New Akal Takht head must stay away from status quo
In upholding the values of the Akal Takht, the new jathedar faces monumental challenges ahead
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From time to time, the media has been known to use words, jargons, and terms that are completely out of context. Sample this: On October 25, 2018, a leading English daily carried a story about the formal initiation of the new jathedar-designate of the Akal Takht, the primary seat of Sikh religious authority.
The headline read: “SGPC to rope in Panthic bodies for Jathedar Giani Harpreet (Singh)’s coronation.”
“In order to build a consensus over the new Akal Takht jathedar, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee is roping in different panthic organisations and other sections of the community for the ‘tajposhi’ (coronation) of Giani Harpreet Singh," said the opening para.
Words like "coronation" and "tajposhi" are more suited for ceremonies around the royal crowning. And if Giani Harpreet Singh — the new acting head or jathedar — took them literally, it will defeat the purpose of his ascension.
I hope the Giani realises — for his own sake and that of the Takht — that the position of jathedar that he has been elevated to is in no way akin to royalty.
As a jathedar of the Takht, Giani Harpreet Singh is a custodian of the religious and moral authority of the Sikh community. History bears witness that this authority has been heavily compromised by some of his predecessors.
In its description of the Akal Takht on its website, the SGPC recalls how the august seat preserved its sovereignty in the face of adverse political situations.
"It was established by the sixth Guru, Hargobind (1595-1644), in the year 1609 AD, when the Sikh religion made a formal bid to proclaim its basic commitment to politics and social problems," observes the SGPC, which appoints the jathedar of the Akal Takht.
"...this high throne openly repudiated Mughal sovereignty over India and proclaimed the Sikh claim to a co-equal sovereign status," the description recounts. "The Akal Takht and the other seats of Sikh authority are, in theory, managed and controlled by a jathedar or controller-general and, during the Sikh Raj, even Maharaja Ranjit Singh was obliged to submit himself to its decisions."
But what has happened over the past years stands out as a paradox to the glorious history of the Akal Takht.
Armed with electoral politics stemming from a colonial-era law, Punjab's Badals have had stranglehold dominance over the SGPC. They have maintained a monopoly over Sikh religious power regardless of the fact that their party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, announced itself as a Punjabi party in 1996 in a stunning departure from its Sikh-only foundations.
Although an elected body, the SGPC under the grip of the Badals have faced serious accusations of bias, including that of suppressing dissent from independent Sikh voices.
In other words, critics overwhelmingly feel the Badals entertain no dialogue for reforms.
With a family reigning supreme, the Akal Takht has shaken many in the community across the world with quite a few decisions.
On the one hand, some of the finest scholars of Sikh theology and doctrine have been ex-communicated, allegedly under the political influence. On the other, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, now in jail for rape conviction, was unilaterally pardoned for blasphemy. The pardon was withdrawn only after Sikhs erupted in protests.
The same Akal Takht has not been vocal enough over the Justice Ranjit Singh commission's indictments of the 2015 desecrations of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the subsequent police firing that left two peaceful demonstrators dead.
It's also naive to assume that Giani Harpreet Singh's predecessor — Giani Gurbachan Singh — would not have read news reports about the alleged scams at the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) before he quit recently.
Ideally, he should have taken a suo moto cognizance of the profound accusations of fraud at Delhi's top Sikh religious administration — also governed by Badal loyalists. But he did not exercise the authority that he was invested with. Why?
Religious authorities globally serve as a cohesive force for religion. They are looked up to as the highest standards of ideals. They also offer significant insights into the religious structures they represent.
However, if such authorities fail to perform the way they should, they end up snapping the ties which bind the communities they preside over.
What follows next is worse — the communities with compromised religious authorities are then split apart by external forces.
Thus, the new incumbent at the Akal Takht should not get carried away by the extravagant rhetoric of "coronation" and "tajposhi". He faces monumental challenges ahead -- the most difficult being rebuilding community trust in the institution he is in charge of.
First and foremost, Giani Harpreet Singh must enforce the Sikh codes that forbid caste distinctions. To start with, no gurdwara, wherever it is in the world, should be identified with any caste. It's a shame to spot sacred shrines named after Ramgarhias, Lubanas, Bhaats, Mazhabis and so forth in a faith that broke social hierarchies.
As a jathedar of the Takht, Giani Harpreet Singh is a custodian of the religious and moral authority of the Sikh community. (Photo: PTI)
As jathedar of the Akal Takht, Giani Harpeet Singh has a lot on his plate as far as undoing the acts of his predecessors is concerned. He is expected to work autonomously to bring scholarly figures back to the Sikh fold — which Giani Gurbachan Singh had banished under political pressure — before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak due next year.
Also, the new jathedar must not succumb to any pulls from the super bosses of the SGPC and the DSGMC residing in Chandigarh. He should rather have his finger on the pulse of the community that is out on the streets of Bargari in Punjab to protest the indicted perpetrators of the 2015 desecrations.
He should absolutely steer clear of any possible pressure to mediate between the Badals and veteran Akalis who have left the party, apparently for its handling of the protests over the desecrations.
The new jathedar must act as he would have if those named in the Ranjit Singh findings had links with a rival political party.
Giani Harpreet Singh must hold to account religious leaders facing grave accusations of corruption. He must crack down heavily on those siphoning off gurdwara funds for vested interests.
As jathedar, Giani Harpreet Singh must also use his authority to ensure no Sikh religious administration throws open its platforms to powers that espouse divisive and sectarian agenda.
There's a lot more to be done for the new custodian of the Akal Takht. What he does in the weeks ahead will determine his direction and that of the Akal Takht.
But keeping the status quo is no longer an option — at least in the eyes of the larger Sikh community.