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Monday, January 25, 2021

Explained: Who is Bibi Jagir Kaur, the new SGPC president?

A look at Bibi Jagir Kaur's chequered career, and what her election as new SGPC president means to the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Written by Kamaldeep Singh Brar , Edited by Explained Desk | Amritsar | Updated: November 30, 2020 11:54:32 am
Bibi Jagir Kaur, sgpc bibi jagir kaur, Dera Baba Prem Singh Murale Wale, Akal Takht punjab, Indian ExpressSAD MLA Bibi Jagir Kaur in Chandigarh in 2015. (Express Photo: Jaipal Singh, File)

Bibi Jagir Kaur, the first woman to be elected SGPC president more than 20 years ago, has made a comeback. A look at her chequered career and what her election means to the SAD.

Teacher-turned-politician

Bibi Jagir Kaur, 66, holds bachelor’s degrees in science and education and worked as a teacher. In 1987, she quit her job after she was appointed head of the Dera of Baba Prem Singh Murale Wale. The Dera has a significant following in Kapurthala district’s Bholath constituency – which Kaur later represented in the state assembly – mainly among the Lubana community to which she belongs.

Winning first election

Kaur’s position as Dera head helped her in joining the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) before the 1997 assembly elections in Punjab. The then party chief Parkash Singh Badal decided to field her from Bholath against Sukhpal Singh Khaira, son of firebrand Akali politician and former minister Sukhjinder Singh. Khaira, a Congress candidate, lost by a big margin. Kaur’s victory helped the first-time MLA gain a cabinet berth in the government. She won the same seat again in 2002 and 2012.

First woman SGPC president

Kaur’s meteoric rise came two years later amid a political tussle between the then Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra and SAD chief Parkash Singh Badal. The rift saw Badal sacking Tohra, who was SGPC chief for nearly 26 years, in March 1999 and replacing him with a 44-year-old Kaur, making her the first-ever woman president of the Sikh body. Her elevation helped by her Dera background, Kaur remained on the post until November 2000, and again from September 2004 to November 2005. Kaur’s aggressive posturing established her position in Punjab’s “panthik” politics in no time. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

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Tussle with Akal Takht

However, Kaur’s election as SGPC chief saw the Sikh community divided over the Nanakshahi calendar, with the Akal Takht Jathedar Puran Singh and Bibi Jagir Kaur representing the two camps. While the SGPC celebrated Guru Gobind Singh’s birth anniversary on January 5, 2000, the Akal Takht observed it two years later, on January 14, 2002.

The battlelines between Kaur and Singh were drawn, with many expecting she would use her authority to remove the Jathedar from the post. Preempting such a move, Singh issued an ‘edict’ on January 25, 2000 to excommunicate Kaur from the community and ordered her to appear before the Akal Takht.

As her rivals sensed an opportunity to topple her, a combative Kaur finally succeeded in getting Singh removed as the Akal Takht Jathedar.

Standing for rights of women ‘ragis’

There is an unwritten convention that women don’t perform kirtan at the Golden Temple. While the community had been debating the issue for long, Kaur favoured breaking the convention and allowing women to sing.

As SGPC president, Kaur issued an advertisement in newspapers asking Sikh women who could sing gurbani hymns to contact the body. However, no Sikh woman reportedly responded to the advertisement, with many of them publicly opposing any tampering with the traditions.

Death of her daughter

Kaur’s early success in politics was soon overshadowed by the murder of her daughter in 2002. In an ironic development for the first SGPC woman president who stood for women’s rights, Kaur was accused of killing her daughter in 2000. Many said it was a case of honour killing ordered by Kaur, who in March 2012 was convicted by a CBI court for abduction and murder, and jailed for five years.

The conviction was a setback to Kaur’s image and political career. She lost the SGPC presidentship, while the SAD also didn’t offer her any major post, retaining her as president of the party’s women’s wing. The Punjab and Haryana High Court acquitted her of all charges in December 2018.

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Row over Sikh Code of Conduct

There has been a section within the Sikh community that wants some changes in the Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryada) adopted by the Akal Takht. But Kaur has openly opposed any changes, an issue that caused friction during her first tenure as SGPC president.

Kaur also played an important role when the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev was celebrated last year. Her stand on the Sikh Code of Conduct during the event resulted in a tussle with former Union minister and the most powerful woman leader in SAD, Harsimrat Kaur Badal. Kaur is reported to have stood her ground, forcing Harsimrat to step back.

Leadership quality

The SGPC is facing a leadership crisis in its 100th year. Last year, the lack of leadership within the Sikh body got exposed when 328 ‘birs’ of the Guru Granth Sahib were reported to be missing. A series of U-turns were taken by the SGPC on the issue, resulting in criticism of president Gobind Singh Longowal.

Observers say Kaur not only brings experience to the Sikh body, but also her authoritative attitude, which they expect will streamline the SGPC administration. Also, in an election year for SGPC which is celebrating its 100th year of foundation, Kaur at the helm is perhaps the best bet.

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