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Amid Covid-19 surge in Punjab, a tussle over restrictions on religious festivals

The SGPC has planned many religious gatherings and processions to mark the event in Punjab and Delhi. SGPC president has clearly said that body will not cancel any of its functions due to Covid-19.

Written by Kamaldeep Singh Brar |
March 24, 2021 8:30:46 am
People, not wearing face masks, walk at the Heritage Street near Golden Temple, amid coronavirus pandemic, in Amritsar, Friday, March 19, 2021. (PTI Photo)

As the second Covid-19 wave strengthens in Punjab, the SGPC seems to have altered its approach to administration’s restrictions to combat it. While the Sikh body had agreed to follow Covid-19 restrictions when outbreak was first reported exactly a year back, and some Sikh festivals were celebrated symbolically at gurdwaras and devotees were asked to stay at homes, its current president Bibi Jagir Kaur has now made it clear that SGPC will not suspend any religious congregation. The Indian Express explains the shift.

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Row over Hola Mohalla

The annual Sikh festival of Hola Mohalla will be celebrated from March 24 to March 29 at Kiratpur Sahib and Anandpur Sahib. It will attract lakhs of devotees and tourists from different parts of world.

SGPC president Bibi Jagir Kaur recently reacted strongly to Roopnagar administration’s idea of asking devotees to come with Covid-19 negative report for the Holla Mohala festival.

Later, district administration told SGPC that only international pilgrims would be asked to come with a negative report.

Last year, Hola Mohalla was celebrated from March 7 to 11 — two week before the lockdown was imposed. This year Hola Mohalla will be celebrated at the time when Covid-19 restrictions are in place and second wave is picking up.

Hola Mohalla is not first festival expected to be attended by mass gathering after Covid-19 outbreak. Shahidi Jor Mela also saw a sea of devotees at Fathegarh Sahib in last week of December, 2020. Both Hola Mohalla and Sahidi Jor Mela attract devotees in lakhs.

One year since India’s lockdown |How many Covid-19 cases and deaths did it prevent?

Busy Sikh calendar and undecided government

Apart from annual Sikh festivals, the SGPC is organising a special function on the occasion of 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji. The SGPC has planned many religious gatherings and processions to mark the event in Punjab and Delhi. SGPC president has clearly said that body will not cancel any of its functions due to Covid-19. Though there are already Covid-19 restrictions in place, government so far is not pushing SGPC to follow the instructions.

In fact, Roopnagar administration has been preparing to host a massive gathering on Hola Mohalla. Besides this, the Amritsar administration has stayed quiet about massive religious gatherings during SGPC events at Baba Bakala to mark the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji. It is yet to hold any meeting with the SGPC over the Covid guidelines.

SGPC is also preparing to send annual Sikh Jatha to Pakistan on Baisakhi and it has asked interested devotees to submit passports.

So far government has not issued any special guidelines for the religious bodies and SGPC is moving ahead in absence of these. 

What happened last year 

Last year, Akal Takht and SGPC asked Sikhs to follow Covid-19 restrictions. Sikhs celebrated Baiskahi and martyrdom day of Guru Arjun Dev Ji at homes due to lockdown. However, the Golden Temple was never officially closed due to the lockdown, and devotees, though in small numbers, kept pouring even during strict lockdown.

The SGPC never opposed Covid-19 restrictions in principle though Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh had objected to alleged vilification of Sikh pilgrims, who were stuck at Hazoor Sahib in Nanded (Maharashtra), in the name of Covid-19.

Wearing masks also never became a norm inside the Golden Temple and slowly things almost returned to pre-Covid era inside Golden Temple as soon as lockdown came to an end.

SGPC not the only one 

It is not the SGPC alone, farmer unions from Punjab too have been objecting to Covid-19 instructions. Farmer unions have been consistently calling Covid-19 an excuse to not allow protests against farm bills. Unions even claimed that Covid-19 was a conspiracy to allow big MNCs to capture agriculture land. Farmer unions started holding big gatherings in Punjab as soon as Covid-19 lockdown was over.

Even now, a Left leaning students’ body, the ‘Democratic Students Organisation’ (DSO) is running a dharna at Punjabi University against alleged decision of the Punjab government to close education institutions due to Covid-19. DSO has given a call to students on social media to organise massive gatherings to show that “Covid-19 can’t touch us”.

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Politics over Covid-19 restrictions

It is an election year in Punjab and government is already struggling to convince people Covid-19 continues to pose a significant threat. Government remained soft on Covid-19 restrictions during farmer protests in the state. Local body elections also saw major political activity in Punjab in February this year.

Meanwhile, Punjab government itself has planned state-level functions ahead of 400th anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji and it will be a test for the government that how far it goes to make SGPC fall in line in the election year.

The SGPC leadership is also not untouched by politics as celebrations of Sikh festivals by the body always have a political tone.

It is interesting to note that the SGPC chief has asked government to pass an order to ban religious gatherings in the state if it wants SGPC to not hold big congregations. It would be a tough call to make for Punjab CM Amarinder Singh to ban religious gatherings in state especially when there is hardly any public support for such restrictions.

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