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

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. Getty Images
11 November, 2015

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.

In this case, though the resolution was a radical statement, no discussion transpired. The call, which roughly translates to “Blessed are those who say god is supreme,” is common to Sikh gatherings and is used to express a wide variety of public emotions. Instead, the call was used to garner the assent of the Khalsa: once the jaikara was made, no dissent, no alternative point of view was possible.

The resolution, for one, summarily dismissed the current Jathedars—high priests—and nominated to the seat of the Akal Takht, Jagtar Singh Hawara. Hawara, currently lodged in Tihar Jail, Delhi, is one of the accused in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995. It is highly doubtful that the interests the radicals have served by this nomination are those of the Khalsa. In the late 1990s, Ranjit Singh, accused of killing Nirankari leader Gurbachan Singh, was also nominated as the Jathedar of Akal Takht. That was how the Indian government was forced to release him from jail. By nominating Hawara as Jathedar of Akal Takht, it appears that the radicals are once again trying the same tactics in an attempt to undermine the laws of the nation in the name of the Sikh community.

The proceedings of the 2015 Sarbat Khalsa put into contention the very method by which the resolutions were passed. A tweet by one of the organisers says they had reached the resolutions by the time the Sarbat Khalsa convened. The same organiser also posted a scanned copy of an English version of the resolution, stating that, “Blank spaces were for names, TBA [To Be Announced].”

Whether the meet was just a show of numbers by those who are anyway bound, by custom and tradition, to return a jaikara, is unclear. In effect, the Sarbat Khalsa was a khap panchayat, only with greater numbers. If there were deliberations, they were private and behind the scenes. What was forced on the public were the Gurmatas, expected to be affirmed with the jaikaras. There was no mention of which points the community needs to deliberate and decide upon before the next Sarbat Khalsa on Baisakhi in 2016, which, the resolution states, is when they will be finalised. From all that transpired, it was clear that the radicals believed that the Gurmatas are binding and final, and that the Sikh community must now support them.

If that be the case, what then is the definition of Sikh self-rule, or the use of invoking the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa, in a state which belongs to a larger nation that is constitutionally bound to uphold the law? Bunching together the corrupt government of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and the Indian state, which has never responded to the 1984 violence, and fighting against both in the name of religion, is to manipulate the Sikh grievances and support.

Since all the proceedings were in Punjabi, towards the end, one of the organisers, a “videshi Sikh”—who lives abroad and hence knows English—read out the summary in English. (My transcript of the summary has been reproduced at the end of the piece.)

The reason for the English summary, given in an aside on stage and captured by the microphone, was that the resolutions can reach the Sikhs around the world. However, the need should not just be that the Sikhs around the world listen to the resolutions, but that the radicals make sense of their aspirational nationhood in a way that the world can understand. Around a third of 30 million Sikhs in the world, myself included, live outside Punjab. That the Sikhs have suffered and not found justice is widely accepted, but an ordinary Sikh, both inside Punjab and outside, does not want to go back to the decade of the 1980s or the mayhem of 1947 Partition of India. The organisers of the Sarbat Khalsa, who seek to constitute a global Sikh parliament, are in fact, ghettoised in their ideology. They are busy patting each other’s backs and are not focusing on how and what to communicate of their intentions to the world at large.

What such resolutions do—which now will be bandied in the name of religion with community support—is add fuel to the fire that has already erupted in Punjab over the last month. The reason peace has prevailed until now in spite of extreme provocation—since pages of the Ramayan, the Gita and the Holy Quran were found—is that there has been no “other” to this battle of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib. The Congress has already started to blame the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Shiv Sena issued advertisements to stop Sikhs from participating in the Sarbat Khalsa.

The fear for the sanity of Punjab is genuine, and I do not know what to derive from the resolutions as they put me squarely back into the dilemma: am I first a Sikh, and then an Indian, or vice versa, or only one of the two? The radicals who organized the Sarbat Khalsa may not be able to answer me but it remains to be seen if the nation state will find ways of clearly addressing the Sikh grievances so that the hardliners in the community do not tilt the Sikh discourse to their advantage.

Below is the summary of the resolutions with a part of the introduction as it was presented on stage, transcribed by the author:

Sarbat Khalsa's purpose is to strengthen all the Sikh institutions and traditions. We realise there are limitations and we shall work towards diverse and greater participation next time. Infused with the fragrance of Gurbani, the mystical body of Sarbat Khalsa met today with unconditional allegiance to the Guru Granth Sahib an infinite source of wisdom for all. In spirit of consensus based decision making, capturing the political will of the Sikh nation, Sarbat Khalsa invokes the leadership of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Guru Khalsa Panth and resolves to the following resolutions:

The Sarbat Khalsa,

All Sikhs and Sikh institutions are to implement the aforesaid resolutions in both letter and spirit.