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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.