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Return of gurdwara politics

The Akalis accuse the Haryana government of dividing Sikhs, but the HSGPC controversy is also of their own making.

The government should restrain the Akalis and advise them to prove their case in court, rather than indulging in rabble-rousing and intemperate language. Source: CR Sasikumar The government should restrain the Akalis and advise them to prove their case in court, rather than indulging in rabble-rousing and intemperate language. Source: CR Sasikumar

The Akalis accuse the Haryana government of dividing Sikhs, but the HSGPC controversy is also of their own making.

The Akalis of Punjab appear angry. A law enacted by neighbouring Haryana to create a committee to manage the affairs of gurdwaras in the state has upset them so much that they have likened Haryana’s action to Mughal and British oppression. They have vowed to resist any attempt by the proposed Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (HSGPC) to take control of the gurdwaras from the Akali-controlled Amritsar-based Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). The Akalis  say that the Congress government  in Haryana is attempting to divide the Sikhs, and that the new law  is unconstitutional.

The political motive is obvious. With assembly elections in Haryana approaching, Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda is anxious to win over the Sikhs who dislike the Punjab Akalis’ hegemony in gurdwara affairs. They have been demanding a separate committee to manage gurdwara affairs in the state, and the Congress had previously promised such a committee. Now Hooda has delivered. Isn’t this part of normal electoral politics? And where is the conspiracy? The law was presented, discussed and passed in an open session of the Haryana Assembly on July 11, and Governor Jagannath Pahadia gave his assent on July 14.

The Akalis have some influence over the Sikhs in Haryana, and  have supported the now-jailed Om Prakash Chautala’s  ndian National Lok Dal. In the Lok Sabha elections, the Akalis formed an alliance with the BJP, but Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal preferred to campaign for the INLD, which had put up candidates against the BJP and its ally for all 10 seats in Haryana. (Incidentally, the BJP  was initially not enthusiastic about supporting the Akali campaign against the Haryana law.) By  giving Haryana Sikhs the right to manage gurdwaras, Hooda is trying to weaken the INLD. But the
new law will also empower anti-Akali Sikhs in Haryana.

The Akalis may accuse the Haryana government of dividing the Sikhs but the problem is partly of their own making. They never really addressed the grievances behind the demand for a separate gurdwara management committee. Broadly, the allegations are that the Akali-controlled SGPC is Punjab-centric, works arbitrarily, lacks transparency in the handling of funds and serves the interests of Punjab politicians, not Haryana Sikhs. Kiranjot Kaur, SGPC member and granddaughter of the late Master Tara Singh, one of its founders, has blamed the present leadership for the crisis, saying  it could have been prevented  with better accommodation of  the Haryana Sikhs.

The SGPC denies it is taking money out of Haryana and claims it is actually spending more there than the gurdwaras get by way of offerings. The Akalis and the SGPC have dubbed their critics as “Congress agents”, because one of the leaders of the campaign is Haryana Finance Minister Harmohinder Singh Chatha, who headed a committee to work out details of the
new arrangement. Further, it argues that it won the right to manage gurdwaras under the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, after a long agitation against the malpractices that had crept in under traditional mahants, and will resist any attempt to curtail that right.
That complicates the issue. Critics point out that much has changed since the act was passed in undivided Punjab. First, west Punjab went to Pakistan and the Pakistan government constituted its own gurdwara management committee in 1999. In 1966, Indian Punjab was reorganised because the Akalis wanted a Punjabi-speaking state. Logically, therefore, the Sikhs of Haryana have every right to manage the gurdwaras in their state, which came into existence after the reorganisation of Punjab. Besides, doesn’t Delhi have its own gurdwara management committee? Or, for that matter, the two Sikhs takhts  at Patna and Nanded?

The SGPC did make a last-minute attempt to pacify Haryana Sikhs by offering a subcommittee, consisting exclusively of Haryana Sikhs, to manage the affairs of the gurdwaras in the state, but the latter rejected it as too little too late. The SGPC then hit back in a manner that lent weight to the charge that it was misusing religious institutions for partisan, political ends.

On July 16, the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, issued an edict excommunicating three of the Haryana Sikh leaders spearheading the campaign. It ordered Sikhs everywhere to have no social, political or religious relations with HSGPC (ad hoc) president Jagdish Singh Jinda, Didar Singh Nalvi and Harmohinder Singh Chatha. The edict came within hours of the SGPC executive submitting a memo to the Akal Takht jathedar, Giani Gurbachan Singh, criticising Haryana leaders. Several prominent Sikhs questioned the Akal Takht’s intervention.

Since the Akalis claim that the Haryana law is unconstitutional, the best course would be to challenge it in court. Extra-legal methods, like the use of militant rhetoric to rouse the faithful for what is being projected as some kind of religious crusade, do not go with claims  of constitutional rectitude. Unfortunately, the Narendra Modi government has complicated the situation. Last week, Union home secretary Anil Goswami asked Haryana chief secretary S.C. Chaudhary to request the governor to withdraw his assent to the bill. Quoting Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi, Goswami said that the bill was unconstitutional and, therefore, “void  and of no legal effect”.

Since only a court can pass  that kind of judgment, Hooda accused the NDA government of violating the “spirit of federalism”. His parliamentary affairs minister, Randeep Surjewala, wrote to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, demanding that Goswami’s letter be withdrawn. Further, he accused Badal of sending his ministerial colleagues, MPs, MLAs, SGPC members and party leaders to Haryana to prevent the HSGPC from taking control of the gurdwaras.

“Many such Sikh leaders have entered various Sikh religious shrines of Haryana with armed police personnel of Punjab,” Surjewala alleged. Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal denied anyone had been sent to Haryana but added, “It is the Sikh community coming out on its own, rising against this attack on the Sikh Panth.” The Akalis also claimed Goswami’s letter as “a constitutional victory”, and accused Haryana of creating “a constitutional crisis”. They have called a Sikh congregation in the Golden Temple complex on July 27 to decide on their course of action.

That date is significant because the Haryana governor’s term ends on July 26. After a new governor takes over, what will the Modi government do for its NDA ally? But its priority should be to defuse the situation. It should restrain

the Akalis and advise them to  prove their case in court, rather  than indulging in rabble-rousing  and intemperate language. The Haryana government, whose response so far has been restrained  and measured, could be asked to wait for the judgment before implementing the new law.

The Akalis should realise that a 1925 law is not the best argument to bolster their claim on gurdwaras outside Punjab. Leaders who swear by federalism and decentralisation should not try to stifle those who want the right to manage their own institutions. They should work towards the enactment of an alternative law in tune with  modern realities.

virender.kumar@expressindia.com

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