Religious communities are popularly viewed as internally cohesive and homogeneous, particularly numerically smaller groups. The religious is supposed to transcend the social, which is often seen as fluid, messy and contested. This view of the religious community is often propagated and deployed by those who claim to represent the community. It legitimises their authority within a religious community and their position in the outside world. In reality, however, all religions have diversities, and they can give rise to contestations of different kinds.
Perhaps the single most important reality that has shaped the identity of religious communities in the recent past is their relationship with nation states. This is particularly so in countries like India, which chose not to be identified with a specific religious or ethnic community. However, democratic political processes actively interact with and shape the prevailing social identities of caste, class, gender, ethnicity and religion.
The ongoing skirmish over the formation of a separate management committee by the Sikhs of Haryana — the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (HSGPC) — to manage the historic gurdwaras in the state, taking them out of the purview of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), is a good example of this kind of contestation.
Unlike some other religious traditions, Sikhism does not have a priestly class/ caste or an orthodox institution like the Church inscribed in its tradition or scriptures. Its institutions have evolved, and tend to follow a “modern” logic. The SGPC, for example, was formed in the 1920s as part of the Sikh religious reform movement, initiated by the emergent leadership of the community. The SGPC acquired rights to manage historic Sikh gurdwaras only after its recognition by the colonial state in 1925, following a prolonged struggle by the common Sikhs of Punjab.
As it acquired legal status, it also evolved as an institution with a formalised governing structure of its own. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this new body was its organisation as a representative and democratic institution. Much like the democratically elected state legislatures or Parliament, the governing body of the SGPC is directly elected by Sikhs. All adult Sikhs have the right to vote for their representatives, who contest from their respective constituencies. Over the years, the Akalis have acquired near-complete control of the institutions, but they have been able to do so only through the electoral process. Much like other democratic institutions of the country, the SGPC elects members of its general body every five years. Not only do other Sikh political formations participate in the elections, the Congress in Punjab has also contested them.
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There was a time when even the communists fielded candidates for the SGPC polls. Further, as in the other representative institutions of democratic India, the general body of the SGPC also has quotas for Scheduled Caste Sikhs.
But the SGPC is not the sole organisation that manages Sikh shrines in the country. Local-level bodies, babas and sants manage a large number of gurdwaras. Even the historic Sikh shrines are not all under SGPC control. Until 1966, the jurisdiction of the SGPC was confined to Punjab. Delhi, for example, has a parallel body, called the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. Similarly, historic Sikh gurdwaras in other parts of the country have their state- or local-level bodies. Even Pakistan has a separate organisation called the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, set up by the government of Pakistan to manage Sikh shrines in western Punjab and elsewhere in the country.
When the Indian Punjab was reorganised in 1966 and a separate state of Haryana was formed, the gurdwaras in Haryana remained under the control of the SGPC. Though Haryana Sikhs also elect a few members to the general body, their say in the management of local gurdwaras is limited. More importantly, perhaps, over the past three decades and more, the SGPC has largely been under the control of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which, for various historical and demographic reasons, has become a regional party of Punjab. Its priorities are dictated by its interests in the state.
The Sikhs are a demographic majority in Punjab, where they make up more than 60 per cent of the total population. Outside Punjab, Haryana has the largest number of Sikhs. However, even though they are a million-plus community in the state, they are a minority comprising a little less than 6 per cent of the total population. Understandably, their demographic status shapes their political imperatives and aspirations. Gurdwaras are important institutions, more so for a smaller minority. Besides being places of worship, they also collect donations that become a source for the community’s development. The SGPC, for example, has a good number of educational institutions and other resources.
Tensions are compounded by popular perceptions about the growing control of the SAD and its leadership over the affairs of the SGPC. By adamantly opposing the formation of the HSGPC, and interpreting it as yet another Congress conspiracy against Sikhs, the mainstream Akali leadership has reinforced this perception.
The writer is professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi