It Is Becoming Clear That The SGPC No Longer Speaks For The Sikh Community

On 1 January 2016, in an unprecedented move, the SGPC sacked four of the Panj Piyare: Satnam Singh, Tirlok Singh, Mangal Singh, and Satnam Singh Khanda. The fifth Panj Piyara, Major Singh, had retired the day before. However, by doing so, the prime religious institution of the Sikhs has turned its back on the community. Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times via Getty Images
05 January, 2016

The Sikh jaikara, or slogan, “Jo bole so nihal, sat sri akal” is used in various situations. It means, “Whoever utters the following shall be fulfilled: truth is timeless.” Two parties are involved in the jaikara—the person uttering the first half, and the group responding with the second. The larger the gathering, the louder is the jaikara. When greeting others, Sikhs often evoke only the second part, one after another. Sikhs give jaikaras to show reverence and respect in religious settings; agreement and support in political settings; mobilize troops or express fury when attacking an enemy; and sometimes, as evidenced on 28 December 2015 at the Gurdwara Jyoti Swarup at Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab, as a subversive tool to express displeasure, and silence an adversary.

It was the last day of the three-day Jor Mela, an annual function to mark the martyrdom of the two younger sons of the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, who were bricked alive by the Nawab of Sirhind, 310 years ago. The occasion was the speech by Avtar Singh Makkar, the jathedar, or the custodian, of the elected apex body of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). The congregation kept shouting the jaikaras and did not allow Makkar to complete his speech. It was a spontaneous defiance by the community of its highest institutional structure. In deference to the congregation's anger, Giani Gurbachan Singh, the jathedar of the Akal Takht, one of the five seats of power in Sikhism, decided to not address the congregation.

Unlike other religions, many of which are governed through one central institution, the Sikh religion is organised along a three-tier system, each of which acts as a check and balance on the others. The tiers include the five takhts (seats), the SGPC, and the Sarbat Khalsa, or the community plenary of the collective body of Sikhs. Since the community is large, the Panj Piyare—the “beloved five”—are chosen to acts as its representatives. The Panj Piyare are customarily nominated by the SGPC, and their mandate is to carry out missionary work.

The public defiance at the Jor Mela shows that Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world, is calling for reforms within its religious institutions. The subversive application of the jaikara by the masses in out-shouting Makkar comes from a long-felt need of the community to press for reforms within its supreme religious institutions. The act conveyed that the common people were not willing to be taken for granted any longer. It stung.

In October 2015, the takht jathedars reversed their decision to grant pardon to the Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmit Ram Rahim, who had allegedly dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh in 2007 and was accused of blasphemy. The pardon, granted in September, was heavily criticised, and the jathedars decided to reverse it. The Panj Piyare, who, as representatives of the community, can have a say in such matters, summoned the jathedars. When the jathedars failed to appear, the Panj Piyare directed the SGPC to replace them. The deadline they gave for this replacement was 2 January 2016. On 1 January, in an unprecedented move, the SGPC sacked four of the Panj Piyare: Satnam Singh, Tirlok Singh, Mangal Singh, and Satnam Singh Khanda. The fifth Panj Piyara, Major Singh, had retired the day before. However, by doing so, the prime religious institution of the Sikhs has turned its back on the community.

The SGPC stated that the Panj Piyare are paid employees, and the supreme Sikh body can terminate their services for violation of their jurisdiction and for issuing decrees to the SGPC. While it is true that wherever a Sikh congregation meets they appoint the Panj Piyaras, removing these nominees of the community after appointing them is a volte-face by SGPC. It is a clear indication that, if questioned on its functioning, the Sikh body will suppress the community with a heavy hand.

This behaviour of the SGPC is vastly different from the very reason it came into existence. In the early twentieth century, through a non-violent movement, the Sikhs freed their places of worship from the control of the British-supported mahants, or managers. The SGPC’s formation had been crucial to this development, and it also resulted in the Gurdwara Act of 1925, which legally brought the control of the gurdwaras under the elected body. At the time, Mohandas Gandhi had sent a telegram to the then SGPC leader Baba Kharak Singh, that read, “First battle of freedom won. Congratulations.”

Over the last two decades, the Badal family, who have continually been accused of nepotism and corruption, have significantly strengthened their influence on the SGPC, much of whose membership is aligned with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Badals’ party. In 1999, just before the tercentenary celebrations of the Sikh religion, Prakash Singh Badal, then and current chief minister of Punjab, removed the SGPC's longest tenured chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra from his post. Tohra had held the post for 27 years. It is an open secret that the SGPC’s leaders are chosen by infamous “parchis” (chits) that arrive, sealed in envelopes, from Badal's desk. The SAD owes its origins to the Singh Sabha movement of the late nineteenth century that began as a movement to revive the teachings of the Sikh gurus. It seeks to represent the Sikh community's interests in the political arena, but has been largely unsuccessful in doing so. In their failure to contain the people’s anger over the recent issues of sacrilege of the holy texts, the subsequent arrests of innocents, and the firing in Behbal Kalan, both the SAD and the SGPC have lost their credibility with the people. This betrayal of the community by its institutional leadership is what led to public anger, which was exploited by the radical forces at the Sarbat Khalsa. The blame lies with the Badals for both absolutely controlling, and not being able to manage, the political and religious institutions of the Sikhs. In the villages of Punjab, in public gatherings, people have begun to compare the Badals to the British colonial powers.

In the face of such silencing, the only space where the people can demonstrate their anguish is the ballot box. However, political action in the state, too, is largely influenced by the Badals. In mid 2015, boards forbidding political leaders belonging to the three main parties—the SAD, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party—from entering the villages had come up, but now parleys have begun for the Punjab elections, due to take place in February 2017. The SAD is playing the field with a double-faced strategy employing both father and son, Prakash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal. While the chief minister talks of amity and goodwill in the many Sadbhavna rallies the party has organised in the state, Sukhbir Badal plays the panthic card— The Congress, too, is unable to chart its independent campaign without toeing the line of religious symbolism dictated by the SAD. In his rallies, the Congress leader Amarinder Singh swears by the gutka, a small-sized religious book of the Sikhs, pressed to his forehead. The AAP is yet to formally join the fray. AAP leader and the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is slated to address the annual Maghi Mela, a religiously significant gathering of the Sikhs, at Muktsar on January 14.

For now, the sacking of the Panj Piyaras is a lost opportunity for serious reform within the religion, a path that the Sikhs could have shown to the world. In any case, the replacement of the jathedars sought by the Panj Piyaras needs to be backed by deeper reforms to usher in a clear distinction between religious and political affairs of the Sikh community. In this politics of religious symbolism, competitive jaikaras and gutkas, the political parties are flirting with the religious and communal nerve of Punjab, ignoring the small state’s real issues: agrarian and industrial crises. To tackle these, what Punjab really needs is a language beyond religious symbolism.