On 6 June, when the Sikh community was marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, the media relayed sensational images of the sword fight between blue- and saffron-turbaned men inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. Allegedly, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) guards had prevented the Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar (SADA) leader Simranjit Singh Mann from interrupting the Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh’s speech and later from giving his annual address to the congregation. This led to loud cries of “Khalistan” and clashes between the SGPC guards and Mann’s supporters. The images reinforced the stereotype that Sikhs with swords are dangerous to society. The Sikh community and all those who love the Golden Temple responded with shock, shame and dismay.
Though Punjab has largely been peaceful after the violent 1980s, it remains a land with deep fissures. One of the reasons is that the Sikh community’s management body, the cash-rich SGPC, has over the past two decades been converted into an extension of the SAD (Badal). Instead of practising inclusive Sikhism, solving the community’s problems, furthering education and healthcare, and raising and solving the identity issues that had led to the separatist movement, the SGPC has become rife with nepotism and dynasty politics. It manipulates Sikh sentiments for political and commercial gains. No wonder, divergent Sikh aspirations have found expression in other formations and groups, which are political and religious in nature. In totally ad-hoc ways, the SGPC sometimes admits these voices, and at other times, curtails them for political gain and expediency.
For instance, in January last year, SADA leader Mann was present along with SGPC officials and Dal Khalsa representatives when the assassins of Indira Gandhi were accorded the status of martyrs in the Akal Takht. In April 2013, the controversial martyrs’ memorial was inaugurated inside the Golden Temple complex. A plaque on the memorial mentions that it is a gurdwara in the memory of “the 14th head of Damdami Taksal (a Sikh seminary) Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and all martyrs of the 1984 holocaust (Operation Bluestar)”. When asked about the plaque, SGPC head Avtar Singh Makkar claimed that the plaque that mentioned Bhindranwale’s name was unveiled after he had left the venue.
Last May, Gurbachan Singh appealed to Nirpreet Kaur, Jagdish Kaur and other victims of the 1984 pogrom to end their hunger strike and promised them justice. Nothing has happened. Last December, the Akal Takht asked Bhai Gurbaksh Singh to end his 44-day hunger strike for demanding the release of six political prisoners who had long served their sentences. Four of the six were released on parole. In Gurbaksh Singh’s words, “(The) battle was only half-won.” Both hunger strikes were an embarrassment to the then Congress-led Central government.
Gurbachan Singh, who was installed as the Akal Takht’s Jathedar in a controversial move by the Parkash Singh Badal-run SGPC, was recently embroiled in an alleged act of blasphemy. He had supported ferrying the Guru Granth Sahib in ship containers, and not by air, to other continents. As per the Sikh code of conduct, this might involve desecration of the book central to the faith. Just before the 6 June skirmish, several Sikh groups had asked for Gurbachan Singh’s dismissal.
The move by Sikhs in Haryana to have their own management body, like in other parts of the world, is an instance that shows how the community no longer sees the SGPC as fulfilling its needs and aspirations. The matter of who has the right to vote in elections to the SGPC — how the body now defines who is or is not a pure Sikh — is pending in the courts.
In the 1920s, fed up with how the ‘mahants’ had captured the gurdwaras, the Sikh community had risen through the Singh Sabha movement and liberated their places of worship. That is when the community had established its own management body — the SGPC. Before that, Guru Gobind Singh had punished the selfish ‘masands’, who had enriched themselves through the donations of the congregation.
That kind of time has again come upon the community now. The Sikhs must raise their voice against the ways of the SGPC and ensure that the community’s issues are not manipulated for vested interests. Else, through infighting, the community will keep falling prey to its stereotype.