If a Central Bill seeking to bar Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting for their mini-Parliament – the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee – becomes law, nearly half of the Sikhs currently eligible to vote will be disenfranchised. Unlike baptised, or Amritdhari Sikhs, Sehajdhari Sikhs are those who abide by the Sikh faith, but are not baptised.

The Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill 2016 was brought up in the Rajya Sabha on March 16, a day with thin attendance, and passed by a voice vote without a discussion. The Bill seeks to amend a 1925 law enacted by the British which brought gurdwaras under the control of an elected body – the SGPC. It was bunched with four other Bills and the Speaker suggested that as it was related to the Sikhs, only Sikh members would perhaps like to speak on it. However, since just a couple of Shiromani Akali Dal members were present in the House, and they were the ones behind the Bill, there was no discussion. That is not surprising since the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee elections are usually won by the Shiromani Akali Dal and its allies. The Bill will now be presented in the Lok Sabha where the National Democratic Alliance, which the Shiromani Akali Dal is part of, enjoys a majority.

Although the Congress, at the national level, has not come out with any particular stand on debarring Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting in the SGPC elections, the Punjab unit of the party has opposed the move. The Congress may have been caught off guard by failing to anticipate the introduction of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, but its members are likely to oppose its passage in the Lower House. But given its poor numbers there, the NDA is expected to pass the Bill without opposition and send it to the President for his assent.

Divide and rule?

It is at this stage that organisations such as the Sehajdhari Sikh Federation plan to intervene. Paramjeet Singh Ranu, president of the federation, said that a delegation will meet the President and ask him not to provide his assent to the Bill. Ranu said that there was no point in moving courts now as courts only intervene once a proposed Bill becomes law.

Ranu said that as per the 2011 census there were 1.75 crore Sikhs in India. After removing those who are ineligible to vote due to age (only those above the age of 18 can vote), about 70 lakh Sikhs will be debarred from voting if the amendment to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, becomes law. He said the Bill sought to divide the Sikh community.

At the heart of the issue is theShiromani Akali Dal's desire to retain control over the cash rich, and powerful SGPC, which appoints the Sikh clergy and manages several hundred gurdwaras across northern India. It also runs medical colleges, hospitals and other educational and welfare institutions. The SGPC has an annual budget of Rs 1,064 crore. The collection from daily offerings (also known as golak) by devotees in gurdwaras also runs into crores of rupees.

The Akali Dal has controlled the SGPC for decades, but faces a challenge in view of the increasing number of non-baptised Sikhs. For instance, it is now common to find devotees with short hair, with their heads covered with scarves, offering prayers at several gurdwaras. Sometimes, they even outnumber turbaned devotees. The new bill, if it becomes law, would debar such devotees from participating in the SGPC elections.

The issue pertains to the categorisation of Sikhs into categories of baptised and non-baptised. The baptised Sikhs, or Amritdhari Sikhs, are supposed to follow rigid norms after being administered Amrit (holy water). They are not allowed to shave body hair and have to follow the five K rule, which refers to wearing Kesh (unshorn hair), kara (bracelet), kangha (comb), katchcha (short length white undergarment) and kirpan (ceremonial dagger). Sehajdhari Sikhs may or may not be born in Sikh families, but are followers of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and do not follow the five Ks.

Regressive move

Underlining the state Congress stand on the issue, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Amarinder Singh said that disenfranchising Sehajdharis Sikhs would divide the community. “This is the most regressive and retrograde move by the government of India at the behest of the Akalis just to retain their hold on the SGPC,” said Singh in a statement. “… in the process [they] have divided the community.”

Singh said that every Sikh who believes in the tenets of Sikhism must have the right to vote in the SGPC elections. “It is an irony that a very democratic legislative procedure has been misused to disenfranchise a large section of society from exercising their democratic right to vote”. He said that he hoped that the amendment would not stand judicial scrutiny.

Ranu accused the RSS of a “conspiracy” to divide the community, and cites statements from certain organisations asking Sehajdhari Sikhs to think of “ghar wapsi”.

It will be interesting to see if the Congress and other Opposition parties will take up the issue in the Lok Sabha.