religious matters

Nearly 10 million Sikhs have lost their religion because of this organisation

A Sikh decision-making body has divided not only the Sikh community, but polarised the rich and immensely meaningful spectrum of Sikh thought.

Last weekend, the President of India gave his nod to the amendment to the Gurdwara Act 1925. The law barring Sehajdhari Sikhs – those who practice the faith without strictly adhering to its five basic tenets – from voting in the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee elections has come into effect retrospectively from October 8, 2003. This means that the last two elections of the top Sikh decision-making body, which were invalidated by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, have also gained legal sanction.

The SGPC has twisted the definition of a Sehajdari, and the body’s stated definition of a Patit – a person initiated into the religion but who violates its precepts – has resulted in the systemic exclusion of a large number of community members from the Sikh religion.

Sikh religious bodies have adopted a patronising attitude in response to recent discussion on social media and in political circles. They say that Sikhs with trimmed hair are only barred from contesting elections – the gurdwaras do not forbid them from visiting.

Of course they don’t. The religious bodies run on donations from Sehajdaris and people from other religions. Why would the gurdwaras give up on the funding they receive from 70 lakh Sehajdaris, which is a third of the Sikh community?

In truth, most Sikhs do not care much for the SGPC elections. They visit the gurdwara because of their faith, not to score political brownie points. They believe that the SGPC uses their dasvandh – contribution of one-tenth of their earnings as per Sikh tradition – for the cause of the community.

Evolved practices

The divide and politics today does not do justice to the religion's origins. The term “Sikh” means shishya, or student. The name of the religion itself is open and inclusive to everyone who wishes to learn.

In popular understanding, male Sikhs take the name Singh and women adopt the name Kaur. However, the first nine Gurus did not conform to that nomenclature.

They had names such as Dev, Das, Rai and Kishen. They may or may not have grown long hair, and there are no records, despite what calendars and art portraying the Sikh Gurus depict. The changes in Sikh philosophy – the followers taking up arms – came in with Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru. The codification in attire and the five articles of faith were introduced by Guru Gobind, the tenth Guru.

Guru Gobind bequeathed the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, as the immortal Guru to the followers who by now had become a community – Khalsa. The Holy Book does not define the Sehajdhari, Keshdhari or Amritdhari Sikh.

To understand this, consider a large pool of people roughly 500 years ago, who inspired by the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev and the Gurus that followed, gradually give up the rigid caste practices of Brahmanism and the codified rituals of idol worship, and moved towards a deeper understanding of the idea of god echoed by 15 great poets from across the Indian subcontinent.

These poets, by birth, are Muslims, Hindus, and from various castes including Dalits. All of them are in the Sufi/Bhakti tradition, which demolishes narrow sectarian religious boundaries. However, regional rulers and orthodox zealots prosecute these ever-growing people. Feeling the need to defend themselves and rise against injustice, Guru Gobind created a band of armed warriors – the Khalsa, or the pure. The Khalsa is a sub-sect of the Sikhs. Like any army, it has its codes – and codes define armies.

Identity defined

So how did the Khalsa’s code became the norm for the larger Sikh community? There is a lot of history involved, but another court case provides insight into the current game plan of the SGPC.

In May 2009, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled in a landmark case on defining Sikh identity. A SGPC-run medical institution, Sri Guru Ram Das Institute of Medical Sciences and Research in Amritsar, denied admission to a young student, Gurleen Kaur, for its MBBS course because she had plucked her eyebrows and was hence “no longer a Sikh”. The institute enjoyed minority status courtesy a Punjab government notification, which enabled the SGPC to reserve 50% of its seats for Sikh students.

Given the sensitive nature of the matter, the court summoned not only lawyers but also Sikh intellectuals and scholars to deliberate. After listening to an array of views, the court concluded that it could take a decision on Sikh identity only according to the Sikh Rehat-Maryada – code of conduct and conventions.

The judgement reads:

‘...they all lead to one unambiguous answer, namely, that maintaining hair unshorn is an essential component of the Sikh religion.’

‘... even an act of dishonouring hair is taken as a tabooed practice. An act of dyeing one’s hair is treated as an act of dishonouring hair. It would, therefore, not be incorrect for us to conclude, that maintaining hair unshorn is a part of the religious consciousness of the Sikh faith.’

The decision cost Gurleen Kaur her seat at the college. The verdict was hailed worldwide, especially in the diaspora, where the Sikh community is engaged in legal cases with foreign governments over the issue of the turbans. However, the court’s decision also split the Sikh community.

Syncretic past

It is clear that the SGPC has divided not only the Sikh community, but polarised the rich and immensely meaningful spectrum of Sikh thought by making followers choose between the legacy of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind.

In 2008, the SGPC disallowed Bhai Ghulam Mohammad Chand, a descendant of Guru Nanak’s life-long friend and musician Bhai Mardana – arguably the first Sikh – from singing a devotional song in the Golden Temple because he was not Amritdhari.

A few days ago, on Facebook, noted Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu told the story of Bhai Des Raj from his village Sur Singh. In 1762, Ahmed Shah Abdali had destroyed the Golden Temple and filled up the sarovar, pool of nectar, with human and animal carcasses. In two years, the Sikhs collected money and asked Sikh leader Jassa Singh Ahluwalia to lay the foundation stone of the Temple.

The community gave the responsibility of constructing the current Golden Temple to Gur-Sikh khatri moneylender Bhai Des Raj (Gur-Sikh means the person is a Sikh of the Guru even if he is not practising Sikh). With the current ruling, even Bhai Des Raj won’t be eligible to vote. Neither would one of the most famous poets of Guru Gobind’s durbar, Bhai Nand Lal, be eligible. Nor would Bhai Kanhaiya, well known for responding to Guru Gobind when asked why he serves water to the enemies: “I only saw human beings. Have you not taught us to treat all God’s people as the same?”

There are thousands of such stories of the togetherness of spirit and the syncretic nature of Sikhism thought that are lost on current politicians and merchants of religion.

Split wide open

The current controversy dates back to 1999 – when the Sikhs celebrated the 300th anniversary of the formation of Khalsa. At that time, the lines in community were clear: Shiromani Akali Dal was the political face of the community and SGPC, under its President Gurcharan Singh Tohra, was the religious face.

Sehajdharis were allowed to vote in SGPC elections. That same year, the Shiromani Akali Dal's Parkash Singh Badal finally managed to push out Tohra and gained control of SGPC, and with the Bharatiya Janata Party government in power, the SGPC soon made a case for barring Sehajdharis. This is how one right wing – the rigid Sikhs – played into the hands of another right wing, the Hindutva forces.

These two rulings – the Gurleen Kaur case and the amendment to the Gurdwara Act – have clearly established the divide in the community ever since political and religious power got concentrated in the hands of the Badals.

According to SGPC’s definition in 2008, those born in Keshdhari families but have chosen to not keep their hair long are Patit – apostate or degenerate. They are no longer Sikhs.

Self-defeatist logic

According to the 2011 census, Punjab’s population was 2.4 crore, of which Sikhs comprised about 60%. The SGPC listed 5.5 million Keshdhari voters – a third of the Sikhs in Punjab – as real Sikhs.

The rest of the Sikhs, above 70 lakh in Punjab alone and approximately 1 crore worldwide, who have ever touched a scissor to their bodies, are Patits. This also satisfies another question that the Supreme Court has asked in January this year on another admissions-related case: Is Sikhism a minority religion in Punjab? The answer is a resounding yes and SGPC will enjoy the benefits owing to its minority religion status. Punjab, where a religious minority was a majority, has lost its unique status in the process.

The irony of a Sikh community, known much beyond its numbers for its service and egalitarianism, is that it fights its identity battles in the courts of a secular country and ends up losing in the real sense when it thinks it is winning court battles.

In the 1960s, the Akalis agitated for a Punjabi language state and got a Punjab which is one-seventh of the original region. The cartographers of the nation state carved out Haryana and Himachal Pradesh from their territory. Now, the SGPC has hard-defined Sikhs and the courts have given them a third of the community in Punjab and maybe half of the community worldwide. The rest have lost their identity. What can be more self-defeatist than the beauty and magnificence of a religion being reduced to whether its practitioners have unshorn hair – faith being reduced to a bodily artefact.

The reductive logic in both cases and the definition by those who manage one of the most modern religions in the world is galling. Instead of getting court rulings and decisions, fighting and contesting a battle of faith in front of modern law that goes by logic of arguments, if the SGPC has an iota of decency and honesty, let them publicise widely that Patits and Sehajdharis are no longer Sikhs. That the children born in Sikh families have to keep long hair to qualify as a Sikh and they should not donate to the gurdwaras. Would they ever do that? Your guess is as good as mine.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction book on Punjab.

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