Badals may be down in 2017 but not out till they control SGPC

The family's religious power remains formidable.

 |  3-minute read |   23-09-2016
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In the basement hall of a college tucked along a quiet lane of Delhi-02, a 59-year-old lieutenant of the late Akali stalwart, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, holds special classes on Sikh literature and philosophy.

Many of Harinder Pal Singh's students in his short-term sessions on Guru Granth Sahib are older than him and many are non-Sikhs.

Singh's weekend classes carry a distinct flavour. Here, expert speakers and scholars talk less about Sikh history and more about what's written in Guru Granth Sahib.

It's distinct because history has been dominating larger Sikh religious discourse elsewhere for decades. I was curious about the shift Singh fostered in his class. "Ideals create history; history doesn't create ideals," summed up Singh.

harinderbd_092316061953.jpg Harinder Pal Singh, aide of late Akali leader Tohra, conducting Sikh philosophy classes in Delhi. (Photo: Harmeet Shah Singh)

A no-nonsense aide of Tohra and a former member of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), he explained his objective concisely. But his one-liner hit the nail on the head as it encapsulated the how and the why of the sorry state of Sikh politics.

The Sikh faith was built on ideals of humanity and equality. It broke caste, religious and gender distinctions. It opposed political tyranny.

In 1925, British India adopted the Sikh Gurdwara Act and created an electoral system for adult Sikhs to elect their religious representatives to the SGPC, often called the community's own mini parliament.

The SGPC controls historical gurdwaras and Sikh educational institutions, mostly in Punjab. It's a powerful organisation, whose executive appoints the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the faith's highest temporal authority.

Tohra, hailed by his supporters as a "pearl" and mocked by his critics as a "wily fox", reigned over the SGPC as its president for a record 27 years.

Sobriquets aside, he represented the spiritual side of the Sikh polity, by and large. Of course, he had his own adversaries. His split from then Shiromani Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal, dubbed by media as a clash of titans, in 1998-99 marked a turning point in Sikh politics and religion.

In 2003, the two leaders patched up. Tohra was re-instated as SGPC president, but he died a year later. Since then, Badal and his son have gained total control of Sikh religious power, hand-picking presidents of the SGPC and the Jathedars of the Akal Takht.

The fine lines between state and religion blurred as Chandigarh and Amritsar came under the stranglehold of one family. Unfortunately, no solid religio-political grouping emerged in Punjab, which could put a formidable challenge to the dynasts in SGPC elections.

Historical gurdwaras, where tens of thousands of Sikhs congregate every day, offer ready-made platforms to Badal loyalists for their political speeches.

It goes without saying religious institutions virtually lost their autonomy under the mighty influence of state, which the Badals, in alliance with the BJP, represented.

In power politics, ideals are scorned as unrealistic. By default, they met the same fate in the Sikh religious structure governed by the very same people running the state.

For general voters seeking change in next year's Punjab elections, a defeat of the SAD will serve some purpose but not all.

Sikhs, who have the sole right to participate in SGPC affairs, then need to step back, get back to their roots, create a new religio-political group based on ideals.

If they don't, they won't be able to create any new history.

Instead, they'll end up sending one party, one family on a vacation to Amritsar with a ticket for a round-trip to Chandigarh five years later.

It's run out for Sidhu on Punjab's political pitch


Harmeet Shah Singh Harmeet Shah Singh @harmeetss

The writer is Editor with India Today TV.

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