two by Dr Harbans Lal [2008] and another of anonymous authorship. The site gives a chart on classification of Sikhs, bio information on founder president Dr P S Ranu, a kesdhari Sikh, who was active in BJP and later disillusioned with their treatment of Sikhs set up this party.

[19] Hindustan Times, Chandigarh, February 05, 2012 <http://www.hindusta ntimes.com/ India-news/ Chandigarh/ Sarnas-Badals- gear-up-for- Delhi-gurudwara- polls/Article1- 807100.aspx>

[20] http://www.indianex press.com/ news/hc-stays- sikh-panel- polls-asks- govt-to-prepare- new-voters- list/909294/

[21] Link for detailed news : www.tribuneindia.com/2012/20120918/delhi.htm#6

[22] Yudhvir Rana, TNN reporting on Feb 1, 2013.

[23] J S Grewal says ‘It was largely through the institution of Gurmatta that the Khalsa established themselves as rulers.’ – Lectures on History, Society and Culture of the Punjab, Patiala, 2007, p. 326

[24] Duggal K S, p. 32

[25] Asa M I, p. 467

[26] Majh M I, p. 144

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