The Supreme Court has disposed of a petition by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) that challenged the right of Sehajdhari Sikhs to vote in its elections, as the case had been rendered irrelevant by an amendment earlier this year of a 1925 law that regulates, among other things, elections to the SGPC.
This amendment disenfranchised Sehajdhari Sikhs, who had been given the vote by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in December 2011. The High Court had struck down a government notification issued in 2003 disentitling the Sehajdharis from voting in the SGPC elections — and had, in effect, voided the polls that had been held 3 months earlier, from which the Sehajdharis had been excluded.
The SGPC has been functioning under an interim arrangement mandated by the Supreme Court since 2013. The now-reinstated 2011 house completes its term later this year, barely months before the Assembly elections. Fresh elections to the SGPC are unlikely to be held before that. The Supreme Court ruling has given an opportunity to the Shiromani Akali Dal to strengthen its hold on Panthic affairs ahead of the Assembly polls.
What was the Sehajdhari voting rights issue?
Unlike a baptised Sikh who wears Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (steel bracelet), Kirpan (ceremonial dagger), Kachha (undergarment) and Kangha (comb), Sehajdhari Sikhs trim their hair and do not wear the five articles of the faith. A Sehajdhari Sikh, however, believes in the 10 Sikh Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib. As per the amended Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925 (Punjab Act Number 1 of 1959), a Sehajdhari Sikh is a person who performs ceremonies according to Sikh rites; who does not use tobacco or halal meat, who is not a patit (apostate) and who recites mul manter. On October 8, 2003, the central government issued an order amending Sections 49 and 92 of the Act to deny Sehajdhari Sikhs the vote in SGPC elections. A registered political party, Sehajdhari Sikh Federation, appealed to the High Court the following month, and on December 20, 2011, a three-judge High Court Bench quashed the government notification. The court said a valuable legal right could not be taken away except by a competent legislature, and left it to the competent legislature to decide whether the Act should be amended. The ruling, however, nullified the September 2011 SGPC elections in which the SAD-Sant Samaj alliance had won 157 out of 170 seats. The HC had made it clear earlier that the elections would be subject to the outcome of the Sehajdhari voting rights case.
How did the SGPC and SAD respond to the judgment?
The SGPC strongly opposed the grant of voting rights to Sehajdhari Sikhs — SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar said “non Sikhs” cannot have a vote — and challenged the HC order in February 2012. On March 30, 2013, the Supreme Court made an interim arrangement for SGPC’s functioning, and ordered that the 15-member executive committee under Makkar’s chairmanship should continue until further orders. In February this year, a year ahead of the Assembly polls, SAD president and Punjab Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal approached BJP national president Amit Shah seeking an amendment in the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, to bar the Sehajdharis from voting in the SGPC polls. Rajya Sabha passed the Sikh Gurdwara (Amendment) Bill on March 16, and Lok Sabha on April 25. President Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent in May.
What has happened in the case now?
The SC has disposed of the SGPC petition, referring to the 2016 amendment. According to an SGPC lawyer, the court reinstated the 2011 house, noting that it would now work as per the provisions of the amended Act. On the other hand, Sehajdhari Sikh Federation president Paramjeet Singh Ranu has said the Federation “has been given special liberty to challenge the amendment Bill afresh”.
What does reinstatement of the 2011 house mean?
The SGPC general house meets to elect new office-bearers after the union government notifies the house after an election. The HC verdict nullified the 2011 election before the first meeting of the general house could be convened. According to SGPC chief secretary Harcharan Singh, the SGPC will now approach the Home Ministry with the SC order and ask that the first meeting of the general house be convened.
What could be the political ramifications in poll-bound Punjab?
The SAD would not want fresh polls before the Assembly elections as it works hard to re-establish itself on the Panthic platform after back-to-back setbacks last year over the controversial pardon by the Akal Takht to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and a series of incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib that put the state on the boil. The schedule for the SGPC polls is notified by the union government, and the SAD is an ally of the BJP. In any case, despite the SGPC having a 5-year term, elections haven’t been held at that interval at any time except in 1960 and 1965. Between 1965 and 2011, SGPC elections were held in 1979, 1996 and 2004.