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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

100 yrs of SGPC: A tumultuous journey of faith & politics

As the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) celebrated its 100th Foundation Day on Tuesday, Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh called SGPC the mother of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

Written by Kamaldeep Singh Brar | Amritsar | November 18, 2020 11:26:03 am
gurdwara polls, gurdwara elections, SGCP elections, SS Saron, Indian ExpressTeja Singh Samundri Hall, the head office of SGPC, in Amritsar (Express Photo)

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) celebrated its 100th Foundation Day on Tuesday. Addressing a gathering on the occasion, Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh called SGPC the mother of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

Here is a look at its tumultuous journey — from a strong political power to a contentious body often accused of being under the shadow of SAD.

The formation of SGPC

The sudden rise in the activities of Christian missionaries and Arya Samaj activists after the annexation of Punjab and some other factors led to the Singh Sabha movement among Sikhs to stop the alleged “degradation of Sikh thought and principles” in daily life. The foundation of Khalsa College in 1892 was an important milestone of such activism among the community.

But the control of Golden Temple and gurdwaras continued to be in the hands of ‘mahants’ (priests), who enjoyed the tacit support of the British government. These ‘mahants’ often treated gurdwaras as their personal fiefdoms and encouraged practices such as idol worship, discrimination with Dalits etc. in violation of the tenets of Sikhism.

After much discussion among the leaders of the community, a big gathering was called at Jallianwala Bagh on October 12, 1920, to restore the rights of Dalit Sikhs to offer parshad at the Golden Temple.

Soon, the assembled people moved to Golden Temple and removed the mahants who had little mass support.

A 25-member committee dominated by Dalit Sikhs was formed on the same day. This committee encouraged the community members to get organised and finally led to the formation of 175-member body christened Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) on November 15, 1920.

Interestingly, two days earlier, the British government had set up its own committee consisting of 36 Sikhs to manage the Golden Temple. But SGPC included members of the British committee as well.

The first SGPC meeting was held at the Akal Takht on December 12, 1920.

The SGPC is headquartered at Teja Singh Samundri Hall, in Sri Harmandir Sahib Complex.

The relationship between the SGPC and Akali Dal was formed on December 14, 1920, as a task force of the SGPC.

With SGPC, the community managed to take control of many gurdwaras in a very short time, though many Sikhs were killed and burnt alive by mahant during this drive.

Their efforts were applauded by the Indian National Congress that passed a resolution in its annual assembly held at Gaya in December 1921, which read, “It is matter of pride and appreciation that Akalis displayed unprecedented bravery in non-violent movement for the goodwill of whole community.”

The British government finally passed the Guudwaras Act in 1925, making SGPC a democratic body.

At least 500 Sikhs sacrificed their lives, and 4,000 were arrested during the five-year-long movement that made SGPC a legal body of Sikhs to manage gurdwara affairs. It also strengthened the Shiromani Akali Dal as a political party.

SAD, Cong and SGPC

As strange as it may sound, SAD passed a resolution on September 30, 1956, in which it agreed that “it will not have any separate political agenda”.

“SAD will protect religious, academic, cultural, social and economic concerns of the panth,” reads the resolution which also emphasised that SGPC functioning and religious affairs were more important than the Akali political agenda.

After this meeting, SAD announced recruitment of 2 lakh Akali workers into the Congress party. However, it couldn’t happen as the relationship between Congress and Akali leaders was short-lived.

SGPC elections and Punjab politics

Before formation of the Punjabi Suba in 1966, the democratically elected SGPC had great sway over the political agenda of Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab politics. The defeat of Master Tara Singh in the SGPC president’s elections in 1958 was decoded as the defeat of the Punjabi Suba movement.

Then in January 1960, the Shiromani Akali Dal was pitched against Congress supported ‘Sadh Sangat Board’ and Left leaning Desh Bhagat Party, in the SGPC elections. In fact, left leaning SGPC members had played a pivotal role in the removal of Master Tara Singh from the president’s post in 1958. It was alleged that then Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon had used his influence to remove Master Tara Singh.

It was also the reason that the performance of Shiromani Akali Dal in the SGPC elections of 1960 was considered a referendum on the Punjabi Suba movement.

SAD won 132 out of the 139 SGPC seats with a big majority. On January 24, 1960, Master Tara Singh, in his speech, hailed the victory of SAD in SGPC elections as a referendum in favour of Punjabi Suba movement.

When SGPC elections settled dispute between two Akali factions

Master Tara Singh and Sant Fateh Singh were running two factions of SAD before SGPC elections in 1965.

Sant Fateh Singh won the election with a thumping majority. Around six months after SGPC elections, Master Tara Singh decided to unite both the factions.

SAD’s resurgence over SGPC

SAD had won the 1979 SGPC elections in which the hardliner Damdami Taksal and Dal Khlasa had also contested unsuccessfully. It was followed by 1984 Operation Blue Star and militancy. The troubled period allowed Gurcharan Singh Tohra to become the longest serving president of SGPC. Tohra served as its chief for 26 years. The next SGPC elections were held in 1996 and it was followed by the formation of SAD government in the state in alliance with Bhartiya Janata party in 1997.

It also started a new era and gradually the appointment of SGPC president came to be decided by the party high command. SAD high command allowed Avtar Singh Makkar, who was almost unknown in Akali politics, to become SGPC president in 2005 and he remained on the post for 11 years.

Incumbent president Gobind Singh Longowal was also appointed by the party high command despite his mere year’s experience of working with SGPC.

The present crisis

There have been no SGPC elections for the last nine years. SGPC leadership has failed to act on the report probing the 328 missing copies of Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, considered the living guru. This is arguably the biggest scandal in the history of SGPC, and has led too unprecedented protests outside its office in Amritsar.

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