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.