The question of Sehajdhari rights is also a question of Sikh identity

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
20 March, 2016

On 12 March 2016, much of the media coverage of the previous day’s Rajya Sabha session focused on the controversial Aadhaar Bill. While pundits and news organisations debated the many aspects of the aadhaar system proposed by the current government, lost in the din was a bill passed the same day, one that would effectively disenfranchise about 70 lakh Sikhs in Punjab from voting in the elections of the body that manages their religious institutions: the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, or the SGPC. In a blow to the Sikh community, the Rajya Sabha unanimously and without discussion passed the Sikh Gurdwaras Act (Amendment) Bill to change the 1925 Gurdwaras Act, and debar Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting in the SGPC elections.

Sehajdharis are typically understood to be Sikhs that do not follow every tenet of Sikhism. However, what constitutes a Sehajdhari, and whether they should be allowed to vote in the SGPC elections, has been contested several times over the last century. The parliament move negates a December 2011 judgement by the Punjab and Haryana High Court that restored the Sehajdhari voting right. It has also raised a key question facing the Sikh community: who, exactly, is a Sikh?

In its short history of four centuries, the Sikh religion, born in times of religious and social strife, has often raised the banner of dharam da sankat—a threat to religion. Towards the later part of the nineteenth century, the Sikh community faced a double threat: first from the evangelisation of the Punjab by the British, and second, by the Arya Samaj, whose discourse was that the Sikhs are a militant wing of the Hindus. At that time, the Tat Khalsa, an orthodox Sikh organisation, fathomed the identity of Sikhs based on an 1898 book by the Punjabi lexicographer Kahn Singh Nabha: Hum Hindu Nahin (We are not Hindus). In the book, Nabha had formalised the Sikh identity: not cutting body hair, shunning halal meat and use of tobacco, believing in the holy book Granth Sahib and the ten gurus of the faith, and having no other religion. The Tat Khalsa excluded other faiths which believed in the Guru Granth Sahib, but were fluid in their practices: the Nirmalas, the Udasis, and the Sanatan Sikhs. The assertion of the Tat Khalsa Sikhs led to the Singh Sabha movement of the 1920s, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, and the creation of the SGPC. The act debarred those who were born in Sikh families but were not keshdhari­—who did not keep their kesh­, or hair, untrimmed—from contesting and voting in the SGPC elections.

However, in 1930, Nabha published an encyclopaedia that would come to be integral to the Sikh faith: the Sikh Mahan Kosh. In the Mahan Kosh, Nabha defined the term “Sehajdhari”:

a person who remains at ease with liberal thought, who is an integral part of Sikhs, does not adhere to the amrit and kach-kirpan, but believes in the ten Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib and has no other religion.

Nabha’s definition was based on the easy understanding of the term: Sehaj, meaning ease, and dhari, meaning follower. Through his definition, he had kept the religion open to Sikhs who could not follow its strict tenets, as well as those not born into the religion but who wanted to adopt the faith. “Sehaj” was merely an easy adoption and belief in the Sikh faith.

But Nabha’s Mahan Kosh definition—which also became the widely understood description among the Sikh community—was not used when key amendments were made to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925. The first of these was in 1944, when two definitions were added to the act. One of these was that of Amritdhari Sikhs: these were Sikhs who had been formally inducted into the Sikh order by partaking in holy water, or amrit. The other was the term patit. A patit was defined as any Keshdhari or Amritdhari Sikh who had trimmed their hair. Sehajdhari Sikhs, however, were not defined in the act until 1959. The 1959 amendment returned the right to vote in SGPC elections to the Sehajdharis, but it also defined the term. The act stated that a Sehajdhari was a Sikh who followed Sikh rites and rituals, believed in the Granth Sahib, but was not patit—their kesh was untrimmed. This definition, which was not consistent with the Mahan Kosh, laid the ground for the SGPC’s attempts to exclude Sehajdharis.

In 2001, the SGPC secretary Manjit Singh Calcutta, who is close to the chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s SAD, moved a resolution to once again deny the Sehajdhari Sikhs the right to vote in the SGPC elections. About two years later, in 2003, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power at the centre, it issued a notice accepting the SGPC resolution and debarred Sehajdharis from voting. That same year, the SAD in Amritsar, led by Simranjit Singh Mann, filed a case in the Punjab and Haryana High Court against the Sehajdharis’ right to vote. The Sehajdhari Sikh Federation (SSF) responded by filing a writ petition contesting the SAD case, asking for a stay on the 2006 SGPC elections. As the case dragged on, the elections took place. The Sehajdharis were not able to participate.

In 2008, the SGPC adopted a resolution stating that they would stick to the definition listed in the Gurdwaras act. According to them, a Sehajdhari Sikh was only someone born into a non-Sikh family but was adopting Sikhism. The resolution made it clear that, according to the SGPC, any Sikhs born into Sikh families who changed their keshdhari roop—appearance—would be considered patit, as would be Sehajdharis who, after adopting the faith, cut their hair. Their resolution was condemned by the SSF, who said that the definition was against the teachings of the Sikh religion.

Meanwhile, the case dragged on. In September 2011, a little over two weeks before the SGPC elections, the United Progressive Alliance government at the centre issued another notice withdrawing the 2003 decision to debar the Sehajdharis from voting. Later when asked by the high court why the government wished to withdraw the notification, the lawyer responded that the BJP government had changed the Gurdwaras Act “without application of mind.” In December 2011, a three-judge bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled in favour of the Sehajdharis, and restored their voting rights. The decision nullified the 2011 elections. The SGPC approached the courts, asking for the decision to be reversed. The case is still pending. Without legitimate elections, the SGPC was forced to carry on with a working committee, and not as a full-fledged body.

Through its labelling of Sikhs who have cut their hair or have touched a scissor to their bodies as patit, the SGPC has been doing their best to invert the definition of the term Sehajdhari. By declaring the Sehajdharis as patit, as heretics that have lapsed from the Sikh religion, they chose to interpret the law in letter, but not in spirit. For almost two decades, the Sehajdharis have been jostled in and out of the Sikh community, sometimes through challenges to their identity and other times, through amendments to the Gurdwaras Act. Through most of this time, they have retained the right to vote in the SGPC elections, but have not been allowed to do so. Following the Rajya Sabha decision, that is set to change once again.

To understand the SGPC stance, I met Bibi Kiranjot Kaur, a member of the SGPC, at the Central Khalsa Orphanage that she manages in Amritsar. When she was out canvassing for votes for in the mid-90s, Kaur told me, she visited “homes of Sikhs who had cut their hair, smoked cigarettes.” “We asked ourselves, are these people going to vote for us?” Kaur asked. “If a Sikh cannot keep their own appearance, what right do they have to decide who will run their religious institutions?”

Yet, during the 27-year-long tenure of the Sikh hardliner Gurcharan Singh Tohra as the head of SGPC, the Sehajdharis were allowed to vote. Kaur told me that she believes that it was important to define the Sikh, but the religious community has finally created a very thin definition.

The question of the right to vote for the SGPC is relevant only so far as the Sikh community is aware that it is giving up its responsibility of its gurdwaras to factions close to the SAD. The offerings that the followers make to the guru ki golak—the donation box—will be used by the SGPC for purposes that may not solve the issues that the community is facing: poverty, health, and education. The SGPC has no jurisdiction on gurdwaras outside Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh. Haryana, too, has recently sought its own SGPC. The Sikhs from south India and the gurdwaras in Jammu no longer oblige the SGPC.

“A child born in a Muslim family is Muslim, in a Hindu family is Hindu, and in a Christian family is Christian,” said PS Ranu, the national chief of the SSF. “What is a child born in a Sikh family if the child decides to not grow his or her hair? What will be the religion of the child?” Ranu has been railing against the SGPC for several years. He considers the SGPC’s actions proof of it being influenced by the SAD and the Hindu right wing, which wishes “to further dilute the other religious minorities.” “For the sake of their vested interests,” Ranu said, “the Akalis have played into the hands of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.”

In the nineteenth century, the Sikh religion lost many of its followers through the stance the Tat Khalsa adopted. In the 1930s, it lost out when it spurned Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who wanted to convert to the religion along with the Dalit community. In the 2011 census, Punjab's population was twenty four million, of which Sikhs comprised fourteen million—about sixty percent. The 2011 SGPC voter listed 5.5 million Keshdhari voters—a third of the Sikhs in Punjab—as real Sikhs.The move to bar the Sehajdharis is an attempt by the Badals to narrow down the voters, to control the finances and power structures in the Sikh community, and to drive a schism among the Sikhs.

At the heart of it, the question of the Sehajdhari right to vote is a question of identity. Those who seek to accept or reject a believer must surely look at whether the person follows the tenets of the religion, and not the sham of external appearance. It is bewildering that from the vast ocean of Sikh thought and philosophy, it is the presence or absence of hair that marks the definition of a Sikh.

The other question it raises is that of what defines religion: is it a set of rituals or is it the sum of its values? The Golden Temple in Amritsar, which is visited by followers of all religions, has gates on all four sides. These gates signify equality: people of any class, caste, gender, and religious faith are welcome. Yet, the temple has one causeway to reach the sanctum sanctorum. Often, religion proliferates through two means: the basis of its thought, and its numbers. The basis of the Sikh faith—selflessness and service—are widely known. By controlling the definition of Sikh and reducing its numbers for political gain, the SGPC has narrowed the only causeway of the Sikh faith. But who can tell them that, and would they even listen?