Subverting A Popular Movement: How The Sarbat Khalsa Was Hijacked By Radical Sikh Bodies

11 November 2015
On November 10, Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) leader, Simranjit Singh Mann, and United Akali Dal President Mohkam Singh, called a Sarbat Khalsa (a plenary meeting of the Sikh community) to discuss the issues of sacrilege and change in institutional leadership of the Sikhs.
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On November 10, Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) leader, Simranjit Singh Mann, and United Akali Dal President Mohkam Singh, called a Sarbat Khalsa (a plenary meeting of the Sikh community) to discuss the issues of sacrilege and change in institutional leadership of the Sikhs.
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Despite the Punjab government's efforts to discourage people from assembling for the Sarbat Khalsa, a plenary meeting of the Khalsa—the collective body of the Sikhs—held on 10 November 2015 near Tarn Taran, Amritsar, the crowds were overwhelming. Although the police had been stopping private vehicles and buses, attendees had walked and reached the site the night before. The meeting had been called by the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) leader, Simranjit Singh Mann, and United Akali Dal President Mohkam Singh, to discuss the issues of sacrilege and change in institutional leadership of the Sikhs. In response, the Punjab government had cited various reasons in an attempt to make the meeting appear illegitimate: that it had not been convened through the Akal Takht—the highest seat of power for the Khalsa, that it was not being held at the Akal Takht, and that it did not have the approval of the Panj Piyare, the five chosen granthis, or priests, from the community, and so on.

Contrary to the government's understanding however, Sikhism provides for a set of checks and balances by which the community can call a meeting and decide to revoke its institutionalised leadership. Such a plenary meet is called a Sarbat Khalsa. The government’s final ploy to discourage attendance was to remind the public of the fact that the organisers are radical Sikhs—the “hardliners.” In fact, the stage for the Sarbat Khalsa was fairly bereft of the symbolism that hardliners are accused of employing, usually invoking Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale or Khalistan. The speeches, too, were mostly moderate. It was towards the culmination of the Sarbat Khalsa, when the Gurmatas, or resolutions, were passed, that everything changed, and the organisers and the Khalsa plenary itself fell directly into the very propaganda that had been built around them.

The use of the term “hardliners” has its cause in recent history: while the first Sarbat Khalsa was called by Guru Gobind Singh, later, in the eighteenth century, the process became a way through which the Sikh community took decisions and organised itself. In the nineteenth century, in an attempt to allow his progeny to succeed to the throne unhindered, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh empire, ended the practice of calling Sarbat Khalsas. In the twentieth century, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Committee (SGPC), an elected apex body of the Sikhs, came to be considered the voice of the Khalsa. In 1986, in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, a Sarbat Khalsa was expressly convened for the first time in over two centuries, during which the decision not to accept the Akal Takht built by the government of India was taken. The decision was to build an Akal Takht through kar sewa, or community participation in service of the religion. In the wake of the separatist movement, the Sarbat Khalsa also decided to struggle for Sikh self-rule. While the former was a matter of the community’s self-respect and dignity, the Indian state and Punjab government see the latter as a provocation for the separatist demand for Khalistan.

The images of Bhindranwale, Major General Shabeg Singh, an Indian army officer who later joined Bhindranwale at the Golden Temple, and was killed during Operation Bluestar; Amrik Singh Sodhi, a mentee of Bhindranwale; and others appeared on gates to the venue and on boards and walls of the tent for this Sarbat Khalsa. Representatives from around a hundred Sikh organizations, many from around the world, spoke on the stage. Only one woman, also belonging to a Sikh right-wing outfit, addressed the congregation. The discourse mostly enumerated how the community and Punjab has been laid waste by the current political powers and how they have hijacked the Sikh institutions. Many speakers emphasised the idea of sacrifice that underlines Punjab’s narrative. Once in a while, references to Bhindranwale, to Khalistan, and to the 1984 pogrom did come up, but the organisers did not restrain them. After all, these are all an inalienable part of Punjab’s bruised experience and popular imagination, and can elicit emotional responses from time to time.

At the end of the meeting, a set of resolutions drafted by the radicals was read out. A Gurmata, the resolution passed by the assent of the Sarbat Khalsa, is considered to be “sanctified by the Gurus.” Once passed with jaikaras—chants or calls—of “Jo bole so nihal, sat sri akal” from the entire congregation, they become binding on the entire Sikh community.

Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Panjab: Journey Through Fault Lines.

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