What is a Sarbat Khalsa? When and why is it convened?
The word sarbat means ‘all’, and literally, Sarbat Khalsa is an assembly of all Sikhs (Khalsa). In the 18th century, following the death of the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, Sikh misls (military units) began to convene the Sarbat Khalsa to discuss political, social and religious issues of extreme importance to the community, which was then in the midst of its struggle against the Mughals. Historically, Sikh misls met at the Akal Takht to deliberate upon war strategy. In 1920, a Sarbat Khalsa was called to discuss control of gurdwaras and, subsequently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was born. On January 26, 1986, radical Sikhs called a Sarbat Khalsa to discuss kar sewa at the Akal Takht, which had been damaged in Operation Bluestar. A panthic committee that was formed to decide on the future of the Sikh struggle later that year gave a call for Khalistan.
Who can call a Sarbat Khalsa? From where does it draw its authority?
SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar, Akal Takht chief Giani Gurbachan Singh, and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) insist that a Sarbat Khalsa can be convened only at the Akal Takht — following a call by the chief of the Akal Takht. Others, however, believe that a Sarbat Khalsa can be convened by the “Sikh community”, even somewhere other than the Akal Takht, albeit under rare circumstances. According to them, the November 10 Sarbat Khalsa qualified to be in the “rare” category because it targeted the Sikh clergy, and the SGPC had refused permission for it to be held at the Akal Takht.
So, who called the November 10 Sarbat Khalsa? What happened there?
It was convened primarily by radicals Simranjit Singh Mann and Mohkam Singh, leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and United Akali Dal respectively, both fringe groups. Mann became MP from Tarn Taran in 1989, when he was in Bhagalpur prison, and was elected again in 1999 from Sangrur. Mohkam Singh is a former chief spokesperson of the Damdami Taksal, the Sikh seminary once led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale.
The November 10 Sarbat Khalsa was convened to remove the Sikh priests at the highest temporal seats of the faith in Punjab — the Akal Takht (Giani Gurbachan Singh), Takht Keshgarh Sahib (Giani Mal Singh) and Takht Damdama Sahib (Giani Gurmukh Singh). The clerics have been criticised for their decision — made on September 24, along with the top cleric at Takht Patna Sahib (Giani Iqbal Singh) and a representative of the Jathedar of Takht Hazoor Sahib in Nanded — to pardon Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda, who had, in 2007, been accused of committing blasphemy by imitating Guru Gobind Singh.
The pardon was allegedly influenced by the SAD, which controls the SGPC, which appoints the top clerics at the three Punjab Takhts — allegedly with an eye on the Dera’s votebank. The Sarbat Khalsa aimed to free clerics from “political control”. Also, the congregation came in the aftermath of a series of incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib that has roiled the state, and which the government has seemed unable to stop.
The Sarbat Khalsa, attended by a large number of people, passed 13 resolutions challenging the authority of the Akal Takht and SGPC leadership. The organisers announced the “sacking” of the Jathedars at the three Takhts in Punjab for “failing to uphold the traditions” of the Takhts, and the “appointment” of Jagtar Singh Hawara, the jailed assassin of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, as Jathedar of the Akal Takht. The Sarbat Khalsa also “revoked” the Fakhr-e-Qaum and Panth Rattan honours conferred on Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal by the Akal Takht, and the title of Shiromani Sewak bestowed on SGPC chief Makkar.
What is the significance of convicted terrorist Hawara being named Jathedar of the Akal Takht?
For a radical section of the Sikh community, Hawara is an icon. By naming him to the exalted position of the head of the Akal Takht, the organisers of the Sarbat Khalsa have scored a political point with the SAD, which has been claiming credit for the transfer of militants Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Gurdeep Singh Khera to jails in Punjab from Delhi and Karnataka respectively. In order to keep its core panthic constituency intact, SAD has been doing a balancing act over the years — with its proxies SGPC and the Akal Takht honouring members of the families of the assassins of Indira Gandhi and Gen (retd) A S Vaidya at the Golden Temple.
How have the SGPC and the ruling establishment reacted to the Sarbat Khalsa’s decisions?
The SGPC has criticised the assembly as being “bereft of Sikh principles” and in violation of “Sikh traditions”, and declared that “interference” from “political groups behind the November 10 congregation” would not be tolerated. Early on Wednesday, police picked up Simranjit Singh Mann and Mohkam Singh from their homes in Amritsar. The crackdown, as well as the massive response to the Sarbat Khalsa, have given a fresh lease of life to the two radical leaders who have been votaries of Khalistan, but whose parties have not had much traction in Punjab lately.
What happens now? What are the likely political repercussions of these developments?
A large section of the Sikh community has been upset with the functioning of the high priests, and has supported the Sarbat Khalsa resolutions. Dhian Singh Mand, the “acting Jathedar of the Akal Takht in the absence of Hawara”, is likely to issue directions and orders to the Sikh community — it remains to be seen how closely these are abided by. Mand was taken into custody after dramatic developments at the Akal Takht, where he went to give an address on the occasion of Bandi Chhor Diwas on November 11. There was commotion after slogans were raised and black flags waved in protest against the established clergy, and a man attempted to attack Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh.
The SAD has received a big political jolt, and its situation is unlikely to improve if the unrest against the SGPC-appointed Jathedars continues. The government faces potentially strong anti-incumbency in the 2017 Assembly elections, and the Sarbat Khalsa has likely neutralised the edge that the SAD garnered in its testy relationship with alliance partner BJP in the aftermath of the latter’s defeat in the Bihar election results.