IN A development that will reinforce the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal’s hold on the Sikh community’s panthic affairs ahead of the Punjab elections, the Supreme Court Thursday reinstated the 2011 Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee.
The SGPC House elected in 2011 had been declared null and void that year by the Punjab & Haryana High Court in the light of its decision restoring voting rights of Sehajdhari Sikhs.
The SGPC had appealed against the decision in the Supreme Court. It was this petition that the Supreme Court disposed of today, though the verdict was virtually a foregone conclusion after Parliament amended the Gurdwara Act in May 2016 to bar Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting in the SGPC elections.
Sehajdhari are Sikhs who trim their beards and, therefore, not considered panthic enough. The Supreme Court has granted the Sehajdhari the special liberty to challenge the Amendment.
While the case was pending, the Supreme Court appointed an interim SGPC, essentially comprising the same 15 members who were elected in 2005. The SGPC, also referred to as a “mini-parliament of Sikhs”, with 170 members, has a five year term.
The Supreme Court ruling does not make clear if reinstatement of the 2011 SGPC house means that it will start its five term now, or if it is deemed to have begun in 2011. In the latter case, its term would be due to end later this year, and a fresh election would have to held.
Sikh affairs experts, SGPC office-bearers, including its head Avtar Singh Makkar and Sehajdhari Sikh Federation chief Dr P S Ranu, who led the legal battle Sehajdhari voting rights, were not sure if the Supreme Court’s decision meant another a full tenure of five years for the 2011 SGPC house from the date its general house meets or fresh elections for SGPC house could be held.
Former SGPC secretary Manjit Singh Calcutta said: “Going by the rules, the tenure of the house should end by this year end. But until the detailed court order comes, nothing can be said with certainty about the status of the reinstated house or whether fresh elections could be held before 2017 assembly polls in Punjab. It takes a couple of months to prepare voter rolls after the Union government notifies Gurdwara Election Commission,” said Calcutta.
Avtar Singh Makkar, who has been SGPC president for more than a decade now after being chosen in 2005 by virtue of continuing in the court appointed interim arrangement, told The Indian Express, “I do not know at this point of time whether the reinstated house will function for another five years or fresh elections would be held.”
Makkar will most likely lose his position now. Following the Supreme Court order, SGPC general house comprising those who won in 2011 SGPC polls, mostly all SAD nominees, will meet to elect the new executive body and the president.
In the last few months, Makkar’s relations with SAD, especially with Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, have frayed over issues that have troubled the community since 2015, such as the desecration incidents, the controversial pardon to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, and the equally contentious revocation of the pardon, and the sacking of the panj pyaras. In all these episodes, Makkar tried to walk a fine line between the government and the community, pleasing neither. But because he was an appointee of the court, he could not be removed. Now that immunity is gone.
“I honestly do not fear anything at all. It is for the party to decide what the next course of action would be. Whatever party decides, I will not have any grudge,” Makkar told The Indian Express, when asked if he feared losing the post he held since 2005 after SC ruling. “But I want to add that during my tenure, the educational institutes flourished unprecedentedly. I took the budget of SGPC from Rs 260 crore to over Rs 1000 crore,” he added.
For SAD, the continuation of the 2011 house for another five years from now would be the best option. That way, even if it loses the Punjab Assembly election, it can flex its panthic muscle through the SGPC.
Even if a fresh election to the SGPC is possible in the few remaining months before the Assembly election, it is doubtful the SAD will push for it as it could end up highlighting the two-term anti-incumbency against party, which is the last thing it would want right as it goes into the election.
“Things will be clear only after going through the full order of the court, “ Dr P S Ranu told The Indian Express. “The appeal of SGPC has been disposed of. The Sehajdhari Sikh Federation has been granted special liberty to challenge the Amendment bill [that related to denying voting rights to Sehajdhari Sikhs) afresh,” said Ranu