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Creation, courts and crisis: recalling SGPC’s journey

SGPC was formed on November 15, 1920 at a Sarbat Khalsa (assembly of Sikhs) called at the Akal Takht to take control of gurdwaras from mahants.

Written by Navjeevan Gopal | Amritsar |
Updated: November 25, 2015 12:08:53 am
Panj Pyaras, Dera Sacha Sauda rape case, guru Granth Sahib, Fardikot village, desecration of Guru Granth Sahib, Panj Pyaras, Panj Pyaras suspended by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, religious books, religious clashes, protest, sikh protest, punjab sikh protest, Chandigarh news, punjab news, haryana news, india news, nation news, news The Panj Payaras at the Akal Takht. (Express Photo by: Rana Simranjit Singh)

In recent weeks, as Punjab has been rocked by socio-religious upheaval, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The apex representative body of Sikhs has been hit by crisis after crisis — the repeated incidents of alleged desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the deep disquiet over the Sikh high priests’ flip-flop on pardoning Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the revolt by the Panj Pyare, and the resolutions passed in the Sarbat Khalsa called by radical Sikhs. As the SGPC passes through one of the lowest phases in its 95-year history, here’s the lowdown on its journey.

Establishment and duties
SGPC was formed on November 15, 1920 at a Sarbat Khalsa (assembly of Sikhs) called at the Akal Takht to take control of gurdwaras from mahants. The first formal SGPC election was held in June 1926 after enactment of The Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925. The SGPC manages gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, and has a budget of over Rs 993 crore for 2015-16 — increasing rapidly from Rs 806 crore for 2013-14 and Rs 905 crore for 2014-15. SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar has been in the post since 2005. The SGPC employs nearly 10,000 people, some 1,100 of whom work in its Dharam Parchar section. The Dharam Parchar Committee runs missions and colleges in Punjab and other states.

Structure of SGPC
There are 190 members in the SGPC house, 170 of whom are elected and 15 co-opted. Chiefs of the five Sikh Takhts are also members. Only elected and co-opted members can vote. Among elected members, 11 are elected from Haryana, and one each from Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh. SGPC became an interstate statutory body after the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966. Thirty elected seats are reserved for women, five of whom should be Scheduled Caste Sikhs. Twenty seats are reserved for Scheduled Caste Sikhs. Among co-opted members, four are from Punjab, three each from Delhi and Haryana, and one each from Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan. The co-opted members are selected by the SGPC general house in a meeting chaired by the Amritsar deputy commissioner.

Sikhs older than 21 can vote in the SGPC polls. The Sikh Gurdwaras Act mandates SGPC elections every five years, but that has not always happened. The last elections — in 2011 — were scrapped over the Sehajdhari Sikhs voting rights issue; before that, elections were held in 2004, 1996, 1979, 1965 and 1960.

The Sehajdhari issue
Sehajdhari Sikhs have trimmed hair and do not wear the five articles of faith that baptised Sikhs do — Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (bracelet), Kirpan (ceremonial dagger), Kachha (undergarment) and Kangha (comb). A Sehajdhari Sikh, however, believes in the Sikh gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib. In October 2003, the BJP-led central government amended the Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, to deny Sehajdhari Sikhs a vote in SGPC elections. The Shiromani Akali Dal backed the move. SGPC president Makkar says Sehejdhari Sikhs are “non Sikhs” who cannot vote in its elections.

In November 2003, a registered political party, Sehajdhari Sikh Federation, challenged the Centre’s notification in the High Court. In 2010, a Sehajdhari Sikh named Hans Raj moved the High Court, seeking quashing of circulars issued by SGPC for preparation of electoral rolls for the 2011 SGPC elections. Another petition challenging the 2003 notification was filed in 2011 by one Satnam Singh.

In December 2011, a three-judge bench of the court restored the voting rights of Sehajdhari Sikhs, saying that a valuable legal right could not be taken away except by the competent legislature itself. The decision nullified the September 2011 SGPC elections, in which the Shiromani Akali Dal-Sant Samaj alliance had won 157 of the 170 seats.

In February 2012, the SGPC approached the Supreme Court. On March 30, 2013, the Supreme Court made an interim arrangement for the functioning of SGPC, and ordered that the 15-member executive committee under the chairmanship of Makkar shall continue to function and discharge its duties in accordance with the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, until further orders. On October 4, 2013, the court admitted the case for hearing with regular cases as per its turn. The case is pending.

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