The Lok Sabha, on Monday, passed the Sikh Gurdwara (Amendment Bill) 2016 causing ripples in the Sikh community across the country. Parliamentarians, including Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress and Bhagwant Mann of Aam Aadmi Party, showed their protest and dissent in the House and accused the ruling Akali Dal and BJP of trying to “capture the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee for their political gains”.
The government, on the other hand, asserted that the decision has been taken as per demands of the SGPC itself. Amarinder Singh, on Monday, reacted to the passing of the Bill and said that “this will only isolate hundreds and thousand of Sikhs and further divide the community”.
Speaking to IndianExpress.com, Sehajdhari Sikh Federation president Dr Paramjeet Singh Ranu alleged that the decision was only taken under pressure from the Shiromani Akali Dal, which wants to reap political benefits from this move. “The SGPC has been accused of being involved in corrupt activities and we see this decision as a communal agenda of BJP and Akalis,” he said.
However, Harindepal Singh, chairman of Delhi’s Gurmat College, countered that people belonging to communities other than Sikhs and many political parties have been masquerading as Sahajdharis, trying to influence the election process of SGPC. “This decision will only isolate a few Sikhs but on a larger scale it will only help in maintaining the sanctity of the body,” he said.
Sarabjit Singh Bhutani, general secretary of Akali Dal Delhi, reiterated that they respect Sahajdhari Sikhs and the decision has been taken only to curb the problem of people from other parties trying to influence the elections.
What is the SGPC Act Amendment 2016?
The Sikh Gurudwaras (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on March 15, 2016 by Home Minister Rajnath Singh and was unanimously passed on March 16. It was later passed in the Lok Sabha on Monday and now a formal nod from President Pranab Mukherjee is left to complete the formalities.
The Bill lays down guidelines for administration of gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh through the SGPC whose headquarters are situated in Amritsar, Punjab. Under provision of Section 45 of the Bill only Amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs are allowed to contest the elections.
It debars the Sehajdhari Sikhs from participating in the election process of SGPC, taking away their voting rights, 91 years after the SGPC Act’s formation in 1925. The Sehajdharis were formally given the voting rights under the Act in 1944. The Sahajdhari Sikhs only had the right to vote but could not become members in the committee by contesting the elections.
Who are Sahajdhari Sikhs?
While the Act defines Sahajdharis as people who perform ceremonies as per Sikh rites, do not consume tobacco and halal meat, have not been expelled from the religion for transgression and can recite the ‘Mul Mantra’, there is no formal definition of the community according to the religion or Sikh holy text ‘Guru Granth Sahib’.
Author and journalist Amandeep Sandhu says the definition of Amritdharis (who partake the holy water) and Patit (Sikhs who trimmed their hair) was first added in the Act in 1944 and the Sehajdharis were formally given a place in the Act by 1959 amendment.
The word Sehajdhari can be defined by breaking it down into two parts- Sehaj meaning easy and Dhari meaning follower. Therefore a Sehajdhari is the one who is not baptised or does not follow all five tenets of the religion, but believes in the ten Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib. Hence, a Sahajdhari can also be defined as a person who has decided to get baptised and formally inducted into the religion at a later point in life. There is still a lot of confusion regarding the exact definition.
The timeline of events
In 2001, SGPC secretary Manjit Singh moved a resolution to debar Sahajdharis from voting in the committee elections. After the NDA government came to power, it accepted the SGPC resolution in 2003. However, the decision was challenged by Sahajdhari Sikhs Federation in Punjab and Haryana Court. In 2011, the Court quashed the government’s notification and gave back the Sahajdharis their voting rights.
The SGPC challenged this decision and the case is still pending in Supreme Court. However, the SGPC Amendment Bill has now been passed in the Parliament. The Bill is a retrospective one and thus it is deemed to have come in force from October 8, 2003.
According to the Sahajdhari Sikh Federation, this Amendment will affect more than 70 lakh Sahajdharis whose voting rights have been taken away. “This will only divide the minority Sikh community into sub-minorities. This is being done by BJP and Akali Dal to help them in upcoming Punjab elections,” alleged Paramjeet Singh Ranu.