In June, the 39th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will meet in Bonn, Germany, to determine new additions to the list of World Heritage Sites. India already has 32 such sites, and 47 more from the country that were added to the “Tentative List” over the past two decades will be considered by the committee this year.

Of those 47, arguably the most iconic, and certainly the most visited, is Amritsar’s Sri Harmandir Sahib, the holiest site in Sikhism that is known to most non-Sikhs as the Golden Temple. The nomination and selection of World Heritage Sites is generally the subject of little controversy. But the prospect of the Golden Temple’s selection has caused great alarm among sections of the Sikh community. A petition, submitted by a Sikh student in Belgium and calling on UNESCO to delete Harmandir Sahib from the tentative list, has got more than 12,000 signatures.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which administers the site, is also opposed to it being named a World Heritage Site. Diaspora Sikh organisations such as and Dal Khalsa UK claim that the WHS designation is a ploy for a takeover of Harmandir Sahib by the government of India. A previous application for the status, in 2005, was withdrawn one month before the session because of community opposition.

This opposition is rooted in the fear that designating Harmandir Sahib as a WHS means an inevitable loss of control. The complex is managed by the SGPC and the present jathedar of the Akal Takht Sahib, Giani Gurbachan Singh.

Fear of takeover

In practical terms, this fear is unfounded. UNESCO makes no claim of ownership or right of administration over World Heritage Sites. Being declared a World Heritage Site is above all a symbolic honour, a kind of certification – on the basis of 10 criteria – of a place’s vital significance, its “outstanding value to humanity”. It is also a commitment to preservation of that place’s essential features.

The SGPC argues, with some justice, that it is doing an excellent job of maintaining the complex and need no external help. But the WHS designation could help spur improvements to the area around the complex, as well as restricting new development there. It was with this in mind that Kiranjot Kaur – a former general secretary of the SGPC and a figure of particular hate for the opponents of UNESCO certification – had prepared the original proposal in 2005.

Nor is there any basis to the notion that this is a government of India takeover. For one thing, the tragic series of events culminating in 1984 in Operation Bluestar – which caused serious damage to the complex and to the Akal Takht Sahib in particular – illustrate the state’s lack of respect for the complex’s sanctity. World Heritage Sites are exemplars of the cultural property protected during wartime by the Geneva Convention. Operation Bluestar was not technically an act of war, but the WHS designation could, if anything, help protect against, rather than encourage, state interference. To allay the fear of a takeover, though, the government ought to make clear that the application to UNESCO involves no change to the current administrative arrangements.

Conceding sovereignty

But opposition to the move goes beyond the question of control. It also involves deeper questions of ownership. Both the petition and an article on cite the inviolable “sovereignty” of the complex, held by the Akal Takht Sahib rather than the Indian state, and claim that the Sikhs will “concede” sovereignty to India if it is designated a World Heritage Site. But Sri Harmandir Sahib is not a state, and India is already “sovereign” in this precinct.

The presumption behind the World Heritage programme, to quote UNESCO, is that “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located”. It is this presumption that is directly challenged by the petition. Its author, Amarjit Kaur, declares that Harmandir Sahib “belongs to the Sikh community and it is not the right of anyone to take it over”. There is no concession to its place as part of the common heritage of humanity.

Is it possible for a site to retain its administrative independence and place in the lives of a particular community while being designated a World Heritage Site? There are several such sites, in India and elsewhere, that continue to be living places of worship, such as Catholic churches of Goa and the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur. Other living sites on the tentative list include the Baha’i House of Worship – popularly known as the Lotus Temple – in Delhi and the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam.

But none of these places have quite the spiritual and, especially, political significance of Harmandir Sahib, which exerts a centripetal force upon the world’s 30 million Sikhs. Two contrasting positions on the question of the “ownership” of such a place emerge from outside India – from the examples of the Vatican and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Entry to non-believers

The Vatican is simultaneously a World Heritage Site and the centre of global Catholicism. The WHS designation has meant no loss of control for the Pope or any diminution in its importance to Catholics. It is open to both Catholics and non-Catholics, to worshippers as well as non-believers who wish merely to admire its artwork.

Non-Muslims are, by contrast, barred from the holy sites of Saudi Arabia – and no intrepid adventurer could hope today to emulate Richard Burton, who entered Mecca in 1853 by posing as a Pashtun. The three World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia have no religious significance. The guardians of Mecca and Medina deny the very concept of “heritage”, Muslim or universal. In recent decades, they have destroyed up to 95% of Mecca’s ancient and medieval buildings, including the houses of Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and of Abu Bakr, the first caliph. They have been replaced, according to the writer Ziauddin Sardar, with “a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels”.

Leave aside the community’s opposition to the World Heritage Site designation, and the Sikh guardianship of Harmandir Sahib has much more in common with the Vatican approach. Non-Sikhs are welcome, as long as they respect the (minimal) rules. Amarjit Kaur’s insistence it “is not a tourist place but a worship place” is contradicted by the happy coexistence of tourists and worshippers at Harmandir Sahib. Architectural preservation is taken seriously.

Harmandir Sahib does not “need” to be named a World Heritage Site – it is well-preserved, and does not require a boost in profile. The fact that Delhi’s Jama Masjid has never even been nominated – it would be a shoo-in if it is – suggests that the government has a rather inconsistent approach to living places of worship. But the Sikh community has nothing to fear from UNESCO. In the face of such continued opposition, the World Heritage Committee might not select Harmandir Sahib. This would be a pity. It meets any threshold for spiritual, cultural, architectural and historical significance.